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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Missing Cornerstone

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Judging from the size of the multi-deck headline atop the front page of the Austin American, the newspaper's readers may have at first thought something really momentous had happened over night.

But the big type that morning of July 10, 1919 did not herald a major disaster or the start of a war. This is what it said:

Precious Corner Stone
Of Old Texas Capitol
Recovered by American
Given Governor Hobby

Wait, there was more:

Long Missing Famous Relic of Hallowed Texas
Memory Found in Austin, Used as a Stepping Stone, and Restored to the People of Texas for Preservation in the Archives of the State.

In one of Texas's wackiest but least-known newspaper promotional stunts, the Capital City daily had liberated the 45-year-old stone from a private owner and returned it to the state. After a first paragraph essentially repeating what the headline had conveyed, the article waxed on for another 11 paragraphs about all the history the old cornerstone had witnessed before finally getting down to the details.

Not that the Austin American hadn't done something good for Texas in reclaiming the stone, but it was a tad overplayed. The five-year-old daily had been vigorously competing with the long-established afternoon paper, the Austin Statesman, and this was just the latest volley. In time, the American and Statesman would "marry," but that distant summer less than a year after World War One, the American was doing everything it could to establish itself-even taking the law into its own hands.

First some background. In 1854, nine years after the Republic of Texas became the state of Texas, workers built a limestone capitol at the head of Congress Avenue. The structure, which soon saw the debate over whether Texas should secede from the Union and later accommodated the lawmakers who wrote the state's constitution, was functional if decidedly architecturally unimpressive.

State officials were already in the process of reviewing proposed plans for a new, much larger and aesthetically pleasing capitol when the ante-bellum statehouse caught fire on Nov. 8, 1881. The blaze gutted the building, leaving only a blackened limestone shell.

Texas State Capitol after fire
Original Capitol building as it appeared after it burned
Courtesy Murray Montgomery Collection

When the ruins of the old capitol were razed to make room for the new capitol, the cornerstone was re-purposed as the cornerstone of the temporary brick capitol built at the southwest corner of 11th and Congress. One side of the stone bore the date 1854 and the state seal. Before construction began on the temporary capital, "1882" was chiseled on the opposite side of the stone.

The present red granite capitol was dedicated in 1887 and the building the temporary capitol had been in was destroyed by fire in 1899. After that, the old cornerstone ended up in private hands. Eventually, Otto Stolley came into possession of the stone.

The American got involved when the newspaper received a letter from Stolley, a 48-year-old Austin businessman who had recently moved to Denver in deference to his wife's health. He noted that he owned the historic cornerstone and had shipped it to Denver. Editor Kendall B. Cressey then wrote Gov. William P. Hobby and suggested he do something about getting the stone back into state custody.

Meanwhile, the newspaper got a tip that the cornerstone actually was still in Austin. It was being used as a stepping stone in front of a private residence in Hyde Park. A reporter followed up on that and indeed found the stone. The owner of the house, a doctor, said Stolley had requested that he keep it for him.

"Accordingly," the newspaper reported, "the Austin American took it upon itself to recover this stone. In doing so, the Austin American believes that it is surely within the law and that the entire transaction of recovery is animated by the highest spirit of patriotism for the state of Texas."

In other words, the newspaper seized it without any legal authority to do so. The work was accomplished by what it called a "Committee of Recovery." The party included the American's editor, two reporters and Andrew J. Zilker, a local brick manufacturer who furnished two workmen and a truck.

Once the heavy stone had been removed, the committee proceeded to the Capitol and handed it over to Ralph Soape, the governor's private secretary. The governor in turn had the stone moved to the Texas State Library, then located in the Capitol.

In the spring of 1922, back in Austin, Stolley requested that the state return the stone to him, but the attorney general told the director of the state library to keep it unless Stolley was able to provide documentation of his ownership. Newspapers made no further mention of the matter and what became of the stone remains a mystery. It is no longer in possession of the state.

While no one seems to know what became of the relic, a two-paragraph Associated Press dispatch published on May 6, 1934 reported that Stolley had died a couple of days earlier from an accidental gunshot wound at his Round Rock residence. The article made no mention of Stolley's role in the Capitol story or the Austin American's brazen "recovery" of his property.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 20, 2018

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

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  • Related Topics:
    Texas State Capitol
    Cornerstones in Texas

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