The capital of Texas marches to the beat of a different drum circle. It’s a government town that’s also a hotbed for artists and musicians, and a high-tech hub that has a thriving independent business class. It’s a place where a cross-dressing mayoral candidate can become a local icon, and where college students, drifters, celebrities, biker gangs and well-heeled Formula One fans can all rub elbows. Below, some facts about Austin and the many ways its residents are keeping it weird.
1. It was originally called Waterloo. That was the name given by the commission that surveyed the strip of land along the Colorado River back in 1838, on orders from Republic of Texas president Mirabeau B. Lamar. The Republic’s congress quickly changed the new capital’s name to honor one of its founding fathers, Stephen F. Austin.
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Lamar’s choice to make Austin the capital had numerous opponents, who argued the city was vulnerable to attacks from the Mexican army and hostile Native American tribes. When Mexican troops overtook nearby San Antonio in 1842, Sam Houston, Lamar’s successor and an opponent of the capital city, ordered a company of rangers to retrieve the national archives from Austin and bring them to the city of Houston, effectively moving the capital. The rangers succeeded in retrieving the archives, but were quickly overtaken by a posse from Austin, who reclaimed the documents.
3. The Austin Dam, built in 1893, was one of the world’s largest concrete dams at the time, and provided the first locally generated electricity for the city. Stretching 1,200 feet across the Colorado River, it powered Austin’s new electric trolley cars and the collection of 150-foot-tall Moon Towers that illuminated the city at night. In 1900, however, the dam collapsed in a flood, killing eight and leaving a trail of debris still visible today.
4. One of the city’s earliest live-music venues was Threadgill’s, a filling station and restaurant where country and hillbilly blues bands played for rounds of beer, and where a young Janis Joplin got her start.
There was also the Victory Grill, which opened in 1945 as a hangout for black soldiers coming home from the war. A well-known stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, it hosted musicians like James Brown, Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, and Ike and Tina Turner. It fell on hard times in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and closed its doors in 1988, but reopened in 1996 thanks to local fundraising efforts.
6. Austin City Limits, the country’s longest-running live music TV show, began broadcasting on October 14, 1974. A then-unknown Willie Nelson was the featured performer.
7. The venue credited with kickstarting Austin’s music modern-day music scene was a converted armory known as the Armadillo World Headquarters. Country, rock and blues were always on tap, along with copious amounts of Lone Star beer. It’s where Frank Zappa liked to record live albums, and where AC/DC played their first American gig.
8. In addition to “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin is known as the “Violet Crown City,” a reference to the purplish light cast over the hills on winter evenings.
9. In 1986, three staffers at The Austin Chronicle hatched an idea for a local festival that would showcase Austin’s prodigious musical talents to the world. The next year, South by Southwest kicked off with just over 700 attendees. Fast forward nearly 30 years, and SXSW has branched out into film and digital media festivals. But the big draw remains the music festival, which attracts more than 2,200 musicians and 28,000 concertgoers to venues throughout the city.
10. So many tech firms have come to town that Austin now has the nickname “Silicon Hills.” IBM kicked things off in 1967, followed by Texas Instruments, Motorola, 3M, Dell computers, and numerous others. Nowadays, Austin is one of the leading sites for venture capital funding in the nation.
11. In 1978, John Mackey and Renee Lawson started a natural foods store called SaferWay using a $45,000 loan they scraped together from family and friends. Two years later, they merged with another local store and opened the very first Whole Foods Market.
Courtesy Whole Foods
Austin has the largest urban bat population of any city in the country. Every summer, more than 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats roost beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, flying out at night to feast upon 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects.
13. Beginning in 1989, local resident Vince Hanneman began piling hubcaps, bicycle frames, bottles, CDs, air-conditioning vents and other pieces of scrap in his backyard. More than twenty years and numerous zoning disputes later, the Cathedral of Junk is still standing and open to visitors.
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There are three artificial lakes surrounding Austin, two of which were formed by dams along the Colorado River. One of them, Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake), was named after the former first lady for her efforts to beautify the area. She had declined the honor while living, so the city named it in her honor after she died in 2007.
15. It’s a popular hangout for celebrities like Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling and Elijah Wood. Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant has a house there, and apparently likes to haggle cheese prices at the local Whole Foods. It's also the site of Matthew McConaughey's infamous 1999 bongo drums arrest.
16. Austin’s food truck scene started in the early ‘90s with a few family-owned taco carts on South Lamar Street. The movement took off in the 2000s, and between 2006 and 2011 the number of mobile vendor licenses tripled. Today, there are close to 2,000 food trucks throughout the city.
On the last Saturday of April, thousands of Austinites come together for Eeyore’s Birthday Party. Named for Winnie-the-Pooh’s gloomy donkey friend, the gathering started in 1963 as a picnic for English Department students at the University of Texas. Nowadays, the mix of costumes, live music and general merriment makes it your best chance to see a drum circle comprised of Winnie-the-Pooh characters.
18. Austin also hosts the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, which draws pun-loving individuals from around the country. Contestants recite a pun-filled monologue in the “Punniest of Show” competition, then test their improv skills in the “Punslinger” portion of the event. This year’s winner attained a perfect score with a booze-inspired monologue.
19. When it opened in November 1924, University of Texas’s Darrell K. Royal Stadium had a capacity of 27,000, making it one of the largest stadiums in the South. Today, it holds more than 100,000 fans and is the ninth largest stadium in the world.
20. Austin’s original Moonlight Towers, installed in 1894, are still lighting up the night sky. One of the towers played host to a keg party in the movie Dazed and Confused. In 1993, the city spent $1.3 million dismantling each tower and replacing every bolt and wire in hopes they’ll last at least another hundred years.
21. The city’s unofficial slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” originated with local librarian Red Wassenich, who uttered the phrase when he called in to a local radio show in 2000. Since then, the slogan has become a fixture on bumper stickers, store signs, and elsewhere around town. The phrase’s anti-gentrification message has also caught on in other cities, like Louisville, Portland and Indianapolis.
22. The one person who embodied that slogan for many Austinites was Leslie Cochran, a bearded, cross-dressing Miami native who ran for mayor three times. Frequently homeless, he was a fixture around town who inspired everything from refrigerator magnets to iPhone apps. When he died in 2012, Mayor Lee Leffingwell proclaimed a local holiday in Cochran’s honor.
24. It’s the most populous city in the country without a pro sports team. And there won’t ever be one, if the throngs of University of Texas fans have anything to say about it.
25. It’s home to America’s only Formula 1 race, the United States Grand Prix, held every year at the Circuit of the Americas located southwest of the city. Built in 2012, the Circuit is a 3.4-mile course notable for its elevation changes, including a 133-foot hill on turn one.