From humble beginnings: How Cedar Park became its own city
By: Mike Parker | Cedar Park/Leander Statesman
Very few landmarks were seen by drivers on Highway 183 in Cedar Park during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Today, Cedar Park is nearly built out and hosts major developments like the Cedar Park Center and 1890 Ranch shopping center. Photo courtesy City of Cedar Park.
Danny Bell was a year away from getting his high school diploma when his father moved the family north of Austin. In the mid-1960s, the drive from Austin to the small community off Highway 183 had very few landmarks. After passing Burnet Road on Highway 183, the only traffic signal was a blinking light at RR 620. “There was just nothing here,” Danny Bell recalled. “The post office was on (Highway) 183 and there was an old gas station down where Brushy Creek Road is now.” Danny Bell’s father, Kenneth, had bought property off Park Street. He called the roughly 4-acre lot their “little piece of land out in the country.”
Bonnie Merrill worked at Hunt’s Ranch House, right off Highway 183. The restaurant served customers from all over looking for good BBQ. “It was just a little remote area community,” she said. “Texas Instruments was the closest major employer in the area, and they probably wouldn’t have discovered Cedar Park if it wasn’t for Hunt’s Ranch House.” Merrill’s uncle, Artie Henry, owned and operated a grocery store, Henry’s Drive-In, off Highway 183. Betty, Artie Henry’s wife, recalled her husband building the store in 1968. “We knew everybody who walked through the door and we would call them by their first name,” she said. “There just wasn’t a lot of people out here.” Merrill said the area – a cluster of smaller communities – were mostly non-conventional homes that many used for their hunting leases. She surmised people had bought land in the ’50s and ‘60s at reasonable prices. But Danny Bell said his father had a bigger vision of the area, one that would eventually become the city of Cedar Park. He also understood what it would take to make that happen.
Nothing without water
Like all other homeowners in the area, Kenneth Bell knew getting water at his house meant digging a well. But the endeavor was expensive and stymied growth in the area. “He said, ‘it’s just not going to be feasible for this area to grow without some type of water system,” Danny Bell recalled his father saying. Kenneth Bell and another local resident, Don Webster, decided to seek a federal loan to tie into Austin’s water system. The water lines reached out to where Lakeline Boulevard and Highway 183 intersect today. Danny Bell said his father made a deposit for five meters to reach the necessary number of meters to get the loan. Artie Henry helped by digging water lines, which reached past the old hog farm near Twin Lakes north into Cedar Park. In 1965, the group had established the Cedar Park Water Corporation. The water system had small aspirations. Danny Bell said a 4-inch line connected the Austin water system to area residents, whereas an average water line today is 24 to 30 inches wide. But as far as local growth was concerned, Danny Bell said, “there was no doubt.” Kenneth Bell’s role in the water corporation was one of many he played in Cedar Park. The city’s first retail center, North Park Circle, was created through his efforts. Pretty soon, he would play a more political role.
Establishing a city
Betty Henry said people started talking about establishing Cedar Park as a city in 1972. “We were just a little bitty town and we didn’t want to be known as that,” she said. “It was just a lot of people involved in that.” Looming from the south was the inexorable expansion of Austin. Merrill said residents were noticing the city annexing strips of land stretching toward RR 620. “Their concern was that it was a matter of time: we would be in Austin’s ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction),” Merrill said. In January 1973, Bell, Webster and a local attorney, Frank Bolton, submitted a petition to Williamson County to establish Cedar Park as a city. Merrill said the petition received approval the same month, and the county appointed election judges and clerks to hold an election. In February 1973, residents voted 136-51 in favor of establishing the city. Merrill said, just like her, residents understood the need for establishing a city. “You had a community of people that were like, ‘this is my deal, don’t touch it,’” she said. Next on the agenda was electing five aldermen and a mayor. No one ran unopposed. “A lot of that was people would throw their hat in the ring just so that someone else wouldn’t get elected,” Merrill said. On April 14, 1973, residents elected Bonnie Merrill, Buz Henry, John Dixon, Don Webster and Sam Blair as Cedar Park’s first City Council. They in turn chose Kenneth Bell as the first mayor. “It was just logical,” Merrill said of Kenneth Bell being mayor. “I don’t recall anyone opposing Kenneth Bell.” No one on the Council had ever served as a political official.
In the Oct. 27, 1996, Austin American-Statesman, Kenneth Bell looked back at what was facing Cedar Park’s first City Council. “The biggest problem we faced back then, in addition to lack of money, was the lack of knowledge about what we were doing,” he said. The Council met at various places in town, and residents were prone to attend – sometimes, Merrill said, for “sheer entertainment.” “We were on a battlefield, and had no idea where the ‘landmines’ were buried until we stepped on one,” Merrill wrote in her recollections of that period. Merrill likened some meetings to the “Jerry Springer Show,” where people would talk out of turn, make demands or complain about the lack of services. Danny Bell said many of those residents had an unrealistic idea of what the city could accomplish. “The biggest obstacle is, day one, you are a city and you don’t have any money,” he said. “And it’s amazing the number of people on day two that wanted their road fixed.” But there were many who chose to volunteer. In 1974, Nancy Faulkner said the loss of her husband and breaking her ankle led her to quit her job in Austin. Suddenly, she had more time on her hands. “I told the mayor, ‘Don’t ever tell me you don’t have a secretary, because I’ll be the secretary,” she said. Faulkner would remain the city secretary for 26 years, serving 12 city managers, 13 mayors and more than 70 different Council members.
Many residents volunteered to create the first Cedar Park Volunteer Fire Department. Through personal donations and fundraisers, it bought the city’s first-ever fire truck – a used, 1956 Wards LaFrance once used as an Air Force Crash truck. Artie Henry and Don Webster successfully bid $1,313.13 to purchase the truck. There were other issues the Council faced. Merrill said a petition to decrease the speed limit on Highway 183 and residents’ continuing push to have the city solve a rash of stray dogs in the area were two of many problems the Council attempted to solve. Another issue was hiring city staff, which many times were hampered by the enticement of better salaries at cities like Round Rock, Georgetown and Taylor.
But as the city grew, Merrill said, progress came along with it. An election in 1981 allowed the city to take over the Cedar Park Water Corp., which in turn allowed wastewater infrastructure. “It slowly became what we could only dream about in 1973,” Merrill said.
Then and now
Faulkner, who has lived in Cedar Park since 1966, said she never would have imagined Cedar Park becoming what it is today. “Absolutely not. I never dreamed it would get this big,” she said. “When we moved out here, there were 2,500 people.” Betty Henry credited the whole community for creating the spark that led to Cedar Park’s expansion. “We had visions of it being great just like it’s become. And it has come about,” she said. Today, Cedar Park’s population surpasses the entire Williamson County population in 1970, and the city is near build out. But Merrill said it is easy to forget how it all came to be. “The people who have moved here in recent years, they don’t see it the same way I do,” she said. “I know how long it took to get there and how hard it was.” As to why people continue to choose Cedar Park, Betty Henry said it is simply a great place to live. “We have just about everything we want,” she said.
Permission granted by the author to publish on the Cedar Park History web site for the education and enjoyment of the citizens of Cedar Park.