From the cab of his pickup, Ron Collins gives a tour of a bygone era, when his Pilot Knob neighborhood in southeastern Travis County was a country outpost, home to his extended family, which traces its roots there back more than a century.
Here is where his old two-room, all-black elementary school sat — his teacher used to drive him home with a loaf of bread on the dash to warm it up enough that butter would melt right on it.
There is where a cane-wielding neighbor shepherded turkeys on land that is now McKinney Falls State Park.
Here are the creeks and hills where he and his siblings hunted rabbits — and watched greyhounds set off after them.
Here’s the old dairy and the neighborhood grocer — both now replaced by a subdivision — and there’s the hideaway cemetery with the creaky wrought-iron fence that Collins’ forebears occupy.
There are lots of cousins, aunts and grandparents in these stories.
Once upon a time, at least 500 acres in these parts belonged to the Collins family, assembled by his great-great-grandfather Newton Collins, a former slave who parlayed money gained from a carpentry trade into a series of land purchases in the late 19th century. But today, Ron Collins’ 29 acres of pastureland, the same property on which he and his 10 siblings were raised and helped grow cotton and corn, still home to a small collection of cattle, goats, pigs and horses, is now half-circled by subdivisions and apartment complexes.
Rural to urban
Texas’ rural land is “under increasing land conversion pressure driven by rapid population growth, suburbanization, and rural development,“ the Texas A&M researchers wrote.
“The biggest threat to wildlife and habitat today is the break-up of large land holdings into smaller tracts,“ according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department paper. ”As intact ranches become smaller ‘ranchettes,’ wildlife populations are subject to many pressures including loss of open space from development, increased hunting pressure, proliferation of potential predators (dogs, cats and other carnivores), and introduction of exotic species to name a few.“
Nonprofit land conservancies seek to protect increasingly rare rural land abutting urban areas — property owners can opt to put conservation easements on their land, getting a big tax break in exchange for guarantees their land won’t be developed. City of Austin purchases of large tracts in Travis and Hays counties to ensure water quality in the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer also help ensure land remains undeveloped. The city and Travis County, along with nonprofits and other government agencies, have combined to purchase vast tracts of western Travis County to set aside nesting habitat for endangered songbirds. And state-supported policies such as agriculture exemptions allow Collins to get a tax break on his property.
But offers from real estate developers have proved hard to pass up for many farmers and ranchers whose land, once considered rural, is now on the fringes of fast-growing metropolitan areas.
“Some of that land, touching I-35, they’re pricing it by the square foot,” said Matt Wagner, retired deputy director of the wildlife division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who studied urban and rural planning as a graduate student. Today he consults with landowners about preserving their property. “The further you get off the corridor, land is cheaper — but it’s still going $40,000 per acre. You can’t compete with that with any kind of traditional agriculture or lease hunting.”
Not long ago, the view from Ron Collins’ house, an old shiplap home where he and his 10 siblings were raised, was verdant pastureland.
Nowadays, it’s populated by roofs and apartments, much of it on land that once belonged to his relatives.
Collins says he won’t sell his 29 acres, despite overtures from developers.
To the south of Collins’ property, where a family friend used to run cattle — and adjacent to a pasture where Collins' horses roam — sits Easton Park, a massive subdivision that eventually will be home to as many as 10,000 houses and apartments.
To the west, on nearly 20 acres that once belonged to a cousin of Collins’, at least 312 apartments are under construction by a company called Am-Tex.
The cousin, who declined an interview request, used the nearly $2 million from the sale to buy twice as much farmland in Mustang Ridge, about 15 miles to the southeast, Collins said.
But Collins is bound by preserving his family legacy.
“I could use that money — don’t get me wrong — but actually would love to preserve some of this land that came from Newton, want to pass it on through my son to my granddaughter.
“I’m connected to the family history, and I don’t want to see the last vestiges of what our great-great-grandfather put into place disappear into blackness. I’d like there to be a legacy that keeps going.
“The name on the street” — he lives on Dee Gabriel Collins Road, named for his great-grandfather — “that sells it for me. You go somewhere else, you got to start from scratch. I don’t have a problem making friends and establishing neighbors and all that stuff, but you’re starting on the ground level and going up.”
(Collins and other family members recently turned down a roughly $2 million offer on 18 acres they co-own, he said.)
Collins, who has had stints as a teacher at Del Valle High School, an education programmer for the American Cancer Society and a health educator at Planned Parenthood, among other things, and retired as an employee of the Texas Workforce Commission, is an inveterate keeper of things in a way that shows his attachments run deep.
Among the stuff he holds dear: family memories.
“Our great-great-grandfather set us all on the right path,” he said. “Who knows where we would have been if he hadn’t done that?”
Today, a new Del Valle school district elementary school, nestled in the Easton Park subdivision, is named for his great-great-grandfather.
Newton Collins built homes and churches, and he donated land for the first school in the area, which he paid to build and furnish. He hired the school's first teacher.
Collins was the great-grandfather of Austin civil rights activist Ada Collins Anderson — Ron Collins’ aunt. She was the first African American elected to the Austin Community College board, in 1982, and the first black woman to sit on a bank board in Austin. Ada Collins Anderson studied in the one-room schoolhouse Newton Collins built.
Ron Collins tells a story about his late father, Talferd Collins, a longtime Travis County constable who, with his wife, Ella, oversaw about 300 acres, a portion of which Ron Collins now owns.
“When he was still alive, he sat at that patio of the house, and a man had come out and offered him I think it was $3 million” — this would have been in the early 1980s, Collins says — “and he says, ‘Why would I do that?’ and the guys says, ‘You could do lots of things with that money.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘You could go and buy yourself a place and all that stuff.’ ‘So what you’re saying is I could sell what I love and try to go and find it again?’ ”