Panola County Native Walter Prescott Webb
People launching their boats at the Lake Murvaul ramp on FM 1971 may not notice the Texas State Historical Marker at the edge of the water, but the man honored by this marker holds an important place in the history of Texas. Walter Prescott Webb, a famed naturalist, historian, and author, was born on a farm near the site of the marker on April 3, 1888.
He was the son of Casner P. and Mary Elizabeth Kyle Webb. His father was a teacher and part-time farmer, and the family moved from Aberdeen, Mississippi, to Caledonia in Rusk County, and then to Panola County where Walter was born. After a few years, the Webbs continued their journey westward, settling finally in the Stephens-Eastland counties area. This dry West Texas Big Sky country was a far cry from the tall pines and lush greenery of his childhood home in East Texas. Webb, a budding naturalist, was struck by the difference in the environment, and that interest in nature and the land permeated much of his writing throughout his career.
Working on a West Texas farm was a harsh start for an aspiring writer. Webb graduated from Ranger High School, earned a teaching certificate, and taught at small Texas schools for a few years until he was able to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he obtained his bachelor of arts degree in 1915. Three years later, at age 30, Webb was invited to join the history faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. There, two years later, he completed his master’s thesis on the Texas Rangers.
In 1931, Webb published a masterpiece of literature called The Great Plains, which earned stellar reviews for its new perspective on the American West. As a result of the book’s wide acclaim, the University of Texas at Austin awarded Webb a Ph.D. in 1932.
He continued writing, and in 1939, after a year abroad teaching at the University of London, Webb was named director of the Texas State Historical Association, where he worked until 1946, taking a sabbatical in 1942 to assume the role as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in Great Britain. Under his direction, the TSHA expanded its publication entitled Southwestern Historical Quarterly. He is also credited with the creation of the Handbook of Texas, a veritable encyclopedia of information about the state, which was first published in 1952.
A lifelong student of the Great Plains and the Great Frontier, Webb developed a unique theory about westward expansion related to the dramatic change in environment from the lush woodlands of the east to the dry and treeless plains. In 1952, Webb published another book, The Great Frontier, which examined the role of land, westward expansion, technology and the environment on the social and economic climate of the country.
Webb wrote or edited more than 20 books, according to the Texas State Historical Association. A man ahead of his time, Webb wrote More Water for Texas in 1954, advancing the role of conservation of water and other natural resources in the state. Later, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson named Webb as a special advisor on water needs in the South and West. A collection of his essays, An Honest Preface and Other Essays, was published in 1959.
A charter member of the Texas Institute of Letters, Webb was later named a fellow in the organization. He was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Chicago, Southern Methodist University, and Oxford University in England.
Traveling from the Pineywoods to the Great Plains marked Walter Prescott Webb, instilling in him a lifelong interest in nature, climate and natural resources. He is considered one of the three great thinkers of Texas, along with J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek. A statue of the three friends, known as the Philosopher’s Rock, stands in a place of honor near Barton Springs in Austin’s Zilker Park. Webb, who died in a car accident in 1963, is buried in the Texas State Cemetery.
The Zilker Park statue is inscribed with these words: “Philosopher’s Rock, or ‘Bedi’s Rock,’ was the name given to the shelf of limestone that once rose out of the glittering water at the edge of Barton Springs. It was here, on hot summer days, that the naturalist ROY BEDICHEK and the chronicler and folklorist J. FRANK DOBIE sat in the sun and talked for hours about everything from classic works of literature to tall tales of lost Spanish treasure. Their great friend WALTER PRESCOTT WEBB, was not a swimmer, but he would often join in the talk. These three -- Dobie, Bedichek and Webb -- strove to create a vibrant and distinctive intellectual climate in Texas, and their influence reached far beyond the state. This monument has been erected to celebrate their friendship, their enlightened spirit, and their love for Barton Springs.”
Because of his understanding of the vital role water would play in the future of Texas, it is fitting that Webb should be honored near the shores of the fisherman’s paradise of Lake Murvaul and the icy, clear waters of Barton Springs, 250 miles apart in the two dramatically different ecological areas of Texas.
Editor’s note: Reference material for this article: Necah Stewart Furman, “WEBB, WALTER PRESCOTT,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwe06) Published by the Texas State Historical Association
Photos- “Courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission”