Before IBM and tech, Austin thrived on agriculture, government, education

Posted July 28th, 2017

During the early 1960s, before the arrival of IBM in 1967, the entire workforce in Travis County hovered around 80,000.

Today, the tech industry alone employs more than 120,000 workers in Central Texas.

It doesn’t take a historian to deduce that before tech, the major engine for Austin’s economy was the public sector — particularly the state government and the state university, with significant help from the federal government during times of war and economic crisis. In 1960, for instance, one-fourth of the workforce received government paychecks.

Austin was founded in 1839 as the capital of the Republic of Texas. When the seat of government moved away briefly during the 1840s, Austin turned into a virtual ghost town. The Constitution of 1845 provided that Austin become the capital of the newly admitted state, but it was not until 1850 — and then again in 1872 — that statewide votes confirmed the city’s future as the permanent capital.


Its significance increased in 1881 when another statewide vote made Austin the site of the University of Texas, which opened in 1883. Galveston, then the biggest city in the state, won the medical school, leaving Austin without such a crucial economic driver for another 130 years.

As is often the case in a growing city, the construction industry made many a quick fortune. Quarries, lumberyards, brickyards and metalworks seeded some of the city’s early wealth.

Two other developments improved the area’s economy during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries: The arrival of railroads in 1871 and the subsequent increased exploitation of the Blackland Prairie for cotton production. Some of Austin’s first wealthy families were headed by cotton dealers, to be joined by branches of the state’s ranching, lumber and oil dynasties.

Austin was set up to be self-sufficient as far as food production was concerned. Crops were grown on the land east of East Avenue, now Interstate 35, which was divided into rural lots plopped on rich floodplains. Among the city’s first manufacturing concerns were spinach-packing plants and Tex-Mex canning factories located near what is now Republic Square Park, worked by the Mexican-American residents living nearby.

As late as 1960, two of the city’s biggest private employers were Adams Extract and Walker’s Austex Chili. So important was agriculture and associated manufacturing to Travis County that the Chamber of Commerce operated the rodeo and livestock show, now known as Rodeo Austin. This newspaper employed an active farm columnist during this period.

Austin’s tech sector did not spring fully formed from the brow of IBM in 1967. Tracor produced instruments and components devised by its researchers, who started work here in 1954. Even before that, some of UT’s applied research moved north in 1946 to the future tech district near U.S. 183. The university leased and then purchased a former magnesium plant that eventually became the Pickle Research Campus, which produced later tech winners such as National Instruments.

Snapshot of 1960

Two sets of numbers help paint a picture of the Austin economy before the tech revolution really took off. “Basic Data About Austin & Travis County” is a slim report produced in 1960 by the city of Austin’s department of planning, headed by Hoyle M. Osborne. It is housed in the Austin History Center. Also, the handy Texas Almanac from 1961 uses standardized economic measures from the previous year for the state.

In 1960, Austin comprised 55.26 square miles and was home to 184,850 people. Travis County outside the Austin city limits was home to another 25,351. The city collected $10 million in taxes and served a bonded indebtedness of $24 million. City government employed 3,108 people.

The telephone monopoly counted 9,187 business customers and 46,356 residential ones in the city. Drivers registered 70,941 motor vehicles in Travis County. Airline passengers at the old Mueller Airport made 80,317 arrivals and 80,773 departures. UT enrolled 19,925 students, 4,970 of them from Travis County.

The almanac rated Travis as an “agricultural-industrial-commercial-educational” county. Major crops included cotton, sorghum, corn, oats, hay, forage, silage and pecans. The county claimed 70 Grade A dairies.

Chickens far outnumbered people in the county, including 750,000 broilers, more than three for every one of the 210,201 residents.

What about the western part of the county, now the land of hilltop homes, well-traveled lakes and vast nature preserves? Texas Almanac: “Mountainous country above Austin is devoted to cattle, sheep and Angora goats.”

The contrast with life in the city was sharp: “The people of Austin are usually of the ‘white collar’ type being government officials and employees, faculty members and students of the University of Texas and other state and private institutions.”

In a striking detail, the city’s industrial output in 1960 closely resembled the principal products from 100 years earlier: Building stone, lime and lime products, dairy products, furniture and fixtures, millwork, brick and tile, leather goods, structural steel and diesel engines. Only the last item was a relatively recent addition, likely related to needs and opportunities at the former Bergstrom Air Force Base, now home to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Consider this final note from the years before South by Southwest, the ACL Music Festival, Formula One and even the long-gone Aqua Fest — the almanac lists the city’s biggest party in 1960 as the UT Round-Up, the university’s annual fraternity extravaganza.

For more on Austin’s history, visit the Austin History Center or read Michael Barnes’ book, “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories” (2015, Waterloo Press).

Austin Chamber of CommerceThe Austin Chamber of Commerce staged the livestock show at the Municipal Market House from 1942 to 1946, but the structure is no longer standing.