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Two Georges and a Field Lab That Almost Wasn't

The Brackenridge Field Lab is one of the most coveted resources of the life sciences at UT. Only three miles from campus, BFL is an 82-acre biological research site that is part of a nearly 400-acre land tract. With a rich array of plant, insect, and animal diversity so close to campus, BFL is both an invaluable teaching and research tool.

However, over a century ago, this tract of land almost served a different purpose. After the failure of the Austin Dam in 1900 at this site, it almost became the new home of the entire UT campus. There was a push to relocate the university to the Brackenridge tract and abandon its current location at the “40 acres.” Two UT philanthropists started this tug-o-war between the two locations, using the most powerful tool at their disposal: money. 

THE TWO GEORGES

Enter George Washington Littlefield and George Washington Brackenridge, two very different men whose only real similarities were their shared name, their wealth and their love of UT.

 Picture1 Picture2 
 George Brackenridge  George Littlefield

 

George Littlefield (June 21, 1842 - November 10, 1920) was a Confederate Army officer who became wealthy from banking and his cattle business. As a UT regent, he was very interested in the preservation and promotion of the culture of the American south. Today, we see his legacy in the mansion at the corner of Whitis and 24th, in addition to the Littlefield Fountain at the south area of campus.

George Brackenridge (January 14, 1832 – December 28, 1920) attended Harvard University, was pro-union, and a war profiteer. As a banker and regent, he was the benefactor of many educational initiatives and buildings, and created a fund for women studying architecture, law, and medicine. The Brackenridge name is bequeathed on a dorm on campus known as “B Hall,” and is the name of the field lab.

As explored in “The Dam that Broke,” Brackenridge had also owned a 500 acre plot of land along the Colorado River. He was involved with several business people who wanted to industrialize Austin by making a dam there, the goal being to attract cotton mills to the banks of the river. The dam was poorly constructed, however, and following a heavy rainfall in the spring of 1900, the dam broke. After it became clear to Brackenridge that this industrial site was no longer feasible for his intended purposes, he lost interest in it and donated this land to UT Austin in 1910.

Littlefield and Brackenridge were extremely different individuals, but there was one thing they agreed upon: keep the University of Texas open. In 1917, then governor James Ferguson was indicted by a Travis County grand jury on allegations he had meddled with UT funding over issues with the Board of Regents. He had vetoed $1.8 million (about $3.5 million today) for UT.  To make up for this huge loss, Littlefield and Brackenridge were ready to pay for UT's operating expenses from their own well-lined pockets.

map 
 1921 map of Brackenridge plot and surrounding land

 

TO MOVE OR NOT TO MOVE

Around the turn of the 20th century, UT saw a steady increase in student enrollment. It became pretty clear to the powers that were at the time, that the 40 Acres would not suffice to meet this growth. Besides the land Brackenridge had donated following the dam break, he had intended to purchase another 1000 acres and donate it to the university, upping the acreage so UT would have ample space for growth.

However, Littlefield hated the idea of moving UT to Brackenridge’s land plot, despite it being quite popular with others. Littlefield had his mansion on campus after all, so he intended to keep UT right where it was. To do this, he would employ the most obvious tactic in his arsenal: use the power of money. His first move was to commission Italian-born sculptor Pompeo Coppini to create an elaborate south entrance monument, the Littlefield fountain we have today. The idea of this being: the more monuments and buildings set up on campus, the harder and more costly it would be to justify moving the campus elsewhere. The cost of the monument was $200,000 in 1919. Today this is about $4.5 million.

fountain 

Littlefield fountain in the 1930s at Old Main Building (UT History Corner) 

By 1920, Littlefield's health was deteriorating, and he passed in November of that year. But even from the grave, he was not to be outdone. He'd prepared beforehand to stop Brackenridge from succeeding to relocate UT to the new plot of land on the Colorado River. Littlefield had stipulated in his will the following: $500,000 in the construction of a new Main Building, $300,000 for a women's dormitory, and uppsed his contribution to the new south monument by an extra $50,000, but all of this was contingent on UT staying in its current location for the next eight years.

 cartoon
 Cartoon from the Daily Texan depicting student life near the Colorado River

 

But even with these benefits, the other George wasn’t to be outdone, not yet anyway. There was talk of Brackenridge providing a sizable donation, one that then UT President Vinson expected to surpass that of Littlefield's. Vinson pushed the Board of Regents to announce the support of a campus relocation. They requested approval by the governor and Texas legislature, and 4000 students also met to show support. But Brackenridge died in December of 1920, and to everyone’s surprise, he'd left less than the $3 million they had anticipated from him. What he’d bequeathed UT would not have been enough to cover the relocation expenses and loss of Littlefield's donation if a complete move from the 40 Acres were to occur.

In addition, there was pushback to the move from another sector. Businesses around UT that were reliant on the customer flow from the university began to protest, and it soon became clear that a relocation to this 500 acre tract would exacerbate the economic situation at hand. Texas legislators responded with the suggestion that any city in Texas with a 500 acre tract and $10 million to spare could be the future home for UT, the state’s flagship university. But Austinites were not happy with the possibility of losing their beloved campus and protested the potential loss of their university. The bill was defeated and an appropriation was approved for UT to purchase more land outside the 40 acres, thus solidifying the current location.

Littlefield’s wish had been fulfilled, but it’s not inaccurate to say that Brackenridge also got some of his own desires met for the university, albeit through catastrophe and ending of his business goals on the Colorado River. The area that would become BFL was defined as a result of the 1900 dam collapse: abandoned rubble piles of the quarry that built the dam a well as a broad swath of deep sediment deposits. It was considered unusable for housing or golf courses, and so it attracted UT biologists. Over time, the land became a special place for students to study ecological disturbance and recovery, and this 82 acre piece of Brackenridge’s donated land officially became the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in 1966 and was dedicated in April 1967.

SOURCES:

Correspondence with Dr. Larry Gilbert, 2019, 2020

“Brackenridge Field Laboratory” College of Natural Sciences, accessed online. https://www.bfl.utexas.edu/

Nicar, Jim. “The Great Southmall Controversy: An Extended History of the Littlefield Gateway UT History Corner. August 10, 2015.

Smith, Jamey. “Dueling Donors: The Brackenridge –Littlefield Feud” Texas Tribute, Spring 1997.

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