The Future of Liberty's Town Plan

LIBERTY, September 26, 2004 - In the settlement of the American West the concept of the frontier of civilization is considered the major factor. What is little realized is that town planning often preceded the arrival of new settlers and many towns were well developed when they came. Nowhere is this truer than in Texas. It was already a frontier of another nation, Mexico.

Mexico as a newly independent country from the Spanish colonial empire pursued a policy of town development in the Southwestern region of what is now the United States. Their efforts laid the foundations for some of the modern cities in Texas including San Antonio, Laredo, Nacogdoches, San Marcos, Victoria, Refugio, Bastrop, Milam, San Patricio, Matagorda, Gonzales and Liberty.

To attract settlers to Texas, Mexico in 1825 began a program of large-scale land grants to "impresarios", who received twenty-three thousand acres for every one hundred families they brought with them. The colonization laws specified that each grant was to include a town to be planned under the direction of a commissioner. Jose Francisco Madero served in that role for platting the city of Liberty.

Francisco Madero arrived in present day Liberty County on the afternoon of January 25, 1831 with the authority of the Mexican Government to issue land titles. Soon after his arrival a place of local government needed to be established and two sites were contemplated, one at Moss Bluff and the other the town of Liberty, then Smith's Plantation.

After careful consideration Smith's Plantation was selected at the site for the center of local government for this area and was named Liberty after a town in Mississippi where many local settlers had immigrated from.

According to land use guidelines at the time, Liberty was mapped with streets running north to south and east to west. From the map above you can still see that several blocks of land in Liberty are still used for the same purpose as they were originally planned for, such as the Courthouse Square, the Jail and the church square where the Immaculate Conception Church sits today.

The block occupied today by the Liberty City Hall was planned as a public plaza or park and was much latter appropriated as a site for the present City Hall. The Park Theater, now the home of the Liberty Opry on the Square, derives its name from what was once a park across the street.

Known today simply as the Laws of the Indies, the land use guidelines of that day, required a plaza, "streets well laid out and straight, running parallel north and south, and east and west," and sites reserved for "a church, municipal building, a market square, a jail, school and a burial ground."

Under the terms of these laws, each municipality received a generous tract of four square leagues or nearly eighteen thousand acres. The streets and town lots occupied only a small portion of this land much of which was expected to be used for farming and ranching. Town life and agriculture in Mexican Texas developed simultaneously with the arrival of new settlers just as it had under the earlier authority of Spain.

One of the most interesting of the designs and one that basically follows the same plan that was later used for Liberty, is Gonzales. It had five open squares arranged in a cruciform pattern at the center of a grid consisting of forty-nine square blocks formed by streets fifty-five feet in width. Sites were provided for the plaza, jail, government building, church, market, cemetery and a military parade ground.

The exception for Liberty is that no military parade ground was platted and neither, to the surprise of many local historians, was a cemetery. Why this deviation, or oversight from the strict requirements of the Law of the Indies occurred remains a mystery. The Catholic cemetery is within the original forty-nine square blocks of the Liberty town site, but the City Cemetery predates it and the Bishop was required to purchase a burial ground from a private owner at a later date for the use of the local parish members who wished to be buried in consecrated soil.

In each planned development by the Spanish and Mexican authorities the central plaza was the feature around which the rest of the city radiated outward physically, emotionally, and culturally. The plaza was regarded then, and to some extent even today in Hispanic societies, as almost a sacred space where a much more relaxed attitude toward every aspect of life was accepted. Remnants of this are found also in Anglo culture with the most famous being Hyde Park Corner in London where all manner of speakers harangue audiences with wide ranging views. Closer to Liberty, Houston has a public plaza in front of its city hall that was given to the citizens by George Hermann that restricted what the authorities could regulate. The most well known of these regulations was that a homeless person could sleep there undisturbed.

With plans for constructing a new City Hall in Liberty some wonder why the new building must be constructed on the present site which was intended and plated for use as a plaza or public park back in 1831?

Others wonder why building a new City Hall is being considered at this time when the citizens of Liberty face much more pressing problems such as high unemployment and a lack of business and economic activity.

Other‚s wonder what beneficial economic impact a new city hall would have on the city and whether it would contribute anything toward helping solve our community‚s current difficulties.

Some wonder why we are spending scarce resources on a new city hall that could better be spent addressing more pressing issues.

References:
Liberty, Liberty County, and the Atascosito District by Miriam Partlow
The Liberty County Historical Commission

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