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The History of the Austin Motel

The history of the Austin Motel and the land on which it stands is not a story of corporate success with multi-million dollar profits, high end stocks, explosive growth into franchises, and financial wizards at the helm. It is nevertheless a success story. It is a success story of ordinary human beings—average everyday folks with normal ups and downs, hardships and joys, and persistence to endure. It is a very human old fashioned grass roots story of families—of love for the land and for the community. It is a story of a small unique little home grown business that has survived well through several generations and over 65 years of continuous operation while experiencing both hard times and joyful good times. It is a story of connection with other people and satisfaction for what has been accomplished from personal hard work, “hands on” attention, and love. Everyone who has owned this property has been personally involved with the work and vision of building and maintaining it. Families have been integral to its operation. It has always involved a direct inter-relationship with the local community.

Though Mr. and Mrs. Eck were very enterprising with business property in several locations, for our purposes, this story begins in May of 1888 when Leonard and Frances Eck, immigrants from Germany, bought the land that now comprises the Austin Motel and its associated businesses. The following year, he built the first business south of the river in Austin at 1200 S. Congress. He also installed the first Telephone south of the river. This was initially a general merchandise store that had a pawn shop, sold jewelry, produce, and home goods, and had a livery stable and blacksmith shop next to it. This building still stands today and is now BLACKMAIL… a clothing and gift store. In its early years, we are told this building was lively and from time to time filled with at least a few fairly dubious characters.

Stories varied, but descendants of Mr. Eck tell of the friendship between Ben Thompson, an English immigrant and famous Texas outlaw, and Mr. Eck. Ben Thompson made frequent use of the pawn shop to pawn goods for gambling expeditions and then reclaimed them with his large winnings. Gambling was big around this area at that time and Ben Thompson found it a more interesting life than working at a job. He was feisty, an expert gunman, and his gambling habit frequently involved him in gun battles, duels, and brawls. He was an outlaw who later became one of the best “Marshall’s” Austin ever had and it is a mystery why he has not become more famous in the stories of the old west. According to Mr. Eck’s descendants, Ben Thompson had pawned a large diamond ring with him before going over to San Antonio to the Vaudeville Theatre and Gambling Hall with fellow gunslinger J. King Fisher. At the end of the evening, they were both dead. The famous ring was never reclaimed and still resides with the descendants of Mr. Eck. More information about Ben Thompson can be found on the internet.

Upon the death of Mr. Eck I 1925, Jennie Eck Stewart inherited the ownership of the Eastern Half of the 1200 S. Congress Block. Similar in entrepreneurial spirit to her father, she along with her husband Earnest Stewart expanded the stores along the block. In the ’30s when the country was experiencing the boom of the automobile and Americans wanted to travel with their cars, motels and motor courts… a new concept in the lodging industry designed to accommodate these new road travelers……sprung up all around the country. Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were quick to see the value in this new concept and built the Austin Motel which opened its doors in 1938 and has never closed them since. It was the Stewarts who built the Austin Motel’s landmark neon sign way back in 1938 – read more about it here.