By Myra Lee Adams Goff
In my travels in Comal County researching history, I have met some interesting individuals that tell great stories. One of them was Wilbur Bill “Big Willie” George, age 91, 92 in April. Herb Skoog, who interviewed George a few years back for the Sophienburg Reflections Program, called him a Renaissance Man. A Renaissance Man can be described as an outstandingly versatile, well-rounded person. I think you’ll see why Bill George, entrepreneur, fits this description.
Bill was born to Haydn and Elsa Nowotny George in New Braunfels in a house on Union Street. The home belonged to his aunt and uncle, Hedwig “Artie” and Hollis George. Remember that up until the 1940s almost all babies were born at home. Bill’s parents Haydn and Elsa lived near Fischer on Potter’s Creek so they came to town for Bill to be born. Aunt Artie was a nurse who assisted in home births.
Bill and his younger brother, Otis, grew up on family property near Fischer. It was on Potters Creek and was at one time 750 acres. Seventy acres of that property is now under Canyon Lake. Bill’s father was a WWI veteran and after the war, farmed and ranched the land. They raised cattle and goats for mohair which they sold in New Braunfels at the Co-op. New Braunfels had a large mohair processing facility near the Co-op.
Bill attended grade school through the seventh grade at Sorrell Creek School and Rebecca Creek School which were small country schools in the area of their home. For eighth and part of ninth grade, he rode his horse to Fischer Store School until the school burned down. It was a wooden school and during the fire, Bill remembered that he and a friend moved the large piano out of the burning building. The students then went to school in the old Otto Fischer home until the new rock school could be built. That school is still standing and serves as the Fischer Store School Community Center.
During his ninth grade a twist in his education took place. Since the country school went only through the ninth grade, students had to transfer to a large school if they wanted to graduate from High School. Because of the location of the George property, Bill could choose between New Braunfels and San Marcos.
The San Marcos football coach, Milton Jowers, had heard about Bill and his athletic ability and he convinced him to come play football at San Marcos High School. Bill attributes much of his athletic ability to hay hauling. Bill managed to be awarded All District designation. Many of you remember Milton Jowers who went on to become an outstanding coach at Southwest Texas University.
After Bill graduated from high school in 1942, he joined the navy. As a “naval fly boy” he was on active duty until 1946 and then was in the reserves. He started flying solo on the Cub Cadet, flew many types of planes and eventually served as an instructor. He spent five years in the military. A love of flying prompted him to continue to fly with the Weekend Warriors after the war.
After his military duty, his 1st job was doing road work for Comal County and eventually the state. He started at 23¢ an hour. Bill had several jobs and then finally in San Marcos, Bill opened Spudnuts Donut Shop. It was a franchise and featured donuts made from potato flour using an old folk recipe originating in Germany. One day a man came into Spudnuts and offered Bill cash for the business. He took it and then opened “Big Willies” Drive-in. This famous hot spot was across the street from San Marcos High School and became a favorite of students in San Marcos.
Bill had an interest in plants and bought a business called the Garden Center in San Marcos and was lucky enough to land a big contract with Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification program. One of the results of this business still lives on. He planted trees along Highway 35 in Hays County and many can still be seen today.
It was during this time in 1962 that Bill and friend Frank Brown wondered if they could make a trip from San Marcos to Corpus Christi in a boat. Frank was head of the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce and they decided the trip would be a big publicity stunt to promote San Marcos and the San Marcos River. They tried out all kinds of boats and came up with a semi v-hull aluminum boat for the trip. Bill’s father said the boat would never float, but they patched up the holes and attached a sail. They launched their boat on the San Marcos River with a final destination of Corpus Christi Bay. They brought only a few food items with them: salt, pepper, cornmeal, coffee, and lard. Bill brought a 410 shotgun, a spinning rod and a frying pan. They depended on their hunting and fishing skills for food along the way. They ate a lot of fish and shot squirrels and deer. They took along a little tent with a bottom to keep out the snakes. A twisting and turning river turning back on itself like a demi-john made it very narrow in places where they had to carry the boat.
The course of the river was laden with danger. Trees hung in the water, dams had to be crossed, and swamps had to be conquered. They met with alligator gar, water moccasins, fire ants and mosquitoes along the way. They traveled down the San Marcos River that converged with the Guadalupe River around Luling. then proceeded down the Guadalupe River until they reached the San Antonio Bay. From there, they traveled to Corpus Christi Bay. The 330-mile trip took 20 days and they arrived in Corpus during the Buccaneer Days. Upon arriving, Miss Buccaneer gave Bill a kiss although he throught he probably was very smelly. Each of the men lost 40 pounds on the trip.
Frank and Bill enjoyed the trip so much that they had the idea of creating a boating competition called the Texas Water Safari. They took the idea to the San Marcos City Council for support and they got the approval from the council. In 1963 the first competition was held. The competition is now in its 53rd year.
Rules had to be set up. Boats could only be propelled by human muscles. Competitors could receive only medical supplies along the way. They would put a little twist to the trip, making it a competition and the Texas Water Safari was born. Only two competitors reached Corpus Christy that first year but the Texas Water Safari was here to stay. The endpoint is now Seadrift and there are 12 check-points staffed with officials. It is held the 2nd Saturday in June and is now 262 miles long.
Bill returned to Canyon Lake where he still lives on a portion of the family ranch overlooking the lake. Bill had invested in road building equipment and was part of many projects around Canyon Dam, including an airfield.
Bill George involved himself in the political life of the Lake. He became their commissioner for four years.
In 1983 Bill George was instrumental in starting River Gardens, an intermediate care facility for the mentally challenged. The facility has 160 beds and is located on the Guadalupe River at 750 Rusk Ave. He is still very much involved in the support of this facility.
This year, Big Willie George looks back on his 92 years. He lives by his beloved Potters Creek at Canyon Lake. He is indeed a Renaissance Man, an outstandingly versatile well-rounded person.