The man who would become its savior first set eyes on what would become Westcave Preserve in the early 1960s as one of the early trespassers. John Covert Watson, from an old Austin family, had long visited nearby Hamilton Pool. But when he was about thirty years old, he heard rumors of another swimming hole nearby. “So I did what I fought against years later—I trespassed on the land,” said Watson. Along with two adventuresome friends, Watson climbed over an old barbed wire fence and found a trail leading into a canyon. The threesome encountered a group just exiting who warned of snakes and poison ivy. Undaunted, they followed the trail along a flowing creek, through towering cypress trees and blooming columbines, lured by the distant sound of falling water. Watson still remembers finding “the most splendid verdant grotto with maidenhair fern, a stunning waterfall, a pond, and seductive caves to be explored.”
Enchanted by his find, Watson continued to trespass, bringing friends and family. One day, a For Sale sign on the property stopped him in his tracks. Already he was concerned by the continuing abuse of this natural gem. But it was more than that. He was a specialist in organically designed homes in which everything relates to the surrounding environment, and experiencing this self-contained world had begun to inspire and reinforce his architectural juices.
Beginning in 1954, Watson had apprenticed with the renowned Frank Lloyd Wright, who was known for his philosophy of designing structures in harmony with nature. Watson went first to Wright’s winter headquarters, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and then to Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. After Taliesen, Watson worked in San Francisco for Wright’s representative on the West Coast, Aaron Green. During that period Green’s office was implementing the Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, which is now a national- and state-designated historic landmark.
His experiences in the 1950s helped shape Watson’s love affair with the architecture of Westcave’s grotto area in the 1960s. “Westcave really transformed my architectural life because it is a great example of scale and proportion,” said Watson. “It all seems to fit. It’s all the way it’s supposed to be. There was something in the detail that captured your eye.”
Watson describes Hamilton Pool as Roman—on a grand scale—and Westcave Preserve’s grotto as more Grecian—smaller and feminine. He also observed and learned from the light and shadows on the two grottos and how the day starts and ends at both, noting how different they are because Westcave’s waterfall is at the west end of a short canyon, and Hamilton Pool’s is at the east end of its canyon.
Westcave’s grotto had become not only a place of recreation for Watson, but also “filled a great void in my architectural life.” In one fell swoop Watson would leave trespassing behind and become the visionary conservationist. In 1974 he purchased the twenty-five acres containing his favorite grotto with money willed to him by Marjorie Watson, his aunt. The two of them had visited this special place together and had gone on many outdoor adventures in Colorado. “She was a great birder and appreciated all of nature’s wonders,” said Watson. “I feel certain she would have approved of my use of her gift.”
In a whirlwind two years, Watson considered and dismissed the idea of building modest structures on the bluff overlooking the river for use by family and friends. What was needed was immediate control of the land, so Watson hired John Ahrns, who became the resident manager, to clean the site and deal with trespassers. Watson purchased a mobile home for the Ahrns family, placing it in a prominent position to protect access to the land.
The two Johns grew close, walking the property and talking about its future as an educational site and a dedicated natural area, both of which Ahrns advocated. All the while, Watson and other friends had been discussing the site’s long-term protection, structured in such a way that the public might continue to visit. These discussions culminated in the establishment of the Westcave Preserve Corporation in 1976. The nonprofit cemented the concepts of permanent protection, careful restoration, and prudent visitor control. In 1983, after expenses at the preserve had exceeded revenue for several years, Watson brought to fruition a partnership with the Lower Colorado River Authority, which paid off the note and simultaneously conveyed management authority back to Westcave Preserve Corporation with a ninety-nine-year lease at $1 per year.
To honor its founding father, in 2006 Westcave Preserve dedicated the John Covert Watson viewing deck adjacent to the main trail into the canyon, providing a magnificent view over the Pedernales River. In 2008 the preserve created the annual John Covert Watson Award for Vision, given at its annual celebration.
“It was a labor of love,” said Watson. “It really was one of the most pleasurable arcs in my life, and a good association with interesting people along the way.”