A Simple Farmhouse Forms the Heart of an Urban Agricultural Site in Austin, Texas
The Boggy Creek Farmhouse, Austin, Texas
OWNERS: Carol Ann Sayle (interviewed) and Larry Butler
TO THE LETTER: After we bought the house in 1992, we started going to the library to uncover the history. A lot of it is explained through the letters of John Franklin Smith, one of the sons of the original owners.
According to the letters, another son, Alfred Smith, supervised the construction from 1840 to 1841. It’s one of the oldest houses in Austin.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: At the time, Texas was very new. It was the Republic of Texas, having declared independence from Mexico in 1836. Sam Houston wrote a letter to his wife in 1841 telling her that he had supper here at the house and the “eating doings” were “first rate.”
We get a kick out of that; food has always been important to us. We have a 5-acre urban farm here in East Austin, Boggy Creek Farm. We grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and we have 85 chickens. Buddy the dog takes care of them.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: The house is designed in a modified Greek Revival style replicated in other buildings in Austin. It could have been worked on by Abner Cook, a famous architect in these parts, who started as a carpenter. The coffin for the owner, James Smith, was made by him.
But nobody knows for sure about anything. There are no photographs, no records or building permits. It’s just common sense and looking at stuff you have.
We have had reunions for some of the families who have lived here, and have learned a lot about the history from them. The people who lived here before us got the house landmarked by the city.
When we moved in, we fixed it up cosmetically. We had to reconstruct the roof a bit. Most of the old doors had been stolen during a period when the house was vacant. We had new doors made to fit, and got some hardware from the 1880s.
WEATHER WATCH: In November of 2001, we had a tornado. A gigantic pecan tree about the size of a locomotive fell into the bedroom wall. The wall caved in, and there was a big hole in the roof.
A local food editor found out about it and got a bunch of chefs together to do a fundraiser. We were able to hire carpenters to help Larry put it back together.
That was the second incarnation of the house. That’s when we took the Sheetrock down inside and exposed the 1920s or ’30s shiplap. This was before shiplap was so trendy.
CIRCULAR LOGIC: I really love every inch of the house. You can go in a circle—the doors go from room to room. If you’ve got a party going on, nobody gets stuck. It’s got a nice flow. I love to look through the two sets of doors, from one room into another. It’s a 1,500-square-foot house, and the ceilings are 11.5 feet.
I also love the tall windows. They’re very fragile. There’s still some of the old wavy glass left. We just have gauze curtains over them, and they let a lot of light in.
ORIGINAL MATERIAL: The footprint of the house is exactly as it was. We opened up one wall to make the kitchen and dining room flow better. We kept the wood and the door frame from that, just in case a purist comes along some day.
We found watermarks on the two-by-fours, which meant that the house had been in a flood. It’s in the lowest part of Austin, which is why the soil here is the best in the city. It’s fine soil.
There are four fireplaces, three with the original mantels intact, and the two chimneys are original.
SAFE KEEPING: There are no closets in the house. The attic is full! My mother’s dresser is in the hall, and that’s where we keep our seeds. That’s very important.
My mother’s hope chest is in the master bedroom. We have a large wardrobe there and one in the parlor. I did have a broom closet made.
We try not to have much stuff. People back then had a wardrobe and pegs on the wall, and that was the end of that. I’m a farmer—my clothes fold up.