The best historical evidence indicates that the house at Boggy Creek Farm is, along with the French Legation, one of the two oldest homes in Austin. Unlike the residence on Robertson Hill that was intended for ambassadorial usage and now owned by the state of Texas, the farmhouse on the creek remains in private hands and so private funds must keep it in one piece.
To that end, owners Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle, who have been farming the last five acres organically, are holding a benefit to fix its windows. The event is 1 p.m.-4 p.m. June 24 at 3414 Lyons Road. Expect food, drink, tours and auctions.
“A community benefits when its history is known and preserved,” Sayle says. “Not just by story telling but also by the actual survival of buildings and homes. At Boggy Creek Farm, in the fertile bottom land of East Austin, the farmstead, dating to 1839-1841 still exists. Still ‘standing’ are the remaining five acres of farmland and the modified Greek Revival farmhouse, where the first President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston, dined in 1841.”
Sayle reports that the house is in good condition, except for the windows.
“They are fragile and beyond band-aid glazing,” she says. “They need to be taken out of their walls for professional restoration. The experts at Red River Restoration will clean the windows of aged glazing materials and remove all of the paint. Then they can assess what wood needs repair or duplication. The process takes two months, and the restoration is scheduled for fall. The estimate for the 14 windows is $30,000.”
As stewards of this homestead, Sayle and Butler have been growing good food, resisting development, keeping the house in good repair, and sharing it through many house tours over the last 26 years.
“With the generosity of our community, and with newly sound windows, this important example of history can weather the next generations and beyond,” Sayle says. “We love this community and we are honored by your help!”
Tales of historical murder and mayhem mean a lot more when they happened on your street.
Ken Roberts’ excellent “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” (Texas A&M University Press) thoroughly chronicles the clans who until recently lived mostly isolated lives in the Hill Country west and north of Austin. The book is packed with surprises.
For various reasons that Roberts carefully lays out, these mostly Scots-Irish clans were prone to violence. One incident concerning the Teague family near the turn of the past century, however, made me sit bolt upright. I had to share the tale right away. It concerns the trial of John Teague for the murder of John Gest and a deputy sheriff.
“John Gest and his bartender Max Himmelreich ran a saloon in 1911 at the southwest corner of South Congress and Monroe Street,” Roberts writes. “Bars like this were abundant in what is now downtown Austin: the 1910 city directory lists two beer gardens and for 40 saloons for a town of less than 30,000 people.”
Hey, wait a minute. That’s the current site of the South Congress Cafe. Today, the building is mostly exposed brick, but remnants of stonework can be detected on the north wall. Indeed, a stone structure, set back from the street, marks that very spot on the 1921 Sanborn insurance map of the neighborhood.
One of John Teague’s sisters, Mamie, had married Gest, who was of German origin. But she disappeared. Another sister, Myrtle, 16, served as his informal housekeeper. In 1911, John Teague’s wife, Mattie, witnessed Gest abusing Myrtle, so he decided to investigate.
After confronting her, Teague got very drunk. Late at night, he showed up at Gest’s Monroe Street bar with his .44 Winchester rifle in tow.
“Gest cut his eye up at me that way (grimacing) and threw his hand down this way and I ups with my gun and shot him,” Teague later testified. “Before he fell, I shot him again, and after he fell, I shot him again.” Teague was heard to say, “God damn you — I’ll show you how to insult my sister.”
Bartender Himmelreich saw the whole thing from behind the bar, Roberts’ story continues. “I believe I’ll just kill you, too,” Teague said, but his shot narrowly missed and shattered the mirror behind the bar. Himmelreich ducked out back as Teague continued to fire.
Then Teague headed west on West Monroe Street toward East Bouldin Creek, presumably on his way to the Balcones Escarpment and the rugged mountains further west.
“But the shooting had been heard all over South Austin,” Roberts writes. “And a deputy sheriff named George Duncan pulled on his clothes, grabbed his pistol, and ran out of his house — right into John Teague. He wrestled with Teague, who shot him several times, leaving him writhing in the middle of the road.”
The killer’s next stop was the house of John Freitag, brother-in-law of John Almar Roberts, where he demanded cartridges and water. He told a woman there: “My name is John Teague. I have killed John Gest, his bartender and another man. He is laying down there in the road.”
He was easily apprehended the next day after having fallen off a 10-foot cliff.
The murder trial was a circus. The state called for the death penalty; the defense pleaded that insanity ran in the family and also hid behind an “unwritten law,” meaning “homicide is justifiable when committed by the husband upon one taken in the act of adultery with the wife.” As Roberts points out, this defense remained on the books in Texas until 1974.
In other words, Teague claimed to be defending Mamie’s and Myrtle’s honor. As for the congenital insanity, Teague’s mother testified, according to the Austin Statesman before the full house: “The astonished courtroom attendants and hangers-on were afforded the novel spectacle of a woman, promulgating it for the consideration of all, that her husband was partially insane, that her eldest son, a second son, and at least one daughter were afflicted with the mental defect, and that another daughter was an idiot.”
As Roberts research shows, John Teague’s previous record indicates he had been in at least one gunfight over a woman’s honor before, including one with his brother Tom. That one didn’t sound like an act of insanity.
“The jury in the 1911 case voted eight to four for the death penalty, and later three of the four jurors agreed to go with the majority,” Roberts relates. “But one man whose brother had been spared from death by an insanity plea held out, and John Teague was sentenced to prison for life for killing Gest, and again for killing the deputy. He was pardoned 10 years later in 1921.”
John’s sister and Gest’s widow, Mamie, married bartender Himmelreich. He died in 1937. Mamie died in 1984. She was 104 years old.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post reported the wrong population for Austin in 1911.
Reader Craig Scott contacted our Austin Answered project: “I recently saw a photo of people getting baptized in the springs at Bluff Springs dated back in the 1940s,” he writes. “It had a concrete enclosure. Can you run a story on where the actual springs were or are?”
The compelling image, shared on the Facebook page of the Manchaca-Onion Creek Historical Association by Joy Simmons, shows congregants from the Manchaca Baptist Church dressed nicely but up to their waists in water.
For his part, Scott’s family history stretches across South Austin from Creedmoor to Pleasant Hill to the area now most associated with the name that history advocates would like spelled “Menchaca” after its real namesake.
We turned to our regular, selfless group of Austin history advocates for answers. One of them, Bobby Cervantes, grew up on Bluff Springs Road in Southeast Austin and has been active in preserving cemeteries and old structures in that area.
“There is also a property just over Onion Creek headed towards Slaughter on the right hand side,” he guessed about the possible site. “There are old cabins and wagons on the property. It is a big property.”
That area on Onion Creek was once home to a freedman’s community and at least one country school by that name.
Lanny Ottosen, who is writing a book about southeastern Travis County, was much more specific. He attached contemporary digital maps that show a very likely location just west of Bluff Springs Road and just south of Onion Creek; a 1937 excerpt from a Travis County listing of springs with a map that reads: “Bank of creek. Flow 5 gallons a minute from sandy gravel. Supplies water for swimming pool. Known as Bluff Springs. Temperature 74 degrees F”; as well as a 1954 aerial shot of the property that shows a similar concrete structure.
Then he hit pay dirt: A text exchange with the current owner not only confirms three springs on the property, but also included a picture of the owner’s husband swimming in a concrete enclosure that looks almost exactly like the one in the baptismal photo.