By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Pauline Stevens
What is now the lively, noisy, vibrant, densely populated neighborhood of East Austin was once a dark-alluvial-soil-rich stretch of the Blackland Prairie—part of the True or Tallgrass Prairie and habitat to the indigenous Comanches and prairie-dependent species such as buffalo, antelope, badgers, prairie wolves, prairie dogs and burrowing owls.
On a gray, late-winter morning, Carol Ann Sayle stands on this land—some of the last remaining farmland within Austin’s city limits—at the property that was homesteaded in 1839 by Elizabeth and James Smith and is now Boggy Creek Farm. Just off Lyons Road, surrounded by a grid of asphalt, hemmed in by houses and cars and city life, the Smiths’ Greek Revival farmhouse—built the same year as the French Legation, between 1840 and 1841—still stands, and is now home to Sayle and her husband, Larry Butler.
“We bought this house in 1992,” says Sayle. She waves her hand past the abundant rows of green behind the house and gestures to the back porch. “When we first walked onto the property, the house was just bereft. The pecan leaves were everywhere, all over the porch … the doors had been stolen, the house was almost lost.” Looking at the tidy, little white farmhouse now, it’s difficult to imagine the neglect and disarray. Its lines are elegant; its small front portico welcoming, its back porch wide and inviting. The whitewashed cypress siding and original symmetrical windows contain perfectly balanced, spacious interior rooms with four fireplaces.
The house has a long history, and its walls seem alive with the memories of all the people who have lived and died within them. Sayle’s searches through historic documents have uncovered both celebration and tragedy. In 1841, Sam Houston—the first president of the Republic of Texas—wrote about a visit to the Smith farmhouse to celebrate the wedding of James’s son Alfred on Christmas Eve. Houston pronounced the bridegroom, “a genteel man and well-to-do” and the bride “lovely.” Just a few years later, though, a shadow was cast when James Smith was shot by an overseer. After 40 grueling hours, he died in the back bedroom. A deathbed will then left the property in dispute, until it was finally sold in 1902 to Herman T. Siegmund, in whose family it remained until 1979. The fifty-acre property had been steadily subdivided over the years until only five acres remained intact when Sayle and Butler purchased it.
Besides the abundant, certified organic vegetables that now come from the land and farm, Sayle and Butler have also nurtured and grown a movement. Austin has seen a resurgence of urban farms in recent years, but the couple was the first to bring farming back to the fertile soil of East Austin. Learning what just-harvested food tastes like, and how it makes us feel, has sprouted thousands of locavores. Many newly committed local farmers—including a second wave of East Austin farmers at Rain Lily, Springdale and HausBar farms, all live within a mile of the original Smith homestead.
Sayle and Butler never imagined they would find such community in East Austin, much less that they would start a movement. “We have seen a dramatic change in the neighborhood just since we’ve been here,” says Sayle. “In the late nineties, everyone started asking us if we knew of any property for sale nearby, and now it’s impossible to find anything affordable.”
And yet, the elegant little farmhouse still stands, looking out over the ever-changing and endangered landscape. According to American Farmland Trust, “the Texas Blackland Prairie is the fourth most threatened region in the country. America currently loses more than one million acres of farm and ranch land each year to development. Texas loses more land to development than any other state in the country.”
Sayle feels this loss keenly, and considers herself fortunate to have stewardship of the property now. “It’s eerie to know that people have died and were born in my bedroom,” she says, as she looks over the small plot of land that has fed so many over so many years in our community. “What I wish for more than anything is just five minutes with a camera in 1840.”
There are many stories here, but Sayle’s favorite comes from that letter Sam Houston wrote to his wife, Margaret. Along with his observations of the handsome bridegroom and the lovely bride, Houston reported to his wife that the “eating doings” at the wedding party were “first-rate throughout.” Sayle’s eyes twinkle and her chin lifts a little as she recounts the quotes. Then she proudly notes that “food has always been important here!”