The Value of Time

by Carol Ann Sayle

A few years ago, the school district in which we live wondered—rightly, I think—what education and value derive from preserving old buildings. Potentially at risk was part of a tax abatement allowed for City of Austin homes deemed historic landmarks (like ours). At a school board hearing, interested parties, both for and against the abatement, were invited to speak. The vast majority read from prepared statements, and I noticed the board members listened to the speakers, but also looked down at their papers. I hadn’t prepared a written statement, but without notes I was able to look every school board member in the eye and hold more of their attention as I simply told them the story of this old farmhouse.

Constructed by the Smith family and their slaves over the winter of 1840–1841, on the 50-acre farmstead that the family established in 1839, the farmhouse sits firmly anchored by two giant limestone foundations that support four fireplaces. I told them that for Larry and me, who live in the old home and steward the remaining five acres (yet who are of decidedly lesser means than the pioneers) the tax abatement has been a blessing. It’s costly to keep the paint intact, the roof sound, the chimneys securely pointed and the structure protected from insects, water and rot.

Continuing in a random-babble style, I told the board members about the many people who come to our farm and immediately sense they’re at an “old place,” and of the many students who visit to see a working farm but end up getting a history lesson, too. “Sam Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas, was a guest here on December 24, 1841,” I tell the students. “You’re probably standing where his carriage was parked and walking where he hobbled up to the farmhouse on crutches—favoring an ankle that was wounded at the battle of San Jacinto—a major in the Texas army by his side as an aide. He ate supper here—dining on cornmeal, pork, beef and heirloom vegetables, all raised on the farm—and later that evening, in a letter to his wife, he pronounced the ‘food doings’ as ‘first rate.’” 

I told the board members that, like heirloom tomatoes, old wooden houses and rich bottomlands are fragile. Countless antique houses are long gone, torn down for lack of care or for displacement by modern development—the heirloom soil underneath smothered for eternity. The Boggy Creek farmhouse, on its primordial foundation, has withstood at least two floods (1900 and 1935) and at least one tornado (2001), plus the typical tortures old structures face from the first nail onward: roof leaks, window failures, termites and every era’s “gentrification.” But with periodic resuscitation, it still stands a home and a reminder of the farm it once was: a fine house amid land stretching out, the pecan trees at the creek, the slaves’ cabins, the vegetable gardens and the outside kitchen. Lives have been lived out entirely within this home’s wooden walls—gatherings, births, deaths, wars, torments, bounty, love. Original to one of the last scraps of bottomland farm soil in East Austin, the house bears silent witness.

Then the three-minute buzzer sounded and I left. Thankfully, our abatement survived.

As stewards of the house, as well as the land, Larry and I recently delved behind the farmhouse’s clapboard exterior to replace decayed wooden supports, and added new porch floors and paint. Next project: the windows, through which farmers across the years (and today) have no doubt watched for visitors, marauders and weather. It’s our goal to maintain the health of this antique-heirloom farmhouse—the true value of which dwells somewhere in the ether and can’t be measured in dollars—along with its timeless, nourished fields, for the next generation. We think every farmer who ever lived here would approve.

For more information on Boggy Creek Farm or the upcoming Historic Farmhouse Tour on November 1 and 2, visit boggycreekfarm.com