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Branch by Mike
"Today, as the rustic center piece of Katherine Fleischer Park, the
cabin sits in the middle of some 8,000 residences occupied by 20,000 people."
old log cabin on the northern edge of Travis County is an island of Texas past
surrounded by Texas present.
Whoever built it knew that going to Austin
for supplies meant a day-long wagon ride. For the most part, the family that called
the cabin home fended for themselves when it came to acquiring food -- or staying
safe from hostile Indians.
More than 130 years went by before the city
came to the cabin, a figurative brush fire of urbanization that threatened to
obliterate not only the historic structure but the way of life it represented.
Fortunately, back in the early 1980s, men like Bill Todd, then maintenance
supervisor for Provident Development – a Canadian-owned company planning a subdivision
called Wells Branch – understood what would be lost if the cabin were bulldozed
in the name of progress or even moved.
Working with developer Jim Mills
and O.T. Baker, founder of the Institute of Texan Culture’s Texas Folk Life Festival
in San Antonio, Todd saved the old cabin. Today, as the rustic center piece of
Katherine Fleischer Park, the cabin sits in the middle of some 8,000 residences
occupied by 20,000 people.
Todd missed being a native Texan by a day or
two, but his Texas roots go deep. His parents were from Round Rock, but his father
was in the Army and the family moved from post to post. Todd was born in Toledo,
Ohio in 1920 while his father was en route to his latest assignment at Fort Sam
Houston in San Antonio.
Later, he followed his father’s footsteps with
a 26-year Army career.
“Then I went to work for a living,” he laughed.
“I came back to Texas in 1977.”
When Provident Development began buying
land for Wells Branch in 1980, Todd joined the firm. The cabin, outhouse and rock
smoke house came with the 900-plus acres the company purchased for the subdivision.
The 15 by 15 foot cabin was built of artfully-hewed cedar, one of the
most durable of woods. Over the years, as its builder’s family grew, so did the
cabin. Other rooms were fashioned from milled lumber. Eventually, the cabin had
four rooms, a long front porch, and two stone fireplaces.
the roof held up,” Todd said. “That’s what saved this cabin. When a structure
loses its roof, it’s gone.”
Even so, by the time Todd and others began
restoring it, the old cabin definitely needed work.
“I hauled off four
loads of manure from inside,” Todd recalled. “In fact, that’s how I came to meet
Baker. I took the manure to a riding stable off FM 1325 and ran into him. He asked
what I was going to do with all that manure and I said, ‘Give it to you if you
While Todd and his workers, with consultation from Baker, began
transforming the old cabin into something like it must have looked in its prime,
others started delving into its history.
The cabin may have been built
in the late 1840s by Ohio-born Nelson Merrell, who settled on Brushy Creek in
Williamson County in 1837. A couple of years later he headed a Ranger company
that protected the Republic of Texas’ new capital, a village named Austin. After
statehood, in 1846 Merrell moved to Walnut Creek in Travis County. His land included
the present site of the cabin, though no proof exists that he built it. A mile
or so from the cabin, the former ranger did start a community named in his honor,
If Capt. Merrell built the cabin, he did not have it long,
selling the land in 1851 to J.P. Whelin. (Merrell eventually moved back to Williamson
County, where he died in 1892.) Whelin held the property only a short time before
conveying it to someone else. That owner, in turn, sold it to John M. Gault in
1853. His family held the land for nearly 40 years.
“I don’t think Merrell
built this cabin,” Todd said. “It was probably built by the Gaults.”
long retired, comes to the cabin twice weekly to meet with school children and
tell them about its past. Among the lessons the affable Todd imparts:
he also tells a ghost story.
homestead is both a symbol of change and link between past and present
Pioneer values like ingenuity, resourcefulness and recycling have endured
always will be a frontier as long as imagination survives
“When I first looked
inside this cabin,” Todd began, “it had no doors and was full of hay. In the corner
of the original cabin, an old cow had fallen through the floor and died. It didn’t
even smell bad, mostly just bones.”
Not long after the cabin’s restoration,
Todd sat on the porch one day making a pioneer-style broom when he heard a funny
“The property was still being leased for cattle-raising,” Todd
said. “I got up and looked around, but no cows.”
Todd returned his broom-making.
“Then I heard it again. Sounded like a little calf under the cabin.”
Again, Todd left his folk project to investigate.
all around,” he continued. “Maybe my eyes were going, but I still didn’t see anything.
But I definitely heard a cow or calf. Most old houses have people ghosts. I tell
the kids that this cabin has cow ghosts.”