‘Historical’ house torn down in San Felipe

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There was a house that stood in the Town of San Felipe until recently when owner Kent McAllister finally pulled some of its last boards down and set fire to its termite infested wood.

It could have been labeled as a historical landmark at one point but that determination never came.

It is believed to have been the home of Nathaniel Townsend, a merchant who was appointed consul of the Republic of Texas in 1837 by President Sam Houston, and quite possibly the site of the first date between William B. Travis and Rebecca Cummings, who lived at Mill Creek. Townsend moved to San Felipe de Austin somewhere around 1834, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

“It would be in the general vicinity,” said Bryan McAuley, site manager for San Felipe de Austin State Historical Site.

Townsend purchased several colonial lots from the local government in 1830, and continued to own sections of the town until 1858, well after he relocated to Austin where he continued as a merchant.

Back in the early 2000s, a nonprofit consortium was commissioned to identify archaeological searches of the town on private residences with owner approval. The lead staff person conducting most of the fieldwork was Marianne Marek.

“The original colonial structure … we think she found some evidence of that,” McAuley said of Townsend’s home in the town, but not its exact location.

McAllister’s property is located off FM 1458 and Park Road 38 in San Felipe, home of the Father of Texas, Stephen F. Austin, just around the corner from San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.

San Felipe has a trove of locations in its township. McAuley said there are plenty of properties in the town that might hold archaeological importance. At some point, when there is a steady commitment of resources, whether it’s time or financial means, the state could visit private properties for more in-depth searches.

In the meantime, if property owners have structures on their lots or find items that could hold some importance, McAuley said the state has no place to tell them how to manage it.

During the archaeological searches, a site inspection was performed around 2005 of McAllister’s property before he purchased it.

“Everything below the ground is what they’re (archaeologists and historians) interested in because the town was razed,” McAllister said of the house and town’s historical and archaeological importance.

He moved to San Felipe about 10 years ago and purchased his two adjacent properties. McAllister said he felt the old, dilapidated portion of the house was too deteriorated and unsafe to preserve.

The house possibly dated back to somewhere around the 1830s but received a more approximate period of the 1840s by Michael Moore, a historian and associated with the volunteer group Friends of the San Felipe State Historic Site. It is difficult to obtain an exact date because the house had been modified so many times, McAllister said.

“Obviously, it (the house) would postdate the burning of the town,” McAuley said because no structure survived after the Runaway Scrape.

Residents ran for safer areas away from the town and conflict in what is known as the Runaway Scrape in 1836, where the town was razed before Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his advancing Mexican forces arrived in pursuit of Houston’s army.

The rest of the house was constructed around the 1880s. Older and newer sections of the house were linked together by an eight- to 10-foot exchange, or hall. The two floors are not the same level so they are recognizably built at different times.

Archaeologists and historians are concerned with the 1828 to 1836 period, the timeframe that set the stage for the Texas Revolution and its independence from Mexican rule.

One of the most interesting spots on the property is a stone well behind the house. Supposedly, the town’s brick factory was located a few hundred feet or so to the rear of the property.

“Why would someone build a well out of stone when you have a brick factory in stone-throwing distance?” McAllister asked.

The top cap for the well was built out of San Felipe brick, McAllister said. There are worn out letters engraved into the brick cap but are too faded to precisely make out.

The well measures a few feet in diameter lined by natural stone and its depth is unknown.

McAllister had been digging toward the bottom of the well but it got too dangerous. He’s found items like a rubber mask from the 1950s, a copper covered snuff bottle with an ornamental sleeve that goes over it and a German clay gin bottle dated around 1900.

“I’ve always wondered why no one was interested in the well,” McAllister said.

When some of the studies were still active, historical preservationists and archaeologists visited his property, and McAllister pointed the well out to them. But, over time, personnel changed often where McAllister’s hypothesis on his well might be lost to present state-level staff.

Wells in the 1800s were both hand dug and drilled. Later wells are usually smaller in diameter, between five or six inches and one to two feet, Moore said. Either brick or stone was used to line the walls of a well.

Drilling was done around the mid- to late-1800s but people tend to stick with long traditions well after newfound technology comes about and don’t adapt, Moore said.

Brick production began around 1830 but was handmade, McAuley said. Dating the well would be difficult without proper analysis because of the dual process of well construction that intermingled during the time period.

McAuley looked back at records that were handed over to the historical site after Marek’s search of the town. According to those records, notes were taken on McAllister’s well but it was not excavated. Marek did not perform extensive searches and excavations. Her job at the time was to identify possible sites of interest.

Both McAuley and Moore said the state prioritizes archaeological studies by sites that it owns. It is easier to perform proper analysis and site excavation when a site is under state ownership.

“Public entities … they’re (the state is) hesitant to do digs on property that they don’t own,” McAuley said.

Although, he did say the well might have some interest to the state.

Currently, the historical site is working on plans to construct a 6,500-square-foot facility that will house a new museum and visitor’s center. The state legislature funded $5 million of the total $7 million cost through two appropriations. And there are still 90 acres of historical site property that has yet to be studied.

There remains a possibility of predated items, which could lie at the bottom of the well if it was constructed prior to 1836, with the prospect of residents burying fine china and silver during the Runaway Scrape.

Private sites do need to be protected and preserved, Moore said. There are many amazing things that might lie within the town. Finding an olden burnt object is one indication of something predating 1836.

Instead of throwing away or giving away objects, investigate their importance and bring them to the historical site, Moore advised.

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