Rough-hewn log cabins began taking shape last week next to the museum at Stephen F. Austin State Historic Site in San Felipe.
The re-creation of a sample block from San Felipe’s colonial days has been in the works for several years and construction has finally begun in the last few weeks.
“This project is named Villa de Austin and it’s an interpretation, an evocation as we would say, of what we think one little sample of the town looked like in about 1830,” said project director Michael Moore.
The buildings were researched and designed by Moore with the plans drawn by staff architects of the Texas Historical Commission. Forney Construction of Houston is the general contractor and the log buildings were created off site and are being assembled here by Southwest Log and Timber Works of Fort Worth.
“Other buildings are being constructed in Virginia and Pennsylvania and will be arriving for assembly in September,” Moore said.
Bryan McAuley, site manager for Stephen F. Austin State Historic Site, said some people have misunderstood how a sizeable project can be taking place during the down economy under the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is the last piece of the exhibit design,” he said, explaining that the funding comes from the $12 million raised in public and private funds when the museum was opened in 2018.
“The long-range goal is to have the structures in place and everything built by the end of this year,” he said.
Moore said that by the time the constructions and furnishings are complete that the villa should be ready for the public by March 2021. He said it will resemble buildings that existed mostly on the other side of FM 1458 where the Austin statue is located and archeological work has been done.
“It’s based on one block of the town located to the west of FM 1458 kind of behind the original Stephen F. Austin statue,” he said. “And on that one block there was all sorts of wonderful things happening. There was a brick-lined cellar to a hotel, there was the courthouse, there was the schoolhouse, there was a bake oven that a free, formerly enslaved woman named Celia operated. All these different things were going on this one little piece of property. We thought that would be the perfect kinds of stories to learn from the archeology, to learn from the archival research, and use it to depict this little sample of the town.”
Moore explained that the buildings are being constructed with a few modern conveniences and also meet building codes and Americans With Disabilities (ADA) accessibility requirements. That will not stop them from appearing as though as if they were built 190 years ago.
“The building types vary from one of the most crude buildings in town to one of the nicest buildings in town,” Moore said. “So the pilgrims school, the first Sunday school in Texas as it was known, was in a dirt floor, round walled building that kind of represents the earliest generation and most primitive construction here in the town.
“There’s several log cabins that are hewn, where the sides of the logs were axed off to form a flat face, and these hewn log cabins were a little nicer. The printing office is one of those in a hewn cabin. And then the largest building is the Farmer’s Hotel, which was built in 1830 and it’s a two-room, two-story hewn log cabin. And then the nicest building, and probably one of the only framed buildings in town, was the courthouse that we think was built originally as the permanent school and was a framed building where there’s large timbers that go up to form corner posts and braces and then it’s covered in siding on the exterior.”
Moore said the courthouse has significant historical importance to San Felipe.
“This framed building was the location of the Convention of 1832, and 1833, and the Consultation of 1835. It was also the first district courtroom, David G. Burnet’s, for this portion of Texas in 1834. So, a lot of court action there. William Barret Travis is a lawyer there; he’s also secretary of the town council, so he spent a lot of time in the courthouse,” he said.
The Farmer’s Hotel is being built with the brick cellar and chimney, making it stand out from the rest of the buildings.
“It’s a wonderful area of different architectural styles, some before brick was being produced here, so they have stick and mud chimneys, and others after brick was made, like the brick-lined cellar to the hotel and the large brick bake oven,” Moore said.
Construction of the brick bake oven is expected to begin in a couple weeks.
Trail work and discoveries
In addition to Villa de Austin, work is being done to build an interpretive trail that leads from the back of the museum to both the property on the west side of FM 1458 and to the villa. It cuts through areas where settlements were known to be.
“It gets you close to some pretty cool stuff,” McAuley said, noting that it goes near the site of Travis’s law office.
Moore said creating the hard surface trail is both blessing and curse, in that they are finding colonial-era artifacts, but they also do not want to disturb any historic resources there.
“We want to make sure we are not impacting any known resources,” McAuley said.
Carefully sorting through each scoop of dirt at the site is archeologist Sarah Chesney. Her job is to make sure nothing of historic value is damaged and that artifacts that are found are cataloged and preserved.
“We’ve been finding what we’ve expected,” she said. “A lot of the trails cut through areas that we know were occupied during the colonial period. Some had later occupation, so we find a lot of ceramics, both pretty kinds as well as more utilitarian, undecorated ceramics.
“We find a lot of glass, mostly from bottles and fixtures, not a whole lot of window glass. And a lot of metal. The 19th century was a big century for metal, so we see metal related to structures, so a lot of nails, for instance. Sometimes larger hardware that’s probably related to later farming that happened out here,” she said.
She explained that a lot of what she is discovering are remnants from the 1830s and not debris left since then.
“Some of it has to do with where we find it in the ground… Some of it I can date based on how deep it is in the ground. Ceramics are really helpful in this regard because we know when designs like this first show up, are first manufactured, and when they become popular. So, ceramics give us a date range that we can work around,” she said. “When we collect stuff during construction, we can’t always tie a date around when it was deposited but it does give us more information about what stuff people were using when they were here.”