Perched atop a grassy hilltop in East Austin, the original owners of the historic Case Mill Homestead had uninterrupted vistas of the vast countryside from their third-story lookout tower. In 1853, when the house and accompanying gristmill were constructed and the State of Texas was just eight years old, the view would have included the not-yet-completed Capitol building five miles east in what was to become downtown Austin. Several owners and 160 years later, the Case Mill Homestead serves as the distinct setting for the headquarters of the nonprofit American Botanical Council (ABC), now celebrating a quarter century of promoting the responsible, science-based use of herbal medicine.
A Connecticut Clock Peddler Named Case
In the mid-19th century, the independent Republic of Texas (1836-1845) purchased the tiny frontier community of Waterloo, set on the banks of the winding Colorado River. Roughly a decade later, the settlement was officially incorporated and named after the “Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin,1 and pioneers were making their way to the humid subtropical climate of Central Texas. Although the city’s population was less than 1,000, an article published in The Texas Monument newspaper on October 12, 1853, boasted about the city’s promising future.2,3
“Ere many believe it is probable Austin will be one of the most flourishing cities in the area, as it is in [a] location decidedly one of the most beautiful and interesting,” the editors wrote. The country around is also fast improving.”2
Among the early settlers of the Austin area was Sherman Case, a clock peddler from Connecticut who, in the early 1850s, made his home on Little Walnut Creek, miles outside the Austin city limits.4 Case and his wife, Rachel, lived amongst a sweeping expanse of rolling farmland, an area comprising three separate land grants. Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, presented one grant in 1845 — just months before Texas became the 28th state of the Union — while the others were conferred by the State of Texas in the late 1840s and early 1850s.5 It was a time of change, and entrepreneurship was in the air.
The Texas Monument article noted, “New farms are continually being opened. Much wheat will be sown [in] the ensuing season. Mr. Case is building a flour mill and expresses himself confident, that out of Texas wheat he will be able to make good and white flour.”2
Case and his business partner, William Burditt, operated the mill until 1866, when Burditt’s son Giles took over the duties. During this time, Case —known locally as a carpetbagger from up North — was involved in a series of lawsuits with landowners and city merchants, with one dispute reaching the Texas Supreme Court. Although the exact reasons are unknown, Case eventually gave up his share of the mill and returned to his northern home. Giles Burditt continued operating the mill until his death in 1903.3,5
Sometime in the early 1900s, a flash flood reportedly destroyed the mill on Little Walnut Creek (K. Cook, oral communication to T. Smith, September 20, 2013), and today, there is no trace of the once-thriving mill.
After a string of different occupants around the turn of the 20th century, a wealthy couple, Edwin and Maggie Frame, purchased the homestead in 1906. Years later, Maggie had her husband committed as a lunatic to the Austin State Hospital where he died shortly thereafter. By this time, the Frame estate encompassed a 451-acre patchwork of the three original land grants. After Maggie’s death in 1947,4,5 the Colonial Revival-style house was left vacant for a brief period, and its grandeur turned to ruin.
The Cook Legacy
Jesse “Vernon" Cook, a produce and real estate salesman from Austin, and his wife, Betty, purchased the property in 1949, and it stayed in the Cook family for roughly the next half century. After nearly two years of vacancy following Mrs. Frame’s death, repairs were badly needed. Vernon and Betty’s son, Jesse Vernon “Bubba” Cook, Jr., explained that the house — which was still on the far outskirts of Austin at the time — was frequented by vandals and became a party destination for University of Texas students (oral communication, September 20, 2013).
Ada “Fay” Peters, one of Bubba’s three sisters, recalled the state of the house when her parents moved in in the late 1940s. “I can remember walking through its abandoned rooms,” she wrote (email, September 17, 2013). “Most had been vandalized and were in disrepair with floor planks pulled up and wallpaper stripped. The four fireplaces had been completely destroyed. My father said it was because rumor had it that Mrs. Frame had hidden her fortune somewhere in the house. To my knowledge, no one ever recovered any such thing.”
In 1955, the Cooks built a two-story addition on the east side of the house, greatly increasing its square footage. Mr. Cook also constructed an oversized garage adjacent to the homestead’s original carriage house. Included in the carriage house was a water-collection tank in the roof that, at one point, powered toilets in the main house.
“The original [carriage] house had what they called a cistern in it,” Bubba said. “We called [it] the play house; it was just a big party room.”
A photograph featured on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman on March 23, 1953, captured the gaiety and beauty of the Cook siblings’ childhood home. “The Vernon Cook family…[has] one of the finest expanses of bluebonnets yet seen around Austin this Spring,” the caption noted. “Their house is surrounded by the wonderful flowers which make several acres a lake-like stretch of blue. Picking some of the blossoms are Ada Fay Cook and Carol Ann Cook.”6
“The house was the center of our social lives,” wrote Fay. “The most fun room by far was the widow’s walk, a third story that sat like a square hat box on top of the house. I thought it was mysterious and dangerous. …From those small quarters, I believe to this day that Mrs. Frame kept her look out while I lived in the house. There was always a ‘presence’ when I ventured up there.”
Other members of the Cook family, in addition to current and past ABC staff members, have reported similar “supernatural” experiences at the Case Mill Homestead. However, Bubba explained that the house itself was probably to blame for such reports.
“The house creaked when [the wind] blew hard or when it rained …so [the noises] could have come from a variety of places,” he said. “But whatever it was, it gave the ‘heebie jeebies’ to people.”
Until the mid-1960s, the Cooks used the surrounding land primarily for horses and cattle, in addition to hosting polo tournaments and “coon dog trials,” in which spectators watched dogs attempt to catch live raccoons. Over the years, Mr. Cook began to sell and develop large sections of the property, out of which grew the East Austin neighborhood of Walnut Hills, now known as University Hills. Today, the Case Mill Homestead includes 2.5 acres, a small fraction of the Frame’s 451-acres of Texas land grants.
Bubba and his wife, Kathy, purchased the property from his parents in 1979 and continued to make improvements, such as installing a metal roof, consolidating bedrooms, and painting the house a vibrant yellow. A longtime volunteer for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and a former member of the Austin Herb Society, Kathy’s interest in herbs and gardening prompted the couple to create extensive stone-bordered herb and vegetable gardens encircling the house.
“When we bought it, there were no gardens at all,” she said (oral communication, September 20, 2013). “We grew all of our own vegetables …and we never used any pesticides. The girls, they would just eat anything in the yard.”
Much of what they added — a large patio with built-in planting spaces, two fish ponds, sidewalk pavers, fruit trees, and more — still exists today. Over the years, however, some spaces, such as the pond next to what is now ABC’s southwest pollinator garden, have been damaged and are in need of repairs.
In the late 1980s, realizing the property's potential, Bubba decided to turn the homestead into a space for weddings and private events. He and Kathy, while trying to come up with a name for the venue, delved into historical records to learn more about the house.
"All we had known was that the house was the Frame house,” he said. “It never really went back, so we started going back through the abstracts, looking at different things, and found that the guy who actually built it …was Sherman Case.
With that, the name Case Mill Homestead was born.
By the mid-1990s, crime in the surrounding neighborhood pressured Bubba and Kathy to reconsider their future at the homestead. Reluctantly, they put their long-treasured family home on the market. But with offers coming in from only halfway houses and drug rehabilitation centers, the Cooks did not immediately find a suitable buyer.
"We had friends that lived here; we couldn’t do that to them,” said Kathy. “We couldn’t do that to the neighborhood.