Readers Jim and Linda Prentice, retired Austin physicians, unlocked a small historical gem when they opened a safety deposit box last year at a local bank.
Their goal was to retrieve the 1978 closing papers from the purchase of their house at 14 Niles Road in Old Enfield, one of Austin’s most storied neighborhoods, located just uphill from Pease Park. The couple has since moved into a handsome but more manageable townhouse in Tarrytown.
In the deposit box was a thick, rectangular booklet, bound in light blue cardboard by a pink ribbon. Accompanied by seven slimmer supplementary legal documents, the main jewel, assembled at 8 a.m. on March 26, 1938, by Capitol City Abstract Co. Inc. is an “abstract of title” for Lot 20, the location of the Old Enfield land and house that the medical couple made their home for 40 years.
Anyone who has purchased a house is familiar with these paper trails that document the transfer of land along with legal and financial dealings about that land. Yet this abstract is of special interest, in part because some of the owners, such as Gov. Elisha Pease and Gov. Allan Shivers, played such prominent roles in Austin and Texas history.
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In quieter ways, so did the Prentices, who added their own family histories to the chronicles of 14 Niles Road.
The documents — which start on Page 1 with a land grant dated March 31, 1841, from the Republic of Texas to George W. Spear, but also contain references on Page 91 to an older grant dated to 1835 from the Mexican government to Thomas Jefferson Chambers — add new historical insights and cast doubt on at least one popular anecdote associated with Old Enfield.
But first let's say a few historical words about the Prentices, who lent me these documents before donating them to the Austin History Center.
Linda Gilbert Prentice is descended from the Hornsby family of Hornsby Bend, among the first Anglo-American settlers in Travis County. Her grandfather Dr. Joe Gilbert co-founded St. David’s Hospital and established the student health centers at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Her father, Dr. Joe Thorne Gilbert, served as chief of staff at the same hospital. A pediatric specialist in endocrinology, she worked as director of child health at the Texas State Department of Health.
For his part, Dr. James “Jim” Prentice’s family didn’t arrive in Austin until 100 years after Linda’s. His father, a school superintendent in Sonora, moved the family to Austin right after the start of World War II. While waiting to be drafted, his father, Noble Prentice, earned a law degree and launched a second career with R.E. Janes Sand and Gravel, a dredging outfit located exactly where the American-Statesman building now rises at 305 S. Congress Ave. The main mining business later moved to West Texas, but all the executives, including Noble, stayed in much more comfortable Austin where he served as president of the Austin school board, the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the United Way’s local chapter.
All of Jim’s childhood homes came with some historical significance, too. His first at 1107 Fairmount St., then on the rural verges of Travis Heights, later was home to Ben White, the popular City Council member whose name graces a South Austin freeway. Then the Prentices moved to 3110 Wheeler St. in the Aldridge Place subdivision north of the UT campus. Next door to them was the childhood home of George Christian, who would go on to be LBJ’s spokesman and then a powerful public relations director whose family remains influential in Austin. Next, the Prentices bought the house owned by the family of Gov. Price Daniel at 2800 Gilbert St. in Tarrytown, which is now the rectory for the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, where, coincidentally, Linda and Jim, an anesthesiologist, got married in 1967.
From 1958 to 1978, the Prentices and their three children lived in other cities where their medical profession took them. When they returned, they bought 14 Niles Road, which is just to the west of Woodlawn, the graceful 1854 Greek Revival home of Govs. Pease and Shivers.
Later, the city of Austin insisted on using four digits for the Prentice address, perhaps because of new computer software, and referred to the property as 1708 Niles Road for official purposes. That confused more than a few people.
In fact, Old Enfield residents such as former Mayor Roy Butler, who owned prestigious 2 Niles Road, swore that they would persuade the city to switch those new four-digit addresses back, to no avail.
To this day, almost everyone in this history-soaked neighborhood uses the old one- or two-digit street addresses.
As the 1938 abstract of title proves, several familiar aspects about Old Enfield evolved over the years. Windsor Road, the first main street to cross Shoal Creek in their area, was named Windsor Avenue in the 1870s. At that time, it led to what was still called the Pease family plantation. The plantation to the north belonged to John Harris, likely the namesake for generally north-south Harris Boulevard.
Most of the street names mentioned in the abstract came from places in Enfield, Conn., the governor’s birthplace, or nearby Windsor, Conn., where his wife was born. Some others were named after Pease family members: Marshall Lane is from the governor’s mother’s maiden name; Niles Road borrowed its moniker from the governor’s wife, Lucadia Christiana Niles Pease.
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The governor and his wife had three daughters: Well-educated arts patron and clubwoman Julia Pease never married and lived in the family mansion most of her life; another daughter died in childhood. Carrie Pease Graham had three children, reared by Julia and her mother after Carrie’s death in 1882. One of her children, R. Niles Graham, helped develop Old Enfield and also gave Tarrytown its name, inspired by a favorite family retreat in Tarrytown, N.Y.
The descendants subdivided Pease and Harris plantations, which became parts of Old Enfield, Westenfield, Pemberton, Tarrytown, Old West Austin, Clarksville and other neighborhoods. Although Clarksville was a freedom colony going back to Emancipation, many of the other subdivisions were laid out in the early 1900s, when bridges over Shoal Creek multiplied.
Some descendants held onto the land. Jeanne Crusemann Daniels, the controversial animal rights activist and owner of TarryTown Center, for instance, is a second great-granddaughter of Gov. E.M. Pease. She is famous for running off tenants who sold animal products.
The blue-bound title of abstract is crammed with more records of legal and financial wrangling that future historians will find valuable.
Yet because the Prentice land was tied for decades to pre-Civil War Woodlawn, also known as the Pease Mansion, it’s worth remembering that it was completed in 1854 by master builder Abner Cook, who also built the Governor’s Mansion and other fine surviving structures. Famous guests at Woodlawn included Sam Houston, Gen. George Custer, Will Rogers, Elisabet Ney and Edith Head. It was constructed for Texas State Comptroller James Shaw, but after two deaths in the family, he moved away and sold it to Gov. Pease.
The outstanding question: When did the Shaw-Pease sale take place?
Folklore — along with some surviving newspaper articles and other sources — tell us that on Jan. 15, 1957, outgoing Gov. Shivers and his wife, Maryalice Shivers, took possession of Woodlawn from the Pease family and moved in exactly 100 years after the Pease family had done so in 1857.
That was quite some historical stunt, broadcast far and wide by Gov. Shivers.
Exactly 100 years? Hmmm. Not so fast.
Page 110 of the abstract tells us that Gov. Pease made his purchase on July 25, 1859, not in 1857, thus ruining a perfectly good piece of local folklore.