My husband still owns a house that his grandfather built in Houston in the nineteen thirties. It is on a tract of land that was part of the original Stephen F. Austin Colony that was deeded to Mike’s family before Texas won its independence from Mexico. The Sharman family traveled to Texas from Georgia in the hopes of starting a new life after experiencing hard times in a south dominated by large landowners. The parcel that they purchased lies just north of what is now downtown Houston and is bordered by Interstate 45 and Cavalcade Road.
When the Sharman’s first came it was wooded and undeveloped. They built a homestead and did some farming, never thinking that one day their place would be located in the fourth largest city in the United States and the second fastest growing metropolitan area. At the time that they arrived Mexico was hoping to develop the large swath of land to the north that was mostly wild and barren. They made a deal with groups like the one to which Austin belonged to provide low cost grants to anyone willing to settle down and develop the land. The Sharman family was willing to risk everything for a new start.
They used to own an area that included the place where the freeway now sits but that was taken by the state when it was deemed to be a good route for a major highway linking Houston to parts north. Mike recalls playing in the woods that lead down to the bayou when he was a young boy but that was before there was a concrete ribbon obscuring the once pastoral view. Later he rode his bicycle on the unfinished ramps while I-45 was being constructed. Sadly the finished roadway changed the feel of the neighborhood forever.
I often laugh whenever I read articles about that part of Houston. Nobody seems to realize the real history of the area. They speak of developments that happened long after my husband’s clan arrived in a time before there was even a Republic of Texas. Over the years much of the property has changed hands but Mike, his grandfather and his mother have kept the family legacy intact against all odds. In fact it was not until the nineteen eighties that one of them did not actually live on the land that has so much historical significance.
My mother-in-law was quite proud of the fact that her ancestors had been among the first settlers in what would eventually become the state of Texas and the city of Houston. She had so many stories of what life had been like for the pioneers. Those tales were handed down to her from her own grandmother who even told of her dealings with the native Americans who lived nearby as neighbors. We still have photos of family members standing in front of log cabins looking like visitors from the wild west. They worked hard and somehow overcame diseases, floods and many obstacles that might have driven away lesser souls. In many ways my mother-in-law became the unofficial historian of their trials and tribulations, a task that she enjoyed enormously. She loved being a Daughter of the Republic of Texas and kept up a membership for her grand daughters as well.
Her father’s home was built shortly after she was born. It is a quaint looking cottage that speaks of a simpler time. It was so well constructed that it will probably last for many more decades. Some of the nearby homes are even older and were the living quarters of her grandmothers, aunts and uncles. It was really a family compound where everyone contributed to the well being of everyone else. Being the only girl back then made my mother-in-law the center of attention and while she was quite spoiled by her adoring relatives, their love made her into a strong, generous and confident woman.
I would have enjoyed meeting her kin but they had all died by the time that I came into the picture. They were a tough lot, particularly the ladies. The Houston area was a harsh environment back then with outbreaks of yellow fever being commonplace due to the rainy weather and swarms of mosquitoes. Somehow the clan tended to stay quite healthy and live long lives in spite of the less than inviting conditions that they had to endure.
The part of north Houston where the family land still lies became downtrodden over time and my mother-in-law eventually moved after she inherited an uncle’s house in the Heights which is a gentrified area that is home to artisans and professionals. It felt safer there than in the home that had always been her residence. Lately however her childhood neighborhood is slowly but surely being beautified once again. It even has a new name that would undoubtedly horrify my mother-in-law with its ordinariness, Northside Village.
A Metro rail line runs only a block or so away from the property and its construction has prompted new interest in a part of town that lies only minutes away from the central business district. There are nearby lots selling for millions of dollars and tiny nineteen twenties houses are inching up in price. For now nothing particularly exciting is happening on the old Sharman tract but there are those who insist that it will one day become high dollar real estate.
I love the house that my husband’s grandfather built and always have. I can almost see myself living there with only a few updates to make it more amenable to twenty first century living. It is almost like a dollhouse in its design and even better in the love and care that went into building it. Right now there is still a great deal of crime in the area and the future of the street is uncertain. It’s difficult to know if it will become yet another rediscovered jewel or be ignored as it has been for the last couple of decades.
My daughter and I dream of rebuilding a kind of family village there. She wants to use some of the land to create a modern home for herself and I would be content with staying next door in the older house. We imagine the two of us riding the rails to shop in downtown or to visit the Medical Center. We think of buying our produce in the open air of the nearby farmer’s market or enjoying the of view of the skyscrapers that loom on the horizon. We envision a rebirth of the place with my mother-in-law serving as our guardian angel. We both know just how much she treasured the legacy that belonged to her and now is owned by her descendants. From the time that I met her she dreamed of the day when her homestead would be loved once again. She died without witnessing a renaissance but insisted that it was near. I’d love to see that happen before I too am gone. There would be something quite special about returning to the land that made her ancestors so very proud. We modern folk are so prone to throwing out the old in favor of the new. How grand it would be to find value in a place that has meant so much to generations of Texans who so proudly called themselves Houstonians.