- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
As they had done countless times before, the friends convened one morning at the Rosedale School on West 49th Street.
Forrest Preece, John Akin and Richard “Dick” Peterson’s roots plunge deep into this Austin neighborhood of cottages, shops, parks, medical offices and, increasingly, more upscale homes.
Strung along two angled terraces above the Shoal Creek canyon, Rosedale is one of those older Austin neighborhoods that has been thoroughly rediscovered. Yet newcomers — and even old-timers from other parts of the city — are still learning or relearning its history.
It is a scene of constant, sometimes subtle movement.
At another key gathering place, the rejuvenated Ramsey Park, all sorts of activities fire up early on fine days like this one, including a novel ball game, Field Mojo, for all fitness levels, recently invented in the park.
Meanwhile, traffic backs up along the district’s boundaries, often delineated as Burnet Road and North Lamar Boulevard to the east, Shoal Creek Boulevard to the west, West 38th Street to the south and Hancock Drive to the north.
Rosedale is bisected by busy West 45th Street.
The Rosedale merry trio usher this reporter on foot from one end of the district to the other and back again. Along the way, we linger at a carefully preserved log home lined with knife-carved graffiti, at the childhood haunts of my tour guides, at Ramsey Park — part of the vast Ramsey Nursery in the early 20th century — and then back to Rosedale School.
“The other hangouts were the soda fountain in Beck’s Rosedale Drugstore and the Frostop Root Beer stand,” Preece recalls of life here as a kid in the 1950s. “Rosedale School was our lives’ hub nine months of the year. … In 90 percent of (families), the father worked and the mother stayed at home and took care of the kids.”
From the beginning
Not all of Rosedale’s lives resembled those in a 1950s TV show. Yet those who grew up here often retain fond memories of a tree-studded, free-ranging place seemingly protected from the outside world.
Preece now lives in a soaring downtown tower, but he still likes to visit the cottage on Sinclair Avenue that his father built in 1939. He can because after his parents’ death he sold it to a friend.
The neighborhood is lucky to retain several historians, formal or informal, such as Preece and his friend Peterson, whose family once owned a big chunk of Rosedale, as well as a scholarly couple, Karen and Michael Collins, who live in an 1849 log home here. Another useful resource is the Charlotte’s Web blog about neighborhood history.
For centuries, Shoal Creek, the wriggling western boundary of Rosedale, served as a sort of superhighway for Native Americans, including those who tangled with Gideon White, who built a log house near Seiders Springs on the creek in 1839 or 1840 at the city’s founding. He was killed nearby in 1842, although he had been warned not to wander out on foot. His three daughters, including one who married into the still-active Seiders family, continued to ranch and homestead in the area until the Civil War.
Even earlier, in 1838, the Republic of Texas granted much of the nearby land to George Spier, a hog farmer from La Grange, but he sold it almost immediately. You can still stumble onto references to the Spier League.
The most prominent area landowners during the second half of the 19th century were John and George Hancock, the latter a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto. Many locations in Austin, including Hancock Center and its adjacent neighborhood, are named after this family.
Freed slaves lived at the Moore-Hancock Homestead — now home to the Collinses — making the land a key spot for African-American ancestry in Austin.
Dick Peterson’s ancestors purchased a big chunk of what is now Rosedale from the Hancocks in the late 19th century. They opened Peterson’s grocery store on West 40th Street and Alice Avenue (now Medical Parkway), one of the earliest commercial spots in the area.
Then, shortly after 1900, the Ramsey family purchased more than 400 acres of dairy land for their vast nursery, which ranged from North Lamar to Shoal Creek boulevards, and from West 40th to West 45th streets.
“Only a few houses existed in the Rosedale area until 1900,” Karen Collins writes. “Then several homes were built along Alice Avenue and side streets south of West 40th Street. The Rosedale Subdivision, initiated in 1931 by three Ramsey sisters and their husbands, was the first major development in northwest Austin.”
To go along with the Ramseys’ subdivision, part of the nursery was dedicated as Ramsey Park in 1934. That retreat included China Row, a long double row of chinaberry trees that served as a strolling path for early residents. Around 1940, a swimming pool was added to the park where the nursery caretaker’s cottage once stood.
A place for homes
Although most Austinites know Rosedale from its busy borderlands, especially the commercial district along Burnet Road to the east, its basic character was — and is — low-density residential.
This heritage is one reason the visitor sees so many “No PUD” signs here, which signal opposition to the Grove at Shoal Creek, a dense mixed-use development district planned with a public utility for the other side of Shoal Creek.
Our tour and subsequent explorations took us to several of these mostly low-lying Rosedale houses, documented online by Karen Collins.
The oldest? A small rock building built around 1848 and once owned by George Hancock at 4101 Medical Parkway. It is now a medical office.
The second oldest is a singular place worthy of a long story of its own: The Moore-Hancock Homestead, which was built at what is now 4811 Sinclair Avenue in 1849 for Martin and Elizabeth Moore, who raised horses. It includes a dog-run log house, since enclosed, as well as a barn and a stone building with a cellar that stood near the old Georgetown road.
These buildings were restored by the Collinses — Michael is an archaeologist — in the 1980s and early 1990s with 8,000 volunteer-hours of archaeological documentation, which turned up a treasure trove of artifacts.
“It was purchased by John Hancock in 1866 and served as a residence for Hancock’s Dairy, the Enterprise Dairy and the Wallis Dairy,” Karen Collins writes. “It is the only known log house in Austin on its original site still used as a residence.”
South of here is 1105 West 40th St., purchased in 1937 by Arley Peterson, who, with brother Alvin, ran the Peterson grocery store across 40th Street. (This is Dick Peterson’s family.)
Not far away, at 4115 Rosedale Ave., Preece shows off a lovely corner house, the first built in the formal Rosedale Subdivision. It was constructed by Preece’s father, grandfather and uncle in January 1932 from plans that they found in a magazine.
On Rosedale Avenue, we encountered a welcome sight: Lucinda Hutson working in her magical garden of flowers, herbs and shrubs. This food writer and tequila expert, who consults with the nearby Fonda San Miguel restaurant, has transformed her deeply hued house and verdant gardens into a dream of Mexico. She graciously showed us around.
One benefit of building in a neighborhood that includes the grounds of a former nursery: All kinds of fruit and nut trees not seen in the rest of Austin thrive here.
According to the Charlotte’s Web site, Ramsey’s Nursery was a pioneer business begun in 1858 at Mahomet (near Bertram) by Alexander Murray Ramsey.
“He shipped peach seeds from Mississippi to his brother-in-law and asked him to plant them,” recounts the site. “When A. M. and Ellen Ramsey and the family arrived in 1860, the orchard was ready to bear. Four of those trees became the stock for his first nursery. By 1904, they were growing and selling a million peach, plum, and apricot trees a year, but as farms decreased and cities grew, ornamentals also became a high volume business.”
Many neighborhood kids worked in the nursery.
We end our morning tour where we began, at Rosedale School. Decorated with streamlined elements, this school was built in 1939 and enlarged in 1948. In the mid-1980s, it was adapted for children with disabilities.
More than a few of the residents in the houses we spied this day had worked at one time in adjoining institutions such as the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, built in 1861 and now called the Austin State Hospital, and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which moved here from the Little Campus at UT. Both of these state hubs border Rosedale to the east.
It is possible that some residents commuted, too, a few blocks west to the Texas Blind, Deaf and Orphan School for African-American youths, located exactly where the Grove at Shoal Creek is slated to rise.
Preece, whose father was also named Forrest Preece, often says that he wishes his father was still alive, in part because his memories of Austin were long, personal and precise. His father grew up at 4212 Alice Ave. on more than an acre of land that his dad purchased for $150. He was born in 1910.
“As a child, I can remember Mr. J.P. Wallis driving his horse-drawn dairy wagon past our house,” the late Preece wrote in a typewritten note that his son recently discovered. “It was a black wagon drawn by a black horse.”
The note reveals the nominal origins of the neighborhood of cottages developed by the Ramsey family in the 1930s.
“The name ‘Rosedale’ was decided upon because of the hedge of roses … between Ramsey and Shoalwood,” he writes. “They were small pink roses growing about four or five feet high. The first houses were scattered in order to get the utilities started on each street. We asked City Council, headed by Mayor Tom Miller, for street lights. They were installed in a couple of months. Most streets were paved after the war at owners’ expense.”
Dick Peterson’s memories are more recent and tell of another past.
“I went to first grade in my house,” he recalls. “My father, Richard Martin Peterson, started Rosedale Co-operative School for me and other late-birthday 5-year-olds. It operated three years in what my father built in circa 1948 at 1208 W. 40th St. as a duplex.”
He remembers swimming lessons each summer at Ramsey Park, along with box hockey, tag football, basketball, baseball and games and plays staged at the park’s pavilion.
“Ramsey Pool drained every night down the creek beside my house on West 40th,” Peterson says. “That creek was later piped and paved. There were trees with large grapevines that yielded to many Tarzan imitations.”
Akin, a lawyer, recalls working his way up the teen work ladder in Rosedale.
“Harvey and Sally Freeland’s B&K Root Beer stand at 5608 Burnet Road served the best root beer in frozen mugs for prices of 10 cents for a regular or 15 cents for a tall, along with great hot dogs, hamburgers and fries,” Akin says. “My older brother Harry, younger brother Rick and I worked as carhops there for several years. I started in the sixth grade at a salary of 30 cents an hour plus tips, and a good tip was a dime. I continued to ply my trade as a carhop through the 11th grade at McCallum, and — thanks also to the generous financing allowed by violin dealers Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Whatley at 1905 West 35th St. — I managed to pay for the very nice violin, which I’d continue to play through UT music school many years later, all with those earnings as a carhop.”
Our little tour jogged foundational memories from Preece.
“Walking around the old neighborhood, it seemed like I was fitting back into my proper place in my life’s jigsaw puzzle,” Preece wrote afterward on his blog. “When my wife and I travel somewhere – even if it’s in Europe – and I need to orient myself, I find out one direction and then imagine that I’m standing in my backyard at our family home – north is toward 49th Street, south is 47th Street, east is toward Rosedale Elementary and west is the hills. Rosedale is more than just a memory to me. It’s the foundation of my life.”