Effort to restore old cabin brings pride to community


Nathan Goldsmith

This Swedish log cabin built in 1638 will soon undergo restoration to preserve the historical site. The restorations on the cabin, which is currently located in Zilker Botanical Gardens, will begin this year and are expected to last until 2013.

Alexandra Klima

One of the oldest pieces of restored architecture in Austin’s history, which served various duties during the 1800s, will soon undergo a major revival with the help of local historians.

Through a $43,000 heritage grant from the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, Austin Parks and Recreation will foster the restoration project of a cabin located at Zilker Botanical Gardens, which will begin in 2012 with an expected duration of one year.

Because the cabin is one of the oldest buildings in Austin, visitors can enjoy a taste of Swedish culture amidst the multiple historical buildings present at Zilker Park, said Margaret Russell, the culture and arts program manager at Zilker Botanical Gardens.

“The proposed work with the grant funds will redirect the draining waters, will reinforce the bottom logs and will redo the chinking,” Russell said. “There will also be work done on repairing the headers, threshold and windows and doors to contribute to the longevity. Age more than anything is what created the need of repairs on this historical 174-year-old cabin.”

She said the city has maintained the outside of the cabin, while the Texas Swedish Pioneers Association and restoration advocate Barbara Pate take care of the furnishings inside. Both will continue to work together to maintain the cabin, Russell said. In 1965 the cabin was moved to its present location by the TSPA, who also collected the authentic pioneer furnishings on view inside the structure, she said. Before the cabin was in Zilker Botanical Gardens, the cabin was located in Nelson Park in Round Rock, a location where the Swedish immigrants gathered for celebrations and meetings during the 1800s.

Randy Lewis, associate professor of American Studies, said he visited Zilker Botanical Gardens a few weeks ago and saw that the log cabin restoration was a valuable effort that could be appreciated by future generations.

“Would you rather read a book about the woods or go walking in them?” he said. “Going back to Thoreau and Whitman, Americans have celebrated direct experience. Because we live in a superficial mass culture in which so much seems fake, Americans often hunger for authenticity and the greater depth of meaning history can provide.”

Visiting historical sites like the Swedish pioneer cabin allows one to take the time to breath and take in the big picture that goes far beyond dollars and cents, he said.

“It also gives one the time to wrestle with the real questions of society: What have we lost and what have we achieved as a culture?” Lewis said. “Our society needs to think before paving over its inheritance, whether in the natural world or the built environment. Every act of preservation defines us as a culture: We are what we preserve.”

Pate, whose great-grandmother was born in the cabin, told Russell the history of the home. The house represents the Swedish log cabin structure, but was built by a Scotsman named J.J. Grumbles in 1638. It was then purchased by Swedish immigrant S.M. Swenson who was responsible for an influx of Swedish immigration in Texas. Swenson at one time owned 128,000 acres in Travis County, with twelve blocks of real estate concentrated along Congress Avenue, and started the SMS Cattle Company, which still operates today, Russell said.

During Swenson’s ownership, the cabin was located near Highway 183 and Interstate Highway 35 along the Colorado River, Russell said. The log cabin was then occupied by a cousin of Swenson’s, a member of the Gustaf Palm family, from 1853 through the Civil War, she said. They transported the cabin to their new home at the intersection of 14th Street and San Jacinto Boulevard to be used as a wash house, she said. When the property was sold, the house was dismantled by Swenson’s nephew Louis Palm, who moved it to a farm where it was reassembled and was later relocated to Nelson Park.

Advertising sophomore Benjamin Rothenberg said he has visited Zilker Botanical Gardens in the past and that seeing history in person is almost humbling and gives one an appreciation of the amenities modern technology supplies us with today.

“Projects like these help capture little pieces of history, that together, paint a picture of what life was like in the past and help instill a sense of pride in our community,” he said.

Printed on Thursday, January 26, 2012 as: Restoration of old cabin brings pride to residents