FWD 2 HerbalGram: Rooted in History: The Story of ABC’s Case Mill Homestead

Issue: 100 Page: 60-69

Rooted in History: The Story of ABC’s Case Mill Homestead

by Tyler Smith
8x10in. Wet Plate Collodion photographs by Matthew Magruder

HerbalGram. 2013; American Botanical Council

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 citys population was less than 1,000, an article published in The Texas Monument newspaper on October 12, 1853, boasted about the citys 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.

As 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 Burditts 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 Maggies 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. Frames death, repairs were badly needed. Vernon and Bettys 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 Bubbas 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 homesteads 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 widows 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 Frames 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, Kathys 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 ABCs 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 couldnt do that to them, said Kathy. We couldnt do that to the neighborhood.

A Home for ABC

From its founding in 1988 and for much of the 1990s, the American Botanical Council was based in Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal’s roughly 5,000-square-foot home in a Northwest Austin residential neighborhood. Throughout this time, consumer awareness and acceptance of herbal medicine was increasing, and the organization was outgrowing its home.

“There were about 17 people working there, and we covered every inch of his house,” said ABC’s long-time finance administrator, Cecelia Thompson (oral communication, October 7, 2013).

With limited space and increasing pressure from the homeowners’ association, the organization began looking around Austin for a new headquarters. After considering numerous options — including a century-old building downtown, an art-deco building that formerly housed the Texas Medical Association, a former Nissan dealership on the increasingly popular South Congress Avenue, and a location in a strip center — Glen Stranahan, a commercial realtor and neighbor and friend of Blumenthal’s, took a group of ABC employees to 6200 Manor Road, the Case Mill Homestead.

“The day we drove out here to look at it, I remember some people complaining about the side of town,” said ABC Special Projects Director Gayle Engels (oral communication, October 7, 2013). “But when we pulled in there, … that first bed … was full of echinacea, and it was in bloom. And I know I for one just went, ‘Yeah, this is probably the place, finally. That’s a sign — blooming echinacea — our logo plant.’”

“Despite the generally run-down condition of the big house, I think that all of us who visited the Case Mill Homestead on that first day in May 1997 realized that this place had the right kind of energy for ABC’s new home,” said Blumenthal.

On June 6, 1997, Blumenthal finalized the purchase of the homestead. Members of the ABC staff planted an olive (Olea europa, Oleaceae) tree on the property to mark the occasion.7

Although the location initially gave some staff members pause, East Austin was just beginning a period of revitalization. An article published in the Commentary section of the Austin American-Statesman on June 7, 1998 — just before ABC moved into the renovated property in July — provided an almost prophetic glimpse into the future of the area.

“Change is in the air, and smart people are looking differently at East Austin, a term once associated with crime, poverty, and decline,” the editor wrote. “The people who take advantage of that now will truly be the pioneers and the settlers, and they will be pleased with their choice,” a man was quoted as saying in the article.8

Today, East Austin continues to gentrify as Austin’s population has boomed, making it the 11th largest city in the United States.9 “We were on the outskirts really,” Thompson said. “What Austin has done is it’s grown around us. Right now, we’re an oasis in the middle of the city.”

After closing on the property, Blumenthal approached several banks seeking a loan to provide the organization with much-needed funds for renovation. Each bank, including a banker with whom Blumenthal had previously done business, rejected ABC’s loan request, citing the neighborhood’s general condition as the primary reason. Accordingly, ABC embarked on a capital campaign to raise funding for renovations, landscape development, and the addition of a new annex buildingand greenhouse, among other changes necessary to turn a residential home into a functioning headquarters for a growing nonprofit.7 By the end of the campaign, almost a million dollars was raised, providing sufficient funding for first-phase improvements to the property.

As part of the renovation process, ABC assembled numerous experts — the so-called “botanical brain trust” — including experienced gardeners, herbalists, a security systems advisor, and even a feng shui specialist to advise on the master plan for the property. Their vision was to create a space dedicated to health and healing through nature — a welcoming environment available to students and scholars, families, and the community. From these conversations, the idea to plant themed educational gardens on the grounds was born. Today the property boasts seven medicinal plant gardens organized by body system, seven international cuisine gardens, a Sacred Seeds garden featuring locally significant medicinal plants, a large vegetable garden for employees, and more.

In addition to being available for public tours, the gardens have been used as a resource for dietetic and pharmacy interns from local universities since the internship program started in 1998. “It’s an educational environment, and it really proves itself with the intern program,” said Thompson. “They come on campus, research medicinal herbs, work in the gardens, … and prepare presentations for staff in the ABC kitchen on their research. To me, that’s what we’re all about.”

Cook family members, who still visit their longtime former home, have expressed their appreciation and support for the work that ABC has done to Case Mill Homestead. “I don’t know if you’d say God was watching over us or what, but … I was really glad [ABC] got it and they kept our gardens,” said Kathy. “They’ve expanded, but our stuff is still here, and it makes me feel really good that they didn’t erase what we did.”

Engels, who regularly travels to conferences and presentations across the country, said she is often reminded of the significance of ABC’s setting.

“I started thinking about how unique our place is too; that we have this old Republic of Texas land grant homestead, that we’ve got gardens on it that you will never see anywhere else,” she said. “Nobody does it quite like we do. ABC is a very unique organization, and we are headquartered in a very unique locale.”


  1. When was Austin founded? Austin History Center website. Available at: www.austinlibrary.com/ahc/faq1.htm. Accessed October 8, 2013.
  2. Corrections on Austin copy for 1853. The Texas Monument. October 12, 1853.
  3. Levy B. The history of the Case Mill Homestead. HerbalGram. 1997;40:6. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue40/article160.html. Accessed October 8, 2013.
  4. Ownership information: 6200 Manor Road. Austin History Center census records. February 1983.
  5. Abstract of title: number 5212127. Austin, Texas; Jeffrey Abstract and Title Company. October 29, 1952.
  6. Bluebonnet wonderland. Austin American-Statesman. 1953;202:1.
  7. ABC buys Case Mill Homestead. HerbalGram. 1997;40:6. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue40/article159.html. Accessed October 9, 2013.
  8. Oppel R. East Austin renewal: A ‘key gateway.’ Austin American-Statesman. June 7, 1998.
  9. Barnett M. Austin now the 11th largest city in the U.S., up from 13th largest. KUT News website. Available at: http://kutnews.org/post/austin-now-11th-largest-city-us-13th-largest. Accessed October 9, 2013.

A Brief History of the Early Photographic Technique Used in this Article to photograph the ABC's Case Mill Homestead

The Wet Plate Collodion Process

Photography’s very beginnings can be traced back to 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the first permanent photograph — or heliograph — on a pewter plate coated with the light-sensitive material called bitumen of Judea.1

Following the early photo-chemical efforts of Niépce was the Frenchmen Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who patented the Daguerreotype photographic process in 1839.2 The Daguerreotype process created a unique, one-of-a-kind photographic image on a polished copper plate that was created by sensitizing the plate with silver nitrate and developing it with mercury vapors. The Daguerreotype process was the first widely available and practiced photographic process. However, it proved to be prohibitively expensive as well as extraordinarily dangerous for the photographers using this method due to the nature of the chemistry and necessary procedures.

Safety concerns led to the creation of the collodion process in 1851 by the British sculptor Frederick Scott Archer, who sought a means by which to create photographs to use as inspiration for his sculptures.3 Archer’s drive in creating the collodion process was one based on ease of use, capturing fine detail, economy, and reproducibility.

There are two main types of images — or plates — created in the wet plate collodion process: the ambrotype and the tintype (also referred to as the ferrotype). The ambrotype is created on a piece of clear or colored (often ruby or blue) glass and can be used as either a negative to create prints or can be backed with a substrate such as black velvet to create a positive image. The tintype/ferrotype is a positive image created on a piece of blackened metal. Historically, these tintypes were created on jappaned (blackened) iron plates and contemporarily they often are created on pieces black trophy aluminum (often referred to as alumitypes). The plates included in this article are all positives made on black trophy aluminum.

The positive image on the black metal plate is actually an optical illusion created by light reflecting off the exposed and developed silver salts in the areas that were exposed to light when the shot was made. This optical illusion can be illustrated best by taking a “positive” ambrotype that is backed by black velvet and holding the clear glass plate up to a window in order to view the “negative.”

In modern terms, the wet plate process itself is complicated and labor-intensive, using complex chemicals that — when not handled responsibly — are potentially dangerous. However, historically, it became widely popular due to its simple, safe, and economical steps — especially when compared to the then-popular Daguerreotype process.

The photographer starts by thoroughly cleaning and then “flowing the plate” with a collodion mixture. These collodion recipes vary from photographer to photographer, but generally contain a combination of nitrocellulose (gun cotton), 190-proof grain alcohol, and salts (potassium iodide, cadmium bromide, ammonium iodide, etc.). While under a shroud illuminated by red safelight — often a darkroom tent or portable darkbox — this coated plate is quickly immersed in a bath of saturated silver nitrate and left to sensitize for approximately four minutes. During this sensitizing step, the bromides and iodides in the collodion mixture react with the silver nitrate, creating light-sensitive silver iodide/bromide. While still under the red safelight, the photographer wipes the back of the plate clean of excess silver and then loads the sensitized plate into a specialized film holder. This is loaded into the already-composed, focused, and set-up camera. The photographer then removes the darkslide from the holder, fires the shutter, and exposes the plate for a few seconds to a few minutes.

This exposed plate is taken back to the darkroom/box and the development process begins. A developer solution that contains iron (ferrous sulfate), water, glacial acetic acid, and alcohol is poured over the plate similar to the collodion “flowing” step. The developer is left on the plate for 10+/- seconds for a tintype or 30+/- seconds for an ambrotype. After development, the plate is thoroughly washed in plain water. At this stage the image looks like a milky blue-white negative. The plate is then immersed in a fixing bath that, historically, contained very dilute potassium cyanide.* Then the fixed plate is washed thoroughly in either running water or successive trays. One item of note — all of the above steps in the process must be completed while the plate remains wet, hence the wet plate collodion name, as the light-sensitive nature is rendered null if the plate dries. This gives the photographer a finite amount of time in order to complete these steps, usually 10 minutes or so, depending on weather conditions. After fixing, the final stage is to wash the plate thoroughly and then dry and varnish the plate. The varnish mixture is a combination of gum sandarac, 190-proof alcohol, and lavender (Lavandula spp., Lamiaceae) oil. Fixing protects the plate as the dried collodion is susceptible to scratching and damage. The plate is heated over an alcohol lamp until warm to the touch, and then the varnish is “flowed” over the plate similar to the collodion. The excess is drained off and the plate is given a few moments to allow the alcohol to evaporate. It is then warmed over the lamp again in order to facilitate the hardening of the varnish, after which the plate is left to dry on a plate rack.

As is likely evident, wet plate collodion photography is a complicated process requiring patience, dedication, and passion on the part of the practitioner. The process requires a good deal of experience and mastery of chemistry and equipment in order to become proficient. This proficiency can be elusive and tenuous in its successes. One week, the chemistry can be used to great success, while only days later it can create nothing but failures in the developing tray. The process is susceptible to failure even as it simultaneously affords the photographic artist an inherently unique and creative process that can be utilized to create truly one-of-a-kind images.

—Matthew Magruder

*This is one of the most potentially dangerous chemicals used in the wet plate process due to the risk of the presence of residual glacial acetic acid on the recently developed plate, as this can combine with the potassium cyanide to create deadly hydrogen cyanide gas. Contemporary practitioners often opt to utilize ammonium/sodium thiosulfate as a fixer, as it is far safer, although it requires longer final washing times.


  1. Crawford W. The Keepers of Light. New York, NY: Morgan & Morgan; 1979.
  2. Barnier J. Coming Into Focus. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books; 2000.
  3. Jacobson Q. The Contemporary Wet Plate Collodion Experience. Denver, CO: Studio Q; 2006.