In Southwest Dallas, City Uncovers and Plans to Restore One of Its Oldest Remaining Structures
Before the city of Dallas was contacted several years ago about accepting a few dozen mostly undeveloped acres along the edge of the escarpment in southwest Dallas, few outside the Niblo family knew what it contained. It had been settled as part of the Peters Colony, which was founded at roughly the time John Neely Bryan built his cabin on the Trinity River, and had gone through a couple of owners before being purchased by Judge Grady Niblo in the mid-1930s. His daughter-in-law lived there until she died a few years back, her small house reached by a pair of tire tracks cutting cutting a half mile across a field.
Old Oak Cliff Conservation League
The house was built in the 1940s and is an unremarkable mix of beams and wall studs salvaged from older buildings and newer materials hidden amongst cedar and crab apple trees. What really piqued the city's interest stands maybe 10 yards away: a rickety, one-room long cabin that dates to 1846. That makes it the oldest known structure in Dallas still on its original site and one of the oldest in the county, period.
"You usually don't find a cabin from this period standing," said Trent Williams, an architect with the city's park department who typically works with structures built by the WPA in the 1930s.
I met Williams two weeks ago at the edge of a newish subdivision off Spur 408, the exact location is something of a secret to keep the cabin from being damaged by visitors, ill-intentioned or otherwise. He wore a blue oxford tucked, slacks, brown loafers and a city of Dallas hard hat. Despite the near-100-degree temps, I had followed his advice with the long sleeves and pants, though I had skipped the gloves. Williams led me across the field, warning me to shower well that night to avoid chigger bites, and around a tall chain-link fence placed across the tire tracks.
This is as close to wild as Dallas gets, Williams explains. Plunk down a lawn chair in the morning, and you'll see all manner of birds and wildlife pass by. Williams said he once found a cougar track that was confirmed as such by wildlife experts, though the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife requires photographs to confirm the presence of mountain lions.
A pair of sturdier, newer fences surround the home of Mrs. Niblo, as Williams refers to her, and block access to the cabin and a ramshackle oak barn from the same era. "The minute she moved out, people started to break in," he said as he unlocked the gate.
The cabin was standing, though not very well. As a precautionary measure, the city has propped wooden beams against the outer walls. The building wouldn't fall without them, but most of the chinking holding together the stone chimney disintegrated long ago and, though the logs themselves are chinked with still functional concrete, some are brittle or rotting, and it's best not be be cavalier about such things.
Williams motioned me back while he ducked through the front door and strafed the single room with his key-chain flashlight before motioning me in. Also a precaution, he said. I assumed he was referring to snakes or poisonous insects until he told me he was checking for homeless squatters.
The cabin was built by Everard Sharrock Jr., who had relocated with his family from Illinois. He, his wife, and their three children lived there until 1853, when they moved to California. The interior is a single room, maybe 25 feet on a side, illuminated only by the light from the door. The light was enough, however, to make out the blade marks on the roof beams from where the builder had pared a round piece of wood into a rectangular 3-by-4-inch beam. Williams pointed out the corners, where the wood was joined without nails, just careful shaping.
The eventual hope is to turn the Niblo property into a full-fledged park centered on the cabin as a sort of Heritage Village fronted by a small grassy area, with walking trails traversing the rougher land. But that will take money, which has not yet become available. The park department got enough through the 2006 bond program to stabilize the cabin and barn, but not enough to fully restore it. To do that will cost somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000, much more to draft a plan for a park. "We don't have a clue on development yet," Williams said, though the city is working obtaining local, state and national historic designations.
For Williams, it's enough that the building has survived. Williams expects people will find some Civil War-era wells and outhouses yet to be discovered in the empty land of southern Dallas, but he doubts there is another Sharrock cabin.