History of the Smith/Mowery/Canfield Home
The Mission Style home built by Theo & Emma Smith in 1911 is a prominent Collegeport landmark. Overlooking the Tres-Palacios Bay, its stately presence has inspired generations of residents and visitors to this bay shore community. The house has been the subject of many paintings and sketches, and is probably the most photographed house in Collegeport. In one of the photos, a Shetland pony is seen on the west steps of the house. It is said that as Grace T. Smith would play her grand piano in the living room, the pony would rest its head on her shoulder. Norma Walker’s family lived on Bay Shore Drive in Palacios and she says that as children they gazed across the bay pretending that the house was their castle.
Grace's pony is visible on the steps in this photo
which is courtesy of Grace Hinsdale Jones Henley and Frank & Betty
It is impossible to tell the story of a house without relating something about those who live within her walls. The town of Collegeport was established on May 25, 1908 by the Burton D. Hurd Land Company. Businessman Theo Smith, his wife, Emma and daughter Grace Theodora came to Collegeport where they established the Theo Smith & Son Lumber and Hardware Company. Many of the pioneering families purchased materials to build their homesteads. In August of 1910, the Smiths purchased bay shore property from J. J. Jackman. Soon after, their house was constructed by builders T. M. Jones and Cletus Jones. The house was built in the Mission Style, and was constructed of the finest materials available, using the balloon framing technique. Magnificent windows of Kokomo leaded glass grace the staircase landing. A Butler’s Pantry joins the kitchen and dining room. Lath and plaster cover the inside walls, and stucco finishes the exterior. A red tile roof tops the house. Downstairs the floors are oak over pine and upstairs the floors are quarter sawn pine. Bathrooms have hexagonal floor tile and claw foot tubs. The house was originally built with indoor plumbing and was wired for electricity. Much of the original wiring is still used today. The Smith family named the house “La Casita del Mar” (The little house by the sea).
The Smith’s daughter, Grace Theodora Smith accompanied her parents to Collegeport where she managed the lumber company. She was instrumental in the design, fundraising and building of Grace Chapel of St. Mary’s Mission, the local Episcopal Church. Grace was married to Edgar G. Jones in the chapel in 1914 and their daughter, Grace Hinsdale Jones was baptized there in 1917. Edgar died in 1916 when “Baby Grace” was 10 months old. Theo Smith also died in 1918, just as Grace T. Jones, an accomplished pianist was about to embark on a concert tour. This left his wife Emma and daughter Grace T. to raise “Baby Grace.” For several years the women tried to manage and maintain the house, but it was a daunting task. The challenges of northers in winter, the flooding of the bay, and general upkeep of the house proved too much for them and they moved back north to Topeka, Kansas.
After Theo Smith died, the house was sold to J. V. Brasfield in 1920. Mr. Brasfield from Chicago had been an operative in the Collegeport area since early days. Title then transferred to Texas Bull Calves Hunting Club, Inc. (1921), to Turner Rice & Irrigation Company (1923), to Mad Island Lake Game Preserves, Inc. (1923), to Sheriff of Matagorda County, Joe Mangum (1931), to R. L. Cole (1931), and finally to Mae M. Mowery (1931).
This house was home to Ben and Mae Mowery from the 1920’s until about 1966. Ben Mowery came to Collegeport where he managed the Collegeport Rice & Irrigation Company. His uncle, Harry J. Stoops, a Chicago real estate speculator was president of the irrigation company, and had bought about $500,000.00 worth of Collegeport Irrigation Company assets, including canals and land, and the warehouse tract on the railroad spur. The Mowerys lived in the house, which was used for a period of time as a hunting lodge where clients were housed and entertained. Under the supervision of Ben Mowery a grand hunting lodge was being built at Portsmouth, as reported the Matagorda County Tribune in March of 1929. It is believed that the Crash of ’29 caused the plan to fail as it never developed. Stoops divided his time between Collegeport and Chicago where his wife and daughter lived at the Seneca Hotel. In 1930, Uncle Harry suffered a stroke while driving with his wife, Sadie Ritter Stoops, in Chicago. Shortly after his stroke Ben Mowery went there and brought him back to Collegeport to care for him. After being incapacitated, his wife, Sadie, and daughter, Marian (a Ziegfeld Follies girl), on his behalf filed suit against the Mad Island Lake Game Preserves, Inc. for default on a note held by Mr. Stoops. In 1931, Sheriff Mangum seized the property which was owned by the game preserve and sold it at public auction to R. L. Cole for $1,000.00. Cole in turn conveyed the house and property to Mae Mowery. Harry never returned to Chicago and passed away in May of 1932. Ben was the Collegeport Postmaster and the Mowerys operated a grocery store. He was also the local weatherman—using his barometer to predict tropical storms and hurricanes. He also related weather information and news to the community that he received over his radio.
Ruth was the Mowery's only child. The Matagorda County Tribune reported that Ruth hosted a lavish Halloween party in 1926, much to the delight of the community. Watson Barker and his brother worked for the Empire Oil Company. They boarded with the Eisel family while the company did exploration in the Collegeport area. Others in the work party rented the apartment over the carriage house from the Mowerys. This was how Ruth met Watson. The couple eloped and was married without the knowledge of her parents. They enjoyed a long and happy life together. Their daughter, Peggy Barker Koster relates that they visited Collegeport often and that she and her brother, Benjamin Richard Barker, attended school in Palacios in 1948. Because their father worked in the oil exploration business for Phillips Petroleum, the family traveled a great deal, and the Collegeport house was home to them.
Prior to Hurricane Carla (September 1961), the Mowerys did extensive renovations to the house. At this time it is believed that the brickwork was installed around the lower portion of the walls, replacing the flared stucco skirting. A portion of the original fencing that surrounded the property was taken out by the storm. At that time the remainder of the fencing was removed. Several of the corners remain. The Mowery’s granddaughter, Peggy Koster said that Hurricane Carla helped the Mowerys make the decision to relocate. They moved to Alvin and built a home next door to Ruth and Watson Barker. The Collegeport house remained vacant for a period of time, until they sold it to Turner F. Austin in 1967. Title transferred to C. H. & Suella Kaiser in 1972 and lastly to current owners Frank & Betty Canfield in 1981.
The Canfields have been lovingly and creatively preserving the house on their ‘watch’. It is not unusual to see Frank in his man-lift, measuring, sawing, deconstructing and rebuilding sections of the structure--attempting to stay ahead of termites and decay. Betty, Frank’s capable assistant has tackled numerous renovations to the house as well. Their current project is to replace the exterior stucco after repairing damaged framing of the house. Their work is a labor of love. Frank has determined that the house is a multi-generational project, and that $300.00 worth of materials can engage about three weeks’ work--and that’s pretty cheap entertainment! Frank and Betty have two sons, Phil and Mark, who grew up with Collegeport being a special place for them. Phil has an original painting of the house (which was done by Mark) hanging in his guest room in Chicago. That shows the significance of the house and the Collegeport community to both of them. Mark is particularly attached to the house and plans to continue its renovation. The Canfields have shared their home with the Collegeport community in many ways—hosting a tour for county 4-H Clubs, several miscellaneous showers, a High School Prom Dinner, a tour of the house for the Matagorda County Historical Commission, and for many years have hosted an Easter or Palm Sunday brunch for the community.
The Canfields were contacted by Grace Jones Henley (ie: “Baby Grace”) a number of years ago. She was born in the Southwest upstairs bedroom of the house. Due to her young age when the family sold the house, she had only vague memories of living here. Still, she was aware of the house through the recollections of her mother and grandmother. Mrs. Henley shared with the Canfields several family mementos and a copy of her photo album/memory book of newspaper clippings and photos of their time in Collegeport. Grace Henley visited the house again in 2007 when she returned for the 80th Anniversary and dedication of the Texas Historical Marker for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Palacios. The building of St. John’s originally stood in Collegeport as Grace Chapel of St. Mary’s Mission--the church her mother helped build. The economic conditions of the 1920’s prompted many families to leave the community and the chapel fell into disuse. It was deconsecrated, disassembled and moved to Palacios to its present site where it was painstakingly re-assembled. It was consecrated as St John’s Mission in 1927.
G. W. Franzen (May, 2009)
Collegeport, Nov. 2.—Since the birthday
of this town, May 25, 1909, its citizens have participated in many
enjoyable affairs but none that would excel the party given by Miss Ruth
Mowery Saturday night. The Mowery home, which old timers will remember,
as the Theo Smith home on the Bay Shore, was elaborately decorated, the
color scheme being black and orange. Cunningly concealed electric lights
lended aid to the decorations. At the head of the stair stood a
life-sized image of a witch astride the usual broom stick. Suspended in
the entrance to the large living room was a large pumpkin, eyes aglow,
mouth distended and calculated to dispense horrors to the guests. It was
a children’s party but Ruth’s generous heart included the fathers and
mothers, so about seventy guests were present. Perhaps twenty-five were
masked and in costume which varied from simple ones to more elaborate.
Among them could be seen a pirate with dagger in belt, a sailor boy,
Felix the cat, Mexican, cowboy, clowns a plenty, one tall stately figure
in a black ball dress attracted much attention. Little girls dressed in
girls’ clothing the identity of each being cleverly concealed. Each
guest was called upon to do some stunt and they did, much to the
enjoyment of the gathering. We know now how to call Louis Walters, Gus
Franzen and Tom Fulcher for their wives illustrated the method. Little
Jeramay Brazil danced like a fairy and was awarded first prize while
Charlie Giersache took first prize in the senior raisen race. After the
program of stunts was over, Ruth Mowery with her assistants distributed
hats in which were concealed horns and requested each guest to wear the
hat until the refreshments were served. Refreshments were served on
plates with a decorated border of Hallowe’en pictures and consisted of a
salad, chicken sandwiches, pickles and banana marshmallows. Then
pandemonium reigned for with a fonograf, a radio and seventy horns
blowing everyone present was aware that the hour of midnight was
approaching. Dancing the new day in finished a most delightful evening
and the guests went home after thanking their sweet little hostess for
the privilege of being her guest. Miss Ruth was a most dainty hostess,
busy all the evening looking after the comfort and pleasure of her
guests. Out of town guests were Judge F. H. Jones and Miss Margaret
McConnell of Bay City, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hale and Master Thomas Hale
Jr., of Wadsworth.
Matagorda County Tribune,
Canfield Family Restoration Project