C.F. Duer: Immigrant, Capitalist, Texan

The Old Place Cabin at The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park.

A LITTLE PIECE OF HISTORY | By The Heritage Society –

A building nearly two centuries old is bound to contain numerous stories within its walls. The Old Place Cabin at The Heritage Society is such a place. The house was built in 1823 on Clear Creek by John R. Williams, one of Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” original settlers. Erecting a dwelling was required for land grants, so Williams built this cabin to meet his obligation. He owned other land at the time and likely never even lived in the cabin.

The cabin that Williams built was destined to be home to many other families instead. Despite being several miles south of town, the cabin served as rental property at times. One tenant, Christian Frederich “C. F.” Duer, an immigrant and aspiring entrepreneur, rented the cabin in 1843.  Twenty-year-old Duer emigrated from Germany eight years earlier with his mother, stepfather and younger half siblings. He set out on his own, and within a few years, he had a business with a partner in Florida called Suwannee Springs. These visionaries built a therapeutic resort, which became renowned for healing sulphur waters and saw thousands of visitors! Duer never knew the true benefit from this endeavor though. He sold out to his partner by 1839, before the spring’s heyday.

Duer’s travels took him to Texas prior to the end of his business in Florida, and the lure of Texas may well have been his motive. While wrapping up his business affairs and clearing debts in preparation for a move west, Duer found time to court a wife as well. He was invited to spend Christmas at the home of a prosperous planter, Bennet Maxey Dell. Duer presented Mr. Dell’s 15 year-old daughter, Mary Standley, with a book of love poems. The two began exchanging letters, and before long, they were married.

Built in 1823 by John R. Williams, the Old Place Cabin featured a mud chimney.

With his wife in tow, Duer returned to Texas to seek his fortune, settling in the young town of Houston. Duer’s entrepreneurial spirit flourished with early business ventures included lending, land speculation, mercantile and rental properties. Despite his great efforts, Duer found himself struggling to provide the quality of life his wife was accustomed to.

In 1841, little more than a year into the marriage, the Duers added a baby girl to the family and another in 1843. Perhaps the strain of the growing family or merely the distance from her childhood home took a toll on Mary. She took her newborn and toddler and made the difficult journey back to Florida alone. Duer recorded these things in a diary, which fortunately allowed a glimpse of life in early Houston. He grew despondent without his family but also more determined to provide a proper home for them and to increase his means.

Duer moved into a single room when his family left and rented the house to maximize his income. Eventually, he moved out entirely and took lodging at the Capitol Hotel. He began to cast around for property to accommodate his growing family, settling ultimately on Williams’ cabin. Duer began a new enterprise: rounding up cattle.

Not long after moving to the cabin, Mary and the children returned. There were hardships to be sure, but the move must have seemed like a change of fortune for the Duer family. The cattle venture paid off, and with the earnings, Duer leveraged more land. Some of this land was north of Houston in what today is known as Rose Hill. Duer helped found a new community there of German immigrants.

Duer’s success continued to build. His community thrived, and he was appointed postmaster. Rose Hill became the stagecoach and mail stop connecting Houston to Huntsville and places north. Duer operated a wagon shop with a large stable to rest and change the coach horses. He built a plantation in Rose Hill with his own mill and a general store. Duer had made his fortune. He was a successful merchant and part of the elite planter class.