Sixteen acres of land covered in pine and hardwood trees, a natural spring and a trickling creek back up to a two-story, light blue home in varying stages of renovation.
Dr. Jeffery Roth ’89 and ’96 stands outside the home and land he purchased in 2007, as he details its history and connection to one of his favorite educators—SFA’s first president, Dr. Alton Birdwell.
“When I was living in Denver looking for a house in Nacogdoches, I found this one online and thought, ‘boy that house looks familiar,’” Roth said. “It’s because it was the Birdwell house. I had done some research on Birdwell when I was working for SFA history Professor Dr. Jere Jackson, and I really liked him.”
Roth received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SFA, and during that time, he formed a historical appreciation for SFA’s first president. So, when he was hired as an SFA associate professor of geography eight years ago and chanced upon the first SFA president’s home for sale, he was giddy.
“Birdwell was a hero of higher education,” Roth said, holding tightly to the leash of his large, well-behaved Black Russian Terrier. “SFA wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Birdwell.”
Named president of Stephen F. Austin State Teacher’s College at its inception, Birdwell served in that role through 1942. Delayed by repercussions of the first World War and “Texas politics,” Roth wrote in a 1998 paper when he was a research specialist for the Center for East Texas Studies, Birdwell’s family didn’t move to Nacogdoches until the early 1920s.
“Birdwell wanted to bring education to the common man, so he did things like ride a mule around East Texas giving speeches,” Roth said. “He could have ridden in a buggy, but he picked a mule because it was the symbol of prosperity for the common people—the more mules you had, the more successful you were. He wanted to prove a point.”
In addition to the home’s history, Roth’s excitement about and vision for the property is to build a self-sustainable homestead. His first phase of renovation involved restoration to the home’s interior mixed with clearing portions of the land to raise endangered livestock and plant a garden.
“For about 15 years, I’ve been looking at endangered livestock as a research topic,” he said. “Endangered breeds are important because we have 10,000 years of agricultural development at stake. We are raising so few breeds of cattle and chickens, one disease could go through flocks and wipe out millions of chickens. The same thing is happening with heirloom vegetables.”
The second stage is to revive the home’s aging exterior, ultimately turning the building into a boarding home for students and building a separate, smaller cabin for himself further back on the land. However, the eight-year construction project has come with its fair share of hiccups.
“The project hasn’t quite worked out according to plan,” Roth said, adding a massive leak that was trickling through the home’s walls wasn’t found until about a year and a half after he purchased the home. In fall 2014, Roth also contracted double pneumonia while working on plumbing under the house. At some point, too, a group of neighborhood pit bulls got loose and killed several of his chickens and sheep.
“It’s been just a cascading chain of events,” he said.
Roth stays positive despite the hardships. His aim is to bring sustainable methods of living and lessons he has learned in his struggles into the classroom.
“That’s what I’m most proud of—taking what I learn here into the classroom and talking to students about how they can save money on their student loans by learning how to grow a garden, learning how to cook and talking about the failures here to let them know that things don’t always work out,” Roth said. “If you want to connect it to Birdwell, that’s definitely what I’m most proud of. He would want the faculty to move beyond textbooks and theory and do things that are practical that the students will take with them in their lifetimes.”
Roth hesitates to speculate on what the future holds, but he isn’t giving up. He continues to renovate the interior of the house, many parts of which are nearly complete, and he will soon pick up speed on the exterior. He also just recently seeded his 50-foot by 50-foot garden.