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20 Years at ABC’s Historic Case Mill Homestead: Heart, Soul, Headquarters


20 Years at ABC’s Historic Case Mill Homestead: Heart, Soul, Headquarters

In July 1998, the nonprofit American Botanical Council (ABC) officially moved operations from Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal’s home in northwest Austin, Texas, to the historic 2.5-acre Case Mill Homestead in East Austin. Twenty years on, the flourishing campus has evolved into an educational resource where ABC’s herb-focused, science-based content is created and then disseminated around the world. It is also a refuge for plants and wildlife, a hands-on resource for herbalists and visitors, and a vital part of ABC’s research and educational mission.

The history of the Case Mill Homestead began in 1853, when Connecticut clock peddler Sherman Case arrived in the newly formed state of Texas and settled on a 451-acre Texas Republic land grant in the area that was named after the “Father of Texas” Stephen F. Austin. ABC purchased the homestead with its remaining 2.5 acres, two-story 1850s house, and renovated carriage house.

As a steward of the land, ABC honored the historical roots of its new home and took great care to landscape the grounds and maintain the buildings. The house retains its original Bastrop pine* wooden flooring and two of its original coal-burning fireplaces. Most of the rooms have been converted into offices, filled with natural light, that allow ABC staff unobstructed views of the natural splendor of the gardens and grounds. The carriage house, with the garage that was added in the early 1950s, has found new life as the center of ABC’s shipping and receiving activities.

Over the last 20 years, not only has ABC expanded, adding new programs and staff, but so have the offerings of the homestead, particularly in regard to its sustainability. These improvements include a separate annex building for meetings and a small library; a greenhouse; and a rainwater collection system, a vital addition that helps sustain the gardens. The greenhouse nurtures seedlings for the organization’s gardens and annual HerbDay plant sale and, in winter, houses its collection of tropical plants, many of which were donated by the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC. Surrounding the main building are medicinal- and culinary-themed gardens, including Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine gardens that flank the northeast side of the property and a Sacred Seeds native plant garden with a small pond next to it that is surrounded by memorial plantings to honor the legacy of loved ones.

These exquisite features of ABC’s headquarters have served as an educational resource for thousands of people, including members of the public, who are welcome to tour the grounds during operating hours; school children who are encouraged to touch, taste, and smell the plants in their natural surroundings on field trips; interns pursuing postgraduate degrees in pharmacy or dietetics; and visiting herbalists and scientists from around the world. In many cases, people see these plants in the ground for the first time when they visit ABC’s gardens.

ABC Education Coordinator Jenny Perez uses the gardens to foster a closer connection with the earth. “I have always thought of gardens as living repositories of ancient knowledge and potential uses for healing people and the planet,” said Perez. “ABC’s gardens are a unique resource for teaching the community and health care providers about the plants: their history of use, their chemistry and relevant research, and also how to work with the plants themselves, planting, growing, gathering, and preparing food and medicine grown right in our own backyard.”

Former ABC employee and herbalist Nicole Telkes also finds educational value in the demonstration gardens, and she holds classes for her Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine on the ABC campus. “The Case Mill Homestead is a beautiful and welcoming space full of medicinal themed gardens that are an important teaching tool for my students,” said Telkes. “We are so lucky that ABC is preserving the space as a historical and cultural marker in East Austin.”

The learning continues when these plants are harvested and brought inside. ABC’s large kitchen hosts many teachable moments when Perez and ABC Education Assistant Caroline Caswell process the plants. Interns are given the opportunity to roll up their sleeves, spend time outside in the subtropical Texas heat, and work with the plants in the ground. Then, they troop into the kitchen and receive hands-on instruction on how to make medicated oils, extracts, infusions, honeys, vinegars, and more from these materials — natural remedies in almost every form.

In the spring especially, the kitchen is overrun with plant life (and a few insects). A nook by the back door of the main building holds drying racks redolent with the fragrances of lavender (Lavandula × intermedia, Lamiaceae) flowers, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare, Apiaceae) seeds, holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, Lamiaceae) leaves, or any number of freshly harvested herbs. For roots such as ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae) or ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, Solanaceae), the hum of a dehydrator fills Perez’s office. A cupboard stuffed with all sizes of bottles and jars holds tinctures and glycerites made onsite, and an antique case stores dried herbs and harvested seeds for future use. ABC staff enjoy the harvest of vibrant red hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa, Malvaceae) calyces in particular and often partake in freshly steeped herbal iced teas.

Every year, on the first Saturday in May, ABC hosts its annual HerbDay celebration for the regional community. People are invited to explore the grounds, participate in a maypole ceremony, and hear talks from Blumenthal and guest herbalists from around the country. Herb walks make use of the themed gardens to educate visitors about medicinal and culinary plants, and the event includes a large plant and book sale to encourage interest in and connection with herbs and natural healing modalities. HerbDay at ABC, which draws an increasing number of attendees every year, has expanded to include children’s activities, arts and crafts projects, entertainment from local musicians, and outside vendors sprawled out on the lawn between the carriage house and greenhouse. Members of the public can thus learn more about ABC’s educational mission, history, publications, and programs.

“Prior to purchasing the Case Mill Homestead, ABC had no space to offer the public something like our HerbDay celebration,” said Gayle Engels, ABC’s special projects director. “Community outreach and consumer education are part of ABC’s mission, and this beautiful space in the heart of East Austin has provided us the opportunity to welcome visitors who learn from regional, national, and international speakers, both on HerbDay and at other times throughout the year.”

From its origins in early Texas to the present-day, the historic Case Mill Homestead has stood witness to 165 years of history. ABC is proud to be a part of this property’s story.

“When I first walked onto the property in May 1997 and saw an echinacea plant in bloom, I knew this would be — and should be — ABC’s new home,” said Blumenthal. “Over the past 20 years, I’ve always been grateful that we have such a beautiful and historic location from which to base our international nonprofit research and educational activities.”

The opportunities afforded to the organization cannot be quantified or overstated: The grounds offer organically cultivated herbs and food, a meeting space for ABC’s Austin-based staff and other herb organizations, and an outdoor classroom unlike anything else the area has to offer. The gardens and pond support native Texas flora and fauna, and it is not unusual to see a frog hop along a border of horsetail reed (Equisetum hyemale, Equisetaceae) and into the pond, or a spiny lizard skitter underneath the shade of a prickly ash tree (Zanthoxylum americanum, Rutaceae) to escape the notice of a neighborhood cat.

ABC celebrates Case Mill’s past while looking to the future. Updates to the property will always be made with the goal of extending the life of the historical building, which is currently in need of restoration and preventative maintenance. Such improvements will help create a more sustainable presence with an emphasis on water conservation, regenerative agriculture, and, in the future, solar power; and help further ABC’s nonprofit mission of providing education using science-based and traditional information to promote the responsible use of herbal medicine.

—Hannah Bauman