If you walk down the streets of downtown Georgetown, Texas, chances are you’ll see the legacy of C.S. Belford all around you.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s go back to the 1800’s for a moment, shall we?
The year is 1881. The day? November 9th.
In the 8th district of Austin, a crowd of onlookers have gathered outside as volunteer firefighters are rushing to extinguish the flames consuming a large limestone building.
The Texas Siftings would later write,
“It was a thrilling scene. The fire’s demon cruel tongues licked the fair proportions of the historic pile, while huge volumes of black smoke poured from the doomed building, and settled over the fair city…like a sable funeral pall, enveloping in its somber folds the spires and domes that glitter on the several hills of the Capital City…while the toot, toot, toot of the fire engine, and the hoarse profanity of the enthusiastic volunteer firemen, seemed a solemn and appropriate dirge as the old sarcophagus crumbled.”
This historic pile, those spires and domes, the old sarcophagus is the Texas State Capitol...and it’s engulfed in flames.
In an article entitled, The Fire in the State Capitol , columnist Mike Cox says low water pressure at the nearest hydrant prevents crews from spraying more than a light mist on the inferno.
Within two hours, the Capitol is charred and destroyed. Inside are smoldering remnants of roughly 8,000 books, several artifacts, and records from the Texas’ days as a Republic.
In all reality, the buildings’ days had been numbered. Plans for a new capitol building had already been underway, but the fire meant the project would be starting sooner rather than later. Luckily, the Capitol Board managed to grab the plans for the new building before making their speedy exit out of the blazing Capitol.
Over the next several years, the new capitol building comes to life, but not without some help.
According to the Texas State Preservation Board, over 1,000 people help construct the new Texas State Capitol Building with its almost 400 rooms, 924 windows and just over 400 doors.
Among those laborers is rumored to be a man named Charles Sanford Belford. Born in 1857 in Newark, Ohio, Charles has spent most of his life in Ohio, up to this point.
In 1874, at the age of 17, Charles is at school at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Between 1874, we don’t see or know much of what he does, but he does reappear in the 1880 United States Census in Albuquerque, New Mexico living with the Whitcomb Family.
Interestingly, the head of the Whitcomb family is listed as a carpenter, and on that same census record, Charles Belford is named as a carpenter too.
But, carpentry probably isn’t the only thing Belford is focused on. Frances Cornelia Whitcomb, the daughter of the head of the household, is just four years his junior. That same year, Charles and Frances marry. The two love birds become parents in May 1881 when their daughter Juanita Frances Belford is born.
But, in June of that same year, Belford is standing at a gravesite. Frances dies about a month after giving birth to their daughter. Within a year of becoming a husband and a father, Belford is now also a widower.
Heartbroken, Belford packs up his life, and takes his daughter Juanita to Ohio.
"He ended up going back briefly for a visit to Ohio and took the baby to his mother and his first daughter was raised by her grandmother," Preservation Georgetown's historian Liz Weaver told The Root Story. "That's basically just about the only thing you could do. He was a 20-year-old carpenter off in an area where he had no family members..and apparently something about Texas sparked his fancy and he migrated to Texas."
While we don’t know exactly what pushed Belford to Texas, legend has it he may have worked on the Texas State Capitol rebuild - and as a carpenter, this idea isn’t too improbable.
On August 8, 1884, the Austin American Statesman lists in the Personal section of their paper,
“Messer...Charles S. Belford, of Georgetown, came in yesterday and registered at the Avenue.”
There’s nothing that points directly to why Belford ends up in Georgetown either, but if we believe the story about his work on the capitol, then he likely did what many Capitol laborers did at that time.
"You do actually see a number of the stonemasons in particular that worked on the state Capitol come up to this area and resettle in this area," Ann Evans, Georgetown Public Library reference librarian, told The Root Story. "It's kind of a bustling thing close to the Capitol that's still separate.
At the time, Georgetown is still in its early stages of growth. Dust and dirt still cloud the air when horses, people and cattle drives travel down the road. Farming and agriculture are still central to the town’s economy. For all intents and purposes, Georgetown is still considered part of the “Wild West.”
But, Georgetown is also a land of opportunity for people like Belford, especially since there are some signs change is on the horizon.
Buildings in town, for example - previously single story and made of simple, wooden frames and siding - are now being replaced with taller, sturdier, multi-floor stone structures. In the neighborhoods, some of what will later become Georgetown’s most iconic homes are under construction.
The nearby new railroad also means Georgetown also has increased access to materials and supplies. Belford is perfectly poised to ride this coming wave of industry in Georgetown.
As Belford is beginning to find his place in town, there are already two established lumber companies operating. For almost 10 years, two Scottish immigrant brothers - George and Thomas Irvine - operate the Irvine Lumber Company and Planing Mill. J.W. Whittle and Moses Harrell also run their own lumber firm around the same time.
There is some indication Belford may have worked for Whittle and Harrell at some point. Belford’s name appears in conjunction with a newspaper story about a destructive fire at the Whittle and Harrell lumber yard in 1888.
While J.W. Whittle and Moses Harrell are rebuilding after the devastation, Belford is at work in his off hours too.
"When he came to town, he had a toolbox that had all of his carpenter tools in it and that was pretty typical," Weaver said. "Well, when he was working at Whittle and Harrell, they had a fire in the lumberyard and he lost his toolbox and lost all of his tools, and there was an article in the newspaper a little bit later. It was one of the small things down toward the bottom, that he had been in his off-hours rebuilding his toolbox, and apparently this was something special.
They said on the outside it wasn't much to look at, but when you opened it up, it had all this inlay with holly wood and mahogany, and red plush linings, and a place for every one of his tools... it shows his level of dedication to what was his craft and his art."
The paper does indeed praise Belford’s craftsmanship. In the Williamson County Sun it later reads,
“At odd times, since the first at Whittle and Harrel’s lumber yard, Mr. Charles Belford has been building for himself a handsome tool chest. He lost a valuable chest containing some fine tools in the fire above referred to...Mr. Belford is a very fine workman and has taken great pains in making the chest…”
His tool chest sits in Special Collections at Southwestern University today - and provides a glimpse into the man behind the tools.
"When I look at Belford's tool chest, I can see the detail oriented man that he really must have been," Megan Firestone, Head of Southwestern University's Special Collections and Archives, told The Root Story. "He built it himself. It's made out of wood, there's inlaid wood inside of it that spells his name, all of his tools fit in certain functions...all of the saws have a place in the box that they fit perfectly. There's movable drawers, it is a piece of artwork. Every time I see it, I can see kind of a glimpse into who Charles Belford was as a builder."
Belford also finds new love in Georgetown. Five years after the death of his first wife Frances, Belford marries again on December 29, 1886 to Mollie Carothers, and this is where history gets a little interesting and it’s here where we can separate fact from legend.
There is speculation surrounding Belford’s marriage to Mollie. According to legend, Mollie Carothers is the daughter of the President of the First National Bank of Georgetown, Frank Carothers. This would certainly raise an eyebrow or two - since Frank later helps Belford finance Belford’s lumber company and Belford later serves as Vice President of the bank...one then has to ask, would Belford marry to land good connections in business?
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time marriage came with some networking connections. For centuries, entire kingdoms and nations have sometimes been brought to peace (or war) over love and marriage.
In fact, this idea of Belford marrying for business is so ingrained in legend, the application for the Belford Historical District states Mollie is the daughter of F.W. Carothers who is president of the bank.
But, that’s not exactly true.
Mollie Carothers is actually the daughter of Samuel Carothers - listed as farmer in two United States Censuses. He is also listed as the Ruling Elder of the Presbyterian Church in Georgetown, Texas in his wife Harriet’s obituary. He dies in 1877, 11 years before Mollie ever marries Belford.
So, how do Samuel and Frank get mixed up as the fathers? Well, the two men are related. But, as far as my research can tell, Frank is actually the nephew to Samuel and cousin to Mollie. Simply put, there’s no way Frank could have been her father, he was a little boy himself when she was born.
While the story of Belford marrying the daughter of the bank president sure makes for eyebrow raising fun, it simply isn’t true. But, that doesn’t mean Frank and C.S. Belford didn’t have great business partnerships. History tells us more about that - and we’ll get there in a second.
With a new tool chest in hand, and his new wife Mollie by his side - Belford makes his move.
In 1891 when Moses Harrell and J.W. Whittle part ways, Belford and Harrell go into business together and purchase the local Irvine Lumber Company.
Just a year later, Belford and other investors (including our friend Frank Carothers, and another close friend J.E. Cooper) buy out Harrell’s share in the company and incorporate The Belford Lumber Company. The lumber yard is located strategically next to the railroad in Georgetown and covers one entire city block and parts of other city blocks.
The announcement of the new company appears In the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, on March 6, 1892.
“C.S. Belford has incorporated the Belford Lumber Company, with a capital stock of $25,000, to manufacture and sell lumber.”
It's not long before Belford quickly becomes a household name in Georgetown. Around town, it’s hard to miss the man who is one of the best dressed men in town. In a time when indoor plumbing is just beginning to make its way to Georgetown and cattle drives still crowd city streets, Belford always sports a three piece suit and a derby hat.
"He's going out into dusty fields, dusty construction jobs in a suit," Firestone said. "He also was known to carry an umbrella, a piece of chalk and a plumb bob...everywhere he went when he was checking a site."
Belford’s precision and attention to detail isn’t limited to his fashion. Stonemasons, construction crews and anyone else who works under Belford learn very quickly there is no room for error with the boss. Plumb bob in tow, Belford routinely shows up at construction sites and checks the quality of the work.
"We have this really interesting quote about Belford from somebody that worked with him that says that he was 'hell on chimneys,'" Firestone said. "Stonemasons shook in their boots when he went up the ladder by the chimney with his plumb bob, because if it was a fraction of an inch off, it had to be torn down and rebuilt...if a board didn't meet quality, he would put an 'X.' That might mean that they had to rip boards apart to get the bad board and put better boards back in its place. So, that's Belford. He's very exacting. He's very detailed oriented. He expects perfection."
"If something didn't meet his standards, he'd make things be ripped back out and redone," Weaver said. "The architectural detail in some of the big houses that he built is just stunning. The workmanship is gorgeous, and he just wouldn't compromise."
Even in Belford’s own office, everything is neatly kept and tracked. Ledgers and logs from the Belford Lumber Company show tedious record keeping, right down the number of nails used on a project.
"Belford’s records are meticulous, they are very detailed," Firestone said. "We have books to index to other books. We have books that tell us how many nails went into one property, so we can track how many pieces of nails or lumber he used on a property...which kind of shows just how Belford really thought and ran his business."
Perfection and precision. That’s the Belford way.
It’s this approach to construction that makes Belford so desired though. No matter what style of home or commercial building he is working on, Belford becomes synonymous with high quality.
And one-by-one, homes pop up in the growing city. History will later describe Belford’s building style (and his competitor Griffith - who we will cover in another episode):
"Belford...apparently utilized [his] own creativity and the available design vocabulary of the day to compose practical, yet pleasing, domestic architecture. The houses [he] built were variations of common types, but small details...clearly identified his work."
The Texas Historical Commission continues by describing Belford's Prairie Style homes as "eclectic", his Bungalow style dwellings as "harmoniously designed" and Belford’s own home - "majestic."
"He did things that other people weren't doing," Weaver said. "If you were one of the leaders in Georgetown and you wanted something that impressed, you got Belford to build your house.
"He built very beautiful homes," Britin Bostick, Downtown and Historic Planner for the City of Georgetown, told The Root Story. "There's some really pretty typical housing styles that he built...he did them in such a beautiful way, either adding details with trim or with windows...houses that were crafted to stand the test of time, and that's why they're so valuable and why they're such a treasure."
But, Belford isn’t just building homes - he’s playing an integral role in building up some of the city’s most important buildings including designing Georgetown’s city hall and fire station - which is the Georgetown Art Center today.
Belford also builds Georgetown’s Masonic lodge in 1900 - where Gumbo's Restaurant now is.
"The building was partially under construction and they had just finished the exterior stone walls when the Galveston hurricane of 1900 hit Texas," Bostick said. "We apparently experienced quite a storm with really strong winds, and after that storm blew through, nothing had moved, not a stone out of place on the building shell that he had constructed out of stone.
I believe it was remarked in the newspaper of what great construction this building was that the Galveston hurricane hadn't even managed to damage the building that wasn't even completed yet."
Just recently, Southwestern University's Special Collections and Archives discovered compelling evidence in an entry from M.B. Lockett’s biography that Belford may also be responsible for building the M.B. Lockett Building too - currently occupied by Burger University
Belford’s success wouldn’t just come in construction, however. In 1901, according to the Austin American Statesman, Belford incorporates the City Ice and Bottling Works of Georgetown.
The Bottling Works company does well in Georgetown too, for decades.
In the February 7, 1922 edition of the Austin-American Statesman, it’s says:
"The Georgetown Ice and Bottling Works Company is rebuilding its plant, more than doubling the housing and producing capacity. Modern equipment will be installed in time for the heavy summer trade the coming season, and according to those in control of the plant, products from the plant will be absolutely chemically pure, this condition being possible by comparative late improvements in machinery installed. The building being erected is all iron and cement."
Belford didn’t stop with the Ice and Bottling Works company though.
"He was also an early stockholder in the Georgetown Oil Mill," Firestone said. "He was vice president of the First National Bank and on the board of directors..he also owned the Easy Rider Knee Pad Company."
For decades, Belford continues to build Georgetown both figuratively and literally. The Belford name and the Belford way are a mainstay in Georgetown now - the young man who arrived in Georgetown in the late 1800’s has now become one of the most sought after men for building and business.
Interactive: Throughout his career, Belford built residential and commercial structures. Explore the map below to see where some of the homes are located in the Belford Historic District, and a couple of other commercial structures he built.
Addresses and information come from the linked document HERE
In 1928, Belford contracts a progressive neurological disease known to impact body and muscle control. Over the next year, he lives with the condition. Though we are unsure the extent of the disease or the impact it has in his day to day life, we do know on the morning of February 18, 1929 - just a few days after his 72nd birthday - C.S. Belford passes away.
In the Austin American Statesman, Belford’s death is announced on February 22.
“Following the death of C.S. Belford, organizer, prescient and general manager of the Belford Lumber company of this city, on Monday, a meeting of the stockholders was held on Wednesday and J.E. Cooper, life-long friend and associate in the lumber, banking, oil mill industry, ice and bottling works, and other enterprises, was elected president.”
Even after his death, Belford’s Lumber Company continues to operate and build for the next three decades.
And in the 90 years that have followed his death, Belford’s legacy has lived on. In 1986, the National Register of Historic Places accepts the nomination to name an entire 8-block district comprised of over 80 homes after Belford. According to the city of Georgetown, most of the homes in the district are constructed by Belford and his lumber company.
And in case there were any doubt as to the lasting impact Belford has had on Georgetown, even in the year 2020, one only needs to look around and see the enthusiasm Belford homeowners have for their houses.
In an interview with a local video series, Historic Georgetown: Home Series, home owner Carla Schaefer describes how she has preserved Belford’s legacy in her home.
"When I was renovating, I found two pieces of lumber likely from the original shipment, and they say 'From the Belford Lumber Company,' and I felt like those were not mine, that they belonged to the house," Carla Schaefer said in the video. "So, I asked my cabinet maker to build those into the structure of the beam so that they would always stay with the house."
Today, Belford homes are widely sought after by Georgetown residents and those lucky enough to own a Belford are proud of their home’s heritage.
And, I can’t help but wonder, what would Belford, the well-dressed, meticulous, business man - think of all this? How would he feel knowing his homes are not only still standing, they’re still loved, cherished and still in high demand?
"I think he would be really pleased to be acknowledged for the work that he put so much into and spent so much time making sure he did things as well as they could possibly be done," Bostick said. "His beautiful homes are still there today, and I think that must make somebody proud to know that they've built something that has been there for, at this point, some of the houses have been there for over 120 years."
Watch or listen to Episode 1 of The Root Story below: