History of French Place – Part I

The 40 acre tract, known legally as Dancy Addition and historically as French Place, was first owned by Payton Wade Nowlin (1802 –1884) and wife, Martha J. Pulliam Nowlin (1806 – 1877). By 1848 they had received the land as a grant from the State of Texas and within a year built a two-story cedar log home on 2701-2801 East Avenue. It was the first of its kind in Austin and an East Avenue landmark.

 The following exert from the Dallas Morning News March 22, 1931, ”Memoirs of a Texas Plantation Belle” was a description of the home by Nowlin’s granddaughter, Lena Dancy Ledbetter:

Photo of Nowlin Dancy house on East Avenue

The first two-story log home in Austin. c.1849

“Peyton Wade Nowlin, had come from Missouri in 1848 and built the first double, two-story log house on a high hill in Austin.  This was the first house of its kind built after Austin was selected as the permanent capital.  There were only about seventy-five families in the little village at this time and the houses, even the Capitol, were small log cabins with dirt floors and no glass windows in them. This house was a landmark in Austin for over eighty years, burning down just a few years ago. It was built of cedar logs and shingles and stood in the center of a large plot of ground out on what is now East Avenue, known now as the Dancy Addition.  With its beautiful grounds, flowers, and trees it was a beauty spot in the city.  After Mr. Nowlin’s death it was willed to Mrs. Ledbetter’s mother, Lucy A. Dancy, and she spent her last years there after her children had married off.  On her death it became the joint property of Mrs. Ledbetter and her sister, the wife of Judge J. B. Dibrell of Seguin.  Mrs. Dibrell died some years ago so Mrs. Ledbetter became the owner of the old house.”

Colonel Dancy c.1860Nowlin’s daughter, Lucy Ann Nowlin (1828 – 1902) and husband, Colonel John Winfield Scott Dancy (1810 – 1866) inherited the house and land. Married Oct. 25, 1849, they lived in La Grange and owned property in several counties in central Texas, including Bexar, Fayette, Milam and Travis counties.  Colonel Dancy was a fiery red-headed Frenchman who had been a Texas senator, a proponent of the railroad, a wealthy plantation owner and a newspaper editor. He also ran against Sam Houston in the race for governor of Texas in 1859 and lost. As a proponent of slavery, Colonel Dancy was devastated after the Civil War and died shortly thereafter. In 1881, Mrs. Dancy moved to Austin and eventually opened her log home as a boarding house for theological students on East Avenue, about ¼ mile north of East 19th.  A few years later in 1887, she subdivided the surrounding property into the Dancy Addition, which was comprised of about nine square blocks from East Avenue to Drury Lane and between 27th and 30th Streets. Street names included: Poydras, Pond, Robinson, Drury Lane, Dancy and Carnatz Street (named for the Carnatz Institute in New Orleans where Lena studied music). 

 Lena Dancy Ledbetter c 1930In 1870, their eldest daughter Martha Evaline “Lena” Dancy (1850 – 1938) married attorney and judge James Peacock Ledbetter (1847 – 1921) of La Grange and later Coleman, Texas. Lena and James had six children and loved to entertain with orchestras and other music events. Lena had a great love for patriotic organizations and music. She wrote and published her songs, was active in the Austin Chapter of Thankful Hubbard, Daughters of the American Revolution (1927-1933), the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She took an active interest in getting the suffrage for women and in passing the prohibition amendment. Judge Ledbetter died in 1921 in New Mexico, and in 1930, Lena was living in Denton, Texas with her daughter, Olivia and son-in-law, James Harmon French. 

 James Harman French (1884 – 1951) and Olivia Ledbetter (1885 – 1939) married January 9, 1913.  They had one child which died at birth in 1915 while they were living in Coleman, Texas.  James and Olivia were living in Ardmore, OK in 1920 and in Denton, TX in 1930 where James worked as contractor in the fuel oil business and an insurance agent.  Around the time of Lena Dancy Ledbetter’s death in 1938, the French family moved to Austin to re-subdivide and develop the family property, Dancy Addition.  James and Olivia moved into 2904 Dancy Street and began working with other property owners in the area, but Olivia, a Christian Scientist, was in poor health and went to San Francisco hoping to improve.  James went back and forth from Austin to San Francisco a number of times during the months of her illness but she died on Oct. 19, 1939 in California. 

James French moved forward with his development of the Dancy Addition and the neighborhood became knows as French Place for obvious reasons. The name stuck with homeowners and is still known as French Place by area residents. About 1946-47, James married realtor Doris J. Lane (b. 1907).  Doris and her former husband, Durwood M. Lane, had purchased one of the French built homes at 1300 East 29th Street in 1938.  James and Doris continued to live at their home at 2904 Dancy until James died of a heart attack in Marlin, Texas while visiting the Majestic Hotel on January 26, 1951. He had frequented Marlin to ‘take the waters’ of the therapeutic mineral springs. Doris continued working in real estate and moved back into her former home at 1300 East 29th Street until the 1960s. Five of the original J. H. French built homes remain on East 29th Street between Dancy and Drury Lane.