Landmark Milano Rock House getting makeover
by Jeanne Williams
Temple Daily Telegram - April 20, 2011
MILANO — The 113-year-old Milano Rock House has amassed more than its fair share of
folklore, ghost stories and fables.
Now, under the guidance of Texas A&M University anthropology professor Dr. Donnie
Hamilton, this red-sandstone, roadside icon seems eager to settle into its new role as
a restored piece of Texas history. It never ceased to stop traffic and pose for
photographs during its lengthy term as a derelict structure, and through the meticulous
repair process it still rules as the Highway 36 tourist and photographer’s pin-up.
Falsehoods whispered about the house included serving as a hotel and stagecoach stop;
tales of a body found in the well and double suicides on the premises; and ghostly
appearances of a 13-year-old girl and mysterious man in a top hat peeping out an
upstairs window. Those have been brushed away with the cobweb s, trash, dust, rotted
wood and rat droppings accumulated during its long life alone.
Its reputation as a haunted house was unfairly bestowed because there was no one around
to defend its humble status as the sheltering nucleus of a prosperous and happy family
farm for some 52 years. The Rock House was grander than most farmhouses in the Cedar
Creek area south of Milano, but devoted son George W. Beard designed and built the two-
story, four-room house in 1891 to please his widowed mother, Louisa America Stratton
The Beard family moved to the Cedar Creek area in 1864, where Louisa and her four sons
established a farm as they waited for her Confederate soldier husband to return from
the war. He died soon after arriving at the farm. Son George W. Beard used red
sandstones found on the property to build a two-story house that boasted walls a foot
and a half thick, with a separate kitchen equipped with a pump to bring up spring water
and a large gallery across the back. George planted pear and pecan orchards and built
barns, milking pens and a stable. His mother passed away in 1911, and George died in
1927, leaving behind a widow and 20-year-old son.
The Beard family lived an idyllic life full of adventures, including visits from
Gypsies, daily troubles on Highway 36 and too many events to mention. The family moved
away in the 1940s and sold the property in 1974.
Since then, the Rock House stood impassively beside the road amidst an overgrown garden
of cedar, wildflowers and bull nettles, weeds, Seven Sisters roses and spider lilies,
as it endured Texas weather assaults that blew off parts of the tin and allowed rain to
penetrate living space below. The spring that supplied the family with cool water never
dried up, despite frequent droughts.
Hamilton, head of the TAMU anthropology department, who specializes in underwater
archaeology, artifact conservation and restoration, and North American historic and
prehistoric archaeology, was among the throngs of passers-by on Highway 36 who saw the
old house as it aged and crumbled. One day it cast its spell on Hamilton.
“I thought it was a shame the house was falling down, and there was no attempt to save
the thing,” Hamilton said. The professor spent two weeks trying to track down the
owners and negotiated the sale 18 months before he bought it.
Now, the house is a welcome respite from the demands of university life. The
mechanically minded professor, also skilled in carpentry and plumbing, took on
restoration as a personal project. After contracting to have the roof replaced, he has
been busy restoring the interior. Seeing the handiwork of treasure hunters tearing up
floor boards — “as if these people had any money” — and thought of tales that
rattlesnakes guarded the dark space under the house, Hamilton removed the floor boards,
hauled off wheelbarrow loads of rat droppings, stabilized the foundation with a cement
subfloor and replaced the decking.
“It is really a labor of love,” Hamilton said. The 1,000-square-foot house was solidly
built, with cypress beams and facings, but surprisingly was made with no effort to
glamorize stark plaster walls. Two rooms upstairs and two downstairs sheltered a number
of family members.
Ultimately, Hamilton plans to have the house designated as a Texas Historical Landmark,
a move that drew cheers from the Texas Historical Commission.
The Texas Historical Commission works to preserve the real places that tell the real
stories of Texas, said Stan Graves, director of architecture and a Milam County native.
“The preservation of early Texas structures, such as the Rock House in Milam County,
are significant structures worthy of preservation in that they are unique to a
particular area and provide insight into an earlier time period.”
Hamilton learned two lessons in his endeavor to restore the Rock House. First, one
never finishes restoring a rock house; and second, when you buy a house, you adopt its
family. Hamilton tracked down and met Beard family members and received a detailed
history of the house and its residents, complete with vintage photographs and a tour of
the property showing what went where. He sees the finished house not as a residence,
but as a “party house” for special events. Hamilton is installing a bathroom and
kitchen and giving the Rock House its first experience of glowing under electric
lights. “I am just glad the landmark is going to be saved,” Hamilton said. “What I am
hoping for is the house will still be here a hundred years from now.”