We take a unique South Austin history tour with 101-year-old Micky Caldwell

Malcom "Mickey" Caldwell bumps elbows as he greets Parts & Labour employee Kelly Hernandez while visiting the sites of his former aluminum siding business on South Congress Avenue on Friday, August 27, 2021. The corner that was once the Caldwell family's stores now houses Mi Casa Gallery and Parts & Labour, a local boutique. Caldwell is the descendent of early Texas pioneers and has lived in South Austin almost all of his 101 years.
Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman

Few people have lived so much South Austin history as Malcolm "Micky" Caldwell, 101. 

The descendent of early Texas pioneers, Caldwell has spent almost his entire life within a few square miles south of the river.

Happily, he jumped at the chance to give an American-Statesman photographer and me a tour of his old haunts.

That's just like him. The perennial charitable volunteer shares a pretty simple philosophy that has informed his 101 years.

"Nothing is worthwhile till it's shared," Caldwell says. "You can have a bank account, but it doesn't mean anything until you use it. Service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy in the community."

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Malcom "Mickey" Caldwell stands near a plaque that names his family as a founding member of Grace Methodist Church on Friday, August 27, 2021.  Life in the City Church is now located at the site. Caldwell is the descendent of early Texas pioneers and has lived in South Austin almost all of his 101 years.

A walking tour starts with a church

On the appointed day, Statesman photographer Mikala Compton met me, Caldwell and his daughter, Sharon Howell, at 205 E. Monroe St., the site of the former Grace Methodist Church, now called Life in the City. 

The handsome building is simple and sturdy, composed of classical elements, but as straightforward and unfussy as Methodism itself.

"Originally, it was called Fred Allen Memorial Methodist Church," Caldwell says. "Named after the first preacher."

"This is the second church built here," Howell says. "The very first was a 'brush arbor' over in Bouldin."

The name of Caldwell's father, Thomas Fletcher Caldwell Sr., dresses the gray cornerstone of this handsome church, built in 1914.

Malcom "Mickey" Caldwell walks with his daughter, Sharon Howell, past Life in the City Church on Friday, August 27, 2021. Caldwell is the descendent of early Texas pioneers and has lived in South Austin almost all of his 101 years.

In fact, Caldwell's family has been directly involved in quite a few historic Methodist churches in Central Texas, including Austin's First Methodist Church, to which Micky belonged in his youth.

Going back even further, his great-uncle, John Caldwell, was among the first pioneers to settle in eastern Travis County. The Caldwell family settled the Navarro League, given to John by José Antonio Navarro in payment for legal services, in the 1830s and '40s. (See the infobox on Caldwell family ancestors.)

The Caldwells were devout Methodists, and the historic Haynie Chapel Methodist Church, originally founded in 1839 and named after another one of his family members, stands in Garfield, where the Caldwells still own land.

Micky Caldwell's childhood home stood about a mile and a half northeast of the church on East Monroe. It was located in a semi-rural area on East Riverside Drive. Much of the area was still farmed when he lived there.

"Our house was bulldozed when they widened Riverside at the time they put in the interstate," Caldwell recalls about what was called the Interregional Highway, completed through Central Austin in the early 1960s.

His mother, Louise Adams Caldwell, was a teacher at the Palm School whose sister ran a famous boarding school for girls in Nashville, Tennessee. His father, Tom Caldwell, operated a series of shops on South Congress Avenue where Micky and the rest of the family worked.

"My mom and dad were members of a wedding party," Caldwell says of the beginnings of their relationship. "She grabbed his arm and that impressed him. They started dating."

After marrying, the senior Caldwells had four children, three boys and a girl.

"I was the middle child," Caldwell says. "The peacemaker. I didn't the learn the word 'can't.'"

At age 12, one older brother, Frasier Adams Caldwell, developed polio, and Micky was part of the caretaker team.

"He'd say: 'Wouldn't you move my arm?' or 'Please close my eyes,'" Caldwell recalls. "He wore a brace. He was always a part of my life, not ever a problem. He lived to be 74."

Caldwell attended Fulmore Elementary School (now Lively Middle School), Allan Junior High (when it was housed in "Old Red" in the eastern part of downtown) and Austin High on Rio Grande Street.

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Caldwell & Miller Sanitary Market and Grocery also stood on South Congress Avenue and predated the stores at West Milton Street. This Mr. Miller with the watermelon. He later passed the store along to Tom Caldwell, who was Malcolm "Micky" Caldwell's father.

"I bicycled the 2 miles there," Caldwell says. "Graduated Class of '39. I wasn't a real good student. I had dyslexia, but they didn't know about that then. I'd solve problems in my head, but they wanted me to show my work."

Then along came a sweetheart. While he was still a teen, Caldwell's sister asked him to take her to Grace Methodist to attend a Methodist Youth Fellowship event, then asked him to stick around. 

"I saw a good-looking girl who jumped three steps at a time," Caldwell says, widening his smile. "I asked who it was and was told: 'She's in charge.' I thought, well, she's attractive.'"

The vivacious girl was Bernice Peterman, born in Fredericksburg, whose name later graced the Fellowship Hall at the former Grace Methodist. 

"She introduced everybody in the group, and when she got to me, she already knew my name," Caldwell remembers. "I thought: She didn't know me from Adam. It made an impression on me. At first, I stayed in the background. Later, I had an old wood-sided Chevy station wagon with no seatbelts. We'd stuff 13 or 14 kids into it. She was always the last person I took home."

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Before their romance fully bloomed, World War II intruded. Caldwell enrolled in an industrial training course at the University of Texas. Immediately out of training, he was recruited to work at a Houston machine shop that made vital oil-drilling tools. 

A friend told him about a better job at a shipyard on Green's Bayou, and he took it.

Still, he missed Bernice, and they got engaged. After they wed, the couple had three daughters, Sharon Howell, Beverly Stokes and Blanche Napoleon.

The Caldwell family own a grocery store and a variety store on the corner of South Congress Avenue and West Milton Street. One is now Mi Casa, the other is Part and Labour.

Eventually, Caldwell felt guilty about not serving in the military, even though he labored in industries vital to victory.

Bernice told him: "Do what your heart tells you to do."

Caldwell trained as a soldier, but he never saw action. 

Next stop: The Caldwell stores on South Congress

On our personal history tour, we next headed to South Congress Avenue and West Milton Street, where the Caldwell family grocery and variety shops were located.

The paired two-story structures that now house the Mi Casa and Parts & Labor businesses fit neatly into the historic South Congress retail row that grew up along the road to San Antonio. For years, it was serviced by a streetcar line, including one that broke off into Travis Heights, that Micky well remembers.

Tom Caldwell, seen in his variety store on South Congress Avenue, was Malcolm "Micky" Caldwell's father. His name is on the cornerstone of the 1914 Methodist Church on East Monroe Street.

Groceries and dry goods seemed to run in the family.

Back when small grocery stores popped up on every other corner, his grandfather operated one on East Sixth Street during the 19th century. 

"It wasn't called East Austin then," Caldwell says. "It was all Austin. And East Sixth Street was called Pecan Street." The city changed names of Austin's east-west streets from trees to numerals on Sept. 21, 1886.

In the 1920s, Micky's father opened Caldwell and Miller Sanitary Market with a partner. Photographic evidence indicates that it was located in a shop that now serves as the northern section of Allens Boots. A listing for it appears in the Austin City Directory as early as 1922.

Malcom "Mickey" Caldwell visits South Congress Avenue and Milton Street, where the Caldwell family's stores used to be located in the 1930s and 40s, on Friday, August 27, 2021. The corner now houses Mi Casa Gallery and Parts & Labour, a local boutique. Caldwell is the descendent of early Texas pioneers and has lived in South Austin almost all of his 101 years.

"During the Depression, Mr. Miller said to my father: 'Tom, we owe more money than we're worth,'" Caldwell says. "My father bought out Mr. Miller. He refused to go bankrupt. I was 12 when he finally paid off all his bills. He was so proud of that."

During the 1930s, Micky Caldwell worked at his family's grocery and variety shops. After the war, he was even more help to the family enterprise.

"The taxes were going up, and we needed to make more out of the property," Caldwell says. "Dad said: 'You built ships. Why don't you draw something up?' We surveyed the property and added five apartments on the second floor."

With his own hands, using wood salvaged from Camp Swift in Bastrop County, Micky Caldwell built the apartments above and behind the shops.

After chain retailers drove the grocery and variety stores out of business, Micky started an aluminum siding and awning business on the same spot.

That kept the family going till the girls grew up and went out on their own.

On the day of our tour, he joked with the employees of Mi Casa and Parts & Labour, showing them where walls once stood and where his aluminum shop operated. 

A final stop at a Newton Street cottage

We ended our little tour at 1407 Newton St. The cottage on that property lies low to the ground with a simple step below the front door and a narrow driveway that leads to a small garage.

After World War II, Micky had this cottage built four blocks away from the Caldwell family shops, then added a back room and a basement with his own hands.

Malcom "Mickey" Caldwell examines the landscape as he visits the site of his former 1940s home in South Austin on Friday, August 27, 2021. Caldwell, a handyman, noticed the awning was the same one he made years ago, just painted blue now by the new owners. He is the descendent of early Texas pioneers and has lived in South Austin almost all of his 101 years.

"My Aunt Catherine bought the property and allowed me to take it," he says of Catherine Caldwell Fowler, who lived in a house, since demolished, at East Monroe and Brackenridge streets. Today, a tiny urban oasis called Aunt Catherine's Garden can be found there.

The cottage on Newton is pretty dinky.

"Can you imagine trying to park a '59 Chevy in that little garage?" Howell asks.

Howell recalls playing with the students at the Texas School for the Deaf across the street. Caldwell points out where a cottonwood stood and explains how alleyways once cut behind the closely packed properties. 

Caldwell: "Wasn't any privacy."

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The most pleasant surprise: The concrete step to the front door is still shaded by a thin awning, now painted light blue, that was built in Caldwell's aluminum workshops more than 70 years ago. 

Caldwell now lives in midcentury modern home in Western Trails, southwest of his youthful haunts. The story of how he moved to this postwar neighborhood belongs in its own category.

"In 1989, we inherited some furniture from my uncle," he says with his permanently tight smile and twinkly eyes. "Big furniture. It wouldn't fit into our house on Newton. So my wife, Bernice, comes in with her hand on her hip and says, 'This house is too small! I'm going to find us a new house!' An hour later, she came back and put her hand on her hip and says, 'I found us a new house! It has three bedrooms and a two-car garage!"

That 1940s cottage on Newton, or rather the land it occupies, sold in August for more than $1 million.

Caldwell, who no longer owns the land, jokes: "I guess that basement that I put in was worth more than I thought."

Living with all those memories

Micky's wife Bernice, who worked in the Texas Comptroller's office, died in 2011. He keeps busy in his Western Trails home — he zooms around with a walker — and stays in touch with his many admirers.

The man who was born into an Austin of 35,000 citizens — about the size of Waxahachie today — can remember when people north of the river never came south of the river unless necessary. Accustomed to a city with only two high schools — one for white people, another for Black people — is often flummoxed by the physical changes to Austin.

"I can't go downtown and recognize it," he says. "It amazes me how much the city has grown. There's no comparison to what it was then and what it is now."

At each step along the way, Micky Caldwell garnered new friends. For the past few years, in fact, hundreds of admirers have shown up for his April 3 birthday parties, although because of the pandemic, the last two were "drive-bys."

"They want to see a curiosity," Caldwell jokes. "Last time, the police drove by, and a fire engine, too." 

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

The pioneer Caldwells

It took a little digging to sort out Micky Caldwell's ancestry, even with the help of Sharon Howell, and a book she lent me, "The Caldwell Family," privately published for the Texas Sesquicentennial by Nancy Cunningham Caldwell, wife of James A. Caldwell IV.

It should be mentioned right away that this family does not seem directly related to Matthew Caldwell, the “Paul Revere of the Texas Revolution” and presumed namesake for Caldwell County, according to the Handbook of Texas.

John Caldwell led his family into Texas in the 1830s. He is buried at Austin's Oakwood Cemetery.

Rather, they descend from Adam Caldwell, an Irish immigrant, and Phoebe Gallion, a "gentle born" American of French heritage who lived on the East Coast.

Their two sons, John, an attorney, and James Alfred, a preacher, immigrated to Central Texas in the 1830s and '40s.

Previously in New Orleans, John represented the son of a wealthy Tejano, José Antonio Navarro, who was charged with murder. Because Navarro could not leverage his gold out of Mexico to pay him, he gave him the Navarro League, a big stretch of land now in Bastrop and Travis counties.

John was married to Lucinda Whey Haynie Caldwell, daughter of John Haynie (1786-1860), one of the founders of Methodism in Texas. He organized the first Methodist congregation in Austin and he served as chaplain for the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

During the Texas Revolution, his son-in-law John Caldwell served in the Third Congress and later was a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1845, the year his brother, James Alfred, and his family joined John and Lucinda in Central Texas. James Alfred's widow, Catherine, died in 1902 at age 91. 

Their son, William Fletcher Caldwell (1843-1916), and Mary Wansley Caldwell (born 1857) produced Thomas Fletcher Caldwell Sr. (1875-1949), the South Congress store owner and Micky's father.

Confused? I sure was, because the families often repeated first and second names, and some were known chiefly by their second names. It took me a while, for instance, to figure out that Dr. Thomas Fletcher Caldwell Jr., a dentist whose shop was located above the Caldwell variety store on South Congress, was actually Micky's brother, not his father.

It happens in the best of families.