The Killing Fields, Kind Of
A culinary history of 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' farmhouse
Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, a neat farmhouse stood on the windswept crest of Quick Hill, southeast of the sleepy little Texas town of Round Rock. Although details of its origin are somewhat obscure, this was a kit house (plans and materials purchased together) probably built in 1909 by local craftsman Carl Carlson for the Thompson family, who owned the large stone house just across County Road 172.
The house was the heart of a working family farm until 1971, when Robert and Nina Sellstrom retired and sold it and the surrounding 100-plus acres to Celia Neuman of Austin, who promptly rented the property to a series of enthusiastic young people eager to get back to the land.
In 1973, cinematic history was made in that house: It served as the primary location for Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a shoestring production of such creative vision that it forever changed the modern landscape of horror films. The movie also definitively changed the destiny of the farmhouse itself, which, like a reticent lady of a certain age, found herself thrust upon a path of notoriety never imagined in her genteel youth. From the onset, fans regularly materialized to gaze upon the Chain Saw house with the same deliciously frightened frisson that the film inspired.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow is celebrating on Halloween night with the Ultimate Chain Saw Experience -- outdoor movie, dinner, VIPs, tours -- at the old house where the film was made.
The Ultimate 'Chain Saw' Experience and the Four Bears
However, the Chain Saw house no longer graces the top of Quick Hill. These days, construction for State Highway 45 slashes through what was once a sloping hay field on the hill's east side, a stone's throw from the old foundation. Crisp new roads surround the hill and serve the formidable La Frontera development project; only the crest remains, forlorn and untouched. I don't even want to know what La Frontera's plans are for that hilltop.
No, after years of neglect and vandalism, the old house on the hill was sold, cut into seven pieces (how ironic is that?), and carted away to Kingsland in 1998, where it now nestles companionably among the other Victorian structures of the venerable Antlers Hotel compound, owned by Austinites Barbara and Dennis Thomas. Anthony Mayfield painstakingly restored the house to its former unpretentious elegance, and it has been granted a new life as the Four Bears Restaurant.
And this is the site of the Ultimate Chain Saw Experience. Tim League, co-owner of Alamo Drafthouse, says, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ... is probably my favorite horror movie. It scared the hell out of me when I first saw it, and after seeing hundreds if not thousands of horror movies since, I know it for the genius that it was. I think that the Four Bears will have a perfect Chain Saw treat for us at this show. They fully embrace and understand the concept we should be striving for with the screening of this movie."
Four Bears owners Sebastian Weddle and Tom Fox took over the restaurant last May. Serious in intent and humorous in approach, these people clearly love their work, and they're striving to elevate fine dining in the area. Chef Weddle, formerly of Mirabelle and Tarry House, comes from a restaurant family in Sitka, Alaska -- his mother regularly ships down fresh, wild salmon to Kingsland. Both owners are intrigued by the house's history, and they welcome visitors who find their way there because of the film. "Although," Fox laughs, "the first time we ever saw the movie was upstairs, here in the house. We talked about someday having the biggest, baddest Halloween party, and when Tim League called, suddenly it was happening."
As one of those enthusiastic young people who once called it home, I am delighted that the house is again loved and cared for and that it has morphed into a restaurant. Based on its past -- family farmhouse, Chain Saw movie set, and home to a continuum of idealistic urban farmers -- this new food-related incarnation seems entirely fitting.
OK, I admit that the first thing that comes to mind about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre probably is not food. But if you think twice, you might recall the barbecue and headcheese, the culminating family dinner scene, and the hitchhiker's epithet, "You're nothing but a cook!" Co-writer Tim Henkel has said that one of the film's references was the story of Hansel and Gretel, which, like the film, concerns some very dark aspects of food and eating.
"What's especially interesting is that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been compared to an inverted fairy tale, like a backward 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' -- and here it is being operated by a new family under the name the Four Bears!" says Alamo Drafthouse programmer Kier-La Janisse. "I love the idea of people eating gourmet food in the same dining room where the Texas Chain Saw 'last supper' was held, so the Rolling Roadshow project was inevitable."
My own recollections of living in the house are primarily about gardening, cooking, and hospitality, and I can trace roots of my current culinary career to my time on the farm. And when I talked with other inhabitants, I found lots of fascinating food connections and stories. Clearly, this house has always had a strong food vibration and an illustrious culinary history.
Betty Sellstrom Hester, lifelong resident of Round Rock, grew up in the farmhouse on Quick Hill. Her parents, Robert and Nina Sellstrom, purchased it from Tom Nelson in the early 1940s. Hester remembers that the farm had been rented out for some time before her family acquired it. "The house was in bad shape -- at some point, people even kept chickens upstairs! My father had to do a lot of work, including refinishing all the woodwork and floors."
The Early Years
The farm prospered under the Sellstroms' stewardship; they raised cotton, corn, maize, vegetables, Black Angus cattle, milk cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. "We sold eggs both to hatcheries and to grocery stores in Austin. We usually kept the eggs on the back screened-in porch, but when it got really cold, we had to bring them inside by the woodstove.
"Both my parents were Swedish, and my mother was a very good cook. She made lutefisk and ostkaka (clabbered milk cheesecake) and Swedish brown bread with molasses. My husband and I still make my mother's brown bread every Christmas.
"When we married in 1949, the church hall at Palm Valley Lutheran was under construction, so we had the reception at the house. Cake, coffee, and punch for 400 people. In those days, it wasn't the custom to serve meals at wedding receptions.
"In 1971, my parents sold the place, but the new owner told my father he could go back anytime. Once he went to fetch something he'd left in the hayloft; he looked down and saw the barnyard filled with cars and covered with camouflage. He was sure something shady was going on, but the sheriff told us they were making a movie out there."
Stuart and Rebecca Isgur, now of Fort Worth, rented the farm in 1971 in response to a newspaper ad. Urban gardeners from Austin (where Stuart was director of the University YMCA and the People's Clinic), the young family (including toddler Benjamin) raised chickens, tended the garden, and nurtured the peach trees. Rebecca was a passionate cook, and, aided by her big Chambers stove, she cooked, canned, and pickled her way through the farm's bounty. That stove, along with the Isgurs' deep freeze, can be seen in the movie.
"It was a time of great experimentation with food, an opening up of world cuisines," Rebecca remembers. "We were learning how to use a wok, how to make Middle Eastern food. Because of Stuart's work, we had friends from all walks of life in Austin who came out to the farm for lots of dinner parties and barbecues."
Nick Wallingford, now of Tauranga, New Zealand, lived one summer on the farm with the Isgurs. "My food memories of the old house relate mostly, I guess, to bread. I'd learned to bake from The Tassajara Bread Book and had gotten pretty good by then. Good flour back in those days, fresh and readily available. And honey I would get from the old guy who first got me started in bee-keeping: Papa Max Bachofen. Max used to live in the old garage of a service station on 24th at Rio Grande. The Posse -- a drive-through beer-selling place!
"So, in the old house, I remember baking a fair bit. Becky had gotten her dream stove ... heavy as hell, gas. Two ovens, I think? By that time, I was getting more adventurous, but still trying to do things with all natural foods. I even remember making [baked] doughnuts with a variety of toppings -- all with no white flour or sugar."
Wallingford went on to become a professional baker, both at the early Whole Foods bakery and later in New Zealand, where he immigrated in 1974. He kept bees and eventually became president of the National Beekeepers Association of New Zealand.
And the food-producing lifestyle suited the Isgur family -- they left Quick Hill for a large organic farm in Parker County, where for the next 13 years, Rebecca says, "We raised 80 percent of what we ate; we had beef cattle and milk cows, and we made cheese and butter. We grew berries and made jelly from wild mustang grapes, and we sold produce from our garden."
Stuart's brother, Ron "Smokey" Isgur, assumed the farmhouse lease and was the only actual resident during the 1973 filming. Isgur recalls that the filmmakers found the house through the softball team he played on with Charlie Loving, Big Boy Medlin, and Doug Sahm. Robert Burns' commercial art company sponsored the team that year, and Burns -- the Chain Saw's art director and props magician -- was looking for a location. Loving pointed Burns to Isgur's house, and the rest is history.
The 'Chain Saw Massacre' Days
Ron says his main food memory was "the time I got the munchies and mistakenly ate the keepsake piece of wedding cake that Charlie and Jeannie Loving had stored in the freezer. I'll never hear the end of that. And, of course, I couldn't cook anything while they were filming in the kitchen."
The grueling conditions under which the cast and crew worked that summer are now the stuff of legend. Robert Burns asserts that Sally Nicolaou's superior cooking was the only thing that held the project together. "When Sally arrived with our meal, it was the high point of the day. Her food was just wonderful."
I asked Nicolaou how she got involved in the film. She laughed and said, "I got rooked into it because Tobe Hooper knew I was a good cook. I was married to Ted Nicolaou, the soundman for the movie. I was just starting out, and this was my first real catering job.
"I was feeding probably 40 people on the set every day. I cooked in my kitchen at home with my 3-year-old daughter on my hip, listening to the Watergate hearings on TV -- this was 1973, remember. Then I'd load up the car and take it out to the farmhouse.
"I mostly made big casserole things -- green-chile chicken, lasagne, chicken pot pie with giant, fat biscuits on top. I made bread, cheesecakes, and lots of pies with lattice crusts. I probably fixed them homemade ice cream, too. I also did the cleanup. How did I do all that? Now, it exhausts me to think about it."
After the movie, Nicolaou continued catering and opened the Waller Creek Cafe in 1975. Today, she is a set decorator for films, commercials, and videos in Austin and California. In 1999, her daughter Corinna Nicolaou, wrote a child's-eye memoir about the film titled "Scream, Memory" for the Texas Observer.
Five years after the movie came out, two friends -- John Thomas and Bill King -- and I moved into the Chain Saw house. Although we were UT graduate students (business, law, and library science, respectively), our heads were full of back-to-the-land dreams, and the farmhouse exceeded every expectation. In beautiful condition and surrounded by 100 acres of cow pasture and hay fields, the place came with a big garden plot, an ancient peach orchard, a chicken coop, a barn, a pond, hilltop breezes, and brilliant stars (not to mention legions of scorpions and rattlesnakes, and such bone-chilling winter cold that the water in the toilet regularly froze solid).
The Post-'Chain Saw' Era
We arrived knowing nothing about country life, and we made every possible mistake, but we happily grew vegetables and herbs and raised the chickens, geese, and rabbits that we learned to care for, process, and consume (almost) unsqueamishly. All of us made great strides in our cooking skills -- friends from Austin and Houston loved visiting the country, and large, convivial meals and parties were the norm. We were so proud of our burgeoning abilities to raise and prepare good food.
Thomas, now a computer resource analyst for Harris County, particularly recalls the eggs. "Immense quantities of fresh eggs, due to over-purchase of chickens. I kept records. We got over 1,050 eggs in one year from six hens." (This was the M.B.A. guy, obviously.) "Mayonnaise. Omelets. Hollandaise. Eggs Benedict. Eggs Sardou. Learning, and mastering, the art of making soufflés, just to use up the damn eggs, eight, 10 at a time. Cheese soufflés. Broccoli soufflé. Chocolate soufflés! Oh my stars, those chocolate soufflés ..."
King, now a Travis County juvenile court judge, reminds me that each of us had a separate coffee apparatus for our morning libations. "We were three hippies who were coffee snobs -- years ahead of the rest." I suppose he's right: We're still all coffee snobs.
At the time we embarked on our farm sojourn, we knew little of the house's history, only that it had been the set of the movie. We weren't tremendously interested; we were just thrilled by our place in the country. We quickly learned, however, that the steady stream of tourists coming to see the Chain Saw house was inescapable. Nobody ever got too obnoxious, but it did get tiresome; it helped when we started keeping the gate closed.
Thomas -- and, later, some of his relatives -- continued to occupy the house until 1997. County Road 172 was rerouted around the hill in 1985, and access to the gate became problematic. Sometime thereafter, the empty house was sold and moved to Kingsland. One era ended and another began.
It warms my heart to see the old house basking quietly in its current glory. And inside those walls, as has been so for almost a century, people are cooking with love and eating with pleasure. That's a fine legacy, indeed.
Many thanks to Robert Burns, Betty Hester, Nick Wallingford, Stuart Isgur, Rebecca Isgur, Ron Isgur, Sally Nicolaou, John Thomas, Bill King, Tom Fox, and Sebastian Weddle for telling me their stories. Thanks to Chronicle contributor Rachel Feit, staff archeologist at Hicks & Company Environmental Consulting, for background about Quick Hill.
The Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow presentation of the Ultimate Chain Saw Experience happens on Halloween night. For ticket information, call 476-1320 or visit www.drafthouse.com.