For at least four decades, a sign advertising Graham’s Watch Repair hung from the Graham family home wedged between a Marble Falls school and RR 1431, drawing customers and curiosity.
Positioned as it was, right on the highway with Marble Falls Elementary School in its backyard, the white clapboard house drew speculation, especially after it sat empty and dilapidated over the last 10 years.
“My son and a lot of friends always thought it was haunted,” one father of an elementary school student told The Picayune Magazine.
The home’s last occupant, Houghton Graham, was the second of three sons of Jalina “Jay” and Corbett Graham, who built the house. Houghton taught himself to repair watches and clocks by reading books. He had an eidetic memory, which allowed him to recall images of everything he ever read and every clock he ever fixed.
“He was a brilliant man,” said second cousin Darlene Oostermeyer, who grew up with Houghton and his brothers and cared for them in their later years. “He could pick up a clock or watch manual and he would know exactly what to do. It was astounding to watch him work.”
Customers would leave their timepieces on the porch with a signed note attached stating the problem. Houghton would fixed them and collect cash when the owners came back to pick up their goods. A jeweler in Burnet brought their toughest repair jobs to Houghton, Oostermeyer said.
Last year, the 84-year-old house was torn down and the property sold to the Marble Falls Independent School District, which moved its fence and expanded its playing field.
Workers found two vintage travel clocks in the walls and 300 brown snuff bottles with cork tops under the house. The only items of any worth were five violins and seven stunning antique clocks, Oostemeyer said. She also salvaged an antique side table now in her home and Houghton’s work desk, which resides in The Falls on the Colorado Museum in Marble Falls. Oostermeyer is on the museum’s board of directors.
The 1,100-square-foot house was home to both Graham’s Watch Repair and the five-member Graham family. Along with the parents and Houghton were Dempsey, the oldest boy, and Taylor, the youngest. The boys lived in the house their entire lives, sharing a bedroom with three single beds. Dempsey and Taylor died in the house. Houghton died in a hospital after a few years in a nursing home. He was the last to go.
Work was an easy commute for them all. Corbett, Dempsey, and Taylor all had jobs as janitors and bus drivers for the school district. The back of the house opened onto the athletic field of what was first the old Granite School (where the museum is now housed) and later Marble Falls Elementary.
The home sat empty after Houghton was moved to the nursing home just a few years before he died in 2012.
Its precarious position on the shoulder of RR 1431 was not where it was built. Before the gravel road was paved to become a highway, the house was just above the flood plain of the Whitman Branch of Backbone Creek, where a bridge is now. The Texas Department of Transportation moved the house from the creek and again later, repositioning it back from the road when the highway was widened. TxDOT built the concrete stairs from the road’s shoulder to the front porch, which can be seen in the only photo that exists of the entire family.
When the parents were alive and the boys were fairly young, the home hummed with music from a large upright piano, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and guitars. Oostermeyer’s father, Leslie Elbert Farmer, joined in on Saturday nights, and the kids would climb on the three single beds in the brothers’ bedroom to listen to the family and anyone else who showed up to play.
“We lived across the road by where the car wash is now,” Oostermeyer said. “Dad and I would walk down there on a Saturday night, and they would all play. We sat on the beds on these wonderful quilts, and it was so warm. There was a huge potbelly stove in the room. Most played fiddles, but Dempsey played piano.”
The piano has it own story. At one point, with both parents dead, the house was red-tagged for eviction by the city. Oostermeyer organized family and community members to get it back in shape so Houghton could live out his life there.
“They were hoarders,” she said. “It was unbelievable, but when Aunt Jay was alive, the house was immaculately kept. Not by Aunt Jay. She never did a thing! Dempsey did all the cooking and cleaning.”
During a major cleanup of the house, Oostemeyer got rid of a lot of the old furniture and a giant wood-burning kitchen stove. As for the piano, when she opened the top, she found dead cats stuffed inside. She and a cousin cleaned it as much as they could but couldn’t find a taker.
Word got around they were clearing out the house, though, and she got a call from another of the cousins.
“It was his grandmother’s piano,” Oostemeyer said. “He does not know how it got from his grandmother’s house to the Graham’s house, but he came and got it and finished cleaning it up. Now, he has his grandmother’s piano.”
The house fell into disrepair and disarray after Jay died. With his mother gone, Dempsey quit cleaning, Oostemeyer said.
According to a story she heard from the late Rev. Max Copeland of First Baptist Church of Marble Falls, the Graham boys doted on their mother. One of his many visits to the home was on Jay’s birthday. At the time, she was in a wheelchair, having lost both legs to diabetes. Everyone in the family except Taylor suffered from the disease. Houghton lost most of his eyesight to diabetes but was able to continue his repair work thanks to watchmaker magnifying glasses.
“Brother Max said they had put a crown on her head that said ‘Princess,’” Oostemeyer said. “It may have been one of her last birthdays. He told me they revered her, which I guess is why they never left the nest. They never dated, never married.”
Houghton did have a sweetheart at one point. He confided in Oostemeyer that his biggest regret in life was not marrying the young lady, who seemed to return his affections. She ended up marrying someone else and moving to Llano.
“He said his mother wouldn’t let him because he was their biggest moneymaker,” Oostemeyer recalled. “He not only fixed clocks and watches, he was an extraordinary woodworker. He used to refurbish antiques, too. Everyone paid in cash.”
At the end of his life, Oostemeyer learned her cousin kept that cash in a box under his bed. When he could no longer travel, she came by to see if he wanted her to pay his property taxes for him. He pulled out the box and counted out enough cash for her to take care of the bill.
“He had several thousand dollars under that bed,” she said.
Some of what was salvaged from the house can be found at The Falls on the Colorado Museum, including Houghton’s work desk complete with his glasses and goggles. An old cuckoo clock sits on the top of the desk where Oostemeyer found it when doing a final cleanup of the property.
“I tried for the longest to find the owner,” she said. “Eventually, I found a cardboard box with cuckoo parts and a name on the bottom with an index card.”
She tracked down the owner’s daughter to see if she wanted the clock. The young lady asked if it was fixed.
“I said, no, it wasn’t and she said she didn’t want it if it wasn’t fixed,” Oostemeyer said. “That’s how I ended up with the clock. It had been on Houghton’s desk for years.”
In refinishing the desk, Oostemeyer discovered that Houghton carved into it the names of his deceased pets, what type of animal they were, and the day and time they died. The family always had a lot of animals.
“When the city red-tagged the house, animal control came by and picked up 52 cats,” Oostemeyer said.
Houghton was well known in the community. He taught his skills to apprentices, who carried on the trade, one in Leander and one in Smithwick.
When Houghton went to the nursing home, he moved in among friends.
“A lot of people were there that Houghton knew,” Oostemeyer said. “Cleaning out that house and making it livable for him was a labor of love. It gave him a couple of years in the only home he ever knew.”
Houghton Graham’s desk, photo, and some of his tools are in The Falls on the Colorado Museum, 2001 Broadway, just steps away from where his house once stood in what was once the school building that employed his father and two brothers — still never far from home.