An Ostrich-Plumed Hat, and, Yes, She Shot Him Dead
Historic fiction, this 500-plus-page book currently resides in the author’s computer. Set in San Antonio between 1911 and 1919, the novel is based on the story of Hedda Burgemeister and brewer Otto Koehler.
The author is offering you a preview of the first two chapters, which are a flashback because, at least in San Antonio, everyone knows who shot Otto Koehler.
Chapter One, Hedda Burgemeister, November 1914
Waiting. Leon Johnson stands on the platform above the menacing crowd seeking vengeance for the death of Dr. Maverick.
Unblinking. His stare hypnotic. Liquid pools in his dark eyes, yet no tears spill out of the deep wells.
Hedda cannot turn away from the macabre scene.
“I’ll meet you all in heaven,” Leon whispers.
Hedda flinches as Sheriff Tobin reaches toward the lever to drop the trap door.
She jerks awake. Spared from witnessing the nightmare’s conclusion.
Sharp sounds, like firecrackers, explode in her head. Gunfire unleashes a flood of feverish recollections.
Hedda attempts to shake off the fog clouding her head.
Was it two days ago? She is uncertain.
Beads of perspiration pop out on her forehead. Chills run down her spine. She grasps her left wrist and finds it tightly bandaged.
Of course, she knows how to slit a wrist, but the silver knife she grabbed from the sideboard proved far too dull a tool for the job. And the bullet she fired had come nowhere near her head.
Hedda fights the urge to call out to a fellow nurse. To plead for something to put her out of this misery. Instead, she lies frozen with eyes squeezed closed. Sounds reverberate from the hallway.
A bevy of nurses must surround the guard outside her room. His voice booms as he sensational details from a newspaper. Could not he at least whisper?
She speculates about the glaring headlines. Perhaps “Millionaire Whose Charities Were Many Meets Sudden Death?”
What a sordid story unfolds beneath the headlines. Reporters revel in scandal. A moan slips out as she realizes the magnitude of this one.
For years, she experienced romance and drama safely˗˗between the covers of books. Yet now, she is the fodder fueling the gossip-driven imagination of an entire city.
Hedda needs no newspaper to tell her where Otto Koehler lies. Elegantly attired and splendidly displayed, he is where he insisted all family events take place. His estate on West San Pedro Place. Probably in the parlor.
Long lines of people spill into the street, waiting to pay their solemn respects to Otto’s newly-made widow holding court in the solarium, her wheelchair framed on three sides by delicate orchids and billowy fronds of verdant ferns.
Drifting back into drug-muddled dreams, Hedda finds herself lying in the coffin. One stony, unsympathetic face after another peers down at her.
~ ~ ~
Nurses roll Hedda from side to side as they change the sheets under her. They carry on their annoying banter as though she were deaf.
“They say 2,000 mourners attended his funeral.”
Surely they know she has sustained no injuries that would prevent her from hearing. She want to scream “stop: and flee the room.
“My cousin Karl works at Hauser Floral Company, and he said they just could not find enough flowers to fill all the orders. Why, the only flowers left in the whole city must be the ones growing right there in Mister Koehler’s own garden!”
Hedda stifles her anger. She keeps her body rigid and stares straight ahead as they continue to change the bedclothes.
Their inconsiderate bedside manner substantiates her longstanding peeve. No matter how pleased the founding doctors of the Physicians and Surgeons Hospital are with their nursing school, the results do not impress her. These San Antonio-trained nurses absolutely are not as professional as those from Germany.
“Karl told me that it took six automobiles just to transport all the flowers to the cemetery.”
Chapter Two, Hedda Burgemeister, January 1915
Returning again and again and again, the nightmare is unbearable. Seared in her mind, the vivid images haunt her even in daylight.
Leon Johnson continues to stare at her. But when Sheriff Tobin slips down the black hood, it is Hedda who is plunged into claustrophobic darkness. She senses hundreds of eyes trained upon her as he tightens the rope around her neck.
Dr. Herff said the condemned young man gripped a cross in his right hand and thanked everyone for giving him a fair trial. Hedda, though, finds herself teetering on the trap door with no cross in her hand and no thanks to offer.
As before, the instant the sheriff reaches for the lever, she jerks awake. She trembles at the possibility of dangling from the rope, strangling as a vindictive crowd cheers her death.
As the hack slows, Hedda asks the driver to wait at the entrance to the lane. She directs her gaze toward the arched entryway of Mission Cemetery. Compelled onward, yet repulsed at the thought of visiting his final resting place. After all she has been through in the past three months, she still cannot comprehend she killed him. She must see the actual grave of Otto Koehler.
A few steps through the cemetery gates, she spies it. The obelisk soaring up out of the ground halts her in her tracks. It towers above every marker in the vicinity. Just as his house and his brewery are larger and grander than any others in San Antonio.
Emmy is right. Hedda has no chance of a fair trial in this city.
The anonymous note hurled through her window insinuates she will receive no trial at all. No opportunity to defend herself.
This is America. They cannot lock her up as the royals of Saxony threatened to do to Madame Toselli.
But here, beer is king. And the beer baron’s widow wants the story to disappear from page one.
Hedda could be condemned to the insane asylum. Silenced. Forever.
Hedda turns and runs back to the hack, determined to keep running. Somewhere. Anywhere.
Maybe home. Maybe home to Germany. Back to doing what she is trained to do. Back to saving lives.
War always generates work for nurses.
Bleeding soldiers never ask for references.
Interested publishers, please feel free to contact Gayle Brennan Spencer.
Haunting the Graveyard: Unearthing the Story of the Coker Settlement
Birthing a book can be a long process, but to say the gestation period for Haunting the Graveyard: Unearthing the Story of the Coker Settlement proved elephantine is no exaggeration. A female elephant’s pregnancy only lasts two years. This birth took much longer but finally came about in September of 2019.
Many of those who lived around the Coker Settlement, including Minnie and Max from the book above, remained neighbors after their deaths. They were buried in intimate groupings under the spreading live oaks of the Coker Cemetery. The trustees of the Coker Cemetery Association approached Gayle to write a prequel/sequel of sorts to Last Farm to chronicle the lives of more of these early residents.
She revisited the cemetery. Inconspicuously tucked away north of Loop 410 and in the shadow of Wurzbach Parkway, it appeared so peaceful. The Coker Cemetery contains the graves of more than 600 people, but she assumed she already was well acquainted with them from her work on the first book. So she answered yes.
She failed to heed the obvious warning signs – several Texas Ranger and Texas Historical markers indicating this turf is fertile with tales. At first their “voices” were mere whispered tidbits here and there. As she poked through mountains of information and interviewed their descendants, more and more of the occupants of those graves seemed to be shouting at her to include them. She heeded the call of as many as possible while trying to remain sane.
Beginning with the arrival of Americans on the eve of the Texas Revolution, Haunting the Graveyard: Unearthing the Story of the Coker Settlement covers a 100-year slice of Texas history. While a schoolhouse and Methodist church served as anchors for the Coker Settlement, men who went off to fight in bloody battles of the Civil War, spent months pursuing Indians and herded cattle and horses northward found settling back into everyday farm chores difficult. Struggling to survive, farmers battled rattlesnakes, endured extended droughts and suffered through the Great Depression.
Many overcame these obstacles, only to find their rural lifestyle vanquished by San Antonio itself. As the city grew, increased demands for housing convinced some to sell. Roads to reach new homes chopped up dairy farms with wider and wider ribbons of asphalt, and airport runways buried fields.
The headstones in Coker Cemetery are almost the only evidence of the former farming community, but the tales of its residents are rich. Expect to encounter some heart-breaking tragedies, a bit of mayhem and even an unsolved murder as their lives unfold on these pages.
What Others Have Written About the Book:
Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express-News, September 8, 2019
Spencer has done a masterful job of sifting through a mass of cemetery and other records, finding the threads of family stories, which she has woven together with great care. They reflect the triumphs and travails of the early settlers and their descendants in what was without doubt, at first, a very tough territory….
What makes this book of exceptional interest for anyone with a deep love for and interest in Texas history is the way Spencer relates the family sagas of the early settlers within the larger dynamics of settlement and colonization in early Mexican Texas and after the Texas Revolution.
We learn in detail of the great challenges faced by empresarios Stephen F. Austin, Henri Castro, Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels and John O. Meusebach. We learn as well of the settlers who were Mormons and their challenges in the face of intense prejudice in much of what was then the United States.
Most of all, we learn of the interrelatedness of all the families who made up the Coker Settlement, who overcame their cultural and national differences to become, in their own way, Texans and, in time, San Antonians. Spencer deserves considerable credit for the extraordinary amount of detail she provides about the lives of so many settlers, whom she lists at the end of each chapter.
Theirs is a very poignant history, for in time the Great Depression and new sanitation regulations did much to decimate the local dairy industry. Land that was once dotted with dairy farms and their hardworking owners was sold and cleared for tract home developments, schools, the new San Antonio International Airport and malls — and the early settlers were forgotten.
Thanks to Spencer, though, their stories are now well recovered and hopefully will live on for generations to come.
Lila Banks Cockrell, Mayor Emeritus of San Antonio and Author of Love Deeper than a River: My Life in San Antonio: With San Antonio now the seventh largest city in the country, it is difficult to envision farms once occupied much of the San Antonio River Basin. By plowing up stories of hard-working individuals who formed the backbone of the Coker Settlement, Gayle Brennan Spencer delivers a rich slice of Texas history for us to savor.
The Honorable Phil Hardberger, Former Mayor of San Antonio and President of Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy: Having introduced us to Minnie Tomerlin and Max Voelcker whose former farm is now a 330-acre park shaded by towering oaks, Gayle Brennan Spencer now brings a colorful cast of their ancestors and fellow farmers to life in these pages. Their personal stories represent the underlying agricultural heritage that shaped our city and state.
Scott J. Baird, PhD, Chair, Cemetery Committee of the Bexar County Historical Commission: Preservation of historic cemeteries is a passion of mine, but a graveyard holds so much more than headstones. Under every marker lies a story, and Gayle Brennan Spencer dug deeply to release the tales of many such stories found in the Coker Cemetery. Farm life in Bexar County in the late 1800s appears far from peaceful.
Last Farm Standing On Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park
About a decade ago, Banks Smith invited Gayle to get to know Max and Minnie Voelcker. As they were no longer living on this earth, she started with Minnie’s handbag. After wading through their family files for a few months, Gayle was in love with the stubborn hold-outs against seductive bids from developers lusting after their farmland just north of Loop 410.
The Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund, of which Banks is a trustee, hired Gayle to tell their story. The lives of the former dairy farmers was made more compelling because the giant trees they preserved on their land now provide the shade for thousands of San Antonians enjoying the city’s new Phil Hardberger Park.
Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park by Gayle Brennan Spencer was published in the fall of 2010 by LJB CommuniCo for the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund.
The book received an award from the San Antonio Conservation Society in 2013, which placed Gayle right smack beside Phil Collins. Seriously. That Phil Collins.
The following is from the inside flap of the dust jacket:
After the Texas Revolution, land grants from the Republic of Texas attracted new settlers to the outskirts of San Antonio. The grandparents of Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker were among those drawn by “gold” to a community known as the Coker Settlement, just north of today’s Loop 410 but, at the time, a full day’s round-trip by wagon on bumpy dirt roads. Unlike that of California, their gold was, first the opportunity to produce golden butter and, later, the value of the land itself.
By the late 1800s, so many dairies dotted the countryside that the area became known as Buttermilk Hill. Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill traces the early migration to this community and the daily challenges faced by those who farmed the land. Dairy farming involved rising before dawn to churn milk drawn the night before into butter, answering the twice-daily calls from cows in need of milking and driving long distances to deliver cream and butter to city-dwellers. Life was not easy, and nature did not always cooperate….
What others have written about the book:
Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express-News, November 14, 2010:
Perhaps the greatest swath of terra incognita in San Antonio extends from the Municipal Airport west to Northwest Military Highway, bounded by Loop 410 on the south and Loop 1604 on the north.
Everyone knows the names of the roads that traverse that zone: Jones Maltsberger, Jackson-Keller, Wurzbach Parkway, all bearing the names of families who ranched and farmed that land. At its heart was a complex of dairy farms known as Buttermilk Hill, but precious little was known of its history.
Now, thanks to the meticulous research of Gayle Brennan Spencer, we know the story – in everyday detail, warts and all – of the couple whose land did indeed become the last standing dairy farm in central North Side San Antonio: Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker….
This story of the Voelckers, like that of any couple in any family, is complex. Spencer’s tale will fascinate anyone who wants to understand the lives of local people who, over three generations, braved Comanches, rattlesnakes and sprawl to make gold from butter – long before anyone made money just from the sale of land.
Paula Marks, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January 2012
This volume chronicles the farms and farm community that grew along Salado Creek north of the nucleus of San Antonio in the nineteenth century, addressing the shift to dairy farming and then the sale of the farm lands for urban development in the early to mid-twentieth century….
Max Voelcker was born in 1897, Minnie in 1904. The author traces their ancestry, noting that both grew up in the Buttermilk Hill community and lived in it throughout their lives (Max died in 1980, Minnie in 2000). After their marriage in 1927, the two sold their milk, cream, and butter locally, but saw their dairy farm and others superseded by large commercial operations. Eventually, they sold off parts of their area land holdings, including Minnie’s inherited land from her own farming family. Putting these earnings in the bank, the childless couple lived frugally but amassed wealth….
Such wealth came at a cost. In family wrangles over inheritances of land from pioneer forebears, Max and Minnie became estranged from siblings over what each claimant considered fair division of property. The two were no more contentious than other community members; lawyers had plenty of business on Buttermilk Hill in the mid-twentieth century as former farmlands became real estate gold….
Char Miller, W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College of Claremont, California, and author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas: Few San Antonians remember Buttermilk Hill, but Gayle Spencer has recovered its significance through an intimate portrait of the dairy-farm families who once inhabited the rolling North Side terrain. Only the Voelckers held out against encroaching sprawl, and the result is Hardberger Park, a verdant vestige of the city’s bucolic past.
Banks Smith, Trustee, Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund: Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker tenaciously clung to most of their former dairy farm as San Antonio expanded northward to encircle it. Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill uncovers the couple’s deep historical roots in the land and reveals a story of San Antonio’s rural heritage almost lost as the city continues to grow.
The Honorable Phil Hardberger, Former Mayor of San Antonio: Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill unfolds a portrait of two farmers – Max and Minnie Voelcker – whose stubbornness in the face of development spared the towering oaks that now shade walkers, joggers and bikers enjoying paths winding underneath them in the largest park to be opened in San Antonio since the 1800s.