Historic fiction, this 500-plus-page book currently is escaping isolation in the author’s computer to unwind on this blog. Set in San Antonio between 1911 and 1919, the novel is based on the story of Hedda Burgemeister and brewer Otto Koehler.
What to expect from a truthful novel:
There are numerous perks to engaging in an affair with one of the wealthiest men in the city. But, if you end up shooting him, the man’s status imperils your life.
A true story: In November 1914, Hedda Burgemeister shot Otto Koehler dead in her bungalow on the southside of San Antonio—a cottage that was a gift to her from the victim. A self-made man, the German-born millionaire was president of San Antonio Brewing Association and was prominent in civic and social circles. A trained nurse, Hedda was a more recent immigrant from Germany.
Was it murder or self-defense? How could Hedda possibly expect to receive a fair trial when the corpse in her bedroom owned the town—when the shooting was so sensational, it made headlines in newspapers throughout the country? Haunted by nightmares about a recent public hanging, the frightened young woman opts to run. It will be another four years before she voluntarily returns to stand trial.
The facts of the case are not easy to evaluate—even though the papers freely shared them all. The sincerity of Hedda and Otto’s relationship is called into question by his prior affair with Hedda’s best friend and housemate. And what of the large denomination notes Otto gave Hedda? Did they indicate Hedda was only in it for the money, or was Otto truly the love of her life? Did Otto plan to kill her to extricate himself from the entanglement to pursue his next dalliance, or did Hedda plot to murder him?
How does anyone sit in judgment when one only knows slivers of who they are? To his secretary, Otto might have been a role model; but how did Otto’s invalid wife regard her husband? Otto’s friends and business associates took the stand to vouch for him, but, to former Governor Thomas Campbell, Otto was a corrupt dark force illegally interfering in statewide elections—possibly the motive for attorney Campbell to defend the woman who shot Koehler.
No light-hearted bedroom romp, this is a portrait of life in the 19-teens, with San Antonio itself as a central character. The cast is based on actual people, with their reactions to events around them fleshing out their personalities—from Fiesta to the great roundhouse explosion. Sweeping themes woven throughout include prohibition politics, racial prejudice, women’s suffrage, labor issues, the Mexican revolution, the approach of American involvement in World War I and even Alamo politics (amazingly similar to current disagreements about the Alamo Plan). A story with broad appeal, but a must-read for all San Antonians.
And in the tradition of Charles Dickens, the big reveal is happening in a serialized format on this blog now. Click here.
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.