Postcard from the Coker Settlement: Following long gestation, book finally due to arrive

haunting the graveyard

cover designed by Andréa Caillouet; cover photo courtesy of Virginia Heimer Ohlenbusch

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 has proved elephantine is no exaggeration. A female elephant’s pregnancy only lasts two years. This birth has taken much longer.

But labor has been induced, and the hefty 400-page baby will be delivered at 5 p.m. for a signing/reading celebration at The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl on Wednesday, September 10.

A lady’s handbag was my first introduction to the Coker Settlement more than a decade ago. As I sat on the carpet of a conference room on the 30th floor of a downtown office building surrounded by stacks of ephemera-filled boxes, the purse was the first thing to catch my eye. So I opened it. The pocketbook belonged to Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker (1904-2000).

last farm standing on buttermilk hillMy nosiness was at the invitation of attorney Banks Smith, a trustee of the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund. I continued digging through those boxes for some time, uncovering the couple’s relationships with the dairy farmers clustered around them. That led to the 2010 birth of Haunting the Graveyard’s older sibling – Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park.

Many of those who lived around the Coker Settlement, including Minnie and Max, 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 me to write a prequel/sequel of sorts to Last Farm to chronicle the lives of more of these early residents.

I 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 I assumed I already was well acquainted with them from my work on the first book. So my answer was yes.

I 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 I poked through mountains of information and interviewed their descendants, more and more of the occupants of those graves seemed to be shouting at me to include them. I heeded the call of as many as possible while trying to remain sane.

So in the near future, expect an invitation to make their acquaintance.* You will encounter some heart-breaking tragedies, a bit of mayhem and even an unsolved murder as their lives unfold in Haunting the Graveyard. Whether focused on the good or skeletons that popped out of the closet, the stories are shared with love for the entire community of farmers I have come to know over the past decade.

haunting the graveyard photos
lila banks cockrell, phil hardberger, scott j. baird*In addition to availability at The Twig Book Shop at the signing, pre-publication orders are being accepted now at Material Media Press.

August 4, 2019, Update: An interactive companion index of people inhabiting the pages of this book helps readers understand how they relate to the family patriarch, Joseph Coker (1799-1881). The list can be accessed now for those who want to know if any information about their particular relatives can be found inside. To check the list, click here: http://cokercemetery.com/pdfs/coker_settlement_index.pdf.

Here is a shorter glimpse of surnames mentioned:

How’s the GLO managing Alamo Plaza? Welcome to the faux Alamo.

Oft-criticized for its failure to curb commercialism on Alamo Plaza, the City of San Antonio turned management of the historic city park over to the Texas General Land Office.

Millions of people presumably have passed through there since then, and the first thing most see is a caboose-red, shiny metal, faux Alamo Welcome Center. There in the middle of the plaza where there used to be a small table stand with an umbrella shading a vendor of icy cold raspas. It was 99 degrees when I was there, and I definitely would have found a snow cone more welcoming.

Anyway, visitors first glimpse of the distinctive Alamo-shaped parapet is on this booth. Why? Well, that’s obvious. It’s shiny red, and the Alamo with its ancient limestone walls pales by comparison. The Alamo might be free, but the Alamo prefers you to pay for headsets or tours. It requires the bold red to make sure you do not miss the opportunity.

protester with pitifully inadequate #NoFauxAlamo sign

Oh, there’s the real Alamo, along with protester with pitifully inadequate #NoFauxAlamo sign.

While the General Land Office deems the stately Cenotaph nearby as inappropriate for the battlefield site, the powers that be evidently consider this carnivalesque booth a perfect fit.

In case you somehow manage to miss the warm welcome this booth extends to you, there are other signs strategically placed around the plaza.

And there is the opportunity to purchase a photo taken right up close by the Alamo door.

But the appropriateness of the tenant mix and their appearance on the west side of Alamo Plaza was top among the complaints aired by many, and supposedly the state solved that with the General Land Office’s purchase of a row of historical buildings there. A new Alamo Museum is envisioned for the area.

In the meantime, millions of visitors pass by. Strangely, among the most flagrant violators of the sign ordinance governing the Alamo Plaza Historic District (view signage codes here) is the Official San Antonio Visitor Center, with flamboyant advertisements completely covering one its windows. And the Del Sol Color Change shop located next door to the Official The Alamo Store. The GLO evidently is not able to request its tenants abide by tasteful signage regulations.

But, hey, one can never have too many signs addressing Alamo Plaza. So both the San Antonio Visitor Information Center and the Official The Alamo Store plop illegal signage boards right in the middle of the sidewalk.

As a final pictorial update to how the Texas General Land Office is managing one of San Antonio’s most treasured plazas, there is this mysterious Christo-like treatment between the Alamo Chapel and the Menger. I peeked in and could determine no function, but it does arouse one’s curiosity.

Welcome to the improved (?) version of Alamo Plaza.

June 27, 2019, Update: A portion of this post was published in The Rivard Report.

Has Alamo Plaza fallen in the hands of ‘reverential’ caretakers?

New signs directing riders of scooters, bikes and skateboards to steer clear of Alamo Plaza are a welcome change from the Texas General Land Office, which assumed a long-term lease of the plaza on Jan. 1. The state has also opened a small welcome center to help guide visitors, who no longer must endure the rants of street preachers….

These are all small changes, foreshadowing much larger ones. Although small, these changes already have made Alamo Plaza a more respectful place where visitors can reflect on the historic battle and feel the weight of history.

They also portend bigger changes for the site that will bring proper reverence. Streets will be closed. Carnivallike businesses will be moved….

These initial small changes have already made a welcome difference.

“Changes at Alamo Signal Bigger Ones,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 5, 2019

The goal is to encourage visitors to reflect on the sacrifices and struggles for Texas independence without those modern-day distractions….

“Alamo Plaza is being transformed into a place of dignity and reverence,” Karina Erickson, interim communications director with the Land Office, said in an email.

“Alamo Plaza Makeover Underway,” Scott Huddleston, San Antonio Express-News, February 19, 2019

March 6, 1836. A date seared in the memory of all Texans and many others around the world as the date the Alamo fell. So March 6 seemed an appropriate time to witness this new “reverential” treatment of Alamo Plaza now that the City of San Antonio ceded the city’s historic park to the management of the State of Texas.

The reenactors of the battle who were still around were downright friendly. Despite the fact that they had been up since the wee hours of the morning to “kill” or “be killed” at dawn, they somehow still rallied to patiently answer any visitor’s questions in as much detail as the inquisitive one desired.

But, what slams the visitor in the face no matter what approach to the plaza is taken is the fire-engine-red “The Alamo Welcome Center” plopped down in the middle of it by the new stewards from General Land Office. This booth appears almost carnivalesque, particularly given its dignified location.

In fairness, I took a photo of David Crockett (Yes, that really is his name, and he says he is the original’s third-great-grandson.) in front of the Alamo to demonstrate it is still possible to snap a photo of the former chapel without the red shed intruding. But as you can see from numerous other angles, it is very much in the way.

But surely it must serve a very important purpose. If you examine the front view, you might notice a video screen running. At the moment this image was taken, the carved figures of Alamo heroes on the Cenotaph are captured for visitors to observe. Wait, they can see the actual Cenotaph about 50 steps away.

There also is a brand new (not to be confused with the large Alamo Gift Shop adjacent to the Alamo) Official The Alamo Store located less than 50 steps away in the handsome limestone Crockett Block. Official The Alamo Store occupies a space right next to the San Antonio Visitor Information Center. The purpose of the red attention-getting booth must be pretty urgent if it serves needs neither of those could meet.

Naturally, it turns out, that the function of the Welcome Center is not simply to extend a Texas-size howdy to visitors. It is sales. While entry to the Alamo is free, the purpose of the Welcome Center is to serve as a stop sign before entering to convince you to open your wallet and purchase tickets for a tour. This will be so much easier after the General Land Office fences off the plaza to ensure everyone is funneled through one entrance to achieve maximum solicitation opportunities prior to reaching the Alamo door.

One could argue that this red wart is not a permanent structure. It can me moved, so is harmless to the integrity of the historic site. But if it does not get moved to attain the proper reverential mood and sense of authenticity during the all-important commemorations of the 13-day siege of the Alamo, it probably is not budging any time soon.

In the meantime, how many people per month are subjected to the sight of this sales booth in front of the Alamo? Conservatively, way more than 200,000 people monthly get their first glimpse of the Alamo through the openings in the Welcome Center.

Among other “improvements” is a long bank of illuminated vending machines located at the rear of the Alamo property in a concession area, the area where visitors are encouraged to visit to view a free film. Sadly, not a raspa stand among them.

If the Welcome Center is evidence of the state’s tasteful approach to design, we all should worry. Many San Antonians still hope a decision will be made to reuse the state-owned historic landmarks stretching along the west side of Alamo Plaza from the Crockett Block to the former Woolworth’s as the site of a new Alamo Museum. (Visit the website of the San Antonio Conservation Society to learn more about the coalition to save the former Woolworth’s.) because of its crucial role in peaceful integration in San Antonio in 1960. One of the major objections offered to doing so is the different levels of the floors in the buildings complicate inner connectivity. Architects facing equal or larger such challenges have managed to give us the San Antonio Museum of Art and numerous successful examples of adaptive reuse at the Pearl.

One of a triumvirate of decision-makers affecting the future of Alamo Plaza is District One Council Representative Roberto Trevino. In another editorial this week, the Express-News sought to portray him as an ardent preservationist:

As an architect, Roberto Treviño wears his love for old buildings on his sleeve.

“Approve Beacon Hill Agreement,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 6, 2019

The Welcome Center fails to inspire confidence in the design standards to be applied in the coming year or two or in the General Land Office’s sincerity in considering sparing the landmarks on the west side of the plaza.

Community trust would be somewhat enhanced by the immediate removal of the booth. Even put it to adaptive reuse where it belongs: The Alamodome Parking Lot for the upcoming Fiesta Carnival.