Biannual round-up of what postcards you read most

cathedral6Every six months it’s good for me to check back to see what type of post you have been reading during the past 12 months. As usual, you are all over the map, leaving me free to continue selecting topics arbitrarily.

It makes sense that blog-readers love libraries; the most read post expressed concerns affecting funding of the San Antonio Public Library. The mystery surrounding the murder of Helen Madarasz in Brackenridge Park rose to second in popularity, and there are those who pine to hear the San Antonio Song. A few new posts pushed aside several long-time favorites, and, for some reason, you dug deep in the archives to resurrect a couple that had not been read for quite a while.

The number in parentheses represents the rankings from six months ago:

  1. The danger of playing hardball with our Library: Bookworms tend to vote, 2014
  2. The Madarasz Murder Mystery: Might Helen Haunt Brackenridge Park?, 2012 (7)
  3. Please put this song on Tony’s pony and make it ride away, 2010 (5)
  4. The Tragic Rule of Maximilian and Carlota in Mexico, 2014 (10)
  5. Remembering everyday people: Our rural heritage merits attention, 2014
  6. Picturing the City’s Past Just Got Easier, 2014
  7. Seeing San Fernando Cathedral in a new light…, 2014
  8. Postcard from San Miguel de Allende: Sun rises again at La Aurora, 2014 (9)
  9. “Nuit of the Living Dead” (8), 2010
  10. How would you feel about the Alamo with a crewcut?, 2011
  11. That Crabby Old Colonel Cribby Condemned the River to Years of Lowlife, 2013
  12. Postcards from San Miguel de Allende: Redirecting Graffiti Artists, Part Four, 2014

Thanks for dropping by every once in a while and for giving me permission to keep rambling on about whatever I’m currently pondering.

And best wishes throughout the coming year.

Remembering everyday people: Our rural heritage merits attention

Photograph of the old rock house on the Voelcker Farm taken by Dudley Harris for "Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill"

Photograph of the old rock house on the Voelcker Farm taken by Dudley Harris from “Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill”

Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker loved and fiercely protected their land from encroaching, encircling development swallowing up neighboring farms. The towering trees shading walkers in Phil Hardberger Park result from their stewardship.

Max and Minnie were not well-known in San Antonio, unless you were a frustrated real estate developer trying to court them. They were just plain, ordinary people. Like most of us.

Photograph by Dudley Harris of the Voelcker Dairy barn for "Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill"

Photograph by Dudley Harris of the Voelcker Dairy barn from “Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill”

What the retired dairy farmers never would have envisioned is that their old farm would end up safeguarded by the city that endangered it. The city’s Office of Historic Preservation has submitted a nomination to include the farmstead on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Preservation News:

The Max and Minnie Voelcker Dairy Farm, located in San Antonio’s Phil Hardberger Park, was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places this past spring. The farmstead exemplifies a turn-of-the-century agricultural landscape with preserved late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings. The State Board of Review met on May 17, 2014, in Austin to review the application.  The Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) received a matching $10,000 Certified Local Government Grant to hire a consultant to prepare the nomination. The nomination assessment was prepared by Brandy Harris, M. Kelley Russell, Lila Knight, Ryan Fennell, Nesta Anderson, and Karissa Basse. The $10,000 grant was matched in-kind by the OHP through the execution of a survey in the West Sector Plan area of the city.  OHP staff members involved in the survey included Adriana Ziga, Kay Hindes, and OHP volunteer Brenda Laureano.  The nomination will now move forward to the National Park Service.

last-farm-coverI never met Max and Minnie but was offered the opportunity to delve into their lives deeply when retained by the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund to tell their story. The resulting book, Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill, in turn led me to even more concentrated involvement in the history of the dairy farms that surrounded the Voelcker Farm on San Antonio’s near north side.

As I struggle to uncover bits and pieces of the lives of their neighbors from the Coker Settlement resting beside them in the Coker Cemetery and weave them together into a new book for the Coker Cemetery Association, I am grateful for that introduction to Max and Minnie. Getting to know them and digging into the past of the Coker Settlement has given me incredible respect for the tough-skinned early residents farming on the outskirts of San Antonio.

Life was hard for those pioneering farmers, and it’s wonderful the Voelcker Farmstead has been spared as testimony of the city’s vanishing rural heritage.

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Coker Cemetery

Writing Nonfiction: Dig a little. Peck a little. Dig, dig, dig….

It seems every time I type a few sentences for the book I’m writing about the Coker community, I come across something that makes me want to dig deeper. Most of the time, the research is like doggedly following a trail of bread crumbs through dense underbrush for hours only to look up and realize a flock of crows just swept down and gobbled up the path ahead.

Sometimes though, as in two days ago, I am rewarded. When I wrote Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill, I was not comfortable in the identity of the man Joseph Coker shot by water hole. Seeking someone named John Jones in a community full of Joneses can be tricky. But at last, I found him, and it was not the one I had assumed.

My point is, that discovery now serves to justify my endless, stubborn wanderings after trivia to round out the story. Cutting off research is the hardest thing about writing nonfiction.

The following update from the Coker Cemetery Association Newsletter, illustrates the stumbling-lost-in-the-woods style of research distracting me daily:

In the 1860 Census, Ella and J.K.P. Campbell were listed between the Robert Smith family and Joseph Coker. A 35-year-old stock raiser from Tennessee with a 21-year-old wife from Vermont made an interesting pairing, particularly on the eve of the Civil War.

James Knox Polk Campbell with daughter Mattie from the family files of Chuck and Honor

James Knox Polk Campbell with daughter Mattie from the family files of Chuck and Honor

With no intermarrying ties in the community, the couple slipped out of my mind until I was working on the Civil War chapter for the book you have commissioned about the Coker Settlement. Unlike many men in the community who enlisted as privates, James Knox Polk Campbell immediately was appointed assistant commissary for the Sixth Regiment of Texas Infantry at Camp Holmes, Arkansas.

So many families stayed for so long on the land around the Coker Settlement, the families moving away always mystify me. Why would anyone abandon a home in this rattlesnake-infested, drought-prone land where one had to constantly watch out for marauding Indians poised to snatch up your children while you were hoeing or bent over laundry?

Digging to find out more about Campbell, I stumbled across an online post dating from the 1990s. Charles _____ had letters, letters referencing Campbell’s “ranching venture” outside of San Antonio and his Civil War imprisonment. All I had to do was find Charles _____.

I prefer looking for dead people; surely they are happy to know someone cares enough to want to know their stories after they have left the earth. Nosing around the internet for the living makes you feel you are prying, spying, trying to identify someone by prowling on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, white page look-ups.

And then making that phone call, to perhaps the totally wrong stranger, and not sound crazy? I lucked out and got an answering machine. And lucked out even more. I hit the right person in the right state the first time and got a return call.

And from someone sympathetic to such a call emerging from nowhere about some post made more than a decade earlier. Chuck, himself, had stumbled across the letters on the internet years earlier.

Billee W. Hoombeek brought them to the surface. Chuck retained her email from years ago and forwarded it to me. She was an archaeologist working on the Green Mountain National Forest project in Vermont between 1979 and 1988. As part of her project, she concentrated on “interpreting the deserted farmsteads that dotted the woods.” Hmm, a kindred spirit perhaps?

One of her resources in the Brandon, Vermont, library was a collection of materials assembled by a “Mr. Chamberlin” for a novel he had intended to write comparing life in two small towns – Brandon, Vermont, and Brandon, Virginia. Here, Hoombeek encountered the letters from Campbell to his father-in-law, Colonel Frank Farrington, of Vermont. Finding them fascinating, she went out of her way to share them through a Campbell descendant organization and online.

When Chuck found her, she responded: “I would be in seventh heaven if an ancestor of mine had left such a rich treasure. He does indeed have feet of clay, but she (Chuck’s wife Honor, who is the actual descendant) will know him very well when she finishes.”

And Chuck and Honor are again sharing with us….

A blog post by the Special Collections of the UTSA Libraries reminded me how I long to get back to the comfort and flow of writing historic fiction – based on thorough research but woven together by my imagination instead of hundreds of footnotes.

The facial hair photo on the UTSA blog happened to be of some real people featured in a chapter of An Ostrich Plume Hat, the completion of which is now interrupted by the writing of two other books. At any rate the photo is of the Goeth brothers – my favorite two going by the confusing initials, C.A. and A.C.

Edward Wilhelm Goeth, a rancher; Conrad A. Goeth, a lawyer; Adolph Carl Goeth, a merchant; Max A. Goeth, a rancher; and Richard A. Goeth, a doctor

Edward Wilhelm Goeth, a rancher; Conrad A. Goeth, a lawyer; Adolph Carl Goeth, a merchant; Max A. Goeth, a rancher; and Richard A. Goeth, a doctor, from the UTSA Libraries Special Collections

Read about the Goeths’ involvement with Texas politics – part fact, part invention – here.

When immersed in fiction, I can close my eyes in the tub and hear my characters talking to one another. While writing nonfiction, bath time means my mind is submerged in thoughts of those innumerable trails of crumbs beckoning me to follow in wildly divergent directions.

Several chapters somehow have managed to emerge from my keyboard, so perhaps an end is in sight.

For now, I know I need to just keep awkwardly dog-paddling, trying not to drown in the details. This book is not supposed to be like digging my own grave.