Postcard from the Coker Settlement: Book-birthing Celebration

Photos accompanying September 8, 2019, book review by Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express-News

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.

Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express-News, September 8, 2019

Thanks to Ed Conroy for making time to review Haunting the Graveyard: Unearthing the Story of the Coker Settlement.

Please try to join us for the celebration of the publication from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at The Twig Book Shop at Pearl.

Haunting the graveyard to unearth the past

The pains of death are past.

Labor and sorrow cease.

And life’s long warfare closed at last.

His soul is found in peace.

Headstone of Joseph Coker, 1799-1881

One day I found myself, sitting in the middle of the carpet surrounded by boxes stacked in an attorney’s office on the 30th floor, rooting through another woman’s purse.

This really was not a planned direction for my career, but, undisciplined, I have always let it take numerous unscheduled detours.

I wanted the vintage pocketbook to spill the story of Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker out on the floor in front of me. Although its contents provided tiny glimpses of her personality, it was going to take a lot more time and effort to flesh out her and husband Max. Thanks to the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund, I devoted two years to getting acquainted with the two hardworking dairy farmers who reside in the Coker Cemetery, resulting in the publication of The Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park.

The Voelckers’ farm was part of a community of dairy farmers clustered together just north of Loop 410 in San Antonio. These families were unified by school, church and graveyard into a tightly knit community – the Coker settlement, and the Coker Cemetery Association plans to reunite these families in a book.

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Farewell, my wife

and children all,

From you a Father

Christ doth call.

Headstone of James J. Tomerlin, 1858-1896

As the Voelckers did, many of these hardworking farmers retired to the Coker Cemetery. I went to visit them recently, hoping they would whisper tales to me.

The jarring sounds of bulldozers working on the new portion of Wurzbach Parkway crashing through the former farms at first spoiled the peacefulness. But the spirits in this bucolic setting gradually quashed the intrusive noise, leaving me and several deer free to wander in the past.

The hours spent in the Coker Cemetery revealed some of the names of the farming families populating the settlement: Coker, Gerfers, Hampton, Harrison, Jones, Marmon, Smith, Tomerlin, Autry, Dekunder, Gulick, Harper, Isom, Maltsberger, Pipes, Tomasini and Voelcker. While their dairies in the area known as Buttermilk Hill were swallowed by behemoth San Antonio, the nonprofit association maintaining this historical cemetery knows their stories merit preservation.

As families dispersed from farms, remnants of the area’s history scattered with them. The Coker Cemetery Association asked me to bring these back together as a gift to the descendents of all who rest under the tombstones behind the old Coker church.

Charged with weaving bits of historical information together to illuminate this oft-forgotten portion of San Antonio’s rural heritage, I find myself again looking for chards. A page recording births and weddings in a family Bible. A brand registration from the late 1800s. A class photo from the old Coker schoolhouse. A tax return from the 1920s. A long-forgotten diary or letters tucked away in a shoebox. Memories grandparents shared about families’ arrivals in San Antonio or life on the farm.

I am asking descendants to introduce me to their ancestors from the Coker community, to search their studies, basements and attics and dust off the cobwebs in their minds to share memories and artifacts for this project. To ensure their ancestors are:

Gone but not forgotten.

Headstone of Rebecca Ford, 1823-1881

Thank goodness for detours, always full of unexpected opportunities and discoveries.

And on this farm, there was a barn….

photograph by Dudley Harris

Buttercup, Elsie, Black Beauty, Jaunita and the amply-uddered May West were among the cows Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker raised from birth and milked twice a day, 365 days a year on their farm, part of which is now Phil Hardberger Park. More than a century old, the milking barn could accommodate 20 cows at a time. The 1,500-square-foot  barn is key to understanding what life was like for the farmers who lived on the many dairies dotting the area of San Antonio known as Buttermilk Hill.

For this reason, volunteers from the Associated General Contractors’ Construction Leadership Forum are adopting the historic structure for their restoration project over the next two years. Rotted wood will be repaired, and windows will be repaired with guidance from Fisher Heck Architects and the City of San Antonio’s Historic Preservation Office to ensure the restoration forwards the building’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places.

Zac Harris, chair of the Construction Leadership Forum, said:

We want kids to walk in and feel like they’ve stepped back in time. We envision a working farm with live cows – a place where we can all connect with our cultural heritage and better understand San Antonio’s original settlements.

The group is hosting its first fundraiser (in the spirit of an old-fashioned barn-raising, but you won’t have to work before the eating and music get underway) for the restoration of the milking barn on Saturday, May 14, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the farm in Hardberger Park. Music, an art sale and plenty of barbecue will be on hand, and the author of Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park, will be present to sign books. For ticket information, contact Zac Harris at Joeris General Contractors, 210-494-1638, or Jeff Coyle at 210-826-8899.

As the project continues, I am sure they will need some vintage equipment from dairy operations as well. Any farmers out there with an antique Sears Economy Cream Separator?

The following weekend, the City of San Antonio will celebrate the grand opening of a whole new section of Phil Hardberger Park. The park opens at 8 a.m., with activities beginning at 10 a.m. and running through 7 p.m., on Saturday, May 21. Activities planned for the day include guided nature walks, kite-making and flying, children’s basketball competitions, parachute games and Frisbee tosses. A special feature is the addition of the “Makin’ Hay” exhibit created by sculptor Tom Otterness, previously on display at Espada Park. Parking will be available at the Alon Shopping Center across NW Military Highway from the new entrance to this western part of the park.

Update on May 10, 2011: Jeff Coyle’s post about “Makin’ Hay.”

Update on May 12, 2011: Saturday, May 14, event to include cow-patty bingo.

Update on May 17, 2011: During the event, Forrester Smith, a trustee of the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund, delivered a $10,000 check from the fund to be used for the restoration of the diary barn.