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

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.