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.

Introducing Otto Koehler through a Prohibition politics caper of yesteryear

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Their voices circled me in the tub today, and I was so happy to hear them again. I was worried they wouldn’t return after being neglected for the past decade.

Last week, I finally hit “send” to submit the draft of a book on the history of the Coker Settlement to the book committee of the Coker Cemetery Association. I have been living with the extended Coker family since Banks Smith first asked me to tell the story of Minnie Tomerlin and Max Voelcker about nine years ago, resulting in Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill.

While the ghosts of more than 600 relatives of the Coker clan managed to haunt my baths enough to squeeze their way into the draft of the Coker book, they didn’t talk much. I wasn’t allowed to put words in their mouths; only hundreds of footnotes at the end of the chapters. Nonfiction rigidly based on historical facts.

But now I have returned to historical fiction, and, frankly, Hedda Burgemeister and Otto Koehler cannot keep their lips zipped.

I considered casting aside the first hundred pages of their story, An Ostrich Plume Hat, I wrote so long ago. One reason is no one has been clamoring for me to finish. My dialogue, despite how freely it spills out to me in the tub, probably only seems convincing to me. Counterpoint: I love listening to them.

The second reason is Joe Holley. His portrayal of Emma (Hedda) Burgemeister for Hotel Emma at Pearl describes her as a tall and blonde femme fatale. Counterpoint: Yes, Hedda shot Otto Koehler, but the nurse did not appear a sexy bombshell in her newspaper photos. The jury found her innocent of murder, and, through the years, I have grown to know her as a complex heroine of my story. I must rise to her defense.

The third reason is Mary Carolyn Hollers George. A serious historian, she is writing a book about Otto Koehler. Nonfiction, with no made-up conversations between the characters. She will surely send hers to press well before mine, if mine goes at all. Her truthful telling will make mine seem so frivolous. Counterpoint: None, except I am keeping myself entertained, and I don’t have to use footnotes.

Anyway, on the afternoon of the final exhausting presidential debate, I thought I would link you to some rowdy prohibition politics that I use to introduce to my version of Otto Koehler. This long-winded story is only for political history junkies. This is about an Austin caper much like the “killer bees” of more recent times. The tale is about 95 percent true, but was this truly Otto’s idea?

The diversion prior to debate will reassure you that politics of the past was often as messy as those clouding this election.

So, here is Chapter Three.

 

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