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.

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.

deer

Coker Cemetery

Once upon a time, northern San Antonio was a land of dairies….

The Trustees of the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund are hosting a celebration of the publication of The Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 16, at The Twig Book Shop, 200 East Grayson at Pearl Brewery.  Music Max and Minnie would have loved will be provided by the Lone Star Swingbillies.  During the event, 60 percent of any sales of the book will benefit the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.

Char Miller, W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College of Claremont, California, and author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas, wrote: “Few San Antonians remember Buttermilk Hill, but Gayle Spencer has recovered its significance through an intimate portrait of the dairy-farm families who once inhabited the rolling North Side terrain.  Only the Voelckers held out against encroaching sprawl, and the result is Hardberger Park, a verdant vestige of the city’s bucolic past.”

After the Texas Revolution, land grants from the Republic of Texas attracted new settlers to the outskirts of San Antonio.  The grandparents of Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker were among those drawn by “gold” to a community known as the Coker Settlement, just north of today’s Loop 410 but, at the time, a full day’s round-trip by wagon on bumpy dirt roads. Unlike that of California, their gold was, first, the opportunity to produce golden butter and, later, the value of the land itself.

By the late 1800s, so many dairies dotted the countryside that the area became known as Buttermilk Hill.  Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill traces the early migration to this community and the daily challenges faced by those who farmed the land.  Dairy farming involved rising before dawn to churn milk drawn the night before into butter, answering the twice-daily calls from cows in need of milking and driving long distances to deliver cream and butter to city-dwellers.  Life was not easy, and nature did not always cooperate.

Max and Minnie both were born on Buttermilk Hill and learned to milk cows almost as soon as they could walk.  With farming in their blood, they naturally married from within the Coker settlement.

As dairy farming became big business in Texas, small dairies no longer could compete.  But by then, the land itself was so valuable protracted court battles embroiled the Voelckers and their siblings, leaving permanent scars. San Antonio swallowed up one farm after another, until the Voelcker farm, part of which is Phil Hardberger Park, was the last one standing on Buttermilk Hill.

Update on November 9:  Unused, there are no remnants of cream glopped onto the back of this wonderful milk bottle cap Carolene dropped by my house.  She says (see her comment below) the Twilite Dairy was located out Blanco Road about a mile past Voelcker Lane.  That dairy on Buttermilk Hill, which no longer stands, had been owned by Josephine and Onis Lester Harrison (1910-1954), the son of Nancy Cordelia Tomerlin Harrison (1889-1962),  Minnie Voelcker’s half-sister.

Update on November 14Ed Conroy’s review in the Express-News is better written than the book itself.