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 Tuesday, 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.

August 4, 2019, Update: An interactive companion index of people inhabiting the pages of this book helps readers understand how they relate to the family patriarch, Joseph Coker (1799-1881). The list can be accessed now for those who want to know if any information about their particular relatives can be found inside. To check the list, click here: http://cokercemetery.com/pdfs/coker_settlement_index.pdf.

Here is a shorter glimpse of surnames mentioned:

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.

 

The Mystery of the Missing State Park

Whatever happened to your park, Hallie Maude Neff?

The newspapers of the day used such glowing terms to describe the new state park off the Boerne-Blanco Road (474) on the banks of the Guadalupe River.

Curiosity about the business partnerships existing between Albert Kronkosky, Charles Graebner (Albert Kronkosky’s brother-in-law?) and my husband’s step-great-grandfather, John Nooe (1871-1944), a doctor in Boerne, led me to the first clues of the existence of the park:

A beautiful park site at Boerne, eight miles from the Guadalupe river, donated to the State by Charles Graebner, Albert Kronkosky and Dr. J. F. Nooe, has been christened Hallie Maude Neff State park, In honor of the governor’s daughter.

The Brookshire Times, July 25, 1924

Following, is a list of parks given the State on the recent trip… Boerne, 50 acres, Charles Graebner, Dr. J. F. Nooe, Albert Kronkosky, on Guadalupe River, fine shade-and water. (Hallie Maude Neff State Park.)

San Antonio Express, August 19, 1924

The Hallie Maude Neff State Park at Boerne. which was donated by Messrs Albert Kronkosky, Dr. J. F. Nooe and Col. Chas. Graebner, will be one of the most attractive spots in Texas for the coming season, because it has the Guadalupe River for the north line and the Sabinas River running through it with a concrete dam across it, making a fine swimming pool or lake. We should say, that will accommodate 7,000 people.  This Park will attract thousands of people from San Antonio during the summer season.  The Chamber of Commerce at Boerne has raised funds by public subscription to build a better road to the Park and it is about completed now, it isn’t only a better road but a good one.  Thanks to Mr. Holekamp for his business methods in spending money.

Big Spring Herald, January 16, 1925

Had I stumbled across these clues in the mystery of the missing state park a number of years ago, perhaps Bessie Mae Kronkosky might have been able to shed light.  But she passed away on the first of this month at the age of 103  (And, not realizing until reading her obituary that Bessie Mae’s maiden name was Dever, I wish I would have known to inquire as well if she was somehow related to Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker, whose brother’s uncommon first name was Dever.).

Sarah Reveley shared a much larger clue with me, a full-page story praising the park as a “new fairyland” in the March 22, 1925, edition of the San Antonio Express:

For not only has one of the most alluring and naturally beautiful scenic spots of all Texas, or anywhere else for that matter, been given in fee simple to the State Park Board acting in behalf of the State of Texas, but now the same interest that gave the 70-acre tract eight and a half miles out the Blanco highway from Boerne are spending $15,000 from their private funds in order that the park will be ready to receive visitors early this summer.  Other citizens of Boerne recently subscribed $1,100 to provide funds for putting the highway from Boerne to the park in the best possible shape to accommodate the tremendously heavy traffic anticipated.

The article describes a lodge capable of accommodating 100 people next to the caretakers’ cottage and facilities for campers.  Among the distinctive features were a “babbling brook,” a “bell-ringing rock” and “the Flapper’s Roost, which is reached by a winding stair on a tree that leads from a cliff down to the water’s edge.”  Recreational opportunities included the swimming area in the Guadalupe, canoeing and a concrete dam being built over the Sabinas River for fishing.  The natural cave on Bear Creek in the park contained:

…the Venus hair fern, a species of Maidenhair fern scientifically know as Adiantum Cappillis-Veneris.  This is the only place in Texas that this specimen of fern is known to thrive.

Does this rare fern still thrive today?

I dragged one of my sisters out to look for the park that promised to attract San Antonians by the thousands.  The spot at the creek at what would have been the closest edge of Hallie Maude State Park to 474 is indeed still beautiful.  Although there is river access, no evidence of a state park exists.

But how did Hallie’s namesake park disappear from the Texas state map?  Please send more clues….

Note Added on September 13:  And how could it disappear so quickly? It does not appear to be included on a 1936 map of state parks published by the Texas Planning Board.

Note Added on September 15:  As this story wandered around the internet, it fell into the hands of Bill Ward, a retired geologist and member of the Native Plant Society.  Not sure why, but, according to his research, the “fairyland” was returned to its donors before 1933:

Most of the improvements at Hallie Neff State Park at Boerne came during 1926 through convict labor.  Footnote:  The seventy acre Hallie Neff Park was donated to the state in 1925. It reverted back to the donors before 1933. Charles S. Potts, The Convict Labor System of Texas. (Publications of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, No. 383, 1903), p. 429, U.T. Vertical File, Box 332, SHRLRC; “Eight Convicts and Truck to Help Neff Build State Parks,” Austin American. 1924, Box 3L426, CAH; Lawson, “The Texas State Parks System,” pp. 1-3; Jackson, “State Parks for Texas,” p. 71; Texas Legislative Council, Texas State Parks, p. 2.  page 41 of dissertation on Texas state parks

Note added on October 27:  Another update from Bill Ward –

Sabinas River refers to the little Sabinas Creek that enters the Guadalupe River just west of the 474 bridge.
That species of maidenhair fern is the most common fern in the Hill Country.  Even in 1925, no one should have said it only was known from that site.
Note Added on January 29, 2012: Could the fate of another Kronkosky generation’s donation of land for a state park be in jeopardy as well? According to the San Antonio Express-News, the state’s budgetary woes are stalling the development of a new state park on Highway 46 west of Boerne on more than 3,000 acres of land given to the state by the Kronkosky Foundation. The history-repeating-itself story even features a photo of a maidenhair fern.