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.
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.
I 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.
There we were, sitting beside each other. Phil and I.
I’m talking about Phil Collins. But I just call him Phil now. Because I sat beside him for about one minute.
As you can tell this is leading to one of celebrities’ worst curses: people who don’t know them writing about them.
But, of course, this is different. Because I know him. Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And he politely introduced himself to me and shook my hand.
That, and we have several things in common.
Davy Crockett, for one.
When Phil Collins was a kid growing up in a London suburb, he would often watch an amazing show on his family television. There, in black and white, was Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. As he matured, Collins not only acted out the exploits of his new hero, but he often refought the Battle of the Alamo with his toy soldiers.
While I’ve never sure been it’s psychologically healthy to adopt Texans’ fascination with the battle they lost, playing Alamo seems a better alternative than the Davy** Crockett chapter that influenced me as a child in Virginia Beach.
I sat alone in my room, playing the record. Over and over and over.
It wasn’t this one, or, if it was, it was part of a much longer recording. I can’t find the version in my mind online.
Perhaps what I remember didn’t exist except as a compilation in my jumbled file cabinet of a mind. But it was Davy Crockett. Or Fess Parker. And it was a life and death struggle with bears and Indians… and the part that haunted me.
I have no idea how many times I listened to that recording, but definitely many times too many.
Even I knew my mother was exasperated.
I would wet my bed. We’re not talking about a three-year old. I was six.
But I had my reasons.
I ran screaming to my parents one night about the bears in the house – my visiting Great Aunt Mary snoring.
There were Indians in my closet. I finally learned keeping the light on in the closet kept them at bay.
But the light filtering through the louvered door did not help with the Crockett family’s other adversaries.
The women then slacked the rope a little and made it fast round a hickory stump, when my oldest darter took the tongs and jumped on [the alligator’s] back, when she beat up the “devil’s tattoo” on it, and gave his hide a real “rub a dub.”…My wife threw a bucket of scalding suds down his throat, which made him thrash round as though he was sent for. She then cut his throat with a big butcher knife. He measured thirty seven feet in length. (Davy Crockett’s almanack,*** of wild sports in the West, life in the backwoods, & sketches of Texas. 1837, p. 10).
My self-preservation instinct was strong. Who in their right mind would risk getting out of bed with alligators on the prowl? Alligators hungry for a “tongariferous” fight. Bladder be damned if I would.
Not only would I not set foot on the floor when alone in my room at night, I would not let a pinky slip over the edge because…. Snap! Those alligators were fast.
And I had a family to protect – a toucan whose name now escapes me; George the green monkey whose rubbery pink hands and feet were comforting to chew nervously upon when trying to make it through dangers lurking in the night; and Nipper, a huge RCA dog who took up easily half of my single bed. I never once let George’s tail hang over the edge. I would sleep rigidly, never ever tumping one over the edge into the alligator pit.
To dream of an alligator, unless you kill it, is unfavorable to all persons connected with the dream.
The flaw, of course, was no one understood this was why I wet the bed. And, when I finally managed to explain, no one took the danger seriously. Of course, now they have books about this. But that was the late ’50s, and they had not yet been written.
Finally, midway through first grade, a solution was found. A path of folding chairs was set up each night between my bed and the bathroom. Somehow, I was able to summon the courage to imperil myself by crawling across this wobbly bridge to the safety of the bathroom, and, of course, everyone knows alligators would never cross the threshold onto the tile floor.
So, as I was writing, Phil’s interest in perpetually fighting – probably trying to change the outcome – the losing battle at the Alamo seems a preferable Davy chapter in which to be stuck.
And Davy seems to have stuck with both of us, Alamobsessive souls that we are.
I focus on and fret about the Alamo as the city’s front door. I constantly nag, in blog form, the city to enforce its historic ordinance to keep illegal signs from multiplying at night. I have even used some of the historic postcards I have assembled to create protest collages.
These efforts have had limited effect. And, not surprisingly, these particular collages have not resonated well with art collectors.
Now, legislation has been filed to form a commission to study the state of Alamo Plaza. Good news to some, but the bill would go farther than my Alamobsession wants by giving the commission the mission to “reclaim its original footprint.” I might not love Ripley’s, but I love the Alfred Giles’ Crockett Block.
Plus, if returning Alamo Plaza to its appearance at the time of the battle is taken literally, the Alamo would get a crewcut (Click here for a long-winded post about that particular issue).
I don’t know how Phil feels about this. Because how much ground can you cover in one minute?
But I do know, while I was collecting postcards of chili queens on Alamo Plaza, Phil was collecting everything else Alamo. When Phil does something, he doesn’t fool around. He gets serious. He even collected a building off the plaza. This is from his myspace page:
From Bill Wyman’s metal detecting to Alex James’s cheese-making, every self-respecting musician is obliged to cultivate a hobby to relieve the stresses of the rock star life. Collins is no exception, utilizing the basement of his Swiss home for his twin enthusiasms: building model railways and tending to his vast collection of Alamo memorabilia.
“… it’s an all-consuming thing for me. I spend as much time in San Antonio as I can. I rent a little property out there on the walls of The Alamo itself where I’ll dig for artifacts. I’m always looking for stuff to buy and the collection is growing fast. I’ve got a huge number of cannonballs, muskets and bowie knives that were used there, Lady Crockett’s pouch and many documents that were written by the main protagonists. One of my prized possessions is a receipt signed by Commander William B. Travis for 32 head of cattle used to feed the Alamo defenders.
“My kids are convinced that I was present at The Alamo in a previous life. Just recently I attended a convention out there and met a clairvoyant who is married to a man who’s attempting to restore the Alamo compound. She walked up to me and said, ‘’You’ve been here before. In a previous life you were John W. Smith, one of the major couriers who survived the Alamo and become one of San Antonio’s first mayors.’ Oddly enough one of the first documents I bought for my collection was the receipt for Smith’s saddle. So maybe my kids are on to something.”
Phil collected so many Alamo things that photos and information about them now fill a 400-page book, which brings us to another thing we have in common.
Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And, as you can see, we obviously engaged in animated conversation. Probably because we have so much in common. And I didn’t even get a chance to tell him I’m married to a bluesman.
Somehow, KSAT-TV failed to catch this important connection on camera, which is good because I would not have wanted to end up in the pages of some publication, such as The Star, where they zoom in on the superficial shortcomings of someone my age – the preponderance of wrinkles, protruding bellies and falling bustlines.
Another thing Phil and I share is we have changed careers. I have changed career directions several times and feel free to sprint off in any direction I choose. If I choose to write books, that’s fine. No one objects; no one cares.
But, poor Phil. He’s worked hard his whole life – “I enjoyed Genesis when I was 19” – and wants to pursue his hobbies now:
Reporters repetitively bombard him with “why?” Some fans of the Grammy-winning star express anger at him for retiring from concerts. This, even though, according to his myspace page:
His less prolific work rate is partly down to health reasons. Since 2000 he has suffered from loss of hearing in his right ear. More recently he was diagnosed with severe nerve damage to his hands, making drumming extremely challenging. During recording sessions for his new album, he was forced to tape his sticks to his hands.
Owsers. That sounds totally painful. Give this man a well-deserved break.
Keen to accentuate the positive, he explains that his medical concerns have forced him to take stock of his life. “I never used to think of myself as a workaholic,” he says. “I used to work non-stop because I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to do all these things that I loved. I was everywhere and I can see why that must have been annoying to some people. Then I reached a point where I no longer felt the need to go zooming around the world and attend the opening of every envelope. Basically I stopped.
“I’ve got a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I take them to football. I like to take them to school and pick them up. That’s my life now. I love doing the things that other people probably find tedious because they’ve been doing them for so long. I never did those things in the past as I was always working flat out. That was my loss. Now I’m able to do all that and also have time to indulge my passions.”
Besides, somehow I feel this man’s Alamobsession will end up helping shape the future of Alamo Plaza. I’m sure it will accomplish more than my haranguing collages and blog posts.
Oh, and, Phil, if you get tired of staying in hotels when you visit San Antonio, the Mister and I might be able to work out a house swap with you. The Alamo’s less than a mile away from our door. Call me next time you are in town and you’ve got a minute. Who knows what else we might have in common?
*With apologies to William C. Davis, author of Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. Hey, at least I didn’t title the post My Life with Phil Collins. Now that would have been a stretch.
** David would be more historically correct, but does not represent the popular culture upon which we – Phil and I – were weaned.
***Oh, dear. I had to stop in the middle of this post to order a copy of Davy Crockett’s Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women’s Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835-1856, for which I paid a penny, plus $3.99 shipping – quite a bargain unless the alligators return ‘neath my bed. And, as that is an “our” bed, I’m positive the Mister would not relish the thought.
Update on March 25, 2013: John Spong of Texas Monthly spent considerably longer than a minute with Phil Collins.
Update on March 27, 2013:
A follower reminded me to look back for this photo of Phil Collins, coonskin-hatted at age five playing Davy, that appeared alongside an article by Steve Bennett in the San Antonio Express-News last May.
Which reminded me of another obvious thing Phil and I have in common – the Battle of San Jacinto. His collection began with a receipt for a saddle purchased by John W. Smith, who was at both the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto and seems to continue to haunt the collector a bit. My desk currently is haunted by reams of paper pertaining to the families and relatives of John Coker who settled on his land grant on the north side of San Antonio. Jack Coker was a hero of San Jacinto credited with the idea of blowing up Vince’s Bridge, blocking one of the possible escape routes for the Mexican troops.
And, on another note, one of my sisters fessed up that she was the one who told me I’d be safe from dangers lurking in my room if I let no part of me slip over the edge of the mattress. So nice after all these years to finally unload the psychological burden for bedwetting on a sibling.
Update on May 6, 2013: Mary Dearen’s version of the same awards luncheon as published on mywesttexas.com.
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.