Local road offers glimpse into the past


This story appeared in June 2007.

Feed Your Oats on the OST

By Pamela Price
Contributing Writer
Hill Country View

History is tricky. It can fashion one aspect of culture into an icon and obscure almost entirely another facet worthy of acclaim. Take for instance, the Old Spanish Trail (OST), a 1920s era auto highway, and precursor to modern IH-10, that traversed the nation from Florida to California. However, unlike Route 66, which was created in the same decade, there’s no unforgettable mid-century song to sing off-key about the OST, no collection of “Made in China” commemorative plastic doodads to clutter your fridge.

That may change soon.

San Antonio-area historians and conservationists are eager to educate locals about the OST’s historic 32-mile “Headquarter’s Section” that runs from downtown San Antonio to Boerne. For example, on June 10, members of the Old Spanish Trail Centennial Celebration Association (or, as they refer succinctly to themselves, the “OST 100”) hosted a JuneOSTour, part of a series of public events in keeping with the group’s effort to preserve and promote the historic route. Lead organizer Charlotte Kahl believes such experiences will help people “visualize the ambiance of early auto travel through the Hill Country, before it is totally hidden by development.”

By way of background, the roots of the almost 3000-mile OST reach back to before World War I. The notion was to create the shortest route between both the Atlantic and Pacific, with St. Augustine and San Diego serving as endpoints. Through a series of conferences held along the eventual route, citizens and business leaders gradually built local and federal support.

Initially, there was a military rational for creating the roadway. General John J. Pershing, having been forced to use motorized vehicles on uneven, muddy and gravely roads in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916 and in Europe during WWI, argued for a highway across the South that could be used to for defense. Later, the case for making a pleasurable, easy-to-drive path across the southern half of the country gained greater traction.

The OST wasn’t completed until 1929. “There were three main reasons why it was time consuming to build the OST,” says Kahl, a San Antonio resident. ”First, there was the terrain. Bridges to span waterways along the Gulf Coast and canyons in the West, in particular, were expensive. And in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the OST cut through some of the poorest counties in the poorest states in the nation. Then you’ve got the tumultuous times of the First World War. Toward the end of completion, you’ve got the start of the Great Depression. So there were pauses, starts and stops, that were problematic all along the way.”

Crucial to building public support for the project was a bit of creative public relations work undertaken by Harral B. Ayres, a successful former East Coast financier. Working first locally on the OST for the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and later as managing director of the Old Spanish Trail Association, Ayres drew connections between the proposed modern roadway and Spanish history. Furthermore, “the development and marketing of the OST had much to do with tourism and the family car,” observes Dennis Medina, UTSA special collections librarian. “When the family car became a staple of middle-class life (in the ‘20s), there was an explosion of ‘opportunities’ to exploit it.”

Some estimates for the final cost of construction on the OST exceed $100 million dollars, a staggering sum given the era. “It’s very difficult to know for certain how much money went into the project,” says Kahl. “In the beginning, the OST budget covered building costs, but as time went on, the budget was more for promotion than for gravel, trees, etcetera. Much of the major costs were hidden in state budgets.”

Although regional travel offices continued to promote the OST off-and-on well into the ‘60s, new fangled interstates and air travel resulted in the route being largely forgotten. Yet along the path the roadway cut, historic restaurants, gas stations, hotels and other vestiges of the OST’s impact on the nations’ economy remain, many of them now in disrepair.

Flash forward to the end of the 20th century. Already a decade into efforts to revitalize San Antonio’s Fredericksburg Road corridor, local conservationists were perplexed to encounter a bench on Vance Jackson bearing the letters “O-S-T”. With a bit of research, the OST revealed its secrets one by one. “It wasn’t a major, earth-shattering revelation,” recalls Marianna Jones, a long-time San Antonio Conservation Association member and former president. She continues, “But it did add a whole new aspect to what we knew about San Antonio history.”

Currently, Kahl and Jones are working to preserve remaining Bexar County OST artifacts and sites while undertaking the arduous work of increasing awareness of the OST Centennial, including a proposed 2029 cross-country motorcade. “We began in 2000 and are taking our time with this project because all of the urban OST corridors are in the oldest sections of town. They are often economically forgotten areas of our communities that need real help and a long time to turn around,” says Kahl, adding that by 2029 she and other OST 100 members hope to have “every business along the route freshly painted, looking good, fully stocked and ready to greet people.”

That’s a tall order, and organizers aren’t planning to go it alone. By reaching out to civic organizations, community leaders and even neighborhood associations along the roadway, the OST 100 is replicating many of the grassroots techniques and strategies Ayres and others applied almost one hundred years ago. “We don’t want to impose what we think ‘should’ happen along the OST from the top down,” says Kahl. “And (the plan) is working. Take the Boerne Stage Road corridor. That was one of the area’s where we couldn’t get any footing on economic development efforts or beautification efforts. And we tried. But something has changed and now people are asking for us.”

Kahl expresses pleasure that nascent efforts to protect Boerne Stage Road and Scenic Loop from further sprawl are being pinned, in large part, to the historic value of the roadways and their vistas. “I hope that what is happening now will trigger even further interest in the OST,” adds Jones. “Too often, when you mention the Old Spanish Trail, people think you are talking about the Camino Real or Old San Antonio Road. But through the work of (Kahl) in particular, people are becoming more aware. She is the sparkplug in this project, you know.”

Hmm… a tenacious sparkplug. A forgotten highway steeped in American history. Add a forgotten lover, an old truck, a clever songwriter and look out Route 66.

Sprawl-busters: Anti-encroachment activism endeavors to take root near Leon Springs


Note that this article is the first in a series designed to elucidate growth issues in NW Bexar County. The hope is that by thoughtfully describing the players and introducing readers to smart growth notions, citizens would be better prepared to discuss these matters openly.

By Pamela Price
Contributing writer, The Hill Country View

To anyone who followed the battle to keep a new Wal-Mart from the intersection of Bandera Road and Scenic Loop in Helotes, it’s no surprise that other area landowners are inspired anew to organize against unchecked development. Indeed, Boerne Stage Road area residents are beginning to speak out and coordinate efforts to stop what homeowner Crystal Brown calls “the fungus” that is San Antonio sprawl.

In the case of nascent Boerne Stage activism, however, there’s no specific big box retailer breathing down collective necks…yet. Instead, the threat takes the form of several proposed residential Bexar County developments and the clusters of architecturally uninspired commercial structures they inevitably attract. Many current residents fear the potential sprawl along the Boerne Stage/Scenic Loop corridors will generate increased traffic, raise taxes, destroy the environment, deplete water, place added pressure on overextended public services, and effectively obliterate the distinctive Hill Country vibe that attracted them in the first place.

“DeZavala (Road) used to be like Boerne Stage just a few years ago. There were cows at the IH-10 intersection. Now look at it,” says Brown, who purchased property off of Toutant Beauregard with her husband in 1992. “I got out here to get away from San Antonio. Now, with all the noise, traffic and light pollution, I’m wondering: what was the point?”

For her part, Brown is focusing much of her energy on eliminating the swarms of temporary signs that clutter the IH-10 and Boerne Stage intersection in Leon Springs each weekend. “It looks just awful,” she says. Brown also plans to stay in close contact with the neighborhood association as it gears up to address issues of interest to her.

As residents begin to rally around the notion of protecting Boerne Stage and its environs, neighborhood associations are proving invaluable forums through which information can be exchanged. For instance, Brown was one of several Serene Hills residents to attend a special March 20 meeting with Bexar County representatives, including commissioner Lyle Larson. Brown says the group was eager to hear more about plans for a plot of land adjacent to Serene Hills. She adds that current homeowners fear proposed construction on 400-plus homes will cause traffic problems and environmental damage in their own neighborhood and beyond.

“(Bexar County representatives) told us that they did a study in 2006 and Boerne Stage can handle up to five more large sub-divisions,” says Brown. “We always thought they’d widen the road to four lanes, but they told us at the meeting that they can’t do that because it’s a historic road. I think they figure they’ll overrun it with cars and let people get mad and then they can destroy it anyway.”

As more and more neighborhoods tackle sprawl issues, representatives of the Hill Country Planning Association, a newly formed cadre that includes several Scenic Loop, Grey Forest, and Boerne Stage residents, are making the rounds to homeowner’s meetings in hopes of channeling rising concerns into a viable movement. In summing up the organization’s objectives, member Marlene Richardson says, “We are a consortium of interested parties…who seek to see the last vestiges of green Hill Country within Bexar County, out in this quadrant, that some of it remain Hill Country…There are even some people from Leon Valley who’ve joined us, saying ‘we don’t want the Hill Country to become what we’ve become.’”

Richardson, a historian, appears optimistic about the future as she recounts an earlier fight against a proposed section of HWY 211 that would have run from IH-35 through Fair Oaks and ranch lands to the west. “It was planned to be an outer Loop 1604. I used to be a producer at KLRN, and we did a story related to it. (The landowners) were very successful, “ she says, adding that she thinks residents are poised and eager to take action again. “Most of the people who moved out here did so because of the peace and quiet…and now they are finding that they have traffic jams.”

Mind you, it’s not just long-timers who are concerned about the area’s future.

“I’m not against growth. Heck, we wouldn’t have our home without this new growth,” says Walnut Pass resident Nate Barber, who relocated to Leon Springs from sprawl-infested Orange County, California two years ago. Although he personally isn’t involved with any anti-sprawl efforts, he fears that Boerne Stage will become another congested Stone Oak Parkway if action isn’t taken soon. “I’m as guilty as any developer. I didn’t build a big development, but I bought a home in one!” says Barber. ”Now that we’re here, however, I’d like to try to keep some of the aesthetic that drew us here.”

“We had a man at our last meeting who lived in one of the newer subdivisions,” says local historian and HCPA member Charlotte Kahl. “He stood up and said that he felt that he was part of the problem, but he wanted to part of the solution. I thought that was great; it’s what we need. Everyone to get involved.”

Like Richardson, Kahl sees hope for the future rooted in the past. Through her work organizing the upcoming Old Spanish Trail (OST) Centennial Celebration, she’s delved deep into Boerne Stage Road history. In the early twentieth century, Boerne Stage was known as the “Headquarters Section” of the OST, an auto highway that extended from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego. Kahl says that what worked along Boerne Stage, from citizen’s efforts to persuade local and national politicians to support it to the types of roadside signs selected, was duplicated nationwide. Today, Kahl says, “Beyond the retail stores and subdivisions, we have a short section of Boerne Stage that gives us a glimpse of meandering auto highways of the past.” For Kahl and others, that historical stretch is worth a fight to preserve its character and integrity today. More than that, the very grassroots manner in which OST founders created the road serves to inspire.

Of course, whether or not contemporary activists can pull together successfully to preserve Boerne Stage’s essence and aesthetics for future generations remains to be seen. After all, while no one ever claims to be openly “pro-sprawl,” stopping unchecked, unplanned growth is neither an inexpensive nor quick endeavor. Some property owners, more concerned with capitalizing on developers’ interests than leaving a legacy of intangibles, may be hesitant to see construction restrictions enacted. Even Richardson laments that “a lot of these new efforts should have taken place over two years ago. It may be too late in some instances.” And then there is the insidious nature of the beast, one that is fed by greedy speculators, misinformation, politics and knotted red tape.

Yet by articulating their concerns and building coalitions, area citizens are taking the first steps that might motivate more folks to get involved. They also have begun the difficult work of explaining why protecting the area’s ambiance is important to all residents, even newcomers. It’s enough to make one wonder if a crop of “Save Boerne Stage” signs and bumper stickers, reminiscent of the “Save Scenic Loop” signage of recent memory, might pop up soon.

That’s one sign Crystal Brown might be pleased to see.