Once Upon a Time in the Hill Country

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This was the second in an informal series of smart growth related stories for The Hill Country View.

By Pamela Price
Contributing writer

Driving up Boerne Stage Road from Leon Springs past the generic strip malls and roadside car wash, just as the hills begin to fill the Texas sky, one encounters three distinctive signs of the community’s heritage. Near the first big curve of the winding two-lane roadway, behind a crop of plastic signs advertising everything from pet sitting to new home sites, there’s a cluster of improbably old, abandoned stone houses begging regard.

Though the property’s posted, daydreaming from afar is allowed. (Just kindly pull off the road first.)

History types collectively regard the site as emblematic of so many larger issues facing the Boerne Stage Road corridor, particularly the substitution of authentic, character-filled vistas with cookie-cutter retail construction. To some folks, to borrow from Joni Mitchell, an erstwhile paradise is being paved for a giant parking lot. An invaluable sense of place and history, preservationists suggest, is at stake, not to mention natural beauty.

Yes, where casual drivers see a funky bunch of buildings, conservationists see the Hill Country’s past, present and future summed up. Mind you, the place is not advertised for sale. And it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But ask any local preservationist about the Leon Springs site for which they are most concerned, they will likely answer “the von Plehwe place” and nod solemnly.

Then, if you are lucky, they will share the real story behind those three quirky buildings. And offer a wee bit of hope.

Marlene Richardson, who is co-writing a book on the area’s rich history, says that Captain George von Plehwe first arrived in the Hill Country in the 1840s. His purpose? To escort John Meusebach, founder of Fredericksburg, on his mission to negotiate a treaty with the Comanche Indians that would allow for further European settlement. A member of the King’s Guard, the Prussian von Plehwe returned home to Bavaria and met his future bride, Sophie, who, it turns out, was about as close to a being a princess as one could be without actually being descended from royalty.

“She had been raised by the Queen of Prussia, because her mother and father had been killed when she was three years old,” says Joanna Parrish, chair of the San Antonio Conservation Society’s Historic Farm and Ranch Committee, Parrish and her co-hort are working to document and preserve numerous historic Bexar County farm sites. “She was taken into the charge of the queen, who raised her. (Sophie) was an opera singer, and she had an education, of course.”

A July 1925 San Antonio Express-News article by Penelope Borden reports that Sophie had appeared at Berlin’s acclaimed Royal Opera and counted among her friends famous scientists, historians and writers. Imagine then the culture shock when the couple relocated to Texas in the late 1840s. In the words of Borden, “Just what the transplantation from polished court to rude camp and the adaptation to utterly foreign surroundings cost them is easier to imagine than to describe.”

“At the time, this area, and Boerne especially, was known for being a most healthful environment,” says Richardson. Thus, as Captain von Plehwe was widely reported as being ill, the move was predicated on the promise of wellness.

“They (settled) 100 acres of land,” says Parrish. “For the first year, because of his health perhaps, they lived in tents on the property, and she was the one who oversaw the construction. The houses have higher pitched roofs, which is something they would have been used to in Europe, because they have snow back there. Her house was the little two-story one, with the staircase on the outside. He lived not in the next one, but in the one furthest to the West. That may have been because they suspected he had TB, but then he lived to be quite elderly for the time.”

Parrish says that the middle house, the kitchen, was an early stagecoach stop, one of several required to manage the various lines traveling through the region. Later, according to Parrish, the von Plehwes built a larger home, which remains nearby but is hidden by subsequent additions and remodeling.

As the property was a working farm, there was ample labor for the couple. From an old article in her association’s newsletter, Parrish has learned that locals recalled Sophie plowing with her velvet robes wrapped ‘round her waist. Descriptions abound, too, of rich meals and lively discussions in the household, with the lady of the cabins holding her own kind of court.

Leaving no direct heirs, the couple was interred on the property, which has changed hands a few times since the von Plehwes died over a century ago. For awhile it was an artist’s colony that inspired notable landscape painters, including Robert Wood and Rolla Taylor, to take brush in hand. The buildings, now abandoned and dilapidated, have set quietly amidst oaks and bluebonnets, attracting press from time to time and making their way into historical tours.

Conservationists say they’ve contacted the property’s current owner, singer-songwriter (and resident of The Dominion nearby) George Strait, via letter several times, citing the tax advantages for placing at least a portion of the property in trust. No formal replies have come forth, but the fact that the houses remain untouched offers hope. (Alas, a telephone inquiry made to Strait’s representative on the value and long-time plans for the property bore no fruit for this story.)

Preservationists talk of similar situations across the area, expressing hope for “win-win” situations in which old buildings like the von Plehwe cabins might be imaginatively incorporated into new commercial developments. In theory, with a bit of marketing, the pioneer past would serve as a draw for modern dollars. Remember the Alamo? “If you have something unique, why not play it up,” says Parrish. “And you don’t have to set aside every piece of land. Just the sections that have particular significance.”

“This is just such a great story,” says Parrish of the von Plehwe’s houses specifically. ”It shows the determination of the pioneers. The conservation society recognized (the property’s) value as early as the late 1920s. We’re hoping that a future developer will recognize the value, too.”

Parrish sees an opportunity for the site to provide creative inspiration once more, too. “I keep saying, ‘why can’t George Strait write a song about it?’”

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

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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.