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Mary Fenstermaker

INTERVIEWEE: Mary Fenstermaker (MF)
DATE: February 18, 2006
LOCATION: Helotes, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Jennifer Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2348

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera background noise, unrelated to the interview content.

DT: My name’s David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s February 18th, 2006. We’re just outside of Helotes, Texas. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with Mary Fenstermaker, who’s part of a—a very old Texas family, a branch of the Maverick family, which has old roots in the state. And she also has a pair of wonderful sisters that have helped protect a ranch that’s very historic itself, and has helped with plant protection, land protection, habitat protection. And in addition, she’s been involved in travel industry and home healthcare, and brings a lot of diverse talents. So I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
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MF: Thank you.
DT: I thought we might start by asking you about your forbearers who seem to have a conservation interest that you’ve inherited, or at least share. Could you go back in time a little ways and—and talk about perhaps Fort Davis?
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MF: Yes. Fort Davis is where I—that we grew up. It—my grandmother and aunt used to come out in the summers and visit with us. And Grandma was very interested in historic preservation, and so she was drawn in by our parents to the interest in the old fort on Fort Davis. It was one of the frontier forts. And Mamma and Poppa had with friends started a conservation, or a—I think it was the Fort Davis Historical Society—to try to save the old fort. It was deteriorating, the roofs were off of a lot of the buildings and all, and it was of—most of the buildings were adobe, and so any rain coming in would start
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melting the adobe. The officer’s row was stone, made out of stone. And—and they were successful in preserving it. And with the help of—mmm—here we go—Ralph Yarborough, who was, I believe, either a senator in Washington, and then I think it was Congressman Rutherford, it was eventually turned into a national park, historic park. And the Park Service does have it now, and—and that’s it. And we had—my parents had bought some property right across the highway from the fort, so that was our view. Our front door view was looking out over the fort. And before it had become a national park, the three of us and friends would ride our horses over there, and we’d go all over the—
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the property. It was a lot of fun. We enjoyed doing that. And—but the—the fort was established to help protect s—people moving west, and also the—the—the trails that were used for commerce, going into New Mexico, to—to Chihuahua from San Antonio and—and other cities and towns in Texas. It was populated by the buffalo soldiers, the Black soldiers. They were the ones—they were the soldiers that were there protecting the frontier, I guess you would call it. And the—during—this was before the Civil War—Jefferson Davis was, I believe, the Secretary of Treasury for the U.S., and he had wanted to experiment with camels.
DT: Secretary of War, I think.
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MF: Secretary of War. Using camels to transport goods. And there was a man by the name Hi Jolly, who was in charge of the camels that were brought over. And they did make it out to West Texas. And that—what has happened—you know, what happened to them after that, I think the experiment did not work out, but—and that was one of the things. So Fort Davis actually is named after Jefferson Davis. That—that was named after him, and then it did not lose that name even after the Civil War. But—it’s a—it’s a beautiful spot. They’ve done a very nice job. They’ve restored a lot of the buildings. Some they’ve just stopped the deterioration and left it the way of—they found it. So—
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and they have also found foundations that—that were not exposed at the time that we were out there, so new things have been found.
DT: Maybe you can tell us about other things that were going on in the early 1800’s. I think that one of your forbearers, a Maverick, had gotten payment of a debt with cattle.
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MF: Cattle. Cattle.
DT: Can you tell about how that all came to bring his name into the English language?
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MF: Well, Mr. Maverick was—and this is Samuel Maverick. He was a lawyer. And he was not a cattleman, he never was, and never aspired to being one. But he was paid for a debt with two hundred head of cattle. And the cattle were down along the coast, the Texas coast. And one of his slaves was left in charge of them. And the man did not do any branding other than—of the calves that were born. The c—the cows were—were branded with the Maverick brand, and—but none of the calves were. So it became sort of a—a well-known fact that a cow with the Maverick brand, with a calf unbranded along
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side her, was just referred to—the calf was referred to as a Maverick. Oh, that’s—that’s a Maverick. That’s one of Maverick’s, or—so some of the others that were around, other ranchers or cattle people, or whatever, would put their brand on the calf, because there was nobody branding them. And when Mr. Maverick sold the cattle, he sold the original two hundred head of cattle, and he sold them to a man by the name of Tuton Beauregard, who was up here in this part of state, around San Antonio and the Hill Country. So he—he had no profit, shall we say. He—he did not increase the herd any—at all. But that’s how he got the na—the cattle referred to as Mavericks. That’s how—where the—the term originated.
DT: A few years later, as I understand it, your family came into a place that is now called, and—the Maverick-Altgelt Ranch and the Fenstermaker-Fromme Farm.
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MF: Fromme Farm.
DT: One of the more of the more historic places, you know, in—in ranch operation in the state. And I was curious how that came into your family, and—and maybe you can describe it a little bit.
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MF: It’s—it’s in northwest Bexar County, which is the beginning of the Hill Country in Texas. And it r—it’s a l—in a part of what they call the Balcones Canyon Lands, the Balcones Escarpment. It—it’s a fault line in—it starts out, oh, probably around Del Rio and runs in an arc up through east of San Antonio. And it—Mr.—our great grandfather, George Maverick, and his wife, Mary Vance-Maverick, bought the property. Mr. Maverick—this Mr. Maverick was bothered by the heat, the summer heat of San Antonio i—in south Texas, and so he bought that so that the family could go there in the
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summertime and sort of escape the heat of San Antonio. That—he—he had also gone—he and Mrs. Maverick had moved to—they first started in Sedalia, Missouri thinking that the railroad was going to come through there. But it didn’t, it went elsewhere. And so they, like for instance, St. Louis, and so they mov—then moved to St. Louis. And that’s—but they left Texas to go to Missouri, also because of the heat. It really affected
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him. But—when they returned, he and Mrs. Maverick then bought the property in 1907. and it had belonged to Ernst and Emma Altgelt. And Mr. Altgelt had died. And I don’t know whether she had died at the time or not, but that’s how they acquired the—the ranch from that. And—actually, the cattle business, the ranching didn’t start until we started it back in the ‘80s—1980’s. They had leased it for grazing, but the family itself had really not done much ranching (?).
DT: What was—what was it leased for? Was it sheep, or goats, or cattle?
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MF: Mainly cattle and sheep. Mm-mmm. And—pretty well over-grazed, I might add. So that has been one of the projects we have had, the three of us, is to not overgraze it. So we do try to watch that. And—that—that’s also one reason why we chose the breed of cattle that we did, which is longhorn, because they are—they are an—they eat more than just grass. They’ll eat brush and—and whatnot. And so they’re pretty versatile in their grazing.
DT: This ranch that—the farm that you have and operate, my understanding is that it’s historic—it’s on the historic registry, and that there’s some old houses and outbuildings there. Can you talk a little bit about what’s there?
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MF: Yes. Back in—I think the 1972 or ‘76; I don’t recall exactly, we worked to put it on the National Register of Historic Places, fence line to fence line. The whole—whole place is. It’s not just the buildings, it’s the entire property. And in the ‘50s, 1955, Mamma and Poppa acquired the Fromme Farm, which na—is—adjoins the ranch along a creek. And Mamma had grown up at the ranch. And after her father died, her mother moved the family out there. And they knew the Fromme’s. They visited with the Fromme’s. And Mr. Fromme had come over from Alsace-Lorraine with his parents. His—I believe it was his father had died on the way over on the ship, and his mother died
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right soon after they got to Texas. So he grew up in the orphanage in New Braunfels. And then as a teenager he was a freighter from San—between San Antonio and Fredericksburg, and he knew that there was a spring on this one area, and he would stop there and—and spend the night, and then go on to Fredericksburg. So after the Civil War—now he was a—he was in the Confederate Army, which is kind of unusual for a—a German to be in the Confederate Army, but he was. And with land script after the Civil War, he acquired this particular piece of property. And he built—he and his sons built
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the buildings there. There’s a house and a barn, a smokehouse, a spring house, there’s a shed row behind, there’s a potato cellar, and I think there was also a chicken coop, and a pig sty. And beautiful rock walls that they constructed. He worked his sons from daylight to dusk. And I’ve—we heard that when they attained their majority, they left. They did not—they did not stick around. But Mr. Fromme was a—a very hard worker and a farmer. He was. And on the Maverick Ranch, the barn or stable had been out in front of what we call “the big room,” which it was—at the time it was a—a stone house,
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and then it—it—it had a—a part of the house was fachwerk, which is timbers and, oh, stone and plaster construction. And he—Mr. Maverick had the barn taken down and moved to its present location because it blocked the southwest—southeast breeze from San Antonio, or from the Gulf. And he did not want to miss out on that. But—let’s see, at the ranch, at—there was a fire in—I forget which year that was—which destroyed the fachwerk of that ho—part, section of the house. And so there was the—at the time it had been a two-story rock-stone structure that was also a part of that, and they made that in
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just to what we call “the big room.” It’s just a big two-story, but without the second story. It’s all one big room. And then behind that is what is the cook house, and that’s where there are some bedrooms—a couple of bedrooms, and a dining room, living room, and kitchen.
DT: Well, when you look at the buildings on the Fromme place, on the Maverick Ranch as well, can you kind of decipher how people might have lived in the late 1800’s? I guess it’s pretty much a self-sufficient operation then.
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MF: Yes, yes. The Mavericks did have a small herd of sheep. And of course chickens. They would have chickens. And—M—Mr. Fromme—I mean Mr. Maverick had planted fig trees, so they—they had those. And then my grandfather had two brothers—Green—Otha and—and—oh, I can’t—geez—forgetting h—the other one’s name. But they also—they made sure there were horses and ponies for the children to ride, and all. And so there were—they had that also. They had a milk cow. I’m sure—I know they had a milk cow also. So—and I would imagine they did some gardening. Mr. Fromme had hogs. He had a few head of cattle. He had a s—a team of little mules that he used in his farming. And then he also had, like a—I know he had a potat—potato field right down along the creek that they had in a garden down—area down there too.
DT: I was intrigued. You said that it had animals on the place. Cattle and sheep. And that after you and your sisters became involved; you realized that it had been pretty over-grazed. And I was wondering what kind of signs you saw of that, and how you’ve managed to try and restore it.
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MF: Well, the—one way you can tell that it’s been over-grazed is there’s very little grass, and there—it’s—what grass that there is not of the highest quality. And certainly—there are certain types of grasses, like switch grass, big bluestem, little blue stem, and Indian grass, are favorites of—of livestock, especially cattle. And they’ll eat that out first. They’ll over-graze that. There’s some muhly’s, like Lindheimer’s muhly, and there’s one we call seep muhly, which is a very kind of short, curly grass. And there are stages of grasses, too, that will come in the—they’re succession grasses. Some—the first one that—that’ll come in after over-grazing, and then the better quality ones come later. So there are also forbs. You’ll have more forbs, which most people refer to as weeds, that—but you’ll see more of that than you will grass in—in an un—over-grazed
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area. So—in fact there is, towards the back of the ranch, where it is steeper and you have higher elevations, the seep muhly is coming back. It’s covering the really over-grazed ledges and—and flat areas back there. We’ve watched it o—over several years coming in. It’s really nice to see it taking hold.
DT: And it’s taking hold, coming back because you’ve de-stocked? Or because you’ve planted some of it? Or…
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MF: No. It’s come back on its own.
DT: …fenced it off?
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MF: It—it’s—and is spreading. And the livestock goes back there, but we don’t allow it to just sit on the—in—on one spot. We move them around, keep them moving around so they don’t over-graze one area, or over another area.
DT: So have you cross-fenced your property?
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MF: Not really. We haven’t. I guess you’d say we use cedar to keep them out of areas. The rougher areas and over what—that have heavier amounts of cedar on it, they don’t go to quite as often. So that—it—in the sense, it’s a kind of a natural cross-fencing, I guess you’d say.
DT: Well, speaking of the cedar, I—I believe you’ve been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to build up the—the vireo habitat. Is that correct?
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MF: Yes. The Black-capped vireo. Mm-mmm.
DT: And I was hoping you could talk about how you tried to kind of change the habitat somewhat to benefit those birds. What kind of machinery you use, what sort of issues you ran into in—in promoting that?
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MF: We had it—worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife on a project to in—increase Black-caped vireo habitat in a certain area. And they were—I guess you’d say, generous enough so that we could hire an operation that used a hydraulic clippers, or—that would go in and remove the cedar. And that was done. We learned a lot with that, and we learned that we needed to, if we did it again, organize how to go about removing the cedar, and do it in a kind of methodical, or a—kind of a regulated way, and not just jump around the area. Just, you know, start at one end and go to the other end, and all. And we knew—we watched the use of a saw attached to the front end of a be—bobcat, and we
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would not recommend that use. It did—it did not do a good job. It was sort of a messy—messy job. The—the clipping one—tool was much better, the hydraulic clipper. In addition to removing the cedar, it was—it was really a—a choked up cedar area, with oaks and—and other brush. Persimmon, and—and—mmm—I don’t know if we had any Silk Tassel or whatnot in there, but there were different kinds of oaks, too. We had Live Oak, and—and there were some Post Oak, and—and Spanish oak, Shin Oak, and we were advi—we were s—told that we had to remove Live Oaks that were—mmm—ten
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inches or less in diameter, and at chest high height. And that was kind of scary, because we—you know, nobody wants to r—lose their oaks. And we didn’t think we wanted to either, but we gritted our teeth and we said okay. And—and we went through and marked the ones we were going to remove, and tried to figure out which ones we would leave, and whatnot. Now it was just the Live Oak that were to be removed, not the other oaks. And—so when they first started removing them, they used the same pinchers that they had used on the cedar, which proved not to be good because it would cause a—a split, a cracking of the tree, the trunk. And because of Live Oak decline, we were having
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to spray every cut of the oak so that the—it’s a beetle that comes in with a—kind of a disease on—from—and it can carry it from oak to another. So what happened was that they would go in and grab the—the oak up kind of high, and then another person would come in with a chainsaw and s—and r—cut it below, and then they would just l—drop the trunk to the side of the stump. And then we could just go in and paint or spray. And we were using up old paint, all different colors, so there’s everything from barn red to blue, to green, to a kind of a greeny-gray that we used. We mixed colors and whatnot just to get it done.
DT: You mentioned briefly about oak declines. I guess some people call it oak wilt.
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MF: Oak wilt. Yes. Mm-mmm.
DT: What sort of effects of oak wilt are you seeing in the Hill Country area?
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MF: Oh, terrible amounts of it. And—and we’ve even had some on our—on the ranch. We did some—we did—had some trenching done to keep it from going any further. But it’s in Bexar County. I know it’s in the counties to the northwest of us. You can—going towards Fredericksburg, you can s—really see the effects of it. Now some of the Texas forestry people will tell you that it’s because we have too many oaks, too many Live Oaks. This was supposedly Tex—this part of Texas, even down to the Gulf Coast was a prairie. And they had buffalo grazing all the way down to the coast. So there are accounts of—of that. So—and when Mamma was growing up, and her siblings, when they were living at the ranch, the cedars were—if there were any, they were right in rough areas where fire couldn’t get to easily. And they could see from the ranch house down to the county road—at—down to the gate. And often they would see people
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turning in to come and visit and Grandma would run in and start a batch of cookies, cook a—get them ready for—by the time they got to the house. And they—the cookies were ready or the cakes—they called them hard cakes at that time. So it—it was pretty open. And what oaks were around, Live Oaks and the other (?), were not—not nowhere near the number that are there now. And they were—it was a—much more open site.
DT: Well, I think you’ve been active with the Native Plant Society. Is that right?
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MF: Yes. Uh-huh.
DT: And—and the Master Naturalist Program as well?
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MF: Right. Mm-mmm.
DT: Can you talk about why you got involved in that? Or what you’ve learned?
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MF: Well, the Native Plant Society, we worked to help—they were a group of people that wanted to get a chapter started in Boerne, and—and so they invited us to join them, and we happily did. And it’s been a very active group. We have good speakers that come in and talk about all different kinds of things. And Bebe and I have worked on the Plant Rescue Committee. And—it’s where we go in and we either get seed, collect seed, or just dig a plant up in an area that is going to be usually developed, and we save them. Sometimes we spread them around to the other group members to try their ha—try to keep them alive and plant them either in their yard or if they have a piece of property
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they want to get it started on, they can plant it there. The—at our meetings we have a seed exchange program, where they—people bring in seed, and then others will ta—take it and try it—try to raise it, and get it to grow. And then the Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne has a mostly native plant sale every year, and so we have—the Native Plant Society has a booth where they sell native plants. And a lot of them are these same propagated plants. And—and I’m…
DT: And—and is part of it about the study as well as—as rescuing these plants? Learning more about them and…
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MF: Yes.
DT: …exchanging that knowledge?
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MF: Uh-huh. Yes it is. It is. And—and we work closely also with Parks and Wildlife on—the plant group does, on what plants to promote. And the—there are some native plants that are getting scarce. They’re—especially the grasses. A lot of introduced grasses will out-compete the native grasses. KR bluestem, King Ranch bluestem. I’ll just name it, because they’re the ones that got it going—brought in during the drought of the ‘50s to—it was a very—it’s a very strong, sturdy grass, and it—it’s very prolific, and it can take over an area and really be the dominant grass. But that’s true of a lot of exotic plants that come in. And thankfully, just this year we’ve found out that Texas is going to
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start saying—and it has, started saying no to a lot of the exotic plants. They cannot be brought into this state for sale, and cannot be offered for sale at nurseries anymore because they have gotten out of hand. They out-compete the native plants.
DT: Well, is this sort of related to Project Nice, where you’ve…
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MF: No.
DT: …work with a couple of nurseries?
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MF: Project—yeah. Project Nice was started by some of the members of our group, working with nurseries to promote native plants to homeowners, and who are putting in new yards, new—you know, new houses, and—and all over exotic plants. And it is now—other chapters of the Native Plant Society have—across the state have—have started their Project Nice projects, too.
DT: So far you’ve told us a little bit about the ranch and the historic aspects, cultural aspects, buildings and architecture there, as well as the plants that make it special. I was hoping that you might be able to tell us what sort of risks you see to all those special qualities surviving into the future. I think there have been roads proposed, utilities, and so on. What are some of the things that you’ve faced and worked on?
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MF: I guess the first—battle, because that’s what it was, that we faced and were involved in, involved the Texas Highway Department. And that was over State Highway 211, which was supposed to be another loop around San Antonio. And there were developers who had acquired land on the west side of San Antonio. And they were donating right-of-way for a highway. And it involved a research—medical research park that was being constructed, and they wanted an easy access to it. And San Antonio already had 410 and 1604 that looped around it, and so this is just—it’s like dropping a stone in water and you just get all these ripples. I guess they want to make all these ripples around the cities. But we learned about it—about the highway coming our way from a neighbor to the back of us, and went over to his house and saw the map, and realized it was directed right—to come right through us. And Martha—we—Martha was
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down in—is—was down in Laredo at the time, and we knew we needed a—an attorney, a good one. And I don’t know how we knew this, but we knew we didn’t want a local attorney. There was too much political ba—business going on in Bexar County. And—so she had heard of an attorney out of Dallas. And we talked to him, and eventually he’s the one we chose to work with. And right off the bat he told us that we could work with various groups or—it—he said you can try to work them and all, he said, but I’ll tell you right now, you’re on your own, and it’s just going to be you all, and you will have to, you
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know, really do a lot of work. We did get friends and—and others to write letters to the Highway Department objecting to the highway. And we attended Sunset meetings or—that were going on at the time, and the Highway Department was under Sunset review. Too bad it wasn’t. And it was a—a learning experience. One thing we did learn was to try not to be overly excited, or overly depressed by whatever news we were getting, being fed at the moment. And it—it was a—kind of a—it—it took—it was a drain on you. So
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it—we were glad that it was more than just one of us working on it. And family members, too, helped out.
DT: Well, how did you manage to dissuade, or at least postpone the construction of 211?
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MF: We luckily had to—two endangered birds on—and had a history of them being on the place from the San Antonio Audubon Society who—a Mrs. Adel Harding had a l—kept lists of birds that they had—when they s—would come out to the ranch to bird watch, they would make lists of birds that they would see at each time, and sure enough, both of those birds were on that list. And at that time the Endangered Species Act had—I guess it had just pretty much come into existence, and they knew that the two birds were in kind of—they—well, they were endangered here in Texas, and they had—there had
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been a lot of activity to try and preserve them, make sure that they didn’t lose them. And so that’s—ended up being one of the things that helped us a lot, because they did find them.
DT: Well, did you find other arguments? Because I’ve heard of some properties that have been slated and approved for development because they mitigate habitat for vireos and warblers with protecting habitat elsewhere. How did you manage to find some other tactics to try and stop the road?
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MF: Well, I g—I guess one of our nicest tactics—and it’s not really—was a fellow rancher who said, no, they weren’t coming through their place either. They had been promised right-of-way by one of the family members, and—but in the end, they said no. And that was a—we’ll always be very grateful to them for doing that because that helped us—that was just—two of us in a line saying no to it. And that—I’m not sure just why, whether they ran out of money or what, but they did not come through. They didn’t finish what they started, coming this—this direction.
DT: What about some of these other projects? I think there was a substation; there was a power transmission line.
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MF: Mm-mmm.
DT: Can you tell us a little bit about what those proposals were for, and how you succeeded in stopping them as well?
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MF: Well, it’s the—the Public Utility in San Antonio. We get our power from them too. But they wanted to come into our neighborhood and put in a substation right at a—across the st—the road from a—a development, a subdivision, and then put the power lines right across us. And of course, it would go through s—and they would go over the—some of the highest part of the property, so we knew we’d be having these huge power lines going right in front of us. And so the whole neighborhood really got together. The sub—subdivision and the individual property owners up and down the road, and they pitched a fit and said no. It was also where they wanted to put the substation was property we knew had been flooded in the past, because the creek go—a creek goes right alongside it in one spot. And so we made that well known, that they would be putting a substation with—for electricity right in the middle of a flood plain.
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And so that was stopped. And—but it is—then they came back again to the north of us. That was to the south of us. Then the next time they came back to the north of us wanting to come through with power lines, and that—that was—that was interesting too. They—they did what the Highway Department did. They—they would say, you know, we—they would say they had three different ways they could do it, and which would we prefer? Well, you know, we don’t prefer any of them. We really tried to get them to go down IH-10, but in the end they—they did go through people’s property who had—in
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another location. They put them in. We tried to get all the groups that were in each pro—each plan to get together as a group, and—a larger group, and say no, put it down 10. It’s already a utility corridor. And that’s where—where the—the lines should go. But some of the group—other groups did not want to work with us. They were—they wanted to just do it on their own. And so I guess we were vocal enough in that we kept it off of us. And some of the others got a little boost. But they kept it off of them. But then the last time that we dealt with the utility, it was just us. We had had a pole that had busted. And so we got the inspector out to look at it, and they noticed that our—the poles
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that went through the ranch and Fromme’s were dated back to the very original poles. And, oh, they needed to be replaced. And there was one at the back of Bebe’s—where Bebe is that had been ticketed, and had a ticket on it from some years before saying it needed to be replaced. Anyway, it went back and forth, and they’d bring teams out to look and say how—you know, where to put the new poles and everything. And then
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finally we just—it—it got pretty annoying because they kept on bringing people out. We were always having to meet with them and it just took time to do it, and we’d have to walk around with them. So finally we told them if they wanted to come on they were going to have to notify the attorney and set it up. And we never heard from them again. And then one day Bebe and I were in two different house at the ranch, and the phone rang, and each house had a—building had a phone. And I guess Bebe picked the phone up first and answered it, and it was this woman from the Power Company. And I picked
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it up just right after Bebe did. And she said that she was going to bring the Deputy Sheriff to the gate, and expected to be able to come in. And she even said at one point that they were going—they were—they would come in with guns, if they had to. And I’ve never—I—I can’t believe a public servant like that. You know, I mean that was just totally—and—so we said no, we’re not talking with you, you’re supposed to go through the attorney. And she wasn’t—she wouldn’t take his name or his phone number, and so finally Bebe said you have one more opportunity to take his phone number, we’re getting
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off the line. And she did. In fact she also said that they had sent a letter out that we had—had returned unopened. And we hadn’t received, or even known anything about a letter being sent by them. So anyway, we talked to the attorney after she had phoned him. And he asked her what address that they had used. Well, they were using an—they had sent the letter to an—an address that was like eleven years old that we hadn’t used for eleven years, or something like that. And if you know the Boerne Post Office, man,
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they aren’t going to deliver it to the name. It’s got to be the right number, post office box, or whatever, or they send it right back. And the—the letter had come from their legal department. And what was interesting is they—their bills come to—kept coming to the right address, but their legal department couldn’t get the right address. So, anyway, that was interesting in having the—and they thought they had a right-of-way through the ranch, which they did not. So they—and they still don’t either. The Fromme’s did have
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it, so they got to put their poles in where they wanted to up to the ranch fence line, and then after that we told them where they were going to put the poles. So it—it was—it’s been in—an interesting little learning—with them.
DT: It’s—it’s interesting to me that you’ve had to fight each of these proposals individually and in sequence, and again and again. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the strategies for preserving land over the long haul. I mean I think you all explored working with land trusts, using conservation easements, maybe other strategies. Can you discuss that?
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MF: Yes. In fact, Martha and I had gone to a seminar that was at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, and it was on conservation easements, and the groups that take confer—conservation easements. And the head of—at the time, the head of Parks and Wildlife was there, and he said that they did take conservation easements, but they couldn’t take every one of them, and that’s wh—wh—why they were trying to encourage other groups to get together and become a—an entity that could take conservation easements. And they wanted to educate land owners as to what a conservation easement was. And—so they did that, and…
DT: What is an easement?
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MF: It—a conservation easement is—you—you turn—you—you keep your land, but you give the—the right to—to an organization to help you keep it open. It’s to keep land from being develop—help keep land from being developed. And it fit with wha—our plan for the ranch, because we’d—we did not want to—we do not want to develop it. And so you look for a—a group that meets your—that you’re interested in, you think you can work with, and they will—you—it’s—you just have a document that you work out—I mean you—it’s between you and the group, and it keeps the land—helps keep the land open. And you can—the land owner gets to say how they want the land to be wh—you
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know, whether you all own another building to be built or whatever, but you pretty much get to call the shots as to what you want for the future of the property. And it does give people who do not want to develop their—their land a chance to keep it that—as they want. And it’s interesting how many people are beginning to do that with their property. I wish more people would, because too many people either lose their land because of taxes, or they just would rather have the things to—the money to buy things, and they just let the land go. And we lose a lot of native habitat, and it’s sad, because then it’s developed usually. Turned into houses, cheek by jowl.
DT: Well, I think it’s interesting that your interest in plants and in history, and in conservation of your ranch and what’s found there, something you share with your forbearers and with your sisters. And I was wondering, first, well, what is it that sets you apart from most people that would probably would choose, as you say, to buy their things rather than keep the ranch, and to keep the plants and animals that live there in tact? And then, secondly, what is it like to work with your sisters as a team?
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MF: I think we learned early from our parents, and from our grandmother and our aunt—aunt, the value of open space. And in a city or a town, the value of a park, where people can get outdoors and—and learn. We were lucky that we grew up in a little ranching community, and so we were always out running around. And I think at that time—this was back in the ‘50s, especially in the r—rural areas, kids were out—out of doors doing things. They weren’t in front—and we didn’t have TV’s. That was just beginning to come in at that time. Certainly no computers and all of the equipment since that, too. So kids were out—out of doors. They were not indoors. And air conditioning was just beginning. And so you didn’t have that either. And—mmm—what was the…
DT: Well, the second question is, what is it like to work with your sisters over many years about something that you share a concern about?
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MF: Right. Well, I think y—think it is—it is kind of remarkable that the three of us kind of have the same thoughts of saving the place. Often families don’t, and there’s a split in the family. Some want to keep it, some don’t. And it makes it very difficult. We had good memories from the ranch. We had spent a summer there when we were still living in Fort Davis out there. And it certainly saved us when we moved back into San Antonio. I mean we were living in a little, like, six—seven hundred population area, and when we moved back to San Antonio, it was rather large. And so it was nice to be—on the weekends to be able to go out and get away from the city. And so—but we did—for
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some reason we all just sort of wanted to preserve what we had, and keep it open. And as you go around and you see houses all over the hillsides, it—it’s nice not to see that. There are some states that have what they call a “ridgeline law.” I wish Texas had it. And it keeps houses from being—or buildings being put up from the—up on the ridgeline of hills and mountains. And it just preserves the view of a—and you don’t have to look at somebody’s house all the time. Mountain—I mean mansion or whatever.
DT: You’ve worked hard to protect your piece of land, and privately held. But there are also some tracks that have been protected as public open space. And I was curious if you could add your thoughts about work on Government Canyon State Natural Area, a preserve not too far from here.
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MF: Yes. See, it’s—here in northwest Bexar County. It’s several thousand acres of property, and it was acquired by a group of—let’s see, I think it was city of San Antonio SAWS, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Bexar County, and Trust for Public Land were all involved. In the beginning, a group of just citizens, Kyle Cunningham from Helotes and Irene Scharf from Grey Forest, and Bebe and me, and others. There were some others right in the beginning—were kind of—we were brought together by Kyle a—actually. She wanted to save this piece of property she was looking at it as a park. And it was going to be a headache to acquire. And at the time, County Commissioner [Paul] Elizondo
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said that he knew of another piece of property that we should look at, and told Kyle there was this other piece of property, and let’s—you know, that that was the one to work on. And so that’s—that’s what we did. We—we started working on it, and how to acquire it. Kyle was just vigilant on it, and she kept us all with our noses to the grindstone to acquire it. And Trust for Public Land came down and was able to help get it pulled together and get the entities. It—it was also one of the selling points for it was it—it’s—it was a big recharge area for the Edwards. And at that time the Edwards was having—it was
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becoming, you know, known as San Antonio’s sole water source, and so people were realizing that maybe we needed to save the recharge area. And San Antonio was worried about losing their recharge area which was—but it’s a very unique park. It’s—it’s a beautiful park. It’s just opened. And Bebe and I and—were at a—well, it was kind of a
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evening session. They had—Parks and Wildlife is the—the entity that will-is overseeing the park. They had brought in all their district supervisors. This was back in the—mmm—fall or late summer of last year—to help put in trail signs, and to—you know, they thought they were going to open it in the summer. And—so I guess this was in the spring, actually, when this meeting was. And it was interesting to listen to those supervisors talk. They were—they had no idea of the kind of park that this was—was until they got here. They came from all over the state. They were just overwhelmed.
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And they realized why it had taken so long. It’s been several years since this piece of property was acquired, and they have developed it into the park over a great number—a—oh, it’s like—maybe six—seven years it’s taken them to get it open, or longer. But it was done slowly and a lot of thought put into it, good thoughts, and planning. And—so they would go out in teams to put in these signs in the—what you would—in rock is what they were having to beat—beat the signs into. And they—so they—they got it—the—a—a taste of why it was—had taken so long, and they realized how important this was. And it’s a—this park is within the city limits of San Antonio. So it’s—it’s quite—quite a unique, certainly for Texas, park.
DT: You mentioned that the Government Canyon State Natural Area is in part preserved because it’s a recharge area for the Edwards Aquifer. I wonder if you have any memories or insights about water in this area? Protection of the Trinity and the Edwards?
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MF: Yes. Where the ranch is and the Fromme Farm is a, you know, on the Trinity Aquifer. It’s a—a large aquifer. It starts up around the Red River and comes all the way down this—this far. And compared to the Edwards, which is a, really a very small, but deep aquifer, but its width is not very much at all, it’s surprising it starts around Uvalde and goes up, oh, just probably this side of Austin. And the water in the Edwards flows from west to east, so San Antonio’s water actually comes from the west, the counties to the west. And water—water that comes from rain and recharge in Bexar County is used by the counties to the east of Bexar County. Luckily, San Antonio has realized that it
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needed to preserve some of its recharge area. And the Trinity Aquifer is a contributing—what they call a—a contributing recharge. So right now the—the city of San Antonio is worried about its—generally its—its m—first recharge area. They’re kind of reluctant to go any further out than that. But the Trinity does not recharge as quickly as the Edwards does. There—in fact, they have found maybe one location where it does get its—one or two get its m—recharge. It’s kind—it’s not as porous as the Edwards. The—
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the limestone isn’t. And it’s—it’s—it’s—being overtaxed by wells and use, growing population to the north and northwest. And we did try to get a—a bill passed to—in the State Legislature for a water district. It did not go through the first time. And then the second attempt, our State Rep took over the writing of the bill. And unfortunately, we
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found out that the large water purveyors had been exempted from paying any kind of water tax, or use tax, but were going to be allowed to pump out of the Trinity. And I mean this is like the s—San Antonio Water Systems, and—and in some of the other big purveyors for the growing subdivisions that are going in on this end of San Antonio, the north side of San Antonio. So that—that really—it—it—it worries us. It does. We have Boerne to the north that’s just growing steadily, and they’re on the Trinity. And there are a lot of other growing rural communities and—that are using the Trin—that are on the Trinity, so it—it’s—it is a worry to people.
DT: Well, these—these issues…
DT: Well, could you please give us some advice about land and water conservation, given your experience? And maybe advice for the future in those who will inherit the struggle to keep things in tact?
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MF: Well, when I was growing up, owning land, it—it was a—something that people were proud of. And they seem to have lost it here in Texas, that—that desire to have land. But I think it is important to have open space. The—I don’t know what children are going ha—as a child growing up with open space to just run around and do things in,
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it’s—to me, I can’t even fathom children not knowing about nature and what goes on in—in—in the land and—and water. We had—do ha—all over the—I mean you go on all ends of the earth you—water is—is the main—you know, is the main thing. People need water. We shouldn’t—it should not be owned by anybody. It—but it—people should not be denied water. Anyway, I was going to say something. I can’t remember what it was. But—oh, I remember Mamma and Poppa saying before they died that the next wars were going to be over water. And they’re absolutely right. They’re
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absolutely—they’re right. The population—world population has outstripped, I’m sure, the amount of water—or is it—or is outstripping it. And the destruction or the paving over of open space with concrete and asphalt is just creating havoc with wildlife habitat. It is also, I think, a detriment to the water underground that—where we get our water. I do read and hear about bringing in icebergs and seeding clouds and—and whatnot for more water, but there—and I never hear anybody saying anything about controlling the growth of population of people. We’re real good about controlling the population of other creatures, but we don’t seem to be able to get a handle on our own growth. And…
End of Reel 2348
End of Interview with Mary Fenstermaker