All In The Family
By Margorie Hagy
My oldest daughter sent me this text the other day: ‘I’m afraid we have mental illness in our family relating to inanimate objects having feelings.’ See, she had just determined to trade in her car, had cleaned it all out and was just then waiting in the car salesman’s office while he and the manager played their game of good cop/bad cop. She then became overwhelmed with pity for her car, which had apparently sensed her intentions and had behaved perfectly on the drive to the dealership, begging, in effect, ‘See?! I can do better! I won’t be bad no more!’ Like a foundling in Oliver Twist’s day realizing he’s about to be left on the orphanage steps.
She knew I could relate. I have a plant in the yard I’ve been tenderly nursing along because it’s sickly and I know all the other plants hate it and make it feel inferior. Even my brother-in-law, the very epitome of a gruff unemotional guy, has a tenderness for a mismatched fork they have in their silverware drawer, that’s probably been rattling around in there since their house became a house. He not only refuses to let my sister get rid of the thing, he insists on always eating with his little Forky, and the rest of the family knows to save it for him because it’s his baby. My brother-in-law, who frequently threatens to murder me at family holiday dinners, with a pet fork.
I guess that’s what she meant about the craziness being family-wide. That brother-in-law, along with his fork and my sister, live in another inanimate object on Brackenridge Street right smack in the middle of town.
It’s a purple house that used to be yellow, and white at some point, and blue. When they scraped it back to paint it purple so many coats of paint turned up there was some fear that there might not be any wood under there at all. It’s a little house that used to be even smaller, but we’re going all the way back to when there wasn’t a house there at all, just a patch of land running down to the Frederick Creek.
In the beginning the land belonged to nobody and everybody because the people who had lived in this country for generation after generation, time out of mind before it was ever ‘discovered’, knew that land and sky and creek alike are not inanimate objects to be owned and hoarded. That native people lived on this lovely swath of land between two creeks at least seasonally was known to at least two little boys who grew up in the house on Brackenridge and who often found their arrowheads down by the water.
Well, of course white people eventually came along and spoiled everything, and the land suddenly belonged to people; to Spain for a while and to Mexico and everybody fought over it and it eventually ended up as the property of the State of Texas. This particular piece of ground was soon on the edge of a brand-new village, a place just founded by a bunch of German ex-pats who’d decided, actually, to put their stakes down where they did largely because of the loveliness of this very place at the convergence of the two creeks.
In the late 1850s, with Boerne still a spanking-new village, a guy named Henry Graham, scion of a wealthy family, one of the first families in Boerne, and son of a judge, began buying up land all over town. He was apparently a savvy man, or at least one with a pretty good idea of what was fixing to happen when the little town outgrew its first set of clothes, so he acquired land all over the place with his eye on turning over a profit when Boerne started needing more room to stretch out in. He bought tracts as small as sixty acres or so, and he bought out one family to the tune of forty-six hundred acres, and he bought up the land that had come to be known as The Flats. The swath of land had been used as slave quarters, and when these black Boerneites finally won their freedom, many of them would buy or continue to rent their places from Graham and the Flats would continue as a thriving black community for many years. In the 80s, he decided that the time had come and he and a partner had the land surveyed and divided into lots and then had the parcel of land annexed to Boerne as the Irons/Graham Addition. Just a plank bridge over the Cibolo Creek away from our present-day Town Square, (and what was then a common grazing ground for cattle waiting to be driven up the Chisholm Trail,) and one block back was a street called, on the map of this new part of town, Brackenridge Street, after San Antonio’s George Brackenridge, a famous banker and philanthropist for whom the park in SA is named. School Street was then called Russ Street, but Brackenridge has always been Brackenridge. And in 1912, lots 30 and 31 in the Irons/Graham Addition, fronting on Brackenridge Street and running down to the Frederick Creek, were purchased for six hundred dollars from Henry Graham by Louis and Addie Potter Voges.
Louis Voges was the grandson of one of Boerne’s original settlers- literally a founding father- and the son of Fritz Voges who owned one of the town’s first butcher shops on the corner or Main Street and Rosewood. Mrs Adeline Voges- Addie- was the daughter of Andrew Potter and Melvina Cravey Potter. Louis and Addie were married in 1904, when he was twenty-one and she just sixteen years old, and when they bought their homestead in 1912- one hundred years ago now- they already had the first two of the five daughters they would eventually have.
There was no house then, and the Voges’ didn’t have a lot of money, but they set to work immediately to build their home. It was a wood frame house on a cedar-post foundation, with a front bedroom, small second bedroom, a little parlor area between the two that formed the long part of the T-shape of the house, and a porch that wrapped around the side. Kitchens were usually not attached to the house in those days when cooking was done on a hot wood stove, but there was a fireplace off the common area next to the tiny back bedroom. The facilities were housed in a privy out back, downwind and downstream from the house. With help from the young couple’s families, the brand new house was ready in time for the Voges’ third daughter to be born in December of 1913. Daughter Lou Ella came along in 1916.
If any object can have feelings then it would have been this house at this time. Brand new and filled with the growing family that adored it and was grateful for every board in it, by 1918 there were little girls from two to nine years old, and Addie Voges was days away from delivering her fifth child. And then without warning, after only a day or two of a very sudden illness, Louis Voges, just thirty-nine, died of appendicitis. He was buried in the Boerne Cemetery the next day, November 11, 1918, the evening of the day the Armistice was signed ending the Great War in Europe. There was mourning in the house. Annie gave birth to their youngest daughter twelve days after her husband’s death. She named the baby Audrey Louie, for the father she would never know.
Addie, also known as ‘Biggie’, never married again, but raised her brood of daughters alone- no mean feat, raising five kids on your own, as I can tell you from experience. This is not a job for a timorous woman. But ya do whatcha gotta do, and oh the rewards! And the fun we had- both me and, I’m certain, Ms Addie Voges. The little house must’ve hopped about then! In order to support herself and her little girls, Mrs Voges worked as a seamstress, setting up shop in the front parlor of her house, and to make ends meet, she also began to take in boarders. Did I mention the two bedrooms, one of which was slightly bigger than a decent sized closet?
Keep in mind the five little girls, the one frazzled single mother, throw in a couple of people paying cash for three hots and a cot, slinging hash in a sweltering shed out back with a milk cow and a flock of egg-hens underfoot, the obligatory vegetable garden, a customer or two being measured in the front room and the whole kit and caboodle of em all doing their dirty business in the backyard privy-recall that anti-depressants hadn’t been invented yet and Prohibition was making it hard to get booze, and you start to get a picture of Addie’s life during the twenties. And I thought I had it rough.
She got em raised though, all five of her girls, and they started pairing off and getting married as girls will do. Elsa Mae Voges married Mr Henry Luther, and Mamie, Anton Bergmann in 1928. Ida married Benton (Ben) Gresham, Lou Ella married Mr Henry Gray in 1934, and finally baby Audrey, born two weeks after her daddy’s death, married Mr Roy Youngblood in 1943. Addie Potter Voges had done her hard job well, and her house on Brackenridge Street swelled with the harvest, and filled up with her grandchildren.
Addie left her well-loved home for the last time, after a lifetime of love there, in April 1954. The house, bereft now, belonged to her daughters and her grandson Jack, son of Mamie and Anton ‘Toni’ Bergmann, who’d died young and tragically in 1948. Ida Minnie and her husband Ben Gresham, though, wanted to stay in the house, and so they bought out her sister’s and nephew’s interest in the place, and they lived there for a while with their daughter Bennie, who would become the wife of Sonny Davis and a muchbeloved lady in Boerne who died only recently and all too soon.
But the Greshams wouldn’t stay for too long, and the house was about to know a whole new family, start a whole new story. In the last month of 1958, Ida and Ben sold the house Ida’s parents built and the land down to the creek, to Polito and Marcelina Hernandez.
Marcelina and Polito didn’t come to their new house on Brackenridge Street as the Voges’ had, as a young couple to their first home with their little bitty children, but as older folks, sixty-seven and fifty-eight, to a place of rest and permanency at last, to a place all their own. They had both worked hard, very hard, all their lives, often following the crops across the US as seasonal laborers, when Marcelina- or Martha, as she was calledwould often leave the harvesting earlier than the others so she could cook meals for the whole camp. Their home on Brackenridge was a haven to them and general headquarters for their sprawling family, and soon the little place was filled to the rafters again. Martha took to planting things- that lady could make anything grow, and didn’t care where she did it, she would plop a flower into any container that didn’t move fast enough. Polito and his sons and grandsons built a big rock fountain out back in the middle of the newlybuilt patio, and they closed in the porches for more house-room because an ever-shifting crowd of kin came to stay for a day or two, a month or so, a year, til whenever Martha and Polito managed to pry them out with a crowbar or chase them out with a broom, forever. Grandma and Grandpa Hernandez had been blessed, after all, with seven kids of their own, all grown up now, forty-five grandchildren and, in the end, over two hundred great and great-great grandchildren, and still counting. They were sometimes stacked up in that crazy little house like cord wood. And it was good.
In the summer of 1966, Grandpa Hernandez planted a young pecan tree in his backyard, where he sat more and more. On Halloween of that year another grandson was born to him, and named John Paul- Paul, for Polito. And in December, Polito Hernandez died at the age of seventy-three. He is buried in the Boerne Cemetery, along with the people who first built his little house.
Grandma was a widow now, but I wouldn’t say she was alone. Her home on Brackenridge Street stayed in business as an inn and boarding house, a bank and a reform school, a counselor’s office and a restaurant. People all over town knew her and called her Grandma. I called her Grandma, because I married her grandson. My own children are five of those two hundred plus grandkids, great-grandchildren of Martha and Polito. Grandma’s house was my first home as a very young married girl, and the smell of fire in a wood-burning stove with a leaky flue is all mixed up in my memory with that crazy, sweet smoky time.
The marriage didn’t last forever, but those things will. I walked through the back hall into Grandma’s kitchen a few weeks after our Thanksgiving wedding and an enormous pig’s head lolling on the lid of the washing machine and staring wide-eyed at me made me pee my pants a little, and for the next several days I helped make tamales for Christmas. Grandma made the first homemade tortillas I’d ever eaten, and still, by far, the best ones anyone has EVER eaten- when you get to Heaven, those tortillas are what they’ll be serving. . The marriage didn’t last forever, but those things will.
In the early 90s Grandma was in her nineties, too and finally left her little home to move in with her daughter, my mother-inlaw, Josie. And the frame house on Brackenridge started it’s new relationship. But the house knew these guys already, from way back.
Another young family this time, with two little boys. Their names were John Paul Hernandez (just plain John) and my sister, Miriam Hagy Hernandez, and their boys Levi and Abel. John was the grandson born the year of the pecan tree, a few months before his grandfather died.
First thing John and Miriam did was borrow six hundred bucks to paint and prink up, and in twenty years they haven’t stopped working on the place. The little house has known as much love and attention in their time as it has all during its long life, as John and Miriam have repainted and torn down and remodeled and redone, rewired and added on and just keep making it better. Grandma, who died in October 1999, would’ve seen in my sister’s gardens a kindred spirit. The old lady who would stick a cactus in an old tire would surely approve of Miriam’s jungle of blooms and vines and the painted signs and the family of tin men who live in the yard.
A couple years ago when the boys (who have recently flown the nest but pop in and out just about every day) John and Miriam finally gave in to the reality that the little house needed some serious help. A hundred year-old house is a charming thing, but has a whole set of problems all its own, and this one had been built simply and for not much money, and repaired and maintained over the years by people who never had a ton of dough but did the best they could. The first guy told them it couldn’t be saved. That it was time to build something new. John grew up in that house, as did generations of other kids. The house had taken good care of them, and of many, many people whose spirits hover in the atmosphere of love and rest there. Best just to start over fresh, they were told.
So they found someone else. They stood up for that house because a guy who feels sorry for a fork isn’t gonna let his house get the ax without a fight. When the little purple house on Brackenridge Street does get its revamp, the people who love it will preserve it and respect it and not park a dumpster in front and change it out of all knowledge. A while back they uncovered the old fireplace walled over in a tiny hallway. Outside the front door John’s dad and uncles signed their names in the cement along with the date in 1963 they poured the front sidewalk. Just the other day my brother-in-law showed me an inscription in the ancient shed out back-written by finger into the concrete floor is the date 10-26-1924. People have been fixing the place up and loving it the best they can for almost a hundred years. And John and Miriam plan to save every one of those little landmarks of their home’s long life.
John works at R & R Tractor and has since about the time John Deere first invented the engine-drawn plow, and he and owner Robin Bergmann got talking one day, years ago, and Robin said, “You know, my grandmother used to live in your house.” Robin’s dad was Jack Bergmann, the grandson in Addie’s will, son of Mamie Voges Bergmann and grandson of Louis and Addie who built the house on Brackenridge. And John Hernandez, grandson of Martha and Polite, who planted the pecan tree the year John was born, that now towers forty feet over the back yard and shades the little house on Brackenridge Street.
If houses really do have feelings, then that old house has to be about the happiest and most contented place in town. And John’s fork is happy and grateful too, in its drawer in the kitchen, just waiting around for suppertime.