Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine
By Robin Ewing
Everything Virginia Grona needs for her job is listed in the 1908 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. The pages are crammed with intricate drawings of bicycles, furniture, clothing, appliances, food, jewelry, toys and odd, forgotten things, such as do-it-yourself home-building kits. The catalog is Grona’s most practical reference book for reenacting Texas history. “If it’s in there, I can have it,” she says.
Grona has worked as a park specialist and historical interpreter for 18 years at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm at the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park, just east of Stonewall. She is one of four full-time employees and a handful of volunteers who live in the year 1915.
The self-sustaining farm, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in June, is one of several attractions at the 700-acre park on the Pedernales River where President Lyndon B. Johnson was born. Tucked away from any sign of modernity, the costumed interpreters re-create the life of a typical German-American family.
“People get to really see it, feel it, smell it. It’s alive,” Grona says of the farm. “A lot of people read about farms in books, but when they see it, it makes sense.”
The German settlers who came to Texas in the 1840s were lured by the siren song of exaggerated tales of frontier life. They made friends with the Comanches and battled the unpredictable Texas climate. By 1870, the population of Gillespie County, where the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm is located, was 86 percent German. The legacy of those German settlers is a distinct cultural imprint infused in the people and towns of the Hill Country.
With or without visitors, the interpreters keep the seven-acre farm running smoothly. By 10 a.m., the cozy, limestone kitchen smells sweet and sour, like fresh butter, peach cobbler and buttermilk. The wood-burning stove heats the room, and this is where the group, five today, congregates to chat, eat and rest. In the two hours since they arrived, the house has been cleaned, the oven fire started, the two cows milked, the cream separated and the leftover set out to clabber for cheese. Grona is planning the afternoon dinner — the large noon meal — just as she does every day. The conversation drifts from food to cotton then on to boll weevils and back to food.
Food drives the farm. The interpreters eat their midday meal here. The women spend the morning in the hot kitchen making dinner; the men work the field. Cows are milked twice a day for cream, clabber, butter, whey (used for animal feed) and buttermilk. In summer, fresh vegetables are pickled for the winter, and in winter, hogs are butchered. “A family had to work together to survive,” Grona says.
All five of the people in the room grew up on farms. Farm manager Ricky Weinheimer has worked here for 23 years and goes home to the 800-acre farm where he grew up. When working his own land with his father, he uses the same tried-and-true methods he uses on the job. A believer in the simplicity of turn-of-the-century life, Weinheimer calls a television a “picture tube.” “Our conveniences have made us lazy. Back then everything had a reason,” he says.
Grona says the hardest thing about her job at the park is remembering which kitchen her stuff is in.
Despite the lazy pace of conversation, no one is ever idle. Grona chats while churning cream into butter and cutting out fabric to make new shirts for the men. Rita Carleton grinds black pepper. Bill Coakley who has been volunteering at the farm every Wednesday for 10 years, methodically shells pecans. Steven Baethge paces the room listening for tour buses and leaves for long periods of time because he gets “cabin fever.”
At noon, a few park employees and volunteers walk over to the house for lunch. They seem out of place in their modern clothes and tennis shoes. Dolly, a visitor center volunteer, fills a china plate with mashed potatoes, meatloaf and green beans. Virginia slathers a thick slice of bread with soft butter. Bill Coakley reaches for seconds of dessert. “Fresh cream on cobbler, now that’s good eatin’,” he says.
The women make lunch for employees and volunteers, but food is off limits to visitors for health-code reasons.
“Sometimes they’ll just grab something,” Grona says of the tourists. “Usually it’s bread or pecans. They just can’t help it.”
The interpreters balance their daily chores with impromptu tours for visitors, tour groups and school field trips. Last year they had 50,000 visitors, and on one busy day they had 750 visitors. Today is slow because of the rain, and the first visitors don’t arrive until noon. Grona explains various items in the small kitchen to the young couple and their two small daughters. The two girls watch her every move, wide-eyed. To make a point about the farm’s operation, Grona picks up a crumbling yellow book and says, “This is a 1916 cookbook. I know if I can find an ingredient in here then I can use it in my kitchen.”
Grona grew up on a farm in nearby Doss, and learned her farm savvy from her parents and grandparents. She is extremely resourceful. Feeding the chickens their own calcium-rich eggshells keeps them laying hard-shelled eggs. Beeswax on the bottom of an iron makes clothes starchier and keeps them cleaner longer. Pincushions are stuffed with human hair to keep needles oiled and rust-free. There is enough salt in meat-packing brine when an egg floats. Yellow butter means the cow is eating lots of green grass; white butter means it’s not.
The tour continues into the main house, across the dog run — the outdoor hallway that draws a breeze during the hot summer. The wooden Victorian house with white, pressed-tin siding that imitates sturdier stone was built by the Beckmann family in 1915. It cost a whopping $1,000 — paid for with the lucrative sale of a cotton crop during the high prices of World War I. The Sauer family settled the land in 1869 but sold it to the Beckmanns in 1900.
The visiting children race to the original Sauer house on the other side of the kitchen. Inside the dim, dirt-floored cabin, colorful jars filled with tomatoes, peaches, green beans, bacon and sauerkraut line the shelves. Pots of sausages packed in cloudy lard and bowls of pork-skin cracklings, cotton and homemade lye soap are on display.
Coakley motions to a metal object on the floor. “That cream separator cost $28 in 1908,” he explains. “That’s the same as a wagon would have cost.” Only wealthy families would have been able to afford one.
Behind the cabin sits the chicken coop and smokehouse. The pleasant, smoldering aroma envelops the entire farm. Not far away, you see the blacksmith shop, the barn, the pigpen and the cow pasture. The area in front of the main house is cleared to make a natural fire break, and there is a windmill that draws water for the garden from a 50-foot well.
The next visitors are older and from out of state. The smells trigger forgotten memories of childhood. Some wander the farm alone; others prefer a tour. The farm draws retired people — those with an RV get a free space in return for volunteering — like Coakley. Before becoming a year-round volunteer, he was a full-time RVer.
Spring days are mostly filled with school field trips, Weinheimer says. The students come from all over Texas and are usually in fourth and seventh grade — when they learn Texas history.
“The kids say funny things,” Grona says. “One asked me if the eggs were cow’s eggs.”
Rita recently moved from a job at an 1812 battle site in New York. “I’m still learning to be appropriate,” she says of the century change. Appropriate women in 1915 wore fingernails short, no makeup, no watches, no rings, ankle-high boots, long skirts and hats.
“Technically, these bobby pins aren’t appropriate, but the hairpins are,” she says, gingerly touching her braided bun. “I also try not to use modern language. I can’t say something like ‘That’s sweet,’ because that wouldn’t be appropriate.”
The group is slightly obsessive about historical accuracy, but Grona admits to small cheats: Some of the meat from butchering is kept refrigerated off-site so as not to waste it; she uses a modern pressure canner to vacuum seal jars, for health reasons; she buys 100-percent-cotton shirt fabric from a store. “We live as close as we can to back then in today’s world,” Coakley says.
Grona doesn’t miss modern conveniences at work. “It just becomes second nature,” she says. “Though during the summer the first thing I do when I go home is turn on the air conditioner.”
As the day grows late, they cut fresh, slippery lye soap from a deep iron cauldron. Baethge heads to the barn to milk the cows. Carleton gathers eggs while Grona and Coakley chase the chickens into the coop. By 5 p.m. only the animals are left.
Grona — in a long, dark-grey skirt that buttons up the back, a full-coverage, blue-flowered cotton blouse with a high neck, gathers and a matching flowered apron — wears her costume home from work. People often ask to take her picture if she stops at the store. “The kids always stare,” she says smoothing down her apron and laughing. “Once an elderly man told me ‘That’s the way women should dress. You look nice.’”