A Tree of Life in San Antonio and Paradise in Poteet

The Tree of Life is finally up! I mean the enormous, steel-framed tree of life festooned with at least two hundred pots built by members of the community, including myself, that now stands a stone’s throw from the Espada Mission, south of the city by the river.

The assembly of the steel frame had been greatly delayed due to Hurricane Harvey which flooded parts of Houston from where the steel was to come. I’d almost forgotten about it until early April, when I was walking near the Mission and Whoa, there it was. It looked just as impressive from a distance as close up. I spotted my pot immediately as it was on the bottom rung and, unlike most of the pots, unglazed, so it stuck out. It was quite a feeling, looking up at my pot, wondering how long it would be there. ‘Until a hailstorm hits it,’ Mike joked. He and friends visiting from Berlin came to see it more recently. Sadly, we’ll not be around for the beatification ceremony as we’ll be in Mexico.

Around the same time, I was driving southwards towards the small town of Poteet, known for its strawberry festival, and it struck me that the wildflowers had not only come out earlier this year but that there was a greater profusion of them. Waysides were splattered with bluebonnets, scarlet paintbrush, yellow sneezeweed daisies, white prickly poppies, soft pink evening primrose, as well as magenta and pale-mauve ones I didn’t recognize… it was hard to keep my eyes on the road. Beyond the waysides lay modest dwellings and the odd small ranch and every inch of their yards was covered with flowers, too, with an occasional old plough and other rusting farming implements peeping out. I gazed in wonderment at one yard thick with bluebonnets in which a white horse grazed. In another, a sign in Spanish advertised goat’s milk for sale. As I drove further south, meadows on both sides of the road were completely carpeted with red, blue, yellow and white and there were huisache trees, too, showing off their dark gold blossom, and Texas redbuds (Judas trees) sprouting purplish-pink flowers. It was like paradise! Well, not quite. When I got out of the car to eat a sandwich I had to step around myriad sandy anthills to be able to reach a log on which to sit. And just outside Poteet, I saw a caracara perched on top of a dead adult deer.

On a whim, I followed a sign to a cemetery. At the end of an unpaved, dusty road I found myself before a small, makeshift graveyard on the edge of a field. The stone gravestones, some obviously hewn by hand, were festooned with artificial flowers, plastic toys, glass baubles, artificial Christmas trees in old tomato or fruit cans painted gold, plastic Santa Clauses and reindeer and tinsel. It was garishly lovely. Alongside the field stretched a meadow of paintbrush and then one of bluebonnets. Caramel and cream cows peered at me over a wire fence as I now bent to study the gravestones. Some of the inscriptions were hand-painted or hand-carved. All were in Spanish. “The creator of the cemetery” lay underneath one according to its inscription. He had been born in 1865 and originated from Parras de la Fuente, Mexico. Walking back to my car I glanced southwards and caught a glimpse of the concrete strawberry on top of Poteet’s water tower.

The Polley Plantation at Sutherland Springs

Last summer, as I was driving past the library of a small town north of San Antonio, I spotted a stand of books for sale. Amongst them was a landscape-sized catalogue of watercolour plates of San Antonio and its environs in the 1850s – rare visual representations by a female artist of antebellum Texas. The watercolours had been displayed in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth 30 years previously.

In 1852, the artist, Sarah Ann Hardinge, had travelled from Boston to San Antonio by stagecoach to redeem land left to her in a will. During her four years in Texas she painted local scenes and also wrote a memoir. Of her arrival in San Antonio she wrote, ‘after travelling all night in stage coach. I could hear the Wildcats as we crossed the dark dismal prairie and wood.’

Browsing through the lovely paintings, I was particularly struck by the one of the Polley Plantation in Sutherland Springs, Sarah’s last residence before returning to Boston, and which was described by the catalogue’s editor as ‘one of the most important surviving plantation homes in Texas’. With money short and her land proving difficult to sell, Sarah lived there for a year in exchange for teaching the Polleys’ children and running the Sunday school.

I hadn’t heard of Sutherland Springs, only 30 miles east from San Antonio, before the tragic mass shooting in its Baptist church in 2017. I checked the internet and the plantation house not only still stood but was being restored. One spring-like day in January I decided to go and see it for myself. On the way I saw fields of black-and-white cattle, ancient pumpjacks beavering away and the odd swathe of magenta penstemon, early for the time of year. It was a fascinating journey: a few miles north of Sutherland Springs, in the small town of La Vernia, I saw an original drugstore (now a very dusty museum), an old Lutheran wooden church (which initially held services only in German) and a cemetery containing the remains of Prussian and Irish pioneers (the only other visitor was a grazing longhorn). I then took to the backroads and along the way saw an old wooden school constructed by emancipated slaves, a ‘bug catcher’ (mechanical harvester) invented by Pat Higgins the ‘Grass Seed King’, and the Linne oil field, once the most extensive oilfield in the area. From here I could see the two-storey Polley mansion just a short distance away. It was set just off the narrow road and surrounded by pastures. As I drove up, it looked fully restored and very lovely, with six porch columns and made from stone that had been quarried from nearby Cibolo creek.

Getting out of my car, I first had a look at the Polley cemetery on the other side of the road. Fronted by an overhead metal sign and surrounded by low iron railings, it contained about a dozen graves. The oldest belonged to a Revolutionary War veteran and the last to a World War II veteran. It was a peaceful little place. I crossed back to the house. A group of goats grazed under a live oak on one side. On the other stood a large restored cistern. At the back was the sole surviving slave cabin – there had been several more in Sarah’s painting. She wrote in her memoir:

Instead of door bells stands a little black belle … ready to notify their master or mistress of the approach of visitors – it would seem very odd to me now to sit down at any table at the North and not see a black boy or girl behind almost every chair.’

By all accounts the Polleys, who had come to Texas from New York, were good to their slaves and generous to the community. Whilst staying at the mansion, Sarah was especially afraid of The Indian threat which reached its peak in 1856:

Great fear this year of the Comanches and Lipans – parson Mr Geelittle son killed by them while driving home…Neighbours coming in from their log homes to our two story stone house for protection – Slaves brought in & horses within enclosure. Knife, guns, spikes, stones & scalded water all in readiness, case of need…

I got back in the car and drove a mile up the road to Sutherland Springs, a village by English standards, and quite poor looking in places. The white wooden Baptist church was much smaller than I imagined. It was difficult to imagine that horrific scene inside. A much larger church was being erected to replace it.

Tiles and Tortillas at Mission San José

There are five Missions in San Antonio. The most famous is the Alamo and my favourite is Espada, but all are captivating. Looking at their bright white facades one could be forgiven for forgetting that they were originally decorated – as author William Corner wrote of one in 1890: ‘[It] must have been very gorgeous with color for it was frescoed all over with red and blue quatrefoil crosses and with large yellow and orange squares to simulate dressed stones.

‘Gorgeous with colour’ could also describe a book that I have been reading on the old tile workshops of San Antonio. The revival of decorate tile making was made possible thanks to financing under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and a Texan called Ethel Harris. Two of the tile workshops were based for more than thirty years at Mission San José. This is the most complete of all the Missions with its handsome dome, arches and intricate carved stonework, and its granary and Indian quarters and restored mill. After its extensive restoration in the 1930s it became a State Park and Ethel Harris would not only manage the tile making but also become park warden, moving into the Mission itself as supervisor. What a wonderful life that must have been.

The red clay used to make the tiles came from San Antonio and was carefully selected by Harris, who hired talented high school student Fernando Ramos to create the designs. Ramos drew scenes such as fiestas, Mexican villages, Texas ranch life and marine life of the Gulf coast. He was also a wonderful Flamenco dancer who would sometimes display his dance skills to tourists at the Mission.

Armed with my book, I recently returned to the Mission with Ethel Harris in mind. I imagined the sheep grazing on the grass and the peacocks she brought there, the workers moulding, designing and glazing the pottery pieces, visitors turning up at the granary shop, Fernando Ramos and his partner performing a dance show, the cook preparing tortillas outside… When the last tile factory closed in the 1970s, Ethel Harris eventually moved out of the Mission prefecture into a tile-filled house on the Mission grounds, designed for her by her architect son. I was at first unable to locate her house so I entered a small shop where a Franciscan monk was selling handmade glassware. I asked if he’d heard of Ethel Harris and he said he hadn’t so I opened my book to show him a picture of her house and immediately he pointed me in the right direction. Before leaving the shop I complimented the monk on his glassware, then said, ‘Did you know there was once tile making in this Mission?’ He replied, with a surprised look, ‘No I didn’t…How marvellous!’

Her house was closed to the public but by climbing over a small barrier I managed to catch a glimpse through a kitchen window of a row of tiles with her trademark maguey, or century plant, design. Not far away was a small amphitheatre that she had had constructed for the performance of traditional Mexican plays, or pastores; I assumed its onate wrought-iron gates had been made by the German metal artisan and his son whom she employed to build tables and other items in which to display the tiles. (She also employed a former cowboy who previously had branded cattle, turning his skills to branding workshop items instead.)

Surrounded by palmetto palms and with the sound of birdsong in my ears I later followed a narrow path for three-quarters of a mile to the Riverwalk. The construction of San Antonio’s Riverwalk began in the Downtown area in the 1940s and murals of the San José tiles are displayed at various locations along it. Other tile murals still exist in a sports stadium, a high school, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the patio of the Menger Hotel near the Alamo and in various private ranches. Sadly, many have been lost or destroyed over the years.

Mike and I were in an antique shop recently and my attention was caught by a single tile in a locked cabinet bearing the image of a sleeping Mexican under his sombrero and with a wrought iron mounting. Due to the tile’s thickness and beautiful glazes, I was positive it was a San José tile. I asked the shop owner how much it was but she said it was not for sale.