A link to the North Side's agrarian past is being restored in the heart of one of the city's newest parks off Blanco Road. The old dairy barn at the Voelcker homestead is being fixed up in Phil Hardberger Park, 13203 Blanco Road.
The homestead has structures that date back to the late 1800s. When the restoration is finished, the 1,500-square-foot barn – built in 1896 – will be used to one day help bring history to life for young schoolchildren interested in learning more about San Antonio's roots.
The farm was owned by Max and Minnie Voelcker and once stretched across 1,000 acres. When it was purchased by the city in 2007 at the urging of then-Mayor Phil Hardberger, the park measured 311 acres with the farm complex occupying 5 acres.
The city park opened in May 2010. If the barn's inner walls could talk, they would tell of cows being placed into stalls to be milked the old-fashioned way. If its outer walls could talk, the old dairy barn would tell of a vast, bustling farm, which today has been replaced by busy roadways, shopping centers, gated subdivisions and restaurants.
"Since the Voelckers ran a dairy farm, their barn was the most important structure on the farmstead," said Amy Lane, associate director of the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy. "Their livelihood depended on it. This restoration is culturally and historically significant because the barn is the remaining symbol of Hardberger Park's roots and heritage as a dairy farm.”
Although owned by the city, no taxpayer money is being used to restore the barn, which now sports a new red paint job, new windows, new wiring, a repaired roof and new wood to replace rotted pieces.
The restoration of the barn was privately funded through the conservancy and the Associated General Contractors' Construction Leadership Forum, or CLF. The forum is a group of young professionals who raised money to repair the barn and also donated their time and expertise to the project.
The two-year project started in March 2011.
Doug McMurry, executive vice president of the San Antonio chapter of the AGC, said the group has historically done service work for area parks including Walker Ranch Historic Landmark Park, McAllister Park and the rebuilding of an old house in HemisFair Park for the San Antonio Parks Foundation.
"We have had a commitment to helping the Parks Department, so it was an easy step for us to take when we decided to voluntarily restore the old dairy barn at Phil Hardberger Park, which at the time was known as Voelcker Park," he said. "It's been a two-year effort with volunteer labor. The scope of our volunteer effort has been about $30,000 in restoration work."
The CLF has put in multiple volunteer days over the past two years to complete the barn and return it to its condition and appearance of long ago, McMurry added.
"The barn was in a terrible state of disrepair and it is an important historical site for the city," he said. "Once we complete the restoration work, it will look as it did when it was a working dairy barn for decades.”
The barn was divided into two sections, with one used for milking cows and the other to store milk and butcher animals. Sometimes it served as a home for a ranch worker.
The barn is between the more modern farmhouse that Max Voelcker built and the original house made of limestone, which is boarded up awaiting a costly and involved repair job.
Other structures include another barn in a state of disrepair, an electric well that provides water to the site, a windmill that is being replaced and the old original well. A caretaker currently lives in the more modern house and there are still cows, chickens and turkeys on the farm.
"In our urban society, many children have lost touch with the farms and ranches that helped our nation prosper," Lane said. "Hardberger Park is a natural area, a place to run and play and it's also an outdoor classroom where visitors can learn about urban ecology and our South Texas farming heritage."
The man who gave his name to the park said it is important for tomorrow's leaders- even young ones - to remember the past.
"The restoration of the dairy barn is living history and will educate our children on how we got our milk in the past as well as today," Hardberger said. Once the other structures at the farm are restored, Lane said the conservancy is looking forward to turning most of the homestead into educational areas.
There is no set timetable on when the other structures will be restored.
By Lucille Sims Thomas