This Man, This Land

Phil Hardberger Park's caretaker, Dale Chumbley, hopes to stay long after it opens to public.

For $100 a month in rent, Dale Chumbley lives on 100 acres in the middle of the suburban sprawl on San Antonio's North Side. As dusk approaches, he likes to sit on his back porch to watch his cattle and see the deer silently pass along the fence line to sip from the water trough.

"They could offer me a house in the Dominion paid for and I would choose to stay here," he said.

Chumbley, 56, is the caretaker of Phil Hardberger Park. His goal is to stay on the property as long as he can, and he has a lease till 2010. But how many years he has left on the property will depend on the politics of the City Council and the future funding for the development of the park.

"My wish is they find me back there dead some day," he said pointing toward the woods of oak and mesquite where he and his grandson like to follow the deer trails.

Purchased by the city for $50 million, Phil Hardberger Park is slated to open to the public in January with some trails and a new parking lot Chumbley knows the opening will mean he can no longer step outside in his underwear, but the city will still need him to take care of the original Voelcker homestead.

The master plan for the park calls for a massive bridge to be built over Wurzbach Parkway to connect the 100 acres that Chumbley looks after with the 200 acres the city purchased on the other side. The vision includes restored meadows and an interpretive center where schoolchildren can see cows on a 19th-century dairy farm.

That farm is currently Chumbley's home. And there is no money earmarked for the project, as the majority of park developments do not have funding. Whenever the consultants the city hired to come up with the plan visit the farm, Chumbley always asks them to just cut to the chase and tell him if he can stay.

"I'm very lucky," he said. "I've worked on a lot of fences here."

Chumbley can trace his roots back six generations in San Antonio and has spent his adult life managing cattle. He started working at the Union Stock Yards in San Antonio at 19 and stayed there until it closed in 2001.

Cattle that owner Minnie Voelcker kept on the property needed to be moved and did not want to climb into the back of a trailer. Chumbley simply cut the stock off water for a night and then led them into the pen the next morning. It is a standard trick, but the bankers were impressed.

Even though Voelcker had millions from selling a portion of the property, she chose to stay on the land and keep it close to what it was like when she moved to it as a 19-year-old bride.

Chumbley sees his goal as carrying out her legacy.

"You don't see people like that anymore," said Banks Smith, the lawyer for Minnie Voelcker and later her estate. "I would trust Dale with my life."

He has been the man the bank turned to when something on the property needed to be done.

"That's all I know," he said. "When that is all you know how to do, you're kind of stuck."

He has replaced or repaired the fences. He has chased out vandals and kept peace with the neighbors.

But Chumbley is not alone in his love of the property. After he gave Mayor Phil Hardberger a tour of the land, the mayor handed him a card and told him if he ever needs anything to give his office a call. On that tour, Chumbley bonded with the mayor.

But even with the direct line to the mayor's office. Chumbley still prefers to solve problems on the property himself. He said it would break his heart if he had to leave. He wants to see the property kept as it is so his grandson can show his grandchildren the trees the two of them planted together and then go explore the woods.

Though he's usually a calm man, his face turns red and he starts to swear when he thinks of people carving their initials into one of the trees or letting their dogs off their leashes and chasing his cattle. Then he looks over the field and hears the grackles cawing.