Live Oak Ranch, Bergheim Texas

By David Smith

Dad Smith surprised his family by doing something at variance with two of his banker aphorisms:

(1) It’s easier to borrow than to pay back, and (2) Don’t own anything that eats.
He bought a medium-size ranch north of San Antonio, financed by a loan from an insurance company. Then he put a herd of white-faced Hereford cattle on it and later Texas Longhorns.

Dad named it Live Oak Ranch because he so appreciated the trees on his place. As a boy, Dad had moved from the piney woods of deep East Texas to the stark desert of far West Texas which has no trees, period. He must have felt like he was coming home when he bought the ranch in Comal County with plenty of trees, most of them large handsome Live Oaks. We still have his framed copy of the poem by Joyce Kilmer that starts off, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Dad wasn’t into poetry, but he was sure into trees now with hundreds of Live Oaks he could call his own. He named the place well, even though you can be sure that there are lots of Live Oak Ranches in Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest. The Handbook of Texas shows 20 Live Oak Creeks alone. Ranches are sure to be more numerous than creeks.

Dad didn’t buy the place solely for its trees, but rather as a working ranch. He had made lots of cattle loans in his banking career, especially in El Paso at State National Bank. Now he would experience how tough it is to make a profit running cattle under any scenario. To say that one’s perspective from the borrower’s side of a loan desk is different from the banker’s side is an understatement, but Dad had to make that shift when he borrowed to buy our family ranch.

What a happy surprise it was for all of us Smiths, and what a challenge for him. The maintenance under previous ownerships extending back to the days of the Republic had been negligible to minimal. One of the previous owners was a bootlegger whose “process hardware” as we call it in the chemical business, was located in the draw north of the house to keep it out of sight during Prohibition. Some of that junk plus beer bottles and pop cans lying around ankle deep were still around in the late 1950s. Dad didn’t hesitate to call on his three boys, now grown and one married, to help clean and shape up our new place, Live Oak Ranch.

An afterthought at closing was something of a joke. Dad bought a little red truck for one dollar that came to be called just that, the Little Red Truck. It was a 1942 Ford pickup with a clutch and a straight stick shift on the floor. It was a sinkhole of maintenance costs but a source of great fun. With Dad driving slowly and us boys in back, we had fun picking up the cans and assorted junk, laughing and acting like little boys again. Each haul was consolidated in a defilade area still referred to as “The Dump.”

In the early years, on Dad’s orders, it became my fun job to rebuild and repaint the small stake body of the Little Red Truck. More than once we would see how many Smiths we could get on it and or in it, great for photographs. In Kendall County, Live Oak Ranch was probably the best customer for repairs that Anderson Ford ever had. In terms of repair bills we probably paid for a new pickup three times over, till finally one day the Little Red Truck (like all of us ultimately) was past going. We put it away under the side shed of the hay barn.

As a viable working ranch, Live Oak was managed by our neighbor to the north, Mr. Dierks, who checked the livestock daily. Dad always ran Herefords, a conservative breed and conservative in number; never overgrazing Live Oak as so many ranchers tend to do. These days we grass lease to a man who runs Texas Longhorns. Some would say that longhorns give a more “marbled” kind of beef and that they’re smarter than other cattle. It is likely true that longhorns can survive on less water and feed. But those very long corkscrew horns are mighty funny-looking.

Four horses came with the property: Paint, Bateen, Prince, and Blue, but in time the horses became entirely recreational. All ten of Dad’s grandkids learned to ride horseback at Live Oak and also got to drive over the place as much as they cared to.

Smith grandkids were usually three years ahead of their peers learning to drive with the Little Red Truck, legally but without a license, only on Life Oak Ranch. Learning to clutch and use the stick shift on the floor was as much fun as horseback riding. With parents’ permission, grandkids and many other visitors could drive alone around the two-mile loop east of the house. I remember when my pre-teen son David Jr. qualified to drive alone. He must have made the loop within the ranch fifty times or more in one weekend.

In the spring when bluebonnets are at their height, I head over to San Antonio to attend the annual convention of National Petrochemical and Refiners Association (NPRA). This convention is important to my chemical business, and a Live Oak Ranch barbecue is sometimes part of the fun.

It was just after one of the NPRA parties had ended that it became my sad duty to have to “put down” old Blue, the last of our original four horses that came with the ranch when Dad bought it from Mr. Steeves. Blue was old, very old, and unable to run with the other horses. It was pitiful to see him that day half standing but dragging his hind legs. There was but one thing to do. I went inside and got Mr. Flory’s 30-30, came back out and looked at old Blue for the last time. I put a cartridge into the chamber. Then you know what followed.

I phoned Harold Dierks, who came over, and with the help of the Little Red Truck we tied a rope to Blue’s hind legs and dragged him to an oak on the hill where Harold noted Blue liked to hang out in previous years. I thought that was a nice touch, kind of like throwing the ashes in the backyard or pasture of someone who’s been cremated.

I like to say that Live Oak Ranch is a “nothin’ place,” i.e., no one has to do nothin’ they don’t want to do, nothin’! Please understand, however, that this nothin’ place don’t have nothin’ to do with the negative ten letter “r-word” (retirement).

Now I’m not looking for a fight or even an argument with anyone, but for some fundamentalists, this point: Find me one place is all scripture, a reference even, touching on “retirement.” How are we going to make our living when pettifogging politicians’ Ponzi Scheme centerpiece called Social Security goes broke sooner rather than later?

I think I speak for many Smiths who are opposed to retirement. I’ll have more to say about that in “Working Texans of Galena Park.” But when we make our bumper stickers at Galena Park, one will say ABOLISH RETIREMENT. I plan to put the first one on the Little Red Truck at Live Oak Ranch, both back and front bumpers.

By the way, there’s a new brand of wine out now called, “Red Truck” but our truck at Live Oak Ranch has no connection with it.

Let’s get back to the story of how we acquired the Little Red Truck. In the 1970s when the original pickup was finally “put down” or at least retired to the side shed of the hay barn, Dad bought and paid cash for a bright red new pickup from Jennings Ford in Boerne. It then became Little Red Truck II. It, too, had a stick shift with clutch, with the gearshift on the steering wheel. When it was ready to be retired (or put down), I made a career shift at the chemical plant for a tuned up Ford and painted it bright red. It became Little Red Truck III for Live Oak Ranch.

When we’re at the ranch we invariably go to the Bergheim Store, formerly Engel’s Store in downtown Bergheim, Texas (population 85). The store is three miles west from our front cattle guard and pretty much like Mr. Engel built it over a hundred years ago, when he emigrated from Germany. Stanley Jones, who owns Bergheim Store today, is postmaster and great grandson of the late Andreas Engel.

The write-up in The Handbook of Texas on Bergheim mentions that it once had the largest cedar yard in the State of Texas. There’s another interesting bit of history mentioned in the Texas Almanac. During the Great Dep-ression, Andreas Engel, a compassionate, frugal German grocer, fought both poverty and unemployment by extending credit to anyone who would go out and chop cedar, then rack it up. Mr. Engel nearly went broke himself, but over a period in the late 1930s he was able to sell his acres of stacked cedar a little at a time in San Antonio, 30 miles to the south.

How I wish there had been more people like Andreas Engel and fewer like FDR and his ilk in the 1930s who saddled us with runaway government that we endure today. Runaway government most definitely must STOP.

It was my pleasure to give a pole-mounted locomotive bell to Mr. Engel’s great grandson, Stanley Jones, when he celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Bergheim Store in 2003. The bell stands in tribute to all forebears who came here to live in freedom before or since 1903; i.e., German, Hispanic, whoever and from wherever, if they believe in God and freedom.

Meanwhile back at Live Oak Ranch, there have been good times too numerous to count. Buddy’s daughter Alexine and her husband Peter had their wedding reception there, built a house on some carved out acreage, and raised their kids up there. Friends of my brothers at First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio use it and enjoy it, as do our Baptist friends, and others. It’s great for barbecues and entertainment generally.

Fourth of July is sometimes something of a home-coming, with our son, Davo, as Resident Director of Fireworks, at least when he’s in Texas. After a hard Fourth at the pool and a day of watermelon, barbecue, Aunt Charis’ pies, Aunt Betty’s cookies for “snacks” plus unlimited cokes, not all of the now older generation, that’s us, are willing to stay awake till 9 p.m. for the fireworks. Oh, we manage provided we can get a nap.

Today those of us over 70 years old are a fraternity I call “Los Viejos.”
Like compound interest, the arithmetic of family increase is astounding. Keeping the best of the past yet responding to economic change is challenging. Problems notwithstanding, we work toward optimal employment and stewardship with fellowship in this splendid legacy Dad Smith gave us, which is now emerging into the fifth generation. Soon there will be Little Red Truck IIII; that’s right. Maybe I’ll live to see Forrest Moseley Smith the Fifth.
My hope and prayer is that not only all living descendants of Dad Smith, but their spouses, in-laws, outlaws, shirt tail relatives, cousins, first, second or removed, plus friends of the above can all enjoy Live Oak Ranch in this 21st century even a fraction of as much as I have. My hope and prayer is that we within the David Smith branch of our extended family will never cut it up just to make chili out of it (Translate: sub-divide it just for short-term quick cash).

Personally, I am committed to this end.