Joyce Lucas, owner of the Birk-Sommerfeld Heritage Ranch (Llano County), donated a conservation easement on her 444-acre working ranch in late 2010 to protect it forever from the damages of land fragmentation and development. TLC is proud to partner with Joyce and her family on the protection of this outstanding property, which is both ecologically rich and historically important to Texas and its people.
The Birk-Sommerfeld Heritage Ranch, which has been in the Birk family since 1876, has a classic history for the Hill Country. Once a 1600-acre working ranch, the property has been passed down and subdivided among descendents until only Joyce's 444-acre parcel and a cousin's several-hundred acre parcel remain in the family. We sat down with Joyce to ask her about her history, why she protected her ranch with us, and how she wants her heritage to live on.
TLC: Can you tell us a little about the history of the ranch?
Joyce: My history is this. My great-grandfather (I’m going to talk to you about my maternal side of the family because that’s where the ranch comes to me). My great-great-grandfather was John Birk. So he and his wife and their children were part of that German immigration to Texas to establish this German colony and to help populate Texas. They came over in about 1845-6, in that area. Well, John died shortly after they arrived here and they had lost one child coming over, so they ended up with four children.
But now, the father dies, so they have settled on the north side of the llano river in this community of Leiningen, but the community of people kicked them out. [The community] just couldn’t support this woman and her family because the community found themselves in a situation they never knew they were going to be in. They were living in this community where they had land and were trying to make it work. They were settling the frontier. So, the [Birk family] ends up being ousted and they end up on the south side of the Llano River, not far from where my property is.
The Indians [Comanche] help keep them through the winter and help them survive. My great-great grandmother must have been something else because she would work with them and fix food and whatever. There was an agreement between them and the Indians that they wouldn’t hurt her children because they felt sorry for her. Here she was, a single woman with these children. So they taught her how to use the grain and they helped her and she helped them, and the next thing we know, one of the children drowned in the Llano River, so now there are three of them; two boys and a girl. My great-grandfather was the second oldest. He eventually acquires enough money to buy his first piece of property, which was in 1876. Then that’s when the ranch actually started. Jacob had 12 children -- 11 of them lived.
Jacob, in his will, which I have a copy of, gives the ranch to my grandfather Carl (Charlie), and his brother Edwin. They divide the property between the two brothers and then there are monies divided among the other children. My grandfather ended up with half of the original ranch [approx. 1000 acres]. Charlie and Meta [Vasterling-Birk] had two children; one was my mother and Norman was her brother. Then again, the property was divided. I have 400+ acres that my mother had and then Norman has two children and his part will get divided. A piece of that has already been sold because of some financial difficulties. That leaves me with 433 acres of my mom’s because I’m an only child. That’s how I end up with it.
But in all of that, my grandfather, Carl, married Meta, who was a Vasterling [*note: Vasterling Creek on the ranch is named for this part of the family*], and also part of this German community there. In fact, her grandfather was really one of the founding fathers. And these folks all kind of intermarried and everyone is related.
TLC: What makes you care so much about your land? You’re putting a lot of resources—time, energy, money—into keeping a fairly small piece of land open. What inspires you to do that?
Joyce: I have a passion for what the people did before me. When people left their country, they wanted to have land. I think my passion for the land was born in me, but not everybody has that. Lots of people have encouraged me to sell it because I could make money by selling it, but I know what it took my grandparents and my mom and I know what it cost them. I know what it was like for them to hold onto it. I look at my great-grandfather and step-great-great grandfather…those two men were recognized as Texas Rangers for their work.We have Texas Ranger markers in the cemetery because there are lots of rich stories of their involvement with Indians and the contributions that they made to their community—what was important to them above everything else was that property. And they did what they could. The family as a whole did what they could and it’s not for me to not respect that.
I have two children; one child has three children and the other child doesn’t, but if you keep dividing and dividing the land, then you have a postage stamp that means nothing to anybody. Right now, whether my two daughters have the same passion that I do, I don’t know, but they do have a passion. Both my daughters and my grandchildren say they “love the ranch.” Now, how deep that love is, or what they’re willing to sacrifice, I don’t know, but that’s why I put it in the easement. Because if they ever lose interest or if they ever want to sell it, they have to sell it as a whole and they have to sell it for agriculture. Because I cannot bear to think that somebody else…this is selfish… would get wealthy off something that been worked on so hard by people trying to own land. Because all my life I’ve believed that if you own land, you have something. You can always go back to the land.
TLC: What does the future of Texas look like for you from an environmental standpoint?
Joyce: I think Texas is behind, very much in promoting and encouraging good stewardship. We are already concerned about fragmentation and about the economic situation.
I think Texas will continue to grow—it’s a good place to go--but I don’t know that there’s any government entity that really has a handle on it. And I think it’s too easy to compartmentalize, so we don’t really see the whole picture. Talking about Texas people...if they get their minds made up and if enough people really want to do things that are smart in Texas, then I think some good things can happen. But if there’s just a lot of people who come to Texas and want to just use up what’s here….
Texas can be used up like any other state. And the potential is there. What I would like to see in the future of Texas is that we really be responsible in looking at the different regions of Texas and figuring out whether those areas can accommodate [growth], without really harming that natural land there. But I think we have enough people who are smart enough to try and do something that is really, truly more of a planned approach rather than a haphazard approach. It’s so different from when I left here in 1968, and people in Austin can say the same thing.