Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Neighbor’s Place

This story begins in 1973. My neighbor, Alice Sergeant, owned 400 acres next to me. We had to drive through her ranch to get to ours. The road was really, not much of a road. In some respects it was hazardous. Add to that it was strewn with all kinds of junk from dead wrecked cars to washing machines, refrigerators and stoves and a lot more junk as you will see.



Photograph taken by J. David.



Photograph taken by J. David.



Sixty-five cars are gone – 2 remain. Photograph taken by J. David.



Alice was a most unusual woman. Toughened by her life as a single mom on this hardscrabble place. (Her son Phillip was 4 when she arrived here in 1942.) The old run down cabin that came with the ranch was without electricity or running water, but with Lyndon Johnson’s work in Washington rural electrification soon brought her the electricity and with that she was able to pump water from a dug well that was only twenty feet deep. It was war time so plumbing materials and fixtures were hard to come by. She carved her bathtub out of stone and with cement built it deep enough to take a nice bath. Alice loved all wildlife. She respected all animals.



This old house was added onto from a log cabin.
Photograph taken by J. David.



Photograph taken by J. David.



I struck up a friendship with Alice and soon found her interested in my plans to restore Selah. She pitched in and you might say was my first volunteer! We planted trees together. We even painted my house. I passed on to Alice my wildlife magazines and therein begins this blog story!



As time went by, Alice and I had discussions about the eyesore that her son Phil was creating by bringing in so many junked cars, refrigerators, washing machines, freezers, televisions and just anything someone wanted to get rid of. These discussions led to Alice selling me all of her property except 28.9 acres. With the cash and payments from me, Alice built a new house which she affectionately called “The house that Bamberger built.” With the land I bought from Alice I was able to move the road into Selah to a location that was much more scenic and it avoided Phil’s junk. Although no longer seen by me, Phil continued his acquisitions.



Trees and brush had to be cleared before we could access the old house.
Photograph taken by J. David.



The House that Bamberger Built. Photograph taken by J. David.



The House that Bamberger Built. Photograph taken by J. David.



Alice worked in Crofts Grocery Store in Johnson City making $1.75 an hour. Phil, who by now is in his mid thirties, worked for Johnson City in the Water Department. One day Alice comes home and finds a man measuring her new house. “Who are you? What are you doing?” “Ah, Mrs. Sergeant, it’s a nice new home you have here. I’m measuring it for the tax office.” Alice ran him off! Now, when Alice owned 400 acres the taxes were less than three hundred dollars, so when at a later date she gets a tax notice for three hundred eight five dollars for only 28.9acres; she is mad as hell and her complaints fall on deaf ears. . . . She remembered reading in one of the wildlife magazines I’d given her that she could give her property to them and live there the rest of her life as well as her son Phil’s life. She makes contact. A representative from the National Wildlife Federation comes out from Washington and the deal is made. National Wildlife Federation, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization now owns the property and they removed it from the tax roles. Alice triumphantly thumbs her nose at the tax collector!


Yes, Alice Sergeant was a bit of a scofflaw – just another reason I liked her. Oh yes, I almost forgot, but she told me she was a distant relative of Jackie Kennedy! Alice died about twenty years ago and Phil continued bringing in the junk right up until his life was cut short by a stroke this past July. But there is more to this story . . . . Stay with me.


In 1997, I was nominated for an award by the National Wildlife Federation. Margaret and I were invited to Washington, D.C. to receive the award along with eleven other people. The awards were presented with a lot of fanfare by then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbit. . . . Prior to leaving I thought of a scheme that could possibly facilitate the purchase of the 28.9 acres. Selah surrounds this on three sides. I thought it very important that it become part of Selah and not, at some unknown point in the future, fall into the hands of someone who may not treat the land with respect.


This timeframe was before the digital camera era. Margaret was a pretty good photographer so I took her over when Phil was not home to photograph these endless piles of junk. Margaret had real artistic talent. She put together a folio, with appropriate comments. It was great. Fortuitous for me, I’m seated at the awards ceremony, next to the Executive Director – the head man – of The National Wildlife Federation. (I no longer remember his name.) Before the ceremony is over, I tell him I have something rather important to discuss with him. I just know he thinks I want to offer Selah as a gift to the Federation . . . Breakfast the following morning is agreed upon . . . One cup of coffee and waiting for the eggs and bacon, I bring Margaret’s work to the table. Page after page of expertly posed junk and his comment fell right into my trap!



Guest Quarters or Junk? Photograph taken by J. David.



Photograph taken by J. David.



Photograph taken by J. David.



Photograph taken by J. David.



Photograph taken by J. David.



Photograph taken by J. David.



“This is abominable! Who would treat land like this?” To which I answered, “YOU!” This is a big nationwide conservation organization. It’s not expected that one in his position would know about all their holdings. Prior to leaving Texas and with our accountant’s help, we calculated the time value of money. I offered $30,000 for the 29.8 acres and showed him that with Phil’s life expectancy being 21 more years. $30,000 now would nearly triple by the time they could sell to anyone else. It makes sense and before we leave Washington the property is ours along with Phil and all his junk!


Now while Phil is a collector of everything, I have to tell you he is also a mechanical genius! He can fix anything. He also is slim, a non-smoker and doesn’t know what beer tastes like. He has never been married, a housekeeper and cook he is not. From the dozens of jars, we sometimes thought he existed on peanut butter! Whatever his lifestyle, Phil became invaluable to us. Margaret soon coined the phrase “Call Phil First” when anything quit working and I do mean ANYTHING from the truck to the washing machine! There was nothing he couldn’t fix. He even made parts in his shop.



Working Elevator built by Phil. Photograph taken by J. David.



But that was then and this is now.


Phil had only one known living relative. She lived in San Antonio, a single mom about to retire from being a stewardess for American Airlines. She was the sole inheritor of Phil’s personal assets which included 67 junk automobiles, 5 motorcycles and all the other junk your seeing in the pictures in this blog. She asked me for some time – ninety days – to remove things and I’m happy to do so if she will clean things up. The lady is ill equipped to do any of this but does hire a local to do it. A few of the old cars were sold to collectors, but most of them were crushed and sold as scrap iron. I’m a bit skeptical that anything else will be cleaned up. . . . So we will have a major project on our hands. But read on please.


Phil had boasted around Johnson City that he had a stash of dynamite on the place. The local, being aware of this is very careful with everything he does and sure enough he spots 19 sticks of dynamite along with detonator caps in a big glass jar. They are old, covered with moss, but very much alive! Not knowing what to do he called our County Sheriff who also heard the rumor that Phil had a stash of dynamite so he comes out and verifies the stash but offers no help except to call the Austin office of the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), the Federal folks who regulate such things. Four men from that office arrive. They verify the stash, but ask for me. They tell me that they will have to blow up the stash inside the old house, it’s too dangerous to move. However, they are waiting for a bomb expert whose been summoned from Dallas and a handler with two bomb sniffing dogs from Ft. Worth. They also inform me that this is now “officially” a hazardous waste site and if this problem is not solved today I could be fined $1,000.00 per day until it’s solved. The bomb sniffing dogs arrive first. No more dynamite is found however they do find a pint of mercury! Next, the bomb expert arrives. He has armor and equipment and says he will pick up the stash and remove it from the old house into a field and blow it up. . . . We should notify our neighbors – call the sheriff, EMS and Fire department. All ranch personnel are ordered to stay clear of the area. There are to be two blasts. What I’m going to tell you next still bothers me. They set the pint of mercury on top of the dynamite! The countdown: 10 - 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – BOOM, one Ka Boom Two. . . . We were a quarter mile away and didn’t get the best picture, but the cloud of dust rose 100 yards. . . . So where did the mercury go?



Fire – EMS and Sheriff. Photograph taken by Lois Sturm.



The “Mushroom Cloud” Photograph taken by Lois Sturm.



Over the past 40 years we have worked tirelessly to restore this 5500 acres. We did all the work ourselves. Everyone whose has worked here participated. We built barns, fences, roads and pipelines by ourselves. We did contract to have three new homes built as well as our education building and considerable remodeling. These improvements and the value of the land today are believed to have a market value of 25 million dollars. . . .Selah will be here forever, not only to educate the young people about the natural world but to serve as a model for other landowners and to give Mother Nature room to breathe. We have given Selah to future generations. It needs and deserves your support. Won’t you help us with your tax deductible contribution? We are a 501(c)(3) private operating foundation. You can send your contributions to: Bamberger Ranch Preserve, 2341 Blue Ridge Drive, Johnson City, TX 78636.

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