I’m so excited and grateful to present this interview with Becky Crouch Patterson. I spent an hour with her on a beautiful fall day and loved our wide ranging conversation. Becky is a true Texas original and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Matt – I’ve read two of your books. I’ve read The Ranch That Was Us and obviously I wrote the review on that and I just loved it. I also read and wrote the review on Luckenbach, Texas: The Center of the Universe.
BCP – I was asked to write all three of my books. I wrote Hondo: My Father when I was 35 and I never had written a thing in my life. But Naomi Nye said, “Yes, Becky keep writing, keep writing,” and it has sold over 20,000 copies and luckily James Michener endorsed it. And then Trinity University Press asked me to write The Ranch That Was Us after they saw 17 paintings I had done on stories on the ranch from the hired hand Raymond Kuhlman.
Matt – Are those some of the painting in the book?
BCP – Yes, all 50 of them. And then I was asked to write Luckenbach, Texas: Center of the Universe by D. Foster who is Gary P. Nunn’s manager because they are now having a show at the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville for 3 years called “Outlaws are Armadillos: Country’s Roaring 70s”. They came and got the bar door off Luckenbach and it’s on display there in the huge, 6,000 square foot museum. It’s all Texas song writers so I had to write that book in record time; six months. In that display I discovered I had made…I’m a textile artist as well…and I had made a poncho for Townes Van Zandt out of an old Army blanket and I put “Lefty” on the bottom corner after his song “Poncho and Lefty”. I gave that to him in the dark parking lot of the Kerrville Folk Festival and it’s there in that museum.
Matt – Totally about loss.
BCP – Totally about loss. Loss of life, loss of land, loss of ranches, loss of work ethic. There was a tragedy in every generation of my family from the Civil War on up to me, and I talk about how they all dealt with their tragedies.
Matt – That’s one of the things I thought was really interesting. I think most people have tragedies in their lives but not everyone embraces or owns them. Some people try and pretend like they didn’t happen.
BCP – I have to write about it. In fact, I’m an artist and a writer and just like those outlaw singers, your creativity is forced out from heartache. You’re in pain and you have a broken heart and you’ll just wither up if you don’t get mad and throw it towards some kind of creative thing. It’s very poignant, that book.
Matt – That’s a very different book than, Luckenbach. I just finished that book this week and it’s very different.
BCP – I would define Luckenbach with two words. Hysterical and historical. I’m in my 70s and old enough to have been there at the beginning when my father, Hondo Crouch, bought it in the 70s and so, I got to be an eyewitness to all the craziness, but I think the Luckenbach book is about the German Texans influence on a young state of Texas. People don’t even know. I’ve been going around doing my talks, people have never heard of Luckenbach, never heard of Willie and Waylon and the Boys, all these fabulous Texas singers. That’s one aspect.
But I’ve proved why I called it “Center of the Universe” which is ironic, population 3, the Center of the Universe. Oh my gosh, it’s like Boerne. We’re in Boerne which used to be called Tusculum and Comfort where I live and Luckenbach where our business is, and Sisterdale and Grapetown. There’s a little handful of these Freethinker towns that were the center of the universe.
Not many people know that in the 1860s Jacob Brodbeck, one of the residents here invented a flying machine, 40 years before the Wright brothers, and he was an inventor of other things. Not many people know the Pinta Trail of the 1700s went right through Luckenbach by the Spainards and their horses and the German wagons and that was the principle route.
Not many people know Hondo said, “it’s the center of the universe” because he put his finger on a globe and said, “Look, there it is.”
One thing I didn’t know about when I wrote that book was the Luckenbach Bushwhackers. I had no idea about the Civil War and all the Freethinkers that did not secede from the Union, they were loyal loyalists. That’s why these little towns didn’t grow for years because the Confederate Haengerbande hanging vigilantes killed them all and kept killing them, even after the war. It was “go after the Germans”, including my 16 year old uncle Heinrich Stieler who was hung in Goat Creek in Kerrville during the Nueces Massacre with a sign around his neck that said “spy”. His mother went crazy for the rest of her life.
So, we have no idea that my book is about renegades and rebels and people color outside the lines. Rule breakers, including my father Hondo who was kind of a guerrilla theater comic. Wherever, he had his own form of humor that wasn’t planned, it just popped in on you. I relate to all those people. The songwriters who rebelled against the Nashville music. I have quotes of things they’ve said about they’d rather be an artist than a star. They’d rather have a well crafted song than a hit.
Matt – Let me ask you this. What does it mean to you to be a Texan?
BCP – Well, it is my total identity. I think being a Texan, I learned it from my parents. Being a Texan means you love the land. Luckily I was born on land already owned 130 years ago. Being a Texan, I think of my father, that independent spirit. Always chewing tobacco with a coon penis bone in his hat, that’s very Texan. My mother made jerky and sausage and wove. She continued the pioneer crafts. I’ll never forget one time she said, “I cherish my German ancestors and all they did for us.” I think we were taught to just love being from where we’re from. Luckily I live in the Hill Country which is even better, it’s in the heart of it. So, being a Texan, what does it mean to be a Texan? Just being your gosh darn independent self.
Matt – That’s so much of what I took away from The Ranch That Was Us. Yes, it was sad and about loss, but to me it was also about just embracing where you are and embracing where you’re from.
BCP – And you know, it’s getting harder to hang onto your land. Every time someone dies or gets a divorce the ranch gets smaller and smaller. My mother, in the chapter on her, “Our Lady of the Weeds”, she’d say, “I may not have the land anymore but I have the dirt.” And she would be out there 24/7 pulling weeds, pulling horehound. I guess she grew up to be a steward of the land and I couldn’t last two minutes, doing what she did out there all day in the heat. It was her way of coping with tragedy.
My brother was the genius of our family, Kerry, and he became a schizophrenic at 21 and then hung himself at age 50. She even took him down from the rafters, talk about a strong Texas woman. They have been there and done that and you don’t see them crying about it. They’re just tough. She’s both tough and tender, I remember.
She also says that if the land becomes too much of a burden, “aw, sell it.” We are still the last of the Mohicans. Our ranch was there in 1878 and all of the Stieler cousins down the road have sold out to those gated communities. We’re the last of the Mohicans sitting up on top of Stieler Hill with no visible means of support. Too bad we can’t make something out of horehound and cactus. Most people have oil or something to support their reason for owing land, so it’s out of pure appreciation and the hard work that came to even get that land and keep it and pass it down.
Matt – So say more about that. What does it mean to you to be living on your family’s land like that?
BCP – Well, if I hear a creaking gate or an acorn falling on the roof or a cow bellowing, it probably means more to mean than a normal person just visiting there. My people came here in the 1850s and got the land in the 70s and it just part of who I am. Red Steagall wrote a blurb on the back that said, “how wonderful to live on land, but the be landed.” I am “landed” and that means you inherited it from your ancestors. I’m a “landed” person and so, it makes you want to ride for the brand even though there’s no brands or riding done. It just makes you faithful to your past.
Matt – I love that.
BCP – My mother in doing all that weed pulling, she’d pick up the old shearing blades that were rusted and broken like an archaeological dig. She find little pieces of metal or little pieces of bailing wire, “oh, this came from the thresher, I know.” She’d even make up stories but she was gleaning her past by gleaning all the weeds up.
It makes the land even more valuable when you know the stories behind it and everyone has a story. What I try to tell people to do is write them down. Even if they’re just tiny anecdotes, they add up to be a bigger thing. I think of that when I go in the feed barn, pull that string off the feed bag, and remember my thrifty German aunts would roll that string in a little ball. They kept all the string from the feed bags and they would crochet little medallions that ended up being a table cloth. I said, that’s how you write. You have a little string and you add it to another string and another string. It doesn’t have to be a big Hemingway fishing story, just little anecdotes. I was given an award by the Comfort Heritage Foundation and most of those people had restored buildings or cars, crocks or antiques.
I’m restoring stories or words and how for example, Raymond Kuhlmann talked. He said, “We can top this hill” or it rained and he’d say, “the ranch has on it’s Sunday clothes.” They had a different language. One of my favorite things in the book is about a ranch we had in Sisterdale called the Block Creek and he would go up on Thunder Mountain and it was hard to get up even on a horse and he’d say, “I topped that mountain at 5:30 in the morning and the only way I could check on people was to see when the smoke was coming out of their chimney.” And I’m thinking of us who have cell phones that we’re just surrounded by radio waves and he went to that trouble. He’d name them all. He’d name all the neighbors. Whitworth, Manchaca, he’d go down the list.
Another thing my father, Hondo, taught me. All artisan writers, here’s the key, you’ve go to observe and be aware for anything. But Hondo taught us to be aware of tracking a deer. Like if this leaf was moved, if that twig was bent, if there was a drop of blood. And Raymond taught us to be aware of where we were, like over that hill you can see the roof of the barn on that ranch. They were so aware of the land and what was around them. The Michener Center for Writers, that book was required reading for two years for the Michener Center at UT. They’d come to the ranch and picnic and read their stuff and they said, “how can you be a visual artist and a writer also?” I think it comes down to observation. Your eyes always are editing and observing and if you run across a little story while you’re washing dishes you have to go write it down right then or you’ll forget it. You’re just gleaning and collecting ideas of what you want to write about.
Matt – I think what you’re doing is so important. My grandparents knew all of the stories from their grandparents, but most of us don’t know those stories anymore.
BCP – No, you know what I asked a four year old or five year old to do, who came to my house with somebody? He said, “Ms. Becky, how do you write?” I said, well if you can tell it you can write it. And he told me a story and we actually wrote it down and made a handmade book out of it. We don’t talk anymore. We don’t talk to one another anymore. If you can tell it you can write it. If you talk it you can write it down.
Matt – I go to St. Helena’s Episcopal Church here in Boerne and we do some work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and stories are everything to them. Oral stories. Those stories are everything to them and they feel like when someone leaves the reservation, even if its for something important, that a piece of their story is lost. It’s interesting.
BCP – Well, that’s about the Outlaw songwriters. Everyone has a story and when you’re vulnerable enough to tell yours, then someone else sees it and hears it and you become a real communication and known to that person. I’m just gutsy enough to tell all my family crap. I read Half Broke Horses and Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club and I said, “oh, gosh, I can top all that.” So, I’m not afraid to talk about my brother’s schizophrenia or losing my son or this or this or that, because everyone has that. Tragedies. You have to find some way to process that and redeem it, as hard as it is.
Matt – What books or writers do you think have influenced your writing style?
BCP – Well, Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls and I thought, well if they can tell about that in a kind of poetic way, I can too. If Hemingway can make these little short sentences without a very big vocabulary, well then I can too. I just wanted to talk my language and it comes. I wrote all my books on legal pads. I don’t even have a computer. I guess being an artist I have to have a pencil and paper.
Matt – Have you read any Wendell Berry?
BCP – Yes! Add him to my list!
Matt – Your writing reminds me of his.
BCP – Yes, because he writes about nature and he can write about a field that’s plowed up and he can feel the bones of the people that lived their before.
Matt – And he writes about community and family.
BCP – Yes! And Mary Oliver. Put her in that group. You run across something and think, “God, how’d she think of that? God, I wish I’d wrote that.” I try to put myself down there in the rocks and the grass and the leaves. Naomi Nye is a good friend mine, internationally famous poet. I’ve known her since she was in her 20s. She named my son, “Sky”. She went around teaching kids in school. Here’s this wonderful quote from a fourth grader, “A poet is someone who can smell the scent of scentless things and tell someone else what it smells like.” So, I try to remember that because when Hondo died, I couldn’t talk to him. We didn’t talk much anyway. And I thought, how do I write a book about him? I conjured up his memory through smell. The smell of beer, the smell of enchiladas, the smell of the wool, the smell of the grain in the feed stores. If you open your senses to smell you would be amazed at how that conjures up memories, so I started from there.
I didn’t think I’d ever be a writer, making a “D” in English.
Matt – You’re certainly a writer now, so what did you think you’d be?
BCP – I thought I’d be an artist all my life, because out there on the Stieler Ranch we had nothing. I’ve just always been creative and I would outline the shadow of a tree with rocks. We had plenty of rocks. And I would jump in it and that was my playhouse. The shadow may have changed but in my mind it was my little space. I made many mud pies decorated with pecan hulls. I’m just saying, George Washington Carver said, “Make what you want out of what you have” and I did that, with my 25 word vocabulary and my legal pads.
That new book just came out called Through Layered Limestone and I’m one of the poets in it and I won an award, the Editor’s Choice Award, and it’s from poets from all around here, Kerrville, Boerne, Comfort. Fabulous poets, like big time real poets, and mine got this award, it’s called “In Werner’s Field” and it’s about my mother down there on her hands and knees down there picking up stuff out of that field. You just start with what touches you and what’s almost like nothing.
Matt – My impression from your books is your dad was outwardly portraying a character. That’s certainly who he was but maybe he was playing up certain things for the audience. Is that right?
BCP – I think he was a self made entrepreneur which means you decide who you want to be at a very young age and you’re faithful to that dream. When he was 18, in his diary he said, “I’m different. I’m going to be somebody someday.” When he hitch hiked from Corpus Christi to Austin, TX to be in a swim meet. My sons were national swimmers and they’d never have hitch hiked. But he did and entered that meet and won almost everything and the sports writers started asking, “Who’s that Hondo guy? He came from the desert of West Texas, how does he know how to swim?” And he said, “It rained one day and I learned to swim in a cow track.” He was a tall tale teller way back then. Then, he took a class from J. Frank Dobie at UT and wanted to be like him. He was quiet inside and he would put on this show for people. He died at age 59 and told me, “You know what they’re going to put on my tomb stone, they’ll put ‘He Never Made It’.” So, he still had that sadness inside. He said he was like the Pagliacci clown that cried on the inside and smiled on the outside. He had so many tragedies, his father committed suicide when he was a swimmer at UT, his favorite son went crazy at age 21 and then killed himself. I think it’s like the song writers. You have a broken heart but what do you do with it? You turn it into something.
Matt – It’s actually what I was curious about. It seems like, from your books, part of that was covering up what he felt inside.
BCP – He was like Peter Pan. He was almost like another kid. We had four brothers and sisters. Mama was the straight man and the one who gave the orders, but he was so exciting to us. He was like an Indian trapper. He taught us how to trap and hunt and swim. He was an athlete and at a young age he was have us run behind the truck. If you’re thirsty just suck on a leaf. He kind of had this folk lore of “toughin’ it and roughin’ it.”
Matt – Tell me about your mom.
BCP – She’s gotten the Pioneer Spirit award from the Gillespie County Historical Society and she just embodies what it would be to be the big, tough German pioneer woman who did everything. Wove on a loom, churned our own butter, made sausage and jerky. One time I came home in the dark, a grown, divorced woman, came home into the kitchen and my head was hitting something. I turned on the light and she had hung jerky on broomsticks all through the kitchen. Not your usual kind of a mother, a typical Texas super mom. She did all the work inside and outside. She is the first to start the conservation society in Fredericksburg. She was the first to start the library. She was the first to start saving the old houses. She actually laid down in front of a bulldozer and this was before it was popular to do so. In Fredericksburg in the 1950s it was, “let’s tear down this log cabin and put a nice new brick building here.” So she was the first to start writing that book, Pioneers in God’s Hills because she was president of the Gillespie County historical society. She had every member write about one of their pioneer, meaning immigrant, relatives and that’s how that book was compiled.
Matt – She and your dad seem very different.
BCP – Opposite. My mother was from this hard working German family…”those who get up early get the gold in their mouth.” Hondo was the dreamer who sat around in the Comfort Wool and Mohair Warehouse like Shakespeare sat around in feed stores and wrote his stuff, Hondo sound around in feed stores and wrote “The Cedar Creek Clippings” and they were actually a social satire. All these characters in it were making fun of racism or making fun of the social columns right next to his. My mother didn’t appreciate it, she didn’t think it was funny. They both ended up being legends, I would say, but on totally different branches.
Matt – Tell me about your liturgical art. I’m fascinated by that.
BCP – I became a Christian up in Anchorage, Alaska in 1971 because my brother Kerry became a schizophrenic. That got me to my knees and I wanted to pray for him and I got filled with the Holy Spirit myself and was just turned on fire to scripture and everything. So, I felt like tattooing it on my forehead but instead I started putting in banners, I call them banners because our church St. George’s Episcopal was having a bazaar and we collected scraps of cloth. I ran a workshop to create banners to edify, to remind us of the Word. But as life goes on I think I threw God out the window several times.
When my son died, my 19 year old son was killed. Wow. That was a biggie. I couldn’t bear to go to church. I couldn’t even bear to pray. You know that Willie Nelson song, “I’m Just Too Sick to Pray”? That was me. And lo and behold, that was when St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg asked me to design their stained glass windows which are stunning, I must admit, to this day. I designed the windows but I just could not see God. I was mad a God. I could barely stand to do anything “holy”. And so, I was a prisoner in my bedroom for 2 years and that church prayed me up off my bed and on to my feet. Joe Juarez who was the stained glass guy had lead poisoning and that prayed him back into life and so we got those windows done.
But I remember seeing God through people. There’s little things in those windows…I use indigenous images to represent the Word of God. I put something indigenous in these windows so they mean something to the people around them. I remembered the language of flowers; all flowers are symbolic of something. I didn’t want to use the same old Christian symbols that people look at and say, “what does that mean?” I did the Beatitudes, the Beatitude windows, blessed are those who are stomped on, more or less. Then I did the “I Am”, the Good Shepherd, the Light, the Vine.
There’s things in there that people won’t know, those are Gloria Hill’s morning glories, that’s Roberta’s hummingbird for joy, there’s 19 nopals on this cactus for my son’s 19 years. People don’t know the little hidden symbols that I put in there just to be able to do those windows. They look like Fredericksburg, they look like maybe quilt patterns, they look like folk art.
On I Am the Vine I put 12 leaves for the 12 disciples, I put the mustard seed of Faith. I put a bird’s nest with three eggs that stood for my three sons being fragile on I Am Blessed are the Meek. So those windows actually show indigenous life of the people around there that made me able to even do it.
Later I did the kneelers and did wildflowers and like I said, every flower has a language. They have a huge wisteria plant over their passage coming into the church and that’s one of them. I looked at wisteria and it meant “community” and “friendship” and I thought, “how great is that”? I represent the two creeks, Barons Creek and Winfried Creek in Fredericksburg by just two different shades of blue, so you’re looking at something that has a lot of meaning in it.
Matt – The architecture and liturgy and all the elements in a church are intended to teach and you’ve done that and taken it to another level, back to the stories of who we are and where we’ve come from.
BCP – Yes, and my biggest, most grand window is a wall at the Kroc Center in Kerrville that is 20 by 12 feet. I already had the framework of the window there and again, I went back to the indigenous. What’s indigenous? The river and the hills. I chose Psalm 121, I lift my eyes to the hills, my help comes from God who made heaven and earth. The Jews prayed it as they were going away out in a dangerous place. It’s like coming and going. Whether you’re coming or going you’ve got to pray for safety. I have the cross made out of different rocks, meaning we’re all in a church and we’re all different but we have to fit together. We have to bump up against somebody but we’re all different. I have rocks in the ground that haven’t seen the Light yet. They’re still in the ground. And then of course I have the indigenous cactus and yuccas which to me stand for eternal life because it’s green. They’re always green and the cactus you cannot destroy. It is the most enduring plant there is. Even in that window, there is a lot of symbolism there.
Matt – What projects are you working on now?
BCP – I’m painting. I’m 74 and I’ve given myself to everyone that has fallen apart in my family up until now. Now it’s my turn and I want paint. I’m seriously learning how to paint as a real painter. I’m painting things that mean something to me, not just a vase of flowers. I’m trying to document things on the ranch, inside and outside. What’s going to be here after we’re gone is what we’ve written and what we’ve made.
I live in this house that’s almost 100 years old that she was born in at the Stieler Ranch, and my mother says, “We don’t own these old houses. The people who built them own them. We’re just the next generation of caretakers, but leave your mark.” My mark is, I did a Tree of Life on one of the doors that has the past/present symbolism on it. The wildflowers and wild animals, several branches, some we’d like to cut off. But leave your mark. She said, “Everything in your house should be meaningful or indigenous”. You have to have a reason for it being there.
Matt – I would add “beautiful.”
BCP – And beautiful! They bought Luckenbach because to them nothing was ugly. Luckenbach was kind of shabby and run down and they thought that was beautiful.
Matt – Are you going to do another book?
BCP – I’ve collected the sayings of my mother. She’s 95 and has dementia in the nursing home. I’ve collected her sayings, I call them “Shatzie-isms”. They are just wise or funny or tough or I’ve got the last word. When she is gone I can go back and read them.
Matt – Tell me about the last book you read.
BCP – When Cortes Met Montezuma. I’m fascinated with Mexican and Spanish history. I realized it’s a big lie. Cortes isn’t as great as everyone thinks. Through art and how history is written he sounds like some big fabulous hero but he’s not. I do admire the Aztecs though they were like the Egyptians. Their whole culture was smashed by the Spanish. I remember I was married to a Mexican charro horse trader from Mexico City and we’d go down there for these parties, charro parties, the Mexican rodeo. I remember meeting this guy who owned a fabulous hacienda and his ear was cut off. He’d been kidnapped. When I met him I cried and he asked, “why are you crying?” I said, “because I have met a real Mexican.” He was related to both Cortes and Montezuma through some way. That history is really fascinating.
Matt – Your mom and dad were obviously great, fascinating Texan characters and so are you. Thank you for spending time with me.
After my discussion with Becky she sent me two follow up emails that I had to include:
“I thought if one more thing to be a Texan: you have to kill your first deer by the time you’re 7. It’s a right of passage.”
“I also think being a Texan means you have the right to be a little or a lot showy. Outrageous. Unique. Be your yourself with a flair. “
Again, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking with Becky and am grateful for her time.
Like what you read here? Click the “Subscribe” button on the right side of the page and get each new blog post delivered to your inbox.
As always, please leave your comments below, both good and bad. We love to hear from you.
Please note that there are Amazon Affiliate links in this post. We will earn a modest commission from qualifying purchases made through those links. It is very much appreciated. Thank you.