Libraries Round the World: In Utopia

The Utopia I’m referring to isn’t merely a state of mind, but a small town in Uvalde County, located in West Central Texas. And yes, cowboys and ranchers support their public libraries. On our trip through a series of small towns, we saw multiple public libraries filled with books and patrons.

The Utopia Public Library located where else? On Main Street! 

Happy patrons (dad, brother & cousin) inside the library. Notice the fabulous painting of the cat reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD!

Back in 1852, this small Texan town was named Waresville for a Captain Ware, and there is still an active cemetery by that name. He was an officer in the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which led to the state’s independence from Mexico. For a time, it went by Montana, but another town in Texas had already claimed it.

The story goes, which might be another tall Texan tale, that a utopian community was planned nearby. It didn’t happen, yet the unusual name of Utopia caught hold. And in another odd reversal, the Latin translation of “Utopia” doesn’t refer to some magical place, nirvana, or paradise, but instead means “nowhere.”

I traveled to Utopia in January with my dad, two brothers, and a cousin. We weren’t in search of Utopia per se, but we hoped to pay a visit to an extraordinary place. That is, if we could get past the locked gates and around the barbed wire fences.

On the Sabinal River with my dad and brothers at our Utopian AirBNB rental 

We planned to at least drive by The Springer Ranch, owned by my grandfather, Franz “Frank” Springer, a 17-year-old immigrant to America from Bohemia in 1896. (Sadly, the European country of Bohemia no longer exists since it was swallowed up by the country now called Czechia. The city of Prague and Pilsner beer are two famous Bohemian creations!)

Luckily, while we parked outside on the old main road, an employee of the current owner stopped by and gave us the okay to drive to the main house and original Springer ranch headquarters to reminisce. 

Success! Outside the old main ranch house with the now enclosed sleeping porch.

Regardless of the name or meaning behind it, this small piece of Texas was a utopian delight to my grandfather and his sons, including the youngest, my dad. He and his brothers all shared stories about how much they enjoyed spending time at the ranch. 

The Springer family’s primary residence was in San Antonio, 80 miles east, so this was a weekend adventure. Just imagine being a kid with access to play and work on a 2,200-acre ranch. A real-life Disney Frontierland filled with horses, livestock, waterholes, and even snakes.  

But this wasn’t a rich man’s vacation retreat. My grandfather built a working ranch that required time and dedication to develop and oversee. As an inexperienced rancher, he faced challenges in his attempts to grow crops and raise livestock. My dad, young as he was, ran the tractor, and his brother built a horse cart. Once my dad, riding on the kid’s pony, raced against his dad and forced his father’s stallion to jump a fence!

One of my uncles shared a written memoir, RANCH RAMBLINGS, at a family reunion in the 1980s. My dad and I are planning to add some old family photos of the ranch and publish it later this year.

Dad on the property reminiscing about his childhood on the ranch

My dad and his brothers were devastated in 1943 when their father died after returning home from a weekend spent sheep shearing. My father was only eight years old, but he remembers this as if it was yesterday. Since the ranch wasn’t a money-making operation and bills had to be paid, my grandmother sold the ranch in a hurry. After gathering up some personal belongings, she met Mr. Kelley, the neighboring rancher and a descendant of the early settlers of Waresville. They agreed on $25 an acre for the land, buildings, improvements, and farm equipment.

The Kelley land holdings reached at least 10,000-acres. But a few years ago, the family sold some property, including what was the old Springer ranch, to Rod Lewis, a Texas’s billionaire wildcatter and oilman. While visiting with some Utopian locals, we heard he appreciates historic properties. So, let’s hope the historic old farmhouse and some of the other buildings my grandfather built will endure a few more decades. Thank you in advance, Mr. Lewis!

Dear Mr. Lewis, One of the old outhouses might be worth saving too.

Utopia was also the location for the 2011 film, SEVEN DAYS IN UTOPIA, with the well-known actor Robert Duvall. Some scenes took place inside the Lost Maples Café, where we ate dinner twice. In the offseason, it was the only place open. We also had a fabulous gourmet lunch at The Laurel Tree. That meal, all by itself, was worth a trip from San Antonio, and it’s only a few miles from the old Springer ranch.

On the Utopia library’s grounds, a robust, century plant, officially called an Agave Americana had reached a ripe old age. A sign mentioned how this cactus serves as a home for small birds and animals. And the library right next door, is also a home for humans, at least during its open hours. I wonder, back when this old succulent was a youngster like my dad, if my grandfather saw it too.

Karen Stensgaard is a novelist and the author of two books so far (AQUAVIT and BLUENESS), with a third in the editing stage. More details about her books are on her website with this blog and through various booksellers. 


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