Pioneer Texas family ranchlands combined to create Government Canyon.
By Nick Kotz
As a boy in San Antonio, my greatest joy was to drive out Culebra Road with my grandfather Nathan and Uncle Perry to the Kallison Ranch. The big spread was 18 miles west of the city, but it was really an entire world away.
After we inspected the Hereford cattle, the barbed-wire fences and fields of hay and sorghum, we would ride our horses up into the Hill Country to take in the wild beauty of the vistas.
Uncle Perry, known to his early morning radio audience as “the Ol’ Trader,” taught me to identify the bluebonnets and mountain laurel, the black cherry, chinaberry, mesquite and live oak trees. My grandfather, who had founded the Big Country Kallison’s Store in 1899 and bought his Bexar County ranch in 1910, shared with me sightings of wild turkey, rabbits, boar and armadillos, herds of white-tailed deer and eagles that soared overhead.
At the remains of Native American campsites, my cousins and I found arrowheads, shards of clay pots and still-sharp stone heads of tomahawks and hatchets. These were traces of a not-too-distant past when nomadic tribes of Apache and Comanche roamed freely on open rangeland stretching endlessly westward.
Government Canyon State Natural Area.
At that time, I knew nothing about the history of that magnificent ranch, or about the pioneer ranching neighbors whose land also is now part of Government Canyon State Natural Area. Moreover, I knew little about my grandfather’s own early life. It wasn’t until I began to research the history of the ranch and of life in early 20th century Texas that I learned my grandfather’s story: In 1890, young Nathan Kallison managed a harrowing escape from the Russian czar’s marauding Cossacks, hell-bent on slaughtering Jews. At 17, in the dead of night, he traveled across the continent, sneaked across borders and boarded a ship for America in Bremen, Germany.
Nine years later, after starting a one-room harness shop on San Antonio’s South Flores Street, Kallison — later joined by his sons, Perry and Morris — built Kallison’s Store into the largest farm and ranch supply business in the Southwest. Farmers and ranchers came from all over South and Central Texas to buy the latest feed and seed, cattle medicine and farm equipment that Kallison used on his own ranch to demonstrate how his customers could improve their livelihoods.
Most of the land that today makes up Government Canyon State Natural Area was at one time owned by Jacob Hoffmann, who as a child came with his parents to Texas from Prussia in 1845. The Hoffmanns were among 2,000 European immigrants to settle on the empresario Henri de Castro’s visionary land grant, 25 miles west of San Antonio, in what is now the town of Castroville.
More than 1,000 acres of Kallison's Ranch, where Nathan Kallison raised cattle, became part of Government Canyon.
Ambitious and hungry for adventure, Jacob Hoffmann struck out on his own at age 14, working first for farmers, then driving wagonloads of supplies westward and serving as a guide for the Army. At 15, Hoffmann earned his reputation as an Indian fighter when he shot and killed two Comanche warriors shortly after they had killed his older brother, who was building a home on the Medina River.
Starting in the 1860s, Hoffmann and his wife, Caroline Bauer Ernst, the daughter of another Castroville immigrant, managed to amass thousands of acres of ranchland, including the land that eventually would become Government Canyon. After Hoffmann’s death, his children sold part of his sprawling ranch to Nathan Kallison, allowing another young immigrant to fulfill his dream of becoming a Texas rancher.
Most of those historic ranches are gone now, along with their prize-winning cattle, their Angora goats and sheep, and their gently rolling fields of sorghum, oats and corn. But in a major triumph of historic preservation and land and water conservation, those former ranches now make up Government Canyon, the third-largest Texas Parks and Wildlife Department state natural area.
When the Edwards Aquifer, the vast underground reservoir that provides the main source of San Antonio’s drinking water, was threatened in the 1970s and ’80s by plans to build a 9,000-acre commercial and residential “New Town,” 40 citizen groups banded together as the Government Canyon Coalition to oppose the huge development and to protect the aquifer, which receives significant recharge water from the property. The conservationists finally prevailed after they were joined by government agencies including the Edwards Underground Water District (now the Edwards Aquifer Authority), the San Antonio Water System, Bexar County, San Antonio and Texas state agencies. Their goal was “to provide additional outdoor recreational opportunities, protect important wildlife habitat, and protect and enhance sensitive open spaces (the Edwards Aquifer) near San Antonio.”
Together, in 1993, they created the Government Canyon State Natural Area. In 2002, through a combination gift and sale, Kallison descendants conveyed the most scenic 1,162 acres of their ranch to Government Canyon.
Since then, thousands of visitors have enjoyed hiking the 40 miles of trails, climbing to scenic vistas, exploring spring-fed creeks, and observing native flowers and wildlife, including the rare golden-cheeked warbler, a Texas native protected as an endangered species. Young children can learn the simple glories of nature there, as I did back in the 1930s and ’40s.
My grandfather shared with me sightings of wild turkey, rabbits, boar and armadillos, herds of white-tailed deer and eagles that soared overhead.
Nathan and Perry Kallison would surely be pleased that the ranch has not been consumed by the urban sprawl that has engulfed farm and ranch land surrounding metropolitan San Antonio and other Texas cities. As dedicated conservationists, both Kallisons were well ahead of their times in demonstrating and advocating conservation practices in agriculture. Uncle Perry preached the importance of saving precious natural resources in his Saturday morning Trading Post broadcasts.
“Now neighbors, the good earth provides all our needs,” Perry Kallison told his radio audience in a 1947 broadcast. “But the world over neglects the earth, and here in America we are perhaps more guilty than elsewhere. For without good soil, America would never have become a world power.
“But we have so much good land, we have become neglectful. The gullies wash away the good earth, the wind lifts off the topsoil, and millions of acres go to waste through just carelessness, mismanagement, and just because the good earth lacks a true friend. So build a terrace. Stop a gully from biting into the land. Make a policy of not overgrazing. God planted the natural resources for us to use. So always be a ‘friend of the soil’ — a protector of the future of our land.”
Several Kallison Ranch buildings still survive. Atop a hill, a farmhouse and sturdy cattle barn overlook the Hill Country and downtown San Antonio. In the spacious, open barn, Nathan and Perry Kallison brushed and fed Golden Nugget and other prized registered Herefords. Nearby is the ranch headquarters, which also served as home for the ranch’s manager. The front of the house is of wood frame construction. In the early 1930s, Nathan Kallison added a rear addition, built of Texas limestone, to protect the farm manager and his family from the cold winter winds that can sweep across the Hill Country.
Although the Kallison Ranch portion of the land is not currently open to visitors, TPWD is in the early stages of developing a plan for public access. The landscape that inspired Texas settlers and the historic buildings they left behind now belong to all Texans and will be preserved for future generations.