When Sarah and Luke Johanson inherited her family’s homestead outside Menard about five years ago, they had no idea how they were going to fit in.
The couple met in Los Angeles while pursuing acting careers, and they were living in Massachusetts when they started the process of moving to rural Texas.
“We thought, ‘We’re moving back there, but how are we going to survive there?’ ” Sarah Johanson says. Menard—a town of about 1,500—is an hour southeast of San Angelo.
Johanson’s grandfather had been the football announcer for Menard High School for 30 years, but, she says, “we’re not the normal type of folks who live here.”
Logan Bell had a similar thought. Bell’s family roots go way back in Menard, but the Odessa native lived on farms in Italy and England after college before settling in Fort Worth.
During Bell’s childhood, the Bell family would visit Menard a few times a year to shear sheep that roamed the family land. When Bell’s mom inherited the property in the mid-2010s, Bell and partner Geer Gillespie decided to turn their dream of becoming homesteaders into a reality.
“Before we moved here, we thought we would be the only people like this out here,” Bell says. “We were prepared to be the isolated weirdos.”
But Menard is a small town with a long memory. And these transplants and others came to discover their roots are more intertwined than they expected.
Not long after Bell and Gillespie moved into a dilapidated farmhouse, the couple stopped for a meal at the Lazy Ladle Cafe in downtown Menard, where Sarah Johanson’s mom worked. “She told us we had to meet Sarah and Luke,” Bell says.
Bell looked up Sarah Johanson on Facebook, and they started chatting, but it wasn’t until Johanson started digging through old photo albums that she discovered that she and Bell shared more than a budding friendship.
The subjects in one photo were a group of close-knit friends in Menard who called themselves the Angels. Among them were Zella Williamson and Winnie Lois Wilkerson, Johanson’s grandmother and Bell’s great-aunt.
“Sarah sent me that photo and said, ‘Is that person related to you?’ I was like, ‘oh, oh, oh,’ ” Bell says. “We knew we had a connection, but then we realized we were sort of related.”
As it turns out, Johanson and Bell aren’t the only descendants of the Angels who have returned home to Menard.
Hannah Beall’s grandmother, Betto, was also part of the group that lived in Menard when it was a bustling livestock town in the 1940s and ’50s.
Beall was born in Austin and moved back to her mother’s hometown while she was in elementary school. She made friends but never quite lost that outsider-looking-in perspective. Now she works for an Austin nonprofit and runs her own preserved foods business called Han Can.
Beall makes big batches of the preserves and delivers them to customers in Menard, a place she remembers didn’t have much fresh produce when she was a kid.
“I always feel closely connected to my ancestors when I’m in Menard,” she says. “But it’s more of a longing to have known them more or better.”
One of the first products Beall sold was her great-great-grandmother’s chowchow, a savory mix of green tomatoes, peppers and cabbage. “Canning is a lost art these days,” Beall says. “We don’t have a lot of family traditions and passed-down recipes, so Oma’s chowchow felt like such gold.”
For Beall and others in Menard, it’s not about recreating what once was. It’s about imagining something new that is connected to what came before.
“Instead of moping that I don’t have any culture, I get to start new traditions and fill in these gaps in the history where I can, even if I have to make it up,” Beall says.
Menard County’s current generation of food producers used to gather on Saturdays for a small farmers market in Menard, but since the pandemic started, most of the local vendors have been selling at the year-round farmers market in Junction, about 30 minutes south.
One of the biggest hits at the market is Texas Scratch Kitchen, the Prest family’s cottage baking business. Amie and Joe Prest and their five children have lived in Menard for nearly a decade after starting their family in Germany and England, where Joe is from. Amie grew up in Menard—her ancestors were among the founding families—and, like Bell and Johanson, didn’t have plans on returning, but that changed after visiting her grandmother in 2011.
“When a piece of heritage has been in your family for that long, it’s both a blessing and a curse,” says Amie, a member of Southwest Texas Electric Cooperative. “There comes a time when you have to commit: Are you going to come back, or are you going to stay away?”
They settled on a piece of land along the San Saba River, and their passion for European-style baking continued after they moved to Texas. A few years ago, they decided to turn it into a family business, making macarons, tarts and tiramisu to sell at the market.
“You go out into the world and gather seeds of knowledge from all over and then you get to decide where to plant them,” Amie says.
Menard County, with its persistent drought and extreme temperature swings, isn’t ideal for vegetable farming, but each of the not-so-newcomers has found their own way to make it.
At Low Gear Farmstead, Bell and Gillespie have focused on raising goats, chickens, ducks and turkeys, mostly for their own use, but their biggest source of revenue has come from a high-tech solution to a rural issue: Hipcamp, a website that connects landowners with people who want to camp.
Since 2017 the couple has hosted hundreds of campers in the pecan grove along the San Saba River that cuts along the back of their property, taking care to be inclusive of people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
After five years of hosting visitors on their land, Bell says they realized they offer something that can’t be measured by the pound.
“What we can offer more easily than anything else is a social ecosystem,” Bell says. “Yeah, we’re trying to grow food, but that social ecosystem that we can create is perhaps more important and more readily available.”
What’s happening in Menard reflects similar changes happening across Texas, as farm and ranch land changes hands and a new generation of homesteaders plants roots.
Sarah Johanson, who had a small recurring role on the TV show Mad Men years ago, says that as a girl growing up in Menard, she didn’t see anyone who was living a life that she wanted to live—namely, anyone making a living as an artist. “People said, ‘You’re not going to be able to survive at this,’ ” she says. “A big part of moving back was to show young people here that football isn’t the only thing. Art is absolutely something you can make money in.”
Now that they’ve been back for a few years, Johanson has spent time in the local archives researching the history of the area. One particular detail stood out.
“The Native Americans who lived here called it ‘Summerland,’ ” she says. “They said that once you taste the waters of the San Saba, you will always come back.”