Deerbrook Farm is a love story, straight out of the True Romance series. It’s about a young girl named Betsy Skillin, born in New York City and raised in Europe, who met Tom O’Connell, an American soldier, on a train traveling from Frankfurt to Paris. She was 14, and he was 20. Their chance meeting led to several years of friendly correspondence.
Somewhere along the way, Tom met another woman and married. Betsy married Nolan Welmaker. Tom developed a successful career in advertising sales, and Betsy became known in San Antonio as a successful mother, community volunteer and entrepreneur, opening Violet Talk Gifts in Alamo Heights.
I ran into Tom at a business function after he was married and had a daughter,” Betsy says. “I wrote my phone number on the back of his business card and gave it to him.” She invited him to visit San Antonio and then went on with her life.
“In 1980, my phone rang,” Betsy continues. “A deep voice said, ‘This is a voice from your past,’ and it turned out to be Tom. My husband and I were splitting up, and Tom was divorced, and, well, the rest is history!”
The newlyweds wanted to make their home in the Hill Country. “Tom and I were leading busy lives when we married each other,” Betsy says. “I had moved my growing business from The Boardwalk over to the Sunset Ridge Shopping Center, and Tom was selling advertising for The San Antonio Light. After work, we wanted to get away from people and indulge in our passion for gardening.”
In 1985 they purchased 21 acres near New Braunfels. “This place was nothing but rocks, cedar, cactus and dirt when we bought it,” Betsy says. Their closest neighbors were miles away.
Betsy and Tom brought architect Malcolm Chesney to the site. “We told him the theme of our home was to bring the outside in,” Betsy says. “Each room was to feature windows with views. We specifically asked that porches and decks surround the house.”
Chesney’s designs were executed by custom builder John Staewen. “I’ve never seen more care put into construction,” Betsy comments. “If John didn’t get something exactly the way he wanted it, he tore it all out and started over again.”
Landscape architect John Troy, a friend of Betsy’s, provided landscape advice. Betsy and Tom provided the backbreaking labor. Slowly the pair created the botanical playground that is a welcoming second home to their friends, children and grandchildren.
There are two entrances to Deerbrook Farm. Whimsical red and white signs direct visitors to various areas on the property. Beyond the main gate and to the right is a meadow Betsy and Tom call The Circle of Life, where a large circle of trees represents each child and grandchild in the family. A garden bench at the top of the circle affords an excellent view of the farm and the setting sun.
Beyond the main entrance is a second gate at the back of the home. “We call it the servant’s entrance,” Betsy chuckles. Here you’ll see the chicken coop with the giant rooster perched atop the roof and the big red barn with the Deerbrook Farm mural on the side. The mural, by San Antonio sign maker Donna S. Herman, is a copy of the hand-painted mural on the barn at Betsy’s father’s farm in Maine. His place was also known as Deerbrook Farm.
First-time visitors use the main entrance to get the full effect of the O’Connells’ efforts. The front of the stone house is a riot of trees and plants. “We call it controlled chaos,” Betsy says. A small stream runs under the deck Betsy calls a moat. Bent cedar rockers beckon from the porch.
The entry hall hints at what the rest of the home holds — a host of antiques and pictures of family, flowers and animals everywhere. From the antique carriage in the corner, once a part of her father’s carriage collection, to Betsy’s family tree, dating back to 793, memories abound. A pen and ink drawing of the original Deerbrook Farm inspires daily reminiscing. On a shelf in the passthrough window into the sunny kitchen, a large rooster, carved by artist Jamie Maverick, welcomes guests.
“I know Jamie,” Betsy says. “We both have a passion for chickens!”
The kitchen holds a large collection of blue and white German earthenware handed down from Betsy’s side of the family. Antique serving pieces mix with the everyday for an eclectic approach to decorating.
“We have a lot of art of animals and flowers in the kitchen because they reflect our passions,” she says. “They are things to make us feel good.”
The bright yellow paint serves to lift spirits, too. “I love Monet’s home in Giverny, and his kitchen was bright yellow,” she says. “I took a color from his palette.”
Two huge windows serve as adjacent walls in the living/dining room. A vaulted ceiling soars over the large antique dining table, which seats 10 and is always adorned with vases of roses.
“The cut glass vases were my grandmother’s wedding presents and came from Tiffany in New York,” Betsy says. “Tom and I collect vases, and we have a particular fondness for Waterford crystal.”
Family history is apparent throughout the room, from the antique grandmother clock, the loveseat and chairs to the carved sideboard. Each piece holds a memory.
One wall features portraits of Betsy’s children, painted by Barbara Neeld Amen. Photographic portraits of Betsy and her young grandchildren, taken by Jennifer Jennings, take pride of place. A baby grand piano rescued from a music hall in New Braunfels sits in a bay window across the room, waiting for Betsy’s daughter or grandson to stroke the keys.
“Not me, though,” Betsy says with a shake of her head. “I never learned to play well.”
The cozy library off the living area is Tom’s office. A portrait of her daughter faces the desk, surrounded by two walls of bookshelves. A flowered linen loveseat and easy chair complete the furnishings.
A quick look around the library reveals a low-tech lifestyle. No computer, printer or office fax machine. “We don’t have them, and we don’t want them,” Betsy says. “I don’t even use them at my shop!”
The large bed in the master suite faces two walls of windows and an Lshaped deck. “I lie in bed in the morning and watch the birds at the feeders and in their nests,” Betsy says. “I can see our llamas, deer and other animals in the meadow and the waterfall we built. It’s such a peaceful, restful place.”
Books are here in abundance; Betsy and Tom are avid readers. There’s not a bit of white space left on the walls because family pictures are everywhere.
“If you ever see a white space on my walls anywhere in the house, it’s because I’m holding it open for a special piece of art yet to come,” she explains. “I’ve never seen an empty wall space that didn’t deserve a piece of art.”
A huge armoire dominates the room. “This armoire has no nails in it,” Tom says. “It’s held together with pegs. We have a devil of a time moving it because it has to be taken completely apart in order to shift it.”
Family photos march across the walls of the master bath, greeting Tom and Betsy with happy memories every morning. A picture window by the bathtub has no curtains. “Sometimes it doesn’t leave much to the imagination, either,” Betsy giggles.
The guest room appointments are done in a garden theme. Two chests of drawers are covered in pictures of the grandchildren at different ages, photographed sitting on Santa’s lap. “I realize that Christmas and garden is a strange decorating theme, but it works for us,” Betsy says. “Mostly it’s family that stays in here, anyway.”
What little leisure time Tom and Betsy have is usually spent on the screen porch. More than 40 years ago, Betsy’s mother braided the reversible wool rug on the floor. A cheerful cockatiel chirps in a cage, and the family’s three dogs jockey for deck space outside the screen door. “This room picks up the southeast breeze, so we never need air conditioning,” Tom says. “We watch TV and read here.”
“And plan our gardens,” Betsy says.
If the house is homage to art and family, the gardens are a pure labor of love. Tom may be somewhat reticent when talking about the home’s interior, but he waxes poetic when he discusses his gardens.
“I did all the stonework on this property,” he says, rubbing his back in remembrance. “For years, I’ve dug big rocks out of the spaces where Betsy wanted gardens and hauled them to the back of the property in a wheelbarrow. I never needed to lift weights in a gym; I lifted rocks in my garden!”
The stone walls and red barn are significant because they are reminders of his youth, spent among similar structures in rural Vermont.
Tom is justifiably proud of his outdoor endeavors. “I’ve always loved to work outdoors,” he says. “I built all these gardens for Betsy. I pick-axed everything, shoveling clay and rocky soil into a wheelbarrow and carting it out to the end of the farm. All the good soil was trucked over here by Garden-Ville and dumped into a pile, ready for transport by me and my wheelbarrow.”
The landscaping surrounds the house and the in-ground pool. Tom designed a waterfall that circulates water from the hidden pump to the pool. “The first time I landscaped this area, I didn’t consider the drainage situation,” he says. “The huge rainstorm of 1993 washed the garden into the pool, so we had to repair the drainage and start over. We learned a hard lesson about considering slopes when planting.”
Tom was no spring chicken when he began the massive gardening project. “I didn’t start this until I was 55,” he says. “At that point, I found out what an unbelievable team Betsy and I are. She does the planning, and I dig and mulch. She buys the plants and puts them in the ground. It’s a good hobby to share, and we love doing it together.”
The gardens feature 125 rose bushes. “We love Robbie and the staff at the Antique Rose Emporium,” exclaims Betsy. “We feel the same way about Bob, Roberta, Wendy and Donna at Shades of Green nursery, too.”
Over the years, the pair has transformed a field of weeds and cactus into a beautiful wildflower meadow. The lower pasture is finally cedar free, offering plenty of grazing space for the O’Connells’ prized llama family, miniature donkeys and dwarf Nigerian goats. The chickens are laying in the henhouse. And Tom and Betsy are happy.
It’s a long way from a train ride in Europe to a farm in the Hill Country, through marriages, children, divorces, careers and grandchildren. Yet Tom and Betsy will tell you from experience that true love may take a circuitous route, but it always reaches its destiny.
Author: Robyn Barnes
Photographer: Al Rendon