The land waited for them. A rugged former family ranch in far northwestern Travis County tumbled down a creased hillside through weedy pastures, steep ravines, bounteous springs, a collapsed cave and trails that led to a protected cove on Lake Travis.
How it became Candlelight Ranch, which today provides outdoor experiences for at-risk youth as well as children with disabilities and their families, involved some initial serendipity, a persistent dream inspired by childhood summer camps, pooled labor and cash from hundreds of donors, volunteers and staff members, as well as gallons of sweat from the co-founders and their friends and family.
It started this way: In 1999, Austinite Don Barr sold some commercial property in San Antonio. For tax purposes, he needed to make a nearly simultaneous purchase of another property.
“My wife, Jeri, made a suggestion that I look out at the lake,” he recalls. “The very next day, I was looking through the Statesman and saw a photo of this property that was just back on the market. I went to take a look at it and was pretty impressed. The price tag was over twice what I had to invest, so I called my brother, Randy, to see if he was interested. Maybe we could make it into a family retreat.”
Randy Barr also had been searching for property on the lake, so he, too, made a tour of the overgrazed land off RM 1431 near Marble Falls.
“We took a boat ride and walked up to a grotto and happened on a beautiful area that was a collapsed cave,” Randy remembers. “‘Pretty impressive! Could we own this?’”
Once firmly in their hands, however, the Barr family agreed that the old Turner ranch would make a perfect Hill Country camp like the magical ones the Barr brothers had adored as youths.
They fixed up the older structures, including a log corn crib made without nails that goes back to the 1850s. Then they built new ones, such as an educational treehouse, boating docks, restrooms, showers, a pavilion, stables, a barn, a clever natural water feature, rope challenges and zip lines to flesh out what became the nonprofit retreat.
Along the way, the Barrs got to know the Turner family, who had lived out on this remote land for generations, among the post oaks (unusual for the Hill Country), mesquite, juniper, live oaks, persimmon, Spanish oaks, sycamores (in the wet areas), mulberry trees, white oaks and burr oaks.
“Our first redo was the old house where the Turner family grew up,” Randy Barr says. “It required a lot of work. We tried to repair it, leaving as much of the original structure as possible. It became our office.”
After the house, they followed up with countless other improvements, including wildlife viewing areas and vegetable and fruit gardens.
“It was slow at first, and we weren’t sure it would ever become what we envisioned,” Randy says. “As more and more wonderful people got involved, it became the great place it is today.”
Off to camp
In a way, it made total sense for the Barr brothers to create a Hill Country camp for kids. They grew up in Houston and headed up to the Hill Country as often as possible as young campers and, later, camp counselors.
“Thanks to our experiences, we understood the value of children — and adults — spending time in nature,” Don says. “Owning a beautiful piece of Texas Hill Country made it possible to share that experience with those who might not otherwise have that opportunity. Our goal was to be good stewards of the land and to share it with others.”
It’s not as if the Barr brothers were deprived of nature altogether in Houston during the 1950s. They grew up mostly in the McGregor Park and Meyerland areas near bayous, wooded lots and open fields.
Their Houston-born father, Jim Barr, was shot down while bombing Germany during World War II and spent a year and a half in a prisoner of war camp.
“He passed away in 1950 of polio,” Randy, 70, says. “That affected me in ways that I didn’t realize.”
After their dad died, their mother, Louise Moss Barr, attended Texas Woman’s University in Denton and taught school for a few years before becoming a librarian at a nearby elementary school.
Don: “I got to read a lot of books.”
The boys were raised “pretty strictly” as Baptists by their mother, stepfather, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Additionally, their mom’s parents moved out to a farm north of Lampasas where they grew crops and had milk cows and chickens.
“We spent a lot of time at the farm,” Don, 68, says. “Our grandparents let us explore. We’d find arrowheads and rattlesnakes. We were happy campers.”
Both athletic boys attended Bellaire High School during its glory days in the 1960s. But something made an even deeper impression: two Hill Country camps that helped them overcome their youthful ups and downs. The memories stuck with them for decades.
“I didn’t feel like I lived up to my potential as a kid,” Randy confesses. “I tried to follow the rules pretty much. I didn’t want to make my mom cry. That had more of an effect on me than anything else she could do. But I loved being outdoors, still do.”
He went to Camp Stewart, then Camp La Junta.
“There were dances with girls from other camps on the tennis courts,” Randy says with a smile. “Camp Stewart is where I learned to swim and led me to the swimming team in middle school. Mom was afraid of water. So at first, I tried to hide during swim lessons, but they finally got me into the water and, wow, I really love swimming.”
Randy can still visualize the next retreat, Camp La Junta near Hunt.
“If you are standing on the side of a hill, you can see the whole layout,” he says. “You see a big area for sports. There’s the cold Guadalupe River. Horses, they’d be over on the right. Cypress trees on the river. A beautiful place for a camp.”
Don mostly remembers the stables at Camp La Junta.
“That’s where I spent most of the time, with the horses,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to be — a cowboy. Remember all the Westerns that were on TV back then? The other part I remember was the river under towering cypress trees. I swam every day and rode horses every day except Sundays. Sometimes I rode the horses in the river.”
Creating the ranch
The Barr brothers attended Texas A&M University, as had their dad and their mother’s dad. As an adult, Randy, who had studied engineering, worked in automobile repair and real estate. He bought, repaired, rented and sold properties.
“And that’s mainly what I’ve been doing until this wonderful endeavor,” says Randy, who is married to Melissa Blystone and has two kids from a previous marriage.
For his part, Don got into the construction business out of college, building airport control towers among other structures. He also served as a full-time seasonal camp counselor.
Don: “I spent every summer from the age of 9 through 25 at Camp La Junta.”
Almost as soon as the Barr brothers purchased the old Turner farm from a horse rancher in 1999, they filed articles of incorporation to turn it into Candlelight Ranch. In 2000, they started raising money in earnest for improvements, all built to be accessible for as many children as possible.
“We all agreed that it would be best for that purpose,” Randy says. “It’s such an incredible place to be able to share it with people.”
Their first event was an outdoor barbecue for Austin Children’s Shelter. Some of their regular partners have been River City Youth, Phoenix Center, Texas Baptist Children’s Home and For the Love of Christie.
The ranch’s name came from Don’s late wife.
“Jeri was a fanatic about candles,” he says. “I mean that in a really good way. They represent healing and hope, and that’s what we were about, so it really fit.”
Initially, the ranch was an all-volunteer outfit that charged no fees to the groups that came out. They hired their first program director, Jeff Jackson, in 2007. Bathrooms and showers made overnight guests more welcome, while zip lines and rope courses offered “experiential activities.”
Their board of directors hired its first executive director, Harriett Kirsh Pozen, in 2008. That role is now played by Jenn Hartner, who started helping out in 2009 and fell in love with the project. Previously, she served as program director.
“The property is magic,” Hartner says. “I’ve seen what it can do for kids, especially for those who don’t have an opportunity for access to nature.”
The Barr brothers agree that Candlelight Ranch was the best possible use for the land.
“When I’m out there driving around, especially now, it’s incredible,” Randy says. “We started with a little cabin that was falling apart. And now, wow — I can be out there and hear the kids laughing, I mean, what a good feeling.”
Don feels the same way.
“One day not that long ago, I was just driving around the ranch and had the sensation that this was what I was supposed to be doing in my life,” he says. “When I left Camp La Junta, it wasn’t because I wanted to, but because it was time to do something else, also because the ownership of the camp was changing. The opportunity to be in a camp environment, working with kids, being outdoors is something I really missed. The kids get all these experiences, but so do we.”
Candlelight Ranch partners
Ranch leaders provide the outdoor experiences. Area partners deliver the children.
ACE — Austin school district
Austin Children’s Shelter
BIG — Brookwood, Georgetown
Colt Elementary Adaptive — Marble Falls
Communities in Schools — Bastrop school district
City of Austin Recreation
Clay Madsen Adaptive Summer Camp
Education Service Center Region 13
Falls Career High School — Marble Falls
Glimmer of Hope (Austin)
Greater Austin Autism Society
Helping Hand Homes
Highland Lakes Boys and Girls Club
Highland Lakes Crises Center
Hope Project: Military & Veteran Families
Horse Boy Foundation
Juvenile Justice for Travis, Williamson, Hays, Gillespie, Blanco, Burnet and Bastrop counties
SCORES — Kealing Middle School
Leap for Joy
Outdoor Adventure Camp
Phoenix Center — Marble Falls
Retreat for Changing Lives (LIFT)
River City Youth Foundation
SOS (Summer of Safety)
Teens Volunteering for Good
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Texas School for the Deaf
Wonders and Worries
XYZone — Communities in Schools