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Elmer Kleb: The Rebel Woodland Hermit Who Saw Houston Grow Around Him

Harris County PRE

Texans drive from all over the state to visit the Kleb Woods Nature Preserve in Tomball, Texas. Visitors explore the 133.5-acre plot to bird watch, wander the forest of pine-oak trees and experience early 20th-century farm culture. But this peaceful oasis would likely have been paved over long ago to make way for the growing population in the Houston metropolitan area if it weren’t for a man who loved nature so much, he never needed anything else.

The Rebel Recluse

Elmer Kleb was born in 1907 on his family farm. His father, Edward, a descendant of German immigrants, farmed the land to provide for his family. But Elmer was more interested in wandering beyond the farm, making friends with birds and forest critters.

He never cared for school. The other students didn’t understand his quiet, introspective nature. He quit after the fourth grade. After his parents died, Elmer inherited the land and let the once flourishing farm go back to nature.

Kleb lived every day of his 92 years in the woods. He never had electricity or a telephone. He spent the majority of his life completely alone, aside from the pet vulture he nursed back to health after finding it with a broken wing. Elmer Kleb was content.

As he lived in solitude, the world built up around him. Nearby Houston was the country’s fastest rising city in the 1970s. While Kleb lived like a pioneer, skyscrapers and business empires were built just minutes away. His land was in high demand and worth about $750,000.

There were many things about the latter 20th century Kleb didn’t understand, such as paying taxes. By 1988, Kleb owed about $170,000 to the government. Not wanting to force Kleb off the land he so loved, Harris County commissioner Steve Radack came up with a plan. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would conserve the land as a nature preserve, just as Kleb wished.

Part of the Kleb Woods Nature Preserve opened in 1994, while Kleb remained in his home on the property. Kleb died in 1999, surrounded by the trees, wildflowers, animals and birds that he loved. He’s buried close to the property in the Roberts Cemetery.

Back in Time

Today, visiting the land is a journey into Elmer Kleb’s world. You can step inside his old farmhouse and get a glimpse of how he lived. Farm equipment sits across the property to educate visitors on early American farming methods (even if they were unused by Elmer). The park staff even offers free bird watching walks and holds a hummingbird festival each September.

Kleb Woods Nature Preserve Facebook/ Maria Reed
Kleb Woods Nature Preserve Facebook/Maria Reed

The preserve offers camping and picnic sites and five hiking trails to explore the woods just as Kleb did. It’s the perfect spot for a family gathering or just to enjoy a bit of your own peaceful solitude. A visit to Kleb Woods proves that, like the man himself, Elmer Kleb’s way of life is gone but not forgotten.

The Kleb Woods Nature Center is located at 20303 Draper Road in Tomball, Texas. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 

See Also: 11 Must-Visit Natural Wonders in Texas

Now Watch: Hidden Gems of Central Texas

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Elmer Kleb: The Rebel Woodland Hermit Who Saw Houston Grow Around Him