When pulling onto the long limestone gravel driveway at the front of Jeff and Cindy Lehrmann’s property, the first thing you’ll see is a stand of beautiful oak trees off to the left of the drive; appropriate sentinels for 4Oaks Ranch, where the Lehrmanns have recently built — what they intend to be — their forever home. And that’s saying something for folks who have traipsed the globe for the majority of the last 30-plus years, many of those with their four children in tow. So how did this world-wise couple end up in the countryside of Axtell, Texas, a tiny community 13 miles northeast of Waco? The answer is pretty simple: they came home, back to where their story began.
“Growing up, my friend and I would jump the fence and go dove or rabbit hunting on this very property which backs up to my mom and dad’s farm,” Jeff said. “The land belonged to my parents’ high school friends, the same folks Cindy and I would buy it from all these decades later.”
It’s one of the many perks of a small community like Axtell: the friends you make are friends for life. That’s certainly been true for Jeff and a certain Baptist preacher’s daughter that he first met in elementary school and started dating in high school.
“Jeff and I dated all through high school, and got married a week after he graduated from Texas A&M,” Cindy said.
Two weeks later, they were caravanning in two cars out of Axtell and on to Bakersfield, California, Jeff’s first career berth as a petroleum engineer and the place where their first three children, sons Jared, Justen and Jorden, would be born.
Over the next 14 years, Jeff’s role as an operations manager with Texaco took the family back to Texas and then over to Mandeville, Louisiana, where their youngest child, daughter Caitlen, joined the crew. In 2000, the family relocated to the first of many international posts, a Texaco-Chevron company-operated “camp” called Duri located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
“The kids were real troopers adventuring into the jungles of Sumatra,” Jeff said. “Our moves weren’t always easy, but the kids were amazingly resilient, and I think they each became more independent as individuals because of their experiences around the world.”
From there, the Lehrmanns crisscrossed the map of North America, first back to California, then down to Houston, then up to the Canadian province of Newfoundland, where Jeff had been appointed President of Chevron Canada in 2010. Five years later, Jeff and Cindy were moving back to a camp in Central Sumatra. And finally, in 2019, Jeff was named Managing Director of Chevron Asia South Business Unit, responsible for Chevron’s upstream businesses in China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand, an appointment he would maintain until his retirement last July.
In each and every location, the Lehrmanns built relationships that have stood the test of time and distance. That’s just the kind of people they are. Small-town yet global people who make life-long friendships. Axtell people. And just as they’ve collected meaningful friendships across the continent and around the world, they’ve curated memories in the form of art pieces, carvings, paintings, pottery, rugs and furniture that represent the people and places that have come to mean so much to them over the years.
“In a way, this house was kind of designed around the things that we had been collecting around the world for all that time,” Cindy said.
The Lehrmanns shipped big furniture and art pieces back to Texas in metal cargo containers and brought the smaller, more fragile things stateside little by little, inside their suitcases, wrapped in clothes. But they needed a place to put and enjoy it all.
Ten years ago, while visiting his parents’ farm in Axtell, Jeff and his sons “hopped the fence” again in pursuit of doves on Jeff’s old hunting grounds, the neighbor-friends’ property.
“There were oak groves, and great pasture lands — though mesquite trees had taken over most of them — and a couple of lakes, and I thought this is just the kind of spot we’ve been looking for, the kind we’ve been wanting to build a home on,” Jeff said.
He and Cindy bought the property, all 120 acres, dubbing it Rancho de los Cuatro Robles, or Ranch of the Four Oaks, in honor of their four children, whom they call “our strong oaks,” after the scripture in Isaiah 61:3: “…they will be called the oaks of righteousness, the planting of our Lord.”
As Jeff puts it, “The kids experienced the windy plains of the Texas panhandle, the equatorial tropical jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia, the foggy California Bay area, the dry heat of the San Joaquin Valley, the summer muggy heat of Houston and New Orleans and the frigid subzero winters of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. And in every environment, every new culture, they adapted and grew wiser.”
In other words, they grew into strong, resilient oaks wherever they were planted. Still, the kids, three of whom have children of their own now, have been known to give their parents a hard time about never having a long-term homefront to claim as their own when they were growing up.
“When people would ask our kids over the years ‘Where’s home?’ they would cut their eyes over to me and Jeff and mournfully proclaim ‘We don’t have one,’” Cindy chuckled.
But the kids can’t claim that anymore, because in 2020 Jeff and Cindy “broke ground” and began to build their southern antebellum-style home, a style they were surrounded by and fell in love with while living in New Orleans.
“When we saw base plans for this house in Southern Living, we knew it was home,” Jeff said. “We added the Central Texas limestone on the lower floor to bring in the influence of the Lonestar State. So, like the inside of the house, the exterior is also an amalgamation of the various memories of our global life and coming home.”
Decorating with stories and memories
While having officially moved in only a few months ago, more than 40 paintings from around the world already adorn the walls of Lehrmanns’ home, hailing from Canada, Myanmar, Thailand, Tibet, Ghana, Indonesia and China, along with numerous Indonesian wood carvings and embroideries from Vietnam.
But Jeff and Cindy both say that the pieces that they love and enjoy the most are ones that stir up good memories or stories when they come into view.
“Each one of these pieces connects us back to those special people that we spent our life with over those 36 years of living as nomads,” Jeff reflected.
Pieces like their gamelan drums, a traditional Indonesian percussion set made of hand-forged metal, remind them of when Jeff’s parents and Cindy’s mother came to visit them all the way over in Indonesia, none of whom had ever been overseas before. They think of a special night during that visit when they came out of the restaurant and their daughter was dancing with Indonesian girls playing the gamelan.
A bright painting from Myanmar of a woman with a basket of flowers balanced on her head reminds Cindy of her and her daughter’s “Face Your Fears Fridays” pastime, which began with a challenge to learn to make floral arrangements and became a bonding tradition for the two, whatever the theme for the week.
The Punokawan in Jeff’s home office, four traditional Indonesian shadowplay puppets, remind him — with their bulging wooden bellies and clown-like expressions — “to be wise but not take yourself too seriously.” They always bring to mind, too, a certain little grandson, who loves to go into Grandpa’s office and just stare at the figures, tickled by their strange appearances.
The porcelain vessel from Thailand, featuring women tossing buckets of water toward each other, recalls to the Lehrmanns’ minds the Songkran Water Festival each year when their endearing Thai staff members would want to wash Jeff and Cindy’s hands and feet during the holiday, and teach them about their special customs.
There are too many meaning-holding treasures nestled around the Lehrmann home to name them all, which is a wonderful problem to have when it comes to good memories of good people.
A heart to host
In addition to the primary suite and a children’s room, the Lehrmanns built four bedroom-bathroom suites, one for each of their children and their families. Each bedroom has its own international theme and furniture and hard-carved wooden rocking horse for little ones.
“We basically built this whole home for Christmas morning,” Cindy said with a laugh. “Because we want everyone to come home and have a spot that’s their own. Jeff and I will get up early to make everyone breakfast. That’s the dream.”
And it’s the reason behind the sizable hand-hewn rosewood table and matching chairs right off the kitchen. Purchased in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the table is carved from one piece of wood with no detachable legs, and weighs a ton.
“One of my nonnegotiables is that I wanted a table big enough for all my kids and their spouses and the grandchildren too,” Cindy said. “I just always want everybody all together.”
She got her wish with a table that seats 14.
Gathering people is at the heart of the Lehrmanns’ kitchen set up too. The kitchen island countertop, cut from Māori leathered granite, measures a generous 67-by-108 inches and was selected expressly for standing around, snacking and talking.
“When we lived in Newfoundland, we got a good feel for the wonderful people there and their traditions,” Jeff said. “Many of them are Irish immigrants, and they loved to host what they called ‘kitchen parties’,’ where everyone stood around and talked and laughed and grazed and hardly left the kitchen all night.”
Maybe kitchen parties will be on the agenda for the guests who will one day stay in the 4Oaks Bed and Breakfast Jeff and Cindy plan to run out of their new home, which they see as a resource for gracing others with hospitality, for offering comfort and a sense of welcome even to strangers. They’ll cook and serve the breakfast themselves, and they’re already excited to plan and change the menu.
“I look at my career as a 36-year internship, and now in my retirement, I feel like our real work, serving people, is just beginning,” Jeff reflected. “We believe this property is our purpose. And we wanted a place where people could come out and kind of relive the simple life — hop the fence, go fishing in a pond.”
Celebrating the 4Oaks theme, hand-carved oak tree motifs can be found all around the Lehrmanns’ home, including four grand mahogany doors on the first three levels of the house.
Cindy and Jeff made a point of getting to know the Indonesian wood carvers who they commissioned with pieces for their home, and spent time showing pictures and explaining the characteristics of oak trees, a hardwood wholly unfamiliar to the island-dwelling artisans. Still, while their world-renowned craftsmanship is exquisite, carving only by hand with hammer and chisel and no electric tools, the details on some of the pieces that incorporate oak motifs have had humorous results. Lean toward the large wall wood carving of a stand of four oak trees in the formal dining room and you’ll see trunks that may resemble island trees more than a species native to Texas. It’s a “style” that Jeff has come to call Global-Texas Fusion.
“It was fun trying to get Indonesian woodcarvers to know what oak trees look like,” he said. “They got pretty good on the oak leaves, but the trunks look less oaky and more Indonesian. But they did the best they could with what they knew.”
The Thai artisan who made the cream and black hand-painted ceramic bowl sinks in the primary bathroom had a similar challenge with oaks and their acorns. The rose bush vines that circle the inside of the bowls — commissioned by Jeff in honor of Cindy, his “Yellow Rose of 4Oaks” — have grown little acorns. But the pattern is lovely, and maybe even more at home with the Lehrmanns because of its distinctive trait.
“It doesn’t bother us; we just laugh,” Cindy said. “We actually kind of enjoy it when that happens because we’re a fusion ourselves.”
It’s their own version of wabi-sabi, appreciating beauty that is perfectly imperfect, just right in its unique quirks or patina.
Case and point: if you look closely at a particular Afghani-style rug in the hallway, you’ll notice that the weave on the rug changes, oh so slightly, halfway through. The Lehrmanns learned from the shop owner that the discrepancy was due to the rug having two different weavers. A mother started the rug, but passed away when the piece was only half-finished. Her daughter picked up where she left off, completing her mother’s work of art.
When asked if they knew about the “imperfection” before they made the purchase, Cindy responded, “That’s why we bought it in the first place — because of its story.”
Catching a new sunrise
Follow the stairs up and to the fourth level and you’ll find a cozy musing spot complete with a small wooden wine and coffee bar and stools and a stand of LPs from a record shop in Newfoundland. Surrounded by windows on every side, the space grants a bird’s eye view of the property in all directions. Jeff calls it the lookout tower. His sons call it “the deer stand.” But for Cindy, it’s the best place to catch a glimpse of what have always been her favorite views on earth no matter where they’ve roamed — sunsets and sunrises.
“That appreciation probably goes back to my dad, who was a pilot in the Air Force and was always taking pictures of sunsets from the window of whatever plane he was flying,” Cindy reflected. “A love of watching the sunset is something I share with one of my sons as well. We would be on the phone across the world from each other and he would say, ‘We had a pretty sunset in Texas, Mom.’ And I would say, ‘We had a pretty sunset in Thailand, too.’”
Ever the engineer, Jeff spent significant time before the home was built considering the exact positioning of the house and the angle each wall would face, including (and particularly) the windows of the lookout tower, just for this purpose.
“He would come out to the property when nothing was here yet and put sticks in the ground and watch the way the light would fall,” Cindy remembered.
Jeff’s meticulous planning paid off. Right above a delicate, colorful, Thai pendant chandelier hanging in the stairwell, the westward window of the lookout tower perfectly frames the sunset on 4Oaks Ranch every evening.
It’s a view that seems apropos for the Lehrmanns as they welcome the sunrise of a new season, a season for being deeply rooted in a place that they — and even their grownup kids — can always call home.