Thursday, September 6, 2012

West Texas ramble

On a recent trip to West Texas, my wife Karon and I stopped at Presidio San Saba, just west of Menard. I've been to this site many times, and on several occasions I brought traveling Texas History classes here from Panola College. The ruined presidio was partially rebuilt by the Texas Centennial Commission in 1937. But this reconstruction rapidly fell into disrepair, and was encircled by a municipal golf course.
The northwest tower of the presidio.
A few years ago, however, a concerted effort was launched through archaeological excavations, historical documents, and Spanish maps to compile the most accurate profile to date. A timber presidio had been built in 1757 near the new mission beside the San Saba River. But the next year a party of 2,000 Comanche warriors attacked the mission, looting and killing a number of people, including several soldiers who were sent from the presidio to the scene of fighting.

The presidio soon was enlarged and rebuilt of stone. Completed in 1764, the expanded presidio measured approximately 348 feet by 324 feet. Towers stood on the northwest and, near the river, the southeast corners. In 2011 a partial reconstruction was completed, along with a visitor center and a new entrance -- and a reconfigured golf course. A pivotal site of the Spanish mission strategy, the restoration of Presidio San Saba is well worth a visit.

A century after the massacre at Mission San Saba, Anglo settlers in the region still were battling Comanche warriors. In 1852 Fort McKavett was established near a major Comanche war trail about 20 miles west of the ruins of Presidio San Saba. There was considerable action during the 1850s, but the fort was abandoned at the outbreak of the Civil War. After the war the army returned, and Fort McKavett was rebuilt and expanded.

Karon in front of two sets of officers' quarters while touring Fort McKavett in a golf cart.
 Fort McKavett was decommissioned in 1883, no longer needed for frontier defense. Today it is superbly restored, with barracks, headquarters, officers' quarters, the post hospital, morgue, and post school appearing ready to resume garrison life. Tantalizing ruins include the two-story commanding officers' quarters, which once housed Col. Ranald Mackenzie, the army's most effective regimental leader during the Indian Wars. A nature trail leads to the springs which provided water for the post.

Bill and Buddy Garza
At Fort McKavett, Karon and I encountered park superintendent Buddy Garza, who hosted several Traveling Texas History classes from Panola College. Buddy was a key figure in the restoration work at nearby Presidio San Saba, and soon Fort Lancaster to the southwest will be consolidated under his superintendency.

Bill with Melissa Childress, who works long hours as a rancher's wife when not on duty at Fort Lancaster's visitor center.
 The highway to Fort Lancaster offers a spectacular drive along the "Old Government Road," a supply route that followed an earlier Indian trail. Fort Lancaster was founded in 1855 midway between Fort Clark and Fort Davis. Fort Lancaster was not rebuilt after the Civil War, and the fort ruins are as lonely today as the outpost of the 1850s. It was noon when Karon and I arrived, but we were the first visitors of the day.

Fort Stockton's guard house stands at the south end of the parade ground.

Pushing westward, we reached Fort Stockton during the afternoon. Founded in 1858, the post was strategically placed athwart the Great Comanche War Trail, only a gunshot's distance from the springs which provided water for Native Americans as well as for stagecoach and wagon travelers. Reoccupied after the Civil War, Fort Stockton was moved a short distance and rebuilt with substantial stone buildings. Most of these structures still stand around the parade ground, and several are open to visitors.

Because of the vast size of the Texas frontier and the long duration of Indian Wars in the Lone Star State, the federal government built more forts -- almost three dozen -- in Texas than in any other frontier state or territory. A great many are preserved as state or national parks. But Fort Stockton is a municipal operation, directed by Lacey Johnson from her office at the Annie Riggs Hotel and Museum, which is also her responsibility. Located just southeast of the courthouse, the adobe hotel is a sprawling structure with long porches and a courtyard. The museum collection is excellent, and Lacey is a model of efficiency with ambitious plans for the city's historical gems.  

Bill and Karon with Dr. Lacey Johnson at the Annie Riggs Hotel and Museum, built in 1899.

An hour's drive brought us to Pecos, which proudly proclaims itself "Home of the World's First Rodeo." On July 4, 1883, cowboys from area ranches staged a steer-roping contest in the streets south of the courthouse, cutting "blue ribbons" for winners from the dress of a little girl. A Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame will open in the town's handsome old depot.
 There are excellent displays and attractions at West-of-the-Pecos Museum and Park just north of the railroad tracks in the south part of town. Every room of the old hotel at left offers local treasures, and the 1896 saloon at right was the site of a gunfight in which Barney Riggs killed two other shootists. The bullet holes are proudly labeled. Behind these venerable buildings is a precise reproduction of Judge Roy Bean's Jersey Lily Saloon.

The Hudspeth County adobe courthouse
Karon and I arrived in Sierra Blanca before the courthouse closed. There are many splendid courthouses in Texas, but of the 254 counties in the state, the seat of government of Hudspeth County is unique. Erected in 1919, the Hudspeth County Courthouse is the only courthouse in Texas built of adobe. These adobe walls are 18 inches thick, and the courthouse is a National Registry Property. In 2003 the architecturally unique structure underwent a restoration with funding from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program of the Texas Historical Commission. 

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