Moseying: History of the Southern Llano Estacado
Fort Chadbourne 6 generations of preserving history
May 28, 2003
For two weeks Annie Gill and Lana Richards drove all over west Texas, putting up flyers and talking to media folk, advertising a Living History event at Fort Chadbourne on May 17th. Annie dropped by the Sibley Nature Center to give us a twenty-page packet full of pictures and a stack of flyers. Fortuitously, I was serving as a naturalist-interpreter on a tour of the Temple Dickson ranch twenty miles north of the fort that very day, so I told her I would show up that afternoon.
Fort Chadbourne was established in 1852 as one of a string of forts along the emigrant route across Texas. Fort Phantom Hill near Abilene and Fort Stockton were the next forts in either direction. Fort Chadbourne replaced Camp Johnston on the Concho River. Famed Texas cattleman Sam Maverick owned the land and leased it to the Army. The Butterfield Overland Mail maintained a stage stop at the fort in 1858 to 1861. After the Confederate Army and Texas Militia troops used the fort during the Civil War, the U.S. Army returned, but abandoned it in 1867, although it continued to be used as a post until 1873. The site is in northeastern Coke County on a hill above Oak Creek, eleven miles northeast of Bronte, just off of U.S. Highway 277 halfway between San Angelo and Abilene.
For the first ten months the soldiers lived in tents, suffering wintertime blue northers and tornadic spring thunderstorms and hosting centipedes and scorpions in their bedding. The Army brought German stonecutters and masons from San Antonio and built them a kiln to fire the lime of the mortar. They built a hospital, an officers quarters and a barracks building, but the kitchen, bakery, guardhouse, and laundry quarters were never more than log houses with canvas roofs. Shingles for the stone buildings and the logs were hauled from San Saba, 100 miles away.
In early 1999, Garland and Lana Richards created the Fort Chadbourne Foundation to help preserve and protect the fort. Garlands great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Odom had bought the land in 1876. For 120 years the family prevented artifact hunters from stripping the site. Family members did collect artifacts, but carefully marked the location of each one, and kept extensive notes. The artifacts will be displayed in a planned visitor center and museum.
The Living History shindig was winding down when I arrived. Several hundred people were sitting under big tents listening to fiddle music, or wandering about the grounds. Every hour on the hour Gatling guns and cannons spewed smoke and sent the sounds of war booming across the ranch. Several Concho Valley Historical Society members were sprawled out on the ground amidst a twine grid, laboriously sifting dirt shovelful by shovelful. The Fort Chadbourne Blackpowder Group invited the visitors to try their hand at shooting replica black powder Sharps 45-40 rifles at targets. Every thirty minutes hayrides went to visit the ranchs little herd of buffalo. Vendors offered food, historical artifact replicas, paintings and more.
History re-enactors were everywhere 105 folks dressed as buffalo hunters, buffalo soldiers, blacksmiths, and camp cooks. Two ladies portrayed officers wives, demonstrating the activities of the housewives of the time. The lucky re-enactors had been treated to a buffalo meat cookout the night before someday I want to feast on buffalo hump and tongue, by golly!
Ms. Gill, the office manager of the Foundation, found me chatting with Beth Prather, the librarian at Robert Lee, who was sitting at a booth offering subscriptions for the publication of a book about the history of the jail at Robert Lee. Ms. Prather and I were discussing the new Panhandle Birding Trail promoted by the state of Texas.
Ms. Gill radioed Mr. Richards, who graciously spent a few minutes with me in between his emceeing duties. Mr. Richards had attended Angelo State University, and while there had observed the efforts to preserve Fort Concho, which in turn inspired a 20 year dream to open Fort Chadbourne to the public. He outlined their 4-point plan of restoration and discussed the sources of funding and expertise that the Foundation utilizes. Abilenes Dodge-Jones Foundation has provided the bulk of the funds for the restoration. He spoke highly of Joe Freeman, an historical architect from Austin, who has served as the expert pointman in the efforts. Mr. Freemans wife Martha spent two years performing historical research for the Foundation, and the work has resulted in a book that will be published by Texas A&M Press late this year. Mr. Richards is especially proud of receiving the Historic Restoration Award from Preservation Texas for a new stabilization technique developed to preserve the barracks.
Ms. Gill then led me to the Foundation office and its historical library, where Mrs. Richards kindly led me into the vault to discuss some of the 28,000 artifacts that have been collected for later display at the planned visitors center. Mrs. Richards had been at the gate all day taking the one dollar admission fee and finding out where the visitors had learned of the event (and many of them reported learning about it from the flyers!) She chatted with me for over an hour, glad to be inside under the airconditioner.
We have accomplished more with less money than anyone in Texas! Mrs. Richards informed me. We have stabilized all the ruins, and reconstructed three buildings as phase one of the project. We will work on the stage stop next, and the double officers quarters. We will have careful archaeological research done before we reconstruct the buildings. We have established a Living History Cavalry Unit for the fort, and we will participate in similar Living History Events with Texas Parks and Wildlife at the other forts in the region.
Mrs. Richards enthusiasm infused her stories of various artifacts. Garland was reviewing the work on the barracks when he stubbed his toe on this Sharps rifle action, and it is of the type carried by the Butterfield Mail drivers. Despite being raised on the ranch and playing cowboys and Indians among the ruins as a kid, this artifact waited to show itself until a perfect moment when he was feeling proud of work accomplished. Over a dozen period rifles hung from the wall around us knowledge of 19th century guns is a passion with Mr. Richards. This gentleman, she said, pointing to a picture on the wall, found a cache of these three dozen 6000 year old spear points, all stacked up in a row. When he found the first three he got so excited he thought he was going to have a heart attack, so he sat down and had a lunch of beanie-weenies and waited to finish digging when he could breathe normally.
When I had to leave to hurriedly visit Austin and Jolene Barbers native plant greenhouses up at Colorado City, Mrs. Richards told me, Tell folks to call us at 325-743 2555 to set up a visit, and to go online at www.fortchadbourne.org. You will be affected and infected with the enthusiasm of the staff of the Fort Chadbourne Foundation!