Touring Texas forts just keeps getting better and better.
On a recent Saturday, a TSTC Publishing trio jumped into the car and headed west to Fort Mason in Mason and Presidio San Luis de La Amarillas and Fort McKavett, both near Menard, Texas.
Fort Mason was much like what I remembered from an earlier visit about 20 years ago. A single building atop a hill with a vast panoramic view of the valley. Visitors learn that Gen. Robert E. Lee was stationed at Mason, and a somewhat spooky uniformed mannequin seen inside startles more than one visitor.
What I had forgotten, though, was how the town of Mason takes each of its visitors back in time. The Museum on the Square offers visitors a look at a nearly 3-pound topaz, the largest gem of its kind in the world, found right in Mason County. The gem is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. The small museum also offers a chronological view of many historical artifacts.
Antique stores and a couple of restaurants round out the square. I was glad to see the now-familiar Texas Forts Trail sign posted on the square, confirming we were on the right trail. Not exactly sure about our next destination, we headed off and fortunately found a sign pointing us toward Presidio San Luis de Las Amarillas and Fort McKavett.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed as we pulled into the entrance of the Presidio San Luis de La Amarillas, for here was what I always had imagined a fort might look like…a turret tower, 3-feet-thick walls, a river flowing by it and wait, could it be? Yes, a golf course, the Menard Municipal Golf Course, skirts the ancient fort site.
I wander the site alone, drawn to the San Saba River. Scooting into one of the rooms, now in ruins, I look out the window, imagining what it would have been like in the mid-1700s, when it was home to more than 300 Spanish soldier and civilians. Editorial Intern Kristine Davis had filled us in on the history during lunch. The fort was built to help protect a mission, just four miles away, she said. The mission’s mission to evangelize the Lipan Apaches, however, backfired as 2,000 Comanches and their allies attacked the mission, killing most of its inhabitants.
Later, I learned that the partial rock walls and ruins at Presidio San Saba weren’t the original 1700s stone ones. Instead, they are the remains of a 1936-37 project to reconstruct the presidio. The effort served as a tangible reminder of the past, but the walls soon began to deteriorate, leaving the ruins seen today. I’m glad I didn’t know that as we walked through the grounds.
We then made our way to Fort McKavett, first stopping at the wonderful visitor’s center and then exploring the massive grounds atop a hill. Fort McKavett was established in March 1852 to help protect West Texas settlers and to serve as a rest stop for those headed to California. Eight years later, the fort closed as warfare with Native Americans declined. Less than a decade later, though, the fort reopened as a military post as hostilities grew after the Civil War between local Comanche Indians and the settlers.
Fort McKavett also was a major supply depot for other West Texas forts and military campaigns until it was abandoned in 1883. Settlers moved into many of the vacant buildings and the town of Fort McKavett was born with the last residents moving out of the original buildings in 1973. It was designated a state historic site on May 17, 1968, and is now a Texas Historical Commission property.
The remains of a burned-out officer’s quarters building stand against the horizon while smaller buildings dot the grounds. What would life have been like living on this post? Apparently, higher-ranking officers got the best quarters while lower-ranking soldiers might share a small area with as many as 10 others.
The Texas Forts Trail is more than a day trip, and our third tour will be to Fort Concho in San Angelo and nearby Fort Chadbourne. Ready to hit the trail again…