Research Comes Alive at Forts Concho and Chadbourne

4 Nov

Of all the forts we’ve visited in the past few weeks, Forts Concho and Chadbourne were by far the best preserved. It was interesting driving into San Angelo with Publisher Mark Long navigating around the city streets with his iPhone GPS to find Fort Concho. My first thought when we came across the location was, “Well, this is different!”

Fort Concho stands smack in the middle of the city, almost as if San Angelo tore out the middle of a page in its history book and left it there for people to see. This is the first fort I have seen that was not on the outskirts of town or miles down the road. Through donations, Concho has been almost completely reconstructed. Centered around a large, square block of land that was the parade grounds, this fort made it quite easy to see how the post might have looked back in the day. After talking with a Concho archivist, we found out the town built one of the first elementary schools on the parade grounds. It fell into disrepair, and they eventually took the ruins away to make the grounds look more historically accurate.

If you stand in the middle of the parade grounds, next to the flagpole, you can pretty much see most of the buildings that would have existed in the 1800s – barracks, officer’s quarters, a hospital and a storehouse, just to name a few. Most of the buildings house authentic furniture, complete with period-dressed mannequins to show visitors what each structure might have looked like inside.

For about an hour, we were able to sit inside one of the renovated officer’s quarters with the Concho archivist and peruse through copious old pictures, looking for original photographs to accompany the book. We found out during our stay that the officer’s quarters (where we were researching) became an apartment complex in later years. That was how Concho stayed so well-preserved: People continued to use the buildings years later.

Some of the pictures we found were of what the post looked like with its original buildings and a lot of portraits of people and even animals. My favorite portraits were of women from the early 20th century who were dressed in innovative-looking costumes for a celebration of some sort in San Angelo. One of the women went dressed as a windmill, representing a windmill-making business during the party. To me, she looked like the Eiffel Tower, but after Evelyn Lemons, the fort’s archivist, explained it, I could see the individual arms of the windmill shaped to mimic the curves of her body.

After a great meal and history lesson with Concho’s site manager and museum director, Bob Bluthardt, we took a self-guided tour of the fort and then headed a few miles west to Fort Chadbourne.

It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out when you arrive at Fort Chadbourne. At the entrance to the grounds, the fort owners have constructed a giant gold spur that arches majestically over Chadbourne’s front gates. We passed by what looked to be an amazing visitor’s center (which will open next spring) and wound our way through a long dirt road until we found an area serving as the present visitor’s center.

Inside we met two wonderful ladies, Ann Pate, who is the author of Fort Chadbourne: A Military Post, A Family Heritage, and Lana Richards, one of the founding members of the Fort Chadbourne Foundation. Both gave us great insight into Chadbourne and what happened as it became private property and part of a ranch owned by the Richards family. Publisher Mark Long and Editor Ana Wraight learned almost as much about the fort’s history while standing there listening to Ann as I did during my research.

The most significant piece of information we learned was that Chadbourne was the precursor to Concho. The water at Chadbourne became scarce and what little they had was brackish and practically undrinkable. Officials gave the order, then, to move the fort to what is now San Angelo, situated on the Concho River.

Ann gave us a personal tour of the fort. Though there were fewer buildings than Concho, they were just as well reconstructed and had rooms containing tableaus of what life could have looked like for the soldiers who occupied them. The fort even had a building that is the only restored Butterfield Stagecoach stop in Texas. The Butterfield carried mail, people and supplies from St. Louis, Mo. to San Francisco, Calif. The trip across western America took 23 days, each way, as long as nothing went wrong. Chadbourne became one of the major stops along its way to California. The museum houses an authentic stagecoach, along with another room filled with artifacts of the stagecoach years.

The highlight of the trip came at the end when we visited the fort’s small herd of buffalo! The herd looked to be fewer than 20 in number, but they were quite a sight to see. The largest of the buffalo, an old, gnarly-looking beast, stood next to the haystack rubbing his buffalo hump in the hay. Other buffalo came up to our vehicle to sniff and snort around. They looked just like the herd of cows my parents own, except for the large hump on their shoulders. The baby buffalos looked even more like calves since their humps had not yet developed.

These trips have made the book-writing process come alive for me. It is one thing to read a bunch of information about military forts on the frontier and another to see what it might have looked like more than 100 years ago. Taking a few Fridays off from classes to travel to these locations definitely has been worth it.

-Kristine

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