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Scooping History

Destination: Fort Chadbourne

By Eileen Mattei

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 4.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 8.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 3.75 hours /
  • Houston - 7 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.25 hours /
  • Lubbock - 2.75 hours /
  • El Paso - 6.5 hours

A group of retirees learns that if you really want to dig into Fort Chadbourne’s past, you have to get your hands dirty.

RVs face west in a rough semicircle around Fort Chadbourne’s parade grounds and restored barracks as my husband and I pull up next to five military service flags flapping in the damp breeze. We are joining a group of military retirees who are spending two weeks at this 1852 frontier fort, located between San Angelo and Abilene, participating in a dig under the direction of the Concho Valley Archeological Society.

The Army established Fort Chadbourne to protect settlers from Indian raids, sending companies out to patrol and guard wagon trains. The frontier’s westward shift and the fort’s unreliable water supply led to its abandonment by 1873. The fort became part of the O-D Ranch when Thomas Odum and his son Garland moved 30,000 head of cattle here in 1876. The family’s presence — particularly a third generation notorious for running off trespassers with a Colt .45 — kept Fort Chadbourne from being scavenged.

The barracks, warmed by a fireplace burning fragrant cedar, has been authentically restored, down to the old window glass and the square-head nails in the floor planks. Fourteen couples, who belong to the Special Military Active Retired Traveler Club, introduce themselves and invite us to a potluck dinner. Roger Meyer, his long white beard part of his Shriners’ Santa Claus persona, fills us in on the first week’s progress in excavating the ruins known as the Double Officers’ Quarters. The red sandstone, dogtrot-style building had also been the O-D Ranch headquarters until it burned down in 1920. “We’ve learned where the kitchen was and where the kids played. It blows my mind that you can scratch the dirt and write the history of that old building.” Meyer says that over 30,000 artifacts, including nails and glass fragments, have been uncovered and logged in.

Garland Richards, the great-great-grandson of Garland Odum, recalls when the ranch stored oats and saddles in this barracks, which is next to the ruins of the Butterfield Stage Depot. In 1999 Garland and his wife, Lana, decided to preserve and protect the fort by establishing the Fort Chadbourne Foundation, which began stabilizing the remaining structures. Half the money donated to the foundation has gone to research archives, although research has yet to turn up a definitive fort layout, according to Larry Riemenschneider, the dig’s project director and archaeological steward, who is a farmer in nearby Miles. “You’d think the military would have kept better records.”

Garland and Lana allow my husband and me to stay in the fort’s recently restored, two-room Fountain House. Thick, bullet-pocked walls scratched with 125-year-old graffiti dominate the high-ceilinged main room, while the small bedroom includes a tin bathtub and a distinct frontier ambiance.

In the morning, Riemenschneider explains that the excavation is revealing where the windows, walls and doors stood, as well as unearthing the debris of ranch and fort life: shell casings, crockery, coins. Because last night’s storm soaked the dig site, after breakfast the group sits at plastic-covered tables for lab work: sorting through bags of artifacts, carefully identified by the 4-inch layer of the grid where they were found, and labeling fragments of crockery.

While everyone is busy cleaning shards and painting on identifying numbers, I slip out under scudding clouds to walk the ruins beckoning me from the Fort’s highest points. In its day (1852-1861 and 1868-1873), the whitewashed walls of the fort were visible for up to 20 miles across the nearly treeless plains. Today, the rubble of the post hospital perches on a rise, and the commanding officer’s home sits even higher up, topped by cactus, rimmed by butterweed.

Raised on Rin Tin Tin and F-Troop, I assumed all frontier forts had protective walls. Not in Texas — other than Fort Parker. Garland describes Fort Chadbourne as a trading post and a buffer zone, protecting Indians from settlers and vice versa. At its peak, 400 soldiers were stationed here, while roughly 6,000 soldiers rotated through the fort. Their buttons and broken cups fell through the gaps between the floor planks to become artifacts for later generations.

The Fort Chadbourne Foundation aims to balance common sense and historical authenticity, Garland says. “I’m a West Texas rancher trying to take a project that is historically significant and give it back to the U.S., to Texas. I’ve been taught all my life to patch it up and make it last one more year. What we did was patch up Fort Chadbourne to make it last 100 more years,” despite the historical architect who told the rancher it was impossible to straighten the Fountain House and barracks walls. Garland, who refused to remove stones laid by soldiers 150 years ago and even travelers’ graffiti, applied ranch ingenuity and got the walls straightened. Now visitors take free, self-guided tours.

By lunchtime, we’re itching to dig, even if it means kneeling in damp dirt and then hauling small color-coded buckets of wet earth to the matching color-coded screeners. Riemenschneider assigns us to one-meter-square sections, and thanks to a laser level, we see exactly how far each team is supposed to scrape down with small garden trowels. The Concho Valley Archeological Society shares its supply of knee pads, gloves and buckets, while the Richardses keep us supplied with water and shade. “Almost everyone has bad knees. We pray too much,” jokes Bob Lederer, retired from the Army and lawyering.

Like a regiment of gardeners in straw hats and baseball caps, the group works the earth carefully, sometimes spotting a pocket knife handle or harmonica parts or a sardine can used for target practice. But the real finds show up when a bucket of dirt is dumped onto the elevated screen and shaken. I help finger through the rocks and clods, snatching up dirt-coated metal buttons and crockery shards. Fred and Lorey Meister man a sifting table, shaking and troweling the dirt through the screen. “Here’s a piece to match that other one,” Lorey says, pinching out a blue pottery shard. A magnet on a stick sucks up the nails, coins and metal fragments we’d otherwise miss. Each digging and screening team is assigned a record keeper, who tracks the yield: bottles, buttons, glass, crockery, toy parts and lots of nails and metal fragments.

“When the officers’ quarters burned it created a mini-time capsule, kind of a dream archaeologically,” says Riemenschneider. “Each time we do an excavation we get answers, and it opens a bunch of other questions.”

A heavy drone pulls military eyes skyward to spot and quickly identify C-130 cargo planes heading southwest, then the steady work pace resumes. “This group never ceases to amaze me,” Riemenschneider says, noting that the military retirees and their spouses range from 62 to 78 years old. “They don’t believe in taking a break. They do what needs to be done. It’s quality excavation work. Artifacts are the icing on the cake.”

We head into Bronte (although named after writer Charlotte, it’s pronounced “bront”) for dinner at our choice of three Mexican cafes. No one stays up late after a day moving dirt.

On the second day, the diggers are taking the west side of the dogtrot down to sterile ground. “It’s like being a part of history,” observes Peggy Wilson. She hesitantly admits to a spooky encounter while sewing alone one evening in the old barracks. Footsteps crossed the room behind her several times, but when she eventually looked up, no one was there. Then came the sound of someone sitting on a creaky cot in the next room and a boot hitting the floor. “I didn’t feel threatened, but it was time for me to leave.”

The routine of troweling the earth in shallow layers, sifting and recording goes on with military precision, camaraderie and the pleasure of discovery: coins, colored ceramic shards, a glass bottle stopper. “There’s a lot of little steps in getting to the point of seeing what we have,” says Lillian Gillis of San Antonio.

Jim Mims, a one-time Marine bugler who plays reveille, chow call, even pay call, for us, mentions showing Garland a scrap of wire he’d found near the Butterfield Stage ruins. “He told me it could have been a carpetbag frame. I’d never have known,” Jim says.

“It’s all a big puzzle,” Garland explains. “We’re adding enough pieces that one of these days you’ll be able to see the whole puzzle.”

In Bronte for dinner, we dig into Mexican flag enchiladas and chile rellenos at Hidalgo’s Restaurant, with the group discussing their plans to spend two weeks in 2008 excavating the fort’s Butterfield Stage Stop. Until then, Concho Valley Archeological Society members will be busy on occasional weekend digs and labs. Back at the fort, we stand under quiet, starry skies at 9 p.m. as Jim Mims pulls out his trumpet, faces west and plays “Taps.” The chords bounce off the barracks and echo up to us at the Fountain House and out to Orion overhead.

Day is done. Safely rest.

Details

For more information, visit <www.fortchadbourne.org>. Lodging is available at Oak Creek Village in Blackwell: (325) 282-2104.

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