Sunday, July 12, 2015

Presidio de San Saba & Fort McKavett: A Road Trip with Robert E. Howard

Shortly after this year’s REH Days my friend David Piske & I took a brief single day road trip. Since we were both staying in Brownwood, TX for this year’s events, I checked the proximity of Fort McKavett to Brownwood: only 102 miles, about an hour and a half drive. So, we planned accordingly.

At REH Days, in a conversation with Rob Roehm, I brought up the intended Fort McKavett trip. Rob perked up and began to tell me that he thought they may have done some re-work/refurbishing of the Fort. He wondered if the famous “Howard Spot” would still be there as it was when he visited. He thought he had heard that the State may have rebuilt some of those buildings. I explained that we brought along his book, and he said it had the exact coordinates of “the spot." So I surmised with those coordinates we should be able to find the location regardless of any changes made to the structures. Rob also mentioned that the Presidio de San Saba was on the way to Fort McKavett, and we should stop there and look around. He told me he had included it in his book: Howard’s Haunts. So I added that to our road trip itinerary.

Early Sunday morning David and I loaded the car and took off. We made a quick stop at the Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, TX, saw the Howard family grave site, and searched a bit for Tevis Clyde Smith’s grave site but had no luck finding it. The offices at Greenleaf were close (since it was Sunday) so we were unable to ask for help. We then piled back into the car and took off for Fort McKavett, TX.

Presidio de San Saba

The Presidio de San Saba
Sure enough, just as Rob had explained, the Presidio de San Saba was a short hop down 190 (the same highway to Fort McKavett) slightly southwest of Menard, TX. The Presidio sits right next to the San Saba river, which, by the way, was filled with water due to recent hard rains in Texas.  Being a Sunday, the offices to the Presidio were closed. But, that did not deter us from wandering around the ruins.
"The Presidio de San Sabá was established in 1757, to protect nearby Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá constructed at the same time.  An additional incentive was to pursue rumors of silver riches nearby.   At the time of its construction, the fort represented the northernmost point of Spanish authority in Texas.  It is still the largest Spanish fort in the state." (http://www.presidiodesansaba.com)
Robert E. Howard has this to say about the Presidio,
“You will read much of San Saba river and the surrounding territory in Coronado’s Children. It is on the San Saba that the famous Lost Bowie Mine is suppose to be located. (Though some maintain it was on the Rio de Las Chanas, now called Llano River). Near Menard, through which I passed on my way to Fort McKavett, are the ruins of San Luis de Amarillas, the presidio built by the Spaniards to protect workers in Los Almagres mine.” Robert E. Howard to August Derleth, in a letter dated July 1933. (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard; 3.94)
The San Saba river as seen from
the Presidio de San Saba
 We spent about a half an hour at the Presidio, taking pictures, reading the various markers, and wandering around the area. There were only two other people visiting this site at the same time, a couple from Abilene. They asked us why we were there visiting. I explained to them we were on our way to visit Fort McKavett, stopped off here, and told them about Robert E. Howard. As is pretty much always my experience, they did not know who Robert E. Howard was, but when I mentioned Conan, they knew about him.

Me on the walls of the
Presidio
The Presidio had been fully restored with cement and the left over bricks/rocks from the original fort. So, it looked quite different than the pictures from Rob Roehm’s book. Because of these renovations I began to really wonder if the “spot” where Howard took his famous snap shot would be restored. Would it now be surrounded by what was once the original building? Would that make it more difficult to find? Without hesitation, we got back in the car and drove. 

Farther down the road we encountered the sign for Fort McKavett. And, while I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Presidio, my eagerness grew as we approached Fort McKavett.

Fort McKavett, Texas
“I’m enclosing a snap shot of myself, taken among the ruins of Old Fort McKavett. I drove there last Sunday and took a few pictures. Didn’t have time to work up an article, though. Fort McKavett is in Menard County, about 155 miles southwest of Cross Plains. It was established in 1871, and abandoned the same year. Again in 1872 it was occupied by two companies of cavalry and five of infantry—largely negroes. It was abandoned permanently in 1883; and thereby hangs a tale, which is not likely ever to be written—not by me, at least. I will merely remark that the Federal soldiers found their most dangerous enemies not to be Comanches. Fort McKavett is situated near the head waters of the San Saba river, and folks live there in the less ruined buildings which once formed the barracks and officer’s quarters.” Robert E. Howard to August Derleth, in a letter dated July 1933. (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 3.93-94)

Robert E. Howard at Fort McKavett

Excitement raced through me as we approached the front drive to enter Fort McKavett. The first thing that struck me was how large the grounds actually were. To be honest, I was expecting a quaint area with maybe two or three buildings. Instead, the entire Fort and it’s surroundings cover a whopping 147 acres. There were buildings, both dilapidated and complete, standing all over the area. However, the buildings followed a concise structure in the shape of a large square with a U.S. Flag in its center. According to the Fort McKavett State Historic website,
“In March 1852, the 8th U.S. Infantry established Fort McKavett to protect West Texas settlers and serve as a rest stop for California-bound immigrants. In 1859, Fort McKavett was abandoned due to a decline in warfare with Native Americans as a result of the establishment of reservations in Texas and immigrants using a more southerly route to California. In 1868, the Army reopened Fort McKavett as a military post when hostilities between local Comanche Indians and the settlers increased after the Civil War. From 1868 to 1883, Fort McKavett served as a major supply depot providing food and provisions for most of the military campaigns, scientific and mapping explorations and other forts in West Texas. By 1875, hostilities in the area had been resolved, resulting in the mandatory relocation of Native Americans to reservations in Oklahoma, and Fort McKavett was finally abandoned by Company D of the 16th Infantry Regiment in 1883. Soon after the Army left, settlers began to move into the vacant buildings and the town of Fort McKavett was born, with the last residents moving out of the original buildings in 1973. Fort McKavett was designated a state historic site on May 17, 1968 to help preserve its important role in history for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” (http://www.visitfortmckavett.com/index.aspx?page=530)
When Howard visited Fort McKavett, back in 1933, as indicated in his letter to August Derleth (see above) there were people still living in the barracks and officer’s quarters.

Fort McKavett view from the car lot

After we parked the car, our first order of business was to go to the visitor's center and pay the daily fee of $5.00 to visit and walk the grounds. I was afraid that the site would be closed since it was Sunday. However, Texas State Historic Sites/grounds are open from sunrise to sunset 7 days a week, so we were in luck. We spoke with the office attendant, explained why we were there, and she walked over to a large filing cabinet, opened the top drawer and pulled a file labeled Robert E. Howard. A smile grew on my face as she opened the file and explained to us exactly where “the spot” would be located on the Fort grounds. She pulled a copied picture of Howard’s famous snap shot and a copy of the pages from Rob Roehm’s book Howard’s Haunts.

From the window of the office she pointed out the area where the ruins were located and told us we should walk the small museum adjacent to the guest office before walking the grounds. I must admit, I had a hard time walking through the small museum and reading the material. My mind was distracted by the idea of finding "the spot" where Robert E. Howard stood and took that snap shot. But, after a few minutes, I forced myself to quiet my mind and take in the history presented in the museum. If you ever visit Fort McKavett, be sure and walk through this mini-museum, it has some nice historical information, original items and pictures.

A model scene of the Fort in the
museum at the guest center
Finally, we left the visitor center and museum and made the trek toward where Howard would have snapped his photo. As we approached we noticed several of the buildings were not in ruins. I wondered if those had been restored, and would the spot now be inside one of those buildings. But, according to the attendant in the front office, the building she pointed out, next to the old Captain’s quarters (which was still in ruins), was also itself in ruins. We checked our map, wandered around the Captain’s quarters for a little while trying to decide which of the two other ruined buildings close-by was the actual location.

We trekked to what we thought was the building. It was definitely in ruins and several of the fireplace areas looked like the ones in Rob’s book (and thus Howard’s snap shot). After a few minutes of searching, we found the spot. Everything lined up from Rob’s photograph in Howard’s Haunts. An unusual feeling of excitement overcame me; the same feeling I felt when I stepped inside the Howard House for the very first time. Here I was standing in the same spot as Robert E. Howard, one of my favorite authors. My imagination took hold and all the history of the Fort and what I knew of Robert E. Howard flooded my mind.
Me at "the spot"
“Ruins of Fort McKavett, July 9, 1933; I like this snap; it makes me feel kind of like a Vandal or Goth standing amidst the ruins of a Roman fortress or palace.” To H.P. Lovecraft from Robert E. Howard, July 9, 1933. (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 3.92)
I was having a moment like what Howard described in his letter to H.P. Lovecraft, and the fact that Howard had been here too made it even more special. We actually spent about 20 or more minutes at the spot, taking pictures, wandering around, and talking about the history of the place. After we had soaked in the excitement of finding the place where Howard snapped his shot, we then turned our attention to the rest of the Fort.

My friend, David, at "the spot."
 I can't even begin to depict how stirring the Fort was. Seeing the buildings, canons, soldier’s quarters, and reading the various plaques with historical information,  all of these things certainly spark the imagination. At one point, we rounded a building and David said, “Can you imagine being here in the late 1800s when all the soldiers were here?” He pointed off in the distance and said, “It would be so cool to just ride up on horseback toward one of the soldiers after scouting the area and shout, “Hey, soldier, where’s the Captain? I have my report!” This is the kind of thing the Fort elicits from the imaginative mind. I can see why Howard was so taken in by the area.

Several of the quarters were open, so we entered them and explored the buildings. What surprised me most about the inside of the buildings was the fact that even though it was in the upper 90s outside (quite hot), it was much cooler inside. I placed my hand on one of the walls and the brick was actually cool. The buildings were designed to let the outside air enter in the front, swirls around several of the rooms and then exit out a back window or door; all the while cooling the rooms as it passed through.

We spent several hours wandering the grounds. When we finally decided to leave, I mentioned going back to the visitor center to look around before we took off. However, I wanted to see the “Howard spot” one last time. So, we split up. David headed back to visitor center, and I made my way back to Field Grade Officer’s Quarters where Howard took his snap shot. I spend a few minutes, took a few more pictures, walked a little around the ruins of the old building, and imagined what it would have been like when Howard was here. I then made my way back to the guest center.

Upon arriving at the guest center I discovered David talking to a different person than when we first arrived. Fortunately, this gentleman was the site manager. He gave us a brief history of the Fort and told us of the spring head and lime kiln about a quarter mile down a certain trail over by the picnic area. We talked a little about Robert E. Howard, he knew much more than the first person we encountered in the guest office. He also told us that periodically people came from all over the country just to visit the spot where Howard took his famous photograph. He explained that nothing had been altered since the Fort was first built. This was good information. He said they had not intended to do any renovations on the Fort because they wanted to keep it faithful to its historical roots. I was glad to hear this.

An original engraving on the outside wall of one of the
Soldier's Quarters
After talking with the site manager. We made our way to the picnic area in order to walk the quarter mile down the trail to the limestone kiln and spring head. The kiln was still there, but mostly filled in with large limestone rocks. I could imagine the men creating these exceedingly hot fires to melt the limestone in the kiln. Just on the other side of the kiln was a direct drop of about 20 or more feet. I leaned a little over the edge and could see a large hole in the side of the cliff where the fire was created.

Farther down the path, we entered another world entirely. From open ground, high grass and rocks to trees thick as a forest. This change occurred almost abruptly, so I knew we had to be close to the spring head because only a constant flow of water could provide the area with this many trees. At the end of the trail we ran right into the spring head. The water came out through the rocks pouring its way into a small creek and flowing away toward the San Saba river. We were told that the spring head never dried up. I can now see the importance of Fort McKavett’s location and how people could survive in this area with this constant flow of water.

I’m so glad we decided to take this small excursion after REH Days this year. To tromp around in the very places Howard did is quite exciting, especially having read his accounts of these places. If you ever decide to make the trek to Texas and visit the Presidio De San Saba and Fort McKavett, I can tell you now it is well worth the trip. To visit the historical sites that made Texas what it is today and to see first-hand how the state was maintained, protected, and served, is an experience like no other. It definitely helps those readers of Robert E. Howard’s work understand why he wrote some of what he wrote. It's quite obvious that Texas certainly had a huge influence on the barbarian from Cross Plains.


Above is a brief video of a pictorial tour with a bit of historical information included.

For Further Research on the Presidio de San Saba & Fort McKavett:

Presidio de San Saba Sources:
Texas Beyond History  (UT Austin Website)

Fort McKavett, TX:


More pictures at Fort McKavett . . .

A Portion of Lieutenants Row


Inside the Post Headquarters

Inside the Soldier's Quarters

Another portion of Lieutenants Row

The School House

A Map of Fort McKavett

Additional Facts about Fort McKavett . . . (From the Fort McKavett State Historic Website)

  • Fort McKavett was home to soldiers from all four of the famous Buffalo Soldier regiments. Many of these African American soldiers used the educational and financial opportunities given to them by the Army to become successful businessmen after their service.

  • Sgt. Emanuel Stance of the 9th Cavalry received the first Medal of Honor awarded to an African American soldier after the Civil War for his service at Fort McKavett.

  • Women were employed by the Army at Fort McKavett as laundresses. It was common for a woman to do the laundry of 19 men for $1 per soldier a month, including housing and food. Although it was difficult work, these women made $19 or more a month while an Army private made $13.

  • Under direction of the Fort McKavett surgeon, Army personnel at the fort became the first weathermen in the area by keeping records of temperatures and rainfall at the post.

  • Fort McKavett’s structures are considered among the most well-preserved of the Texas frontier forts.


Bibliography

"Brief History." : Texas Historical Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2015. < http://www.visitfortmckavett.com/index.aspx?page=530>

Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howardf. Ed. Rob Roehm. Vol. 3. Plano: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2007. Print.

Roehm, Rob. Howard's Haunts. N.p.: Roehm's Room, 2007. Print.

"Visit Us at the Presidio in Menard, Texas." Presidio De San Sabá. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2015.< http://www.presidiodesansaba.com>


2 comments:

Cody Mobley said...

I'm the site manager you mentioned in your blog post. I'm glad that yall were able to visit the site and enjoyed your visit. We hope that you keep us in mind for future visits to 'the spot'!

Todd B Vick said...

Hey Cody, thanks for helping us out while we were there. I intend to make at least one more visit in the future. And I'll be sure and tell everyone about the Fort and "the spot." Cheers!

Todd