Postcard from Lonely Fort Lancaster

In far west Texas just off State Highway 290 a few miles from the small town of Sheffield, which puts the site just about in the middle of nowhere, are the remains of Fort Lancaster, one of the forts that provided protection for westbound settlers in the mid-1850's. Constructed from 1855 - 1860 using stone and adobe bricks, it was garrisoned by 150 enlisted men and 3 officers from the 1st U.S. Infantry. It was very harsh duty, so harsh and distasteful that it was one of only 3 stations where the men were paid double salary for their service. There was basically nothing there in the way of resources and there were only two seasons of weather - unbearably hot and bone-chilling cold. For the most part, even the Indians avoided the area so skirmishes and military engagements were extremely rare. To fight the boredom, the men either worked on maintaining the buildings or spent tedious hour after hour in mindless drilling and marching.

In 1857, there came a welcome break in the routine when the Army's experimental Camel Corps came to the fort on their way west. The arrival of Captain Beale and his 40 men with 25 camels, 100 sheep and a large herd of horses and mules was certainly cause for excitement. The men of the fort and the caravan broke out what provisions they had and shared a better meal than any of them had enjoyed in a long time. Unfortunately, a pall was cast during the feast when word came that the infant son of Captain Arthur Lee, one of the caravan's married officers, had just died of an illness contracted while on the trail a few days before. Arthur Lee, Jr. was buried on the post the next day. The day after the burial, Captain Lee, his wife and the rest of the caravan had to leave to maintain their schedule. The infant's grave is still there, marked by a small headstone put in place by soldiers of the fort after his parents left.

When Texas seceded from the Union in February, 1881 and joined the Confederacy, a very civil change took place. The Federal troops peacefully left the fort and traveled back to their homes. After they left, a small contingent of Rebel forces came in to take charge.

Nine months later, the Confederate troops manning the fort had found Fort Lancaster duty to be the same as the Federal forces had, unspeakably boring, and they, again like the Federal troops, spent their time performing a little bit of maintenance on the buildings and a great deal of marching and drilling. In late November, General Henry Sibley and his 2,500 men came to the fort while on their way west to capture New Mexico for the Confederacy. To show proper respect for a visiting general (who, it was known, also happened to be good friends with Confederate President Jefferson Davis), the 100 men at Fort Lancaster presented themselves in precise rows outfitted in their never-before-worn dress uniforms. General Sibley felt obliged to respond to this welcome by personally taking charge of a marching drill routine. If there was anything the Fort Lancaster troops were good at by now, it was marching.

With Sibley sitting on his horse barking out orders, the men marched, wheeled and counter marched perfectly to each of the general's commands. Sibley called out an order to "File left" and that's when things took a nasty turn. Perhaps Sibley didn't call out loudly enough or the strong  wind blowing that day prevented the men from hearing his command, but they didn't turn left and kept marching to the right as they had been. Sibley watched in dismay as the men marched away from the parade grounds and, in perfect order,  smartly stepped through the fort's gate straight up and all the way over a nearby hill. The general didn't command them to halt or march to the rear and just sat there watching in bemusement. As the last of the men disappeared, he turned to his aid, muttered "Gone to hell they have" and rode out to continue leading his troops west. History does not record how far the poor Fort Lancaster soldiers had marched before someone rode out to stop them.

By April of 1862, the Confederate government decided the Fort Lancaster troops could be better used fighting the Yankees rather than continue marching in the isolation of west Texas. The fort was abandoned until a few months later when a small contingent of Texas Rangers occupied and used the fort's buildings as their headquarters. With the war going on, bandits, outlaws and even the Indians were not causing much trouble so it wasn't long before the Rangers also abandoned the fort. For the next five years, the fort was raided by nearby ranchers and homesteaders for building materials. A fire struck in early 1867 and destroyed several of the buildings that were still standing.

By the middle of 1867, with the war over, some of the battle-hardened veterans who had returned home to find no jobs and no prospects, had taken to a lawless life on the frontier. White settlement on formerly Indian land was pushing the Indians into desperation. To protect the settlers and travelers, the fort was once again occupied by Federal troops. Buffalo soldiers of Company K, 9th Cavalry were sent to rebuild and secure the fort. While this was proceeding, the fort came under a rare full-on attack by about 1,000 Apache and Kickapoo warriors led by a few renegade Mexican soldiers. On December 26, 1867, the fort was surrounded and the Indians attacked all sides at once. The battle lasted for 3 hours before the Indians retreated. The soldiers claimed that at least 20 of the attackers were killed while they had 3 causalities, unfortunate men who were captured and carried off.  The mutilated remains were found 3 months later and were brought back to the fort for burial. 

The next year the army abandoned the fort and once again, the buildings were raided for materials by the local ranchers. By 1912, only a few stones from building's walls remained in place when the state began preservation efforts for this historic facility. Today, the few visitors to Fort Lancaster can still feel the isolation and sense of desolation the fort's occupants experienced in the 1800's. Located a mile or so off of little traveled Highway 290 on what was known back then as Lower Road, no modern buildings can be seen in the area except for the well-equipped visitor center. The site gets few tourists. Nobody gets there unless they are intentionally going there.

On the day we stopped, we were the only visitors. Walking into the very clean visitor center, the single park ranger greeted us with a big smile on his face and a very warm greeting. He seemed overjoyed at having someone to talk to. He gave us the history of the fort, the sites to see on the property and the history of individual ruins. It was late afternoon on an overcast Saturday and when I asked him how many visitors he had that day, he replied we were the first. We left our car parked in front of the visitor center and walked around the site reading the tour brochure. It was interesting, mostly because it was so quiet I could hear the wings of a hawk as it flew high over us and I wondered if some lonely soldier all those years ago stood still like me for a few seconds to watch a bird flying in the sky. About half-way through the walking tour, the gray skies began to leak so we unfolded our little portable umbrella's and headed back to the car. We had just got in the car when there was a loud clap of thunder and it began to pour. Turning on the engine, I clicked on the windshield wipers and began to back out. As we pulled away, the park ranger came to the door and waved goodbye, the newest lonely occupant in this place of desolation.

Waxahachie Courthouse: Beauty & The Beast

Like a lot of other small towns in America, a beautiful county courthouse dominates the town square of Waxahachie, Texas. The town is often called "The Gingerbread City" for the elaborate wooden lacework found on many of the area's vintage homes. It is also known as "The Movie Capital of Texas" for the many movies such as Places In The Heart, Bonnie & Clyde, 1918, The Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies which have all been filmed in and around the town. The many well-maintained stately homes on tree-shaded streets, the restored town square and the imposing 9-story tall courthouse make Waxahachie a perfect setting for turn-of-the-century-period movies.

The elaborate Richardsonian Romanesque courthouse, built in 1895 to replace an old wooden one that only cost $59 to build, is widely considered to be among the most beautiful in all of Texas. Look closely at the ornate sandstone carvings along the top of the granite columns however and you will find a disturbing story, a story of unrequited love.

In 1895, a young stone mason named Harry Herley who had recently immigrated from Italy was hired to sculpt and decorate the outer walls of the courthouse which was under construction. Harry rented a room at a nearby boarding house owned and operated by a Miss Frame. Her teenage daughter, Mabel, lived with her mother in the boarding house and, along with her cleaning duties, often helped serve food to the boarders in the communal dining room. Young Harry quickly became enchanted with the very lovely and vivacious Mabel and wasted no time before he began courting her. His good looks and charming accent attracted Mabel and she returned his amorous attention.

With the rush of young love driving him, he began carving angels into the sandstone that was to adorn the courthouse as an expression of his feelings toward Mabel. With great care and devotion, he then carved her face and added his own next to her's over one of the doorways. So enthused was he that he often worked into the wee hours of the night on the carvings.

It wasn't long however before Mabel's ardor began to cool. Plus, her mother had different plans for her daughter and they didn't include getting pregnant and marrying a poor, uneducated stonemason fresh off the boat from Italy. The short-term thrill of being involved with a handsome foreigner began to fade and it wasn't hard for Mabel's mother to convince her to turn her attention to someone who could offer her a better future. Embittered and brokenhearted, Harry's carvings began to drastically change. He took out his anger and sorrow on the stone beneath his chisel and the courthouse started becoming adorned with twisted demons, monsters and gargoyles.

If you visit the courthouse in Waxahachie, find the angels and happy faces and then with a simple walk around the outside of the building, you can follow the history of Harry's romance with Mable. It's easy to see the progression from enchantment to the excitement and thrill of first love and on to the misery and anger of rejection. Fascinating and sad.

And one more thing - according to word-of-mouth history handed down to the grandchildren by grandparents who were there, the last carving Harry made in the courthouse sandstone is not an angel, not a smiling face or even a monster or gargoyle. It is of something much more intimate - a stylistic rendition of a female's private parts. They say he placed it on display for all to see as a final insulting thumb-of-the-nose farewell.

As soon as his work was complete, Harry left the town where his heart was broken and moved to Dallas. History shows he married a girl there the next year, but sadly, he passed away of unknown causes in 1899. Mabel married a local boy and settled for a quiet, but happy life as a mother and wife in Waxahachie. As for that insulting last panel Harry left, it, like all the rest of the carvings, are still there, visible to anyone who takes the time to look for it.