A Pretty Dry and Dusty Town Full of History

I would not want to malign anyone’s hometown, but there didn’t seem to be a lot to Fort Stockton. It seems today and yesterday to be mostly a stopping off point. Today Interstate 10 runs through it so it is an east/west artery. The town is clustered on both sides of the interstate. Otherwise, Fort Stockton is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  The land is flat. It is hot and dry and dusty. For the most part the town seems unremarkable except for the history which had been respectfully and passionately preserved by its inhabitants.

Fort Stockton was a garrison during much of the mid to late 1800’s. It had originally grown up around Commanche Springs which was the major source of water in the area and what drew those who chose to settle nearby. The fort had boom and bust times. During the Civil War the fort was all but abandoned and then later reclaimed and re-settled. Ultimately, the fort was de-commissioned in the late 1880’s.

Only a little of the original fort survives, but local forces are working to restore it and to create a museum on the site. We wandered around the fort buildings which have been restored to date and it was possible to get a sense of life on this outpost.

The soldier’s barracks and officer’s quarters were not open to the public, but the jail had been restored and was open to visitors. Our footsteps made satisfying clopping sounds as we walked the boards of the porch. The limestone walls were cool to our touch and impenetrable. Manacles hung from the walls and the lone solitary cell looked dark and frightening. Even Dakota seemed to peer into the building with cautious interest.

Out on the parade grounds stood a lone wagon. Despite its exposure to the elements, it was a famous wagon having appeared in two films with the Duke.

There was also the local episcopal church and next to it an old one room schoolhouse. Living near the fort and the soldiers was probably a fairly safe place to be in more troubled times. Citizens had probably as much reason to fear local outlaws as any stray wandering tribes.

Being stationed at this fort out in the middle of nowhere had to be a fairly tough life. Riding patrol in the heat and storms of west Texas didn’t leave a lot of room for creature comforts.

Over in another part of town we found the “historic district.” A clutch of buildings formed what must have been the center of town long ago. The courthouse stood on a small rise. The building we see today is a newer courthouse, the former one burned down about a hundred years ago.

Kitty corner to the courthouse was the Grey Mule Saloon. Run by a notorious man who moved his family to Fort Stockton in the wake of a murder, he established a ranch and later was elected Sheriff proving how thin the line between lawless and lawman was back then. Today the saloon is a tasting room.

Along with his deputy, the Sheriff intimidated and terrorized the town until both ended up murdered. His deputy was a fellow by the name of Barney Riggs. Riggs was the second husband of Annie Riggs, a mother of ten. In the wake of her second husband’s murder, she seemed to have thrown in the towel on matrimony and at the turn of the 1900’s bought a hotel situated across the street from the Grey Mule Saloon and the courthouse.

This former hotel is now the Annie Riggs Memorial Museum. The hotel sits up high in town and has wide porches front and back. Once guests at the hotel would relax on those porches catching the breezes to counter the west Texas heat. Visitors to the hotel would also enjoy the cool waters of Commanche Springs.

Entering the hotel through the front door there is a reception area. To the right of the reception area is the front parlor complete with piano. Today the parlor features a simply produced but compelling video on the history of Fort Stockton and Commanche Springs.

A guest would continue through the reception area to reach the dining room where guests would take their meals. The dining room has two doorways, one leads to the kitchen and a door to the right leads to an inner courtyard.

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Mrs. Riggs was known for her cooking. Looking at the kitchen today with its period pieces, it is hard to imagine the ceaseless hard work which must have gone into preparing three meals a day for her guests. In the height of the summer heat it must have been very uncomfortable to toil over the woodstove. As soon as one meal was prepared and served, it would be time to get started on the next. Biscuits and bread would be left to rise as pies were prepared and a roast cooked in the oven. I was tired just contemplating the toil and thought how much Annie Riggs would have loved to order out for pizza or chinese. That didn’t happen back then.

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The interior courtyard reached from the right of the dining room was the access point for the guest rooms. The guest rooms today feature exhibits of local historical items: collections of arrowheads, a safe, old typewriter and desk and pictures of local personages. The rooms are cool and dark and must have been a welcome respite from the hot sun and wind.

The courtyard today features a collection of old branding irons hung from the walls. Above each iron the mark has been burned into the wooden beam. It is an attractive and fascinating display. An old carriage sits in a corner of the courtyard.

Fort Stockton itself seems to suffer boom and bust cycles. Sheep and cattle ranching took hold in the early 1900’s. Those occupations were followed by the addition of oil and agriculture. Today the economy is focused on the chief west Texas occupations of oil and ranching. The vital life force that was Commanche Springs, which had been the reason the area was originally settled, is no more. In the 1950’s, despite local opposition, use of the springs for irrigation managed to dry the aquifer forever leaving only the dust, heat and west Texas wind as its legacy.

We enjoyed poking around the town, but we were ready to head west on Interstate 10 and our next adventure.

 

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