Some events are so special that they only happen once every fifty years. In 1968, Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie drove the entire Texas Forts Trail in just two days. Over the weekend of Oct 4-6, 2018, we replicated that memorable trip with our own caravan. Now, we took two and a half days to complete ours, and it was indeed a trip I will never forget – the caravan was a blast! Lucky for you readers out there, I’m going to recap our fantastic trip along the Trail!
Day One: Starting off in Abilene at the amazing Frontier, Texas!, a Caravan Rally commemorated the big day with comments and presentations by Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams, Taylor County Commissioner Chuck Statler and State Representative Stan Lambert. Then at 9 a.m., two vans and 10 cars all bearing Forts Trail Flags took off for Fort Phantom Hill just north of Abilene. Fort Phantom was a great first stop to get our trailblazers feet wet and make sure everyone was ok. We heard about the history and mysteries of the Fort from a living historian who was dressed as a soldier from the time of the post. A neat tidbit of info about Phantom is that it was actually never officially named Fort Phantom Hill that name came to it over time. Instead soldiers in the day referred to it as the Fort on the Clear Fork of the Brazos.
Then we were off to Fort Griffin State Historic Site. The site’s assistant manager and interpreter were in period dress and provided a quick overview of the fort and the town of Fort Griffin that developed just beyond the post. Next, we heard from the herd manager about the State’s Longhorn Herd and the Great Western Cattle Trail. Yummy snacks were available including Dutch oven biscuits which were gone before you could blink! We had the opportunity to hitch a ride on a golf cart and quickly explore the Fort. On our way out, we were bid adios by longhorns, which are such majestic creatures. The last weekend in June is the best time to visit Griffin because the town of Albany hosts the Fort Griffin Fandangle! The oldest and largest outdoor musical in the state of Texas portraying the history of Fort Griffin in a comical manner that has lasted generations!
Next stop was the beautiful Fort Belknap in Young County (near Newcastle and Graham). The very knowledgable site manager Jim Hammond and a group of re-enactors greeted us with authentic cannon fire. Before the civil war Belknap was the northernmost fort in the state of Texas. As well the Goodnight-Loving Trail started at Belknap. We enjoyed a boxed lunch underneath the oldest and largest grape arbor in the state of Texas.
Next stop: Fort Richardson State Park and Historic Site. As it was with all of these places, there is so much to see at Richardson that we didn’t have time to take it all in. We were able to tour the Interpretive Center and hear several stories from the days when the post was active. I did manage to quickly tour the officer’s quarters and the post hospital, which is a little spooky after hearing some of the stories about it. Fun fact: in its heyday, over 800 loaves of bread were baked each day for the soldiers stationed at Fort Richardson!
Making our way down the Trail we of course had to stop in Mineral Wells for some Crazy Water at the Famous Mineral Water Company. Having heard the benefits of their magical water I even bought some. In the 1920’s Mineral Wells was a boom town; people traveled from across the country to Mineral Wells believing the water had magical healing properties. This stop is a must for any traveling Texan. Finally reaching Brownwood around 6:30 pm, we had a delicious dinner catered by Underwood’s BBQ in the restored railroad depot. The Chamber of Commerce offices on the first floor of the restored Harvey House; the second floor houses an exhibit on the Harvey Girls and Brownwood’s legendary coach Gordon Wood. Although it was “after hours,” we were able to take in these sites plus tour the Lehnis Railroad Museum just across the street before checking into our hotel and getting some much needed rest for day two!
Day Two – Starting the day off bright and early at the Brownwood Railroad Depot, we were greeted by locals with coffee and donuts. Where I quickly knocked over and spilt the entire coffee canister – but that’s a story for another time! Hitting the road again, our first stop was hosted by the Brady McCulloch County Chamber of Commerce at Brady’s Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, which is a great stop for any country music fan! As a die hard old country music buff, I was stoked to tour Jim Reeve’s tour bus! After that little excursion we were off to Fort Mason.
The town of Mason is simply beautiful and the view from Fort Mason is absolutely stunning! The Fort sits atop a hill with a wonderful northern view overlooking downtown Mason. I could have sat on their back porch and taken in the view all day. Fort Mason has really great replicas of rooms filled with period furniture and artifacts that you can explore. Fred Gipson, the author of Old Yeller, grew up around Mason which explains why one of the favorite photo spots is with a bronze of Old Yeller in front of the Eckert Library. The premier of the Old Yeller Disney movie was held at the local – and still operating – Odeon Theatre in 1957.
Our next stop was at a “presidio” – a Spanish fort! The town’s mayor, the county judge, re-enactors and a Comanche Indian in the tribal wear of his ancestors enthusiastically welcomed our group. The Presidio de San Saba sits just outside of Menard and was the largest fort built in Texas by the Spanish. To me, the Presidio actually resembles an old castle. I wouldn’t be lying if I told you I ran around the ruins pretending that I was indeed in a castle. (All my childhood dreams of living in a castle came true!) The Lazy Ladle catered a delicious chicken fried steak lunch with all the fixings and with full stomachs we were back on the road trying not to fall asleep!
Next up Fort McKavett. Upon your arrival at this post you can see why General Sherman said Fort McKavett was “the most beautiful post in Texas”! The Fort is in a beautiful rural location and the white-washed buildings are lovely against the bright green grass and blue skies. Much of McKavett has been preserved so there is a ton to see; I went exploring on a golf cart didn’t see half of it! They even have a “Dead House” behind the hospital I will let you guess what that was used for.
Finally, our last stop for day two was at Fort Concho NHL in San Angelo. Fort Concho is almost completely intact so you really get a feel for how a Fort was really set up during its prime. Once again we had the earth shaking experience of watching cannon being fired! Plus, we were able to talk with infantry and cavalry and Buffalo Soldier re-enactors . One gentleman in particular gave a powerful talk about what it would have been like to be serve as a Buffalo Soldier.
For dinner that evening, we were hosted by the Fort’s board and the San Angelo Convention & Visitors Bureau. Special welcome was given by City Councilman Harry Thomas, County Commissioner Rick Bacon, and Cheryl Decordova from State Representative Drew Darby’s office. We had my favorite dinner – fried catfish with sides and homemade banana pudding. Following all the wonderful West Texas hospitality we had experienced, once we settled into our accommodations, I’m sure every one of us quickly fell asleep!
Day Three – Once again we gathered for our early morning Caravan Rally! On this third and final day we met at the Fort Concho stables where we got to meet Betty and Barney – the Fort’s two adorable mules!
Our last, but certainly not least, fort to visit was Fort Chadbourne near Bronte. The fort has been independently owned for eight generations now. They have an amazing visitor center and museum that houses over 500,000 artifacts from the fort’s grounds. Not only does Fort Chadbourne tell a story of the military on the frontier, but also tells about Indians, the Butterfield Stage, ranching, and Medal of Honor recipients and it honors Blue Star Families. There was so much to see at Chadbourne, but probably the most interesting to me was the “in one of the quarters the walls are filled with names of soldiers who had carved their names over their time spent at the Fort. It was amazing to see that still there.
Our final stop was at Perini Ranch steakhouse in Buffalo Gap. This place is a must for anyone who loves good food! We had a great fajita lunch, and then said our goodbyes to one another. Everyone then headed out off to their respective parts of Texas filled with a experience that cannot be replicated.The 50th Anniversary Forts Trail is a event that I am so grateful I got to be apart of. Going to places where so much history has taken place is a great feeling!