Among the most popular Hill Country destinations are towns defined by an ethnic history, such as the German heritage of Fredericksburg, Boerne and other picturesque destinations. Another option for exploring the Hill Country is to embark on a tour at the northern reach of the region, at Abilene’s Frontier Texas, and follow a stretch of the Texas Forts Trail. You don’t need to visit all nine historic sites to gain a sense of the intertwined narratives of 19th-century settlers, Native Americans, buffalo hunters and adventurers.
On my own foray to Frontier Texas, the last thing I expected was a herd of flying buffalo. But that is what I found when I stopped at this starting point of the 650-mile heritage trail that wanders through 29 counties. These eight steel bison weigh about 1,000 pounds each (400 pounds fewer than the flesh-and-blood version), run in place at the top of their 35-foot posts and turn so that their noses are always into the wind. “It’s the world’s largest wind vane,” says H.C. Zachry, the Abilene artist and advertising executive who designed the flying creatures, “265 feet from one end to the other.”
He enthusiastically describes the engineering marvels nosing into the wind then explains that a tour of the museum inside features stories delivered by holographic characters developed to capture historic personalities and interconnected narratives. “We focused on the period between 1780 to 1880,” Zachary says, “because after 1880, the railroad came through Abilene, and that changed the frontier completely.”
Frontier Texas recreates a historic fort. Architect Larry Good explained that when he and architect Bryce Weigand started on the project, they drew inspiration from the historic sites. “We visited Fort Richardson, Fort Belknap, Fort Phantom Hill, Fort Griffin, Fort Chadbourne and Fort McKavett.
“The sculptural chimneys that lead you up to the front door of Frontier Texas are based on the chimneys at Fort Phantom Hill,” Good says. “The chimneys are the only things left there.”
Fort Phantom Hill sits about 15 miles north of Frontier Texas, so it can be the first stop on your Forts Trail adventure. Fort Griffin is about 50 miles northeast of Fort Phantom Hill, and that drive offers the combination of the partially restored fort and a recreation of the historic town of Fort Griffin. This notoriously rough village included the Beehive Saloon, where Pat Garrett once tended bar. One of the holographic “spirit guides” in Frontier Texas plays the part of Garrett and retells the story of the night he shot Billy the Kid. Between the restored fort and the town, you’ll find a historic marker designating the site where Gen. Robert E. Lee met with Comanche leaders.
The historic sites, now mostly in ruins, can create a ghostly sense of the frontier experience. Some personal accounts say that contemporary visitors hear mysterious voices, the sounds of horses’ hooves or the jingle of spurs. Usually, the sounds more closely resemble the whisper of wind in the trees.
Back at Frontier Texas, museum director Jeff Salmon says that most visitors are those traveling from east to west, and the Abilene area is where they first see iconic Texas sights. “We try to remain true to the story and still provide entertainment—make an emotional connection,” he says. “We honor the past as best we can.”