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The Magical History Tour: Part II

Be a true Texan: Stop the car, get out and let curiosity be your guide on our state’s fascinating Heritage Trails

Editor’s note: In the second of two stories about stops along two of the 10 Texas Heritage Trails, join us as we visit Lampasas in the Hill Country Heritage Trail region, and Mason and the Fort McKavett State Historic Site on the Forts Heritage Trail. You can learn more about the Heritage Trails here. Find the May story about Marble Falls, Burnet and Longhorn Cavern here.

Some Texan I am. Long before writing this story, I had driven through Lampasas numerous times without stopping. I had heard that Mason is a mighty fine town but had never been there, and I didn’t know Fort McKavett existed. Just as I discovered with my visits to Marble Falls, Burnet and Longhorn Cavern, these places are rich with stories, fascinating and friendly people, preserved and refurbished remnants of the past and vibrant energy that shapes their present and predicts their future. When, after three days, I ended my whirlwind trip, I felt a renewed pride in my Texas heritage and a resolve to see more of my home state.

The dining, lodging and touring references are based on my personal experience, and are far from comprehensive. Visit the chamber of commerce in each town to get the full menu of options.

Lampasas

Once known as the “Saratoga of the South,” Lampasas was home to one of the most popular health resorts in Texas in the 1880s. People came to “take the water,” drinking and bathing in the sulfur water of Hanna and Hancock springs to cure what ailed them. The springs still flow, but the bathhouses have long since shut down, although visitors can see the remains of the Hancock Springs bathhouse and the original limestone pool built around Hanna Springs in the 1870s.

Today, Lampasas is again looking to its springs and natural resources for economic healing. Micky Tower, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, shows me a 17-acre spread traversed by Cooper Springs that’s being developed as a nature trail and bird and butterfly park. With the winter’s cooler weather and a little rain, the fields have recovered from the punishing drought of summer. Stretches of green with a backdrop of oak and pecan trees hint at a future open-air classroom or a peaceful path for long walks.

During the summer, the city sponsors Moonlight Swim Nights at the spring-fed pool in Hancock Springs Park. Tower says this event is growing and attracts swimmers from around the area, including Austin.

In town, be sure to tour the renovated Second Empire-style courthouse, where the grand old courtroom has been restored to its 12-foot ceilings with pressed tin, and the blocked tin wall panels duplicate the original 1884 pattern.

Go to the third-floor museum and check out the inner workings of the 1884 Seth Thomas clock in the courthouse tower. In the 1940s, the clock stopped. With original parts not readily available, its mechanical innards were replaced with an electric motor. In the 1980s, two local craftsmen, Major Dumas and J.M. Crumley, searched for replacement parts. What they couldn’t find, they machined themselves. Jeff Jackson of the Lampasas County Historical Commission points out the homemade pendulum, which he said was created from a fire extinguisher canister.

Through the work of Vision Lampasas, murals, sculptures and a downtown pocket park celebrating water are some notable projects that dress up the town.

Eat: I cap off my tour of Lampasas with dinner at The County Seat, a family-friendly restaurant on the square, featuring a varied menu and full-service dining.

Mason

I’m scheduled to meet my Mason contact at the Willow Creek Café on the town’s square. I stand just inside the door and try not to appear lost as I scan the diners, as if I would recognize someone I’ve never met. If this were a movie, the soundtrack would be a lonely, solo piano.

Finally, I approach a woman at the cash register and tell her who I’m looking for.

Change the tempo on that soundtrack and bring in the guitars and harmonicas. The cash register lady breaks into a big smile, and I’m now a guest. She knows just the person I’m talking about, and she’s on the lookout.

Fast-forward about 30 minutes, and I’m sitting around a table with a bowl of chili and my three new friends, fourth-generation Mason residents Patsy and Gene Zesch and Chamber of Commerce Director Kristi Nunez. I’m getting a crash course in Mason history, including the parts that some residents still only whisper about. Gene and Patsy’s families settled in Mason County in 1857. Patsy, dressed in a flouncy Western skirt and boots, talks about the long line of artists on both sides of the family. Gene’s hands are stiffened with arthritis now, but until recent years, he was the prolific creator of wood-carved caricatures of the American cowboy, sought after by collectors around the world, including Lyndon B. Johnson. Zesch’s cowboy prints appear on card racks across the country for the Leanin’ Tree line of greeting cards.

Nunez is a relative newcomer, having traded her job a few years ago as vice president of a Houston business for director of the Mason Chamber of Commerce. She has history in these parts, too, owing to spending summers here with a childhood friend.

The Mason stories swirl around me. It’s pointed out that a cut sandstone wall in the café was once part of nearby Fort Mason. When the fort was vacated after the Civil War, Mason citizens recycled the building materials. In effect, the heritage of Fort Mason is part of daily life, seamlessly incorporated into some of the very structures that define the town.

On a hill overlooking its namesake, Fort Mason stands perched like the sentry it was established to be in 1851. Today, the restored officers’ quarters are all that’s left, but the fort’s presence and heritage loom large in Mason. Frontier soldier re-enactor and guide Tommy Koepke is on hand to give a tour of the dog-trot-style building. Take note of the 1796 map denoting: “Great Space of Land Unknown.” One day that vast unknown space would be Texas.

A number of prominent generals, including Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee, trained at the Union fort. When the Civil War broke out, it was there that Lee decided his allegiance was with his home state of Virginia, and he joined the Confederacy.

Beginning in the 1870s, Mason was at the center of another conflict, the infamous Hoo Doo War, a blood feud—allegedly incited by a cattle-rustling incident—between German-speaking and English-speaking families that terrorized the town and countryside until it finally ended in 1902. (To learn more, read David Johnson’s book, The Mason County “Hoo Doo” War, 1874-1902.) It took more than 100 years for townspeople to talk openly about the Hoo Doo War, since many prominent descendants preferred to bury the infamous deeds along with their forebears.

These days, the biggest battle in town is on the football field, where the Mason Punchers perfected the plays that won them the 2011 Class 1A Division I state championship.

Mason’s town square shows off another facet of the town’s identity as a magnet for artists. Check with the Chamber of Commerce for a walking tour of the square and for a list of attractions, activities, accommodations and dining options.

Visit Gems of the Hill Country, where gemologist Diane Eames creates stunning jewelry from the state gem, the Texas blue topaz, which, in the Lone Star State, is found only in Mason County. Get your history fix at the Mason Square Museum, where you’ll see the largest light-blue topaz discovered in North America, right here in 1904. Visit Hinckley’s Country Store, an old-time variety store owned and operated by the mayor and his wife, who also own the Red Door Bed & Breakfast upstairs and are working on opening an antique shop next door. Stop by the Odeon Theater, which has been screening films since 1928 and is still in business as a movie house and performing arts venue. Just off the square, stop in and taste some award-winning selections at locally owned Sandstone Cellars Winery. In front of the Eckert Library, see the bronze statue of Old Yeller, commissioned to honor Mason-born writer Fred Gipson.

Eat: Willow Creek Café is a pleasant establishment on the square with a diverse menu, and Santos Taqueria is a small café with authentic Mexican fare and décor that makes you think you’re in a quaint Mexican village.

Sleep: I stay at the Gamel Guest House, just off the square. Built in 1869 by cattle baron John Gamel, the home has been lovingly restored by owners Patsy and Gene Zesch. Earlier in the day, I had purchased a copy of The Lucia Holmes Diary at the Mason Square Museum. Lucia and her husband, Henry, lived across the street from the Gamels. Their home still stands, a mustard-yellow cottage I can see from the kitchen window. The two couples were close friends, so the diary fills in the details of daily life in both households and interactions between the women and the men. But it is most valued for Lucia’s account of events that shook the town between 1875 and 1876, during the infamous Hoo Doo War. I read until I can’t keep my eyes open and fall asleep with images of Lucia Holmes and Catherine Gamel visiting over tea in this house more than a century ago.

Fort McKavett State Historic Site

You’ll think you’re in a time warp as you approach Fort McKavett, 23 miles west of Menard. The frontier base, constructed in 1852, was established to protect immigrants to California and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso military road from Comanche and Apache attacks. Today, just as it did then, Fort McKavett stands isolated, a village of 19 whitewashed, hand-cut limestone buildings—including a hospital, morgue, bakery, barracks, officers’ quarters and a school. From this windswept mesa, rocky scrubland stretches for miles, until it meets the distant hills. It’s easy to imagine a soldier standing sentinel, sweeping his field glasses along the horizon for signs of movement.

At the visitors’ center, formerly the fort’s hospital, a small but very well-organized and informative museum maps out the fort’s history. One exhibit notes an observation of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who came through Fort McKavett in 1876 and proclaimed it “the prettiest post in Texas.” Nearby settlers must have thought so, too. When the military left the fort for good in 1883, the settlers moved in and established a civilian community that remained until 1974.

My guide is Jay Wright, outfitted in the navy blue, wool uniform of a frontier soldier of the Second Regiment Dragoons. Wright grew up in the area and knows the story of this place and its characters as if he lived it himself. We talk about the kind of person who would voluntarily live this rugged and dangerous life. Wright says many of the infantry soldiers were running away from something, maybe the law, maybe a bad marriage, but probably debtors. The average soldier was about 5 feet, 5 inches tall, he tells me, as we enter a dormitory furnished with rows of narrow, cast-iron cots and little else. The officers’ quarters are more well appointed to accommodate wives and children; even so, there is only one bedroom, and a very small one at that. Period furnishings tell a story of small luxury: One upholstered and stuffed chair; one velvet bed cover; ruby goblets; pieces of china brought from the East; and an extra wall hook for a lady’s gown.

After the Civil War, companies of Buffalo Soldiers, African-American troops known for their bravery and tenacity in battle, were stationed here and fought in the Indian Wars. There are several stories about how the soldiers got their name, but the most popular one attributes it to the Native Americans who believed the soldiers’ hair resembled the sacred mane of the buffalo. Buffalo Soldier was thus a term of honor ascribed by their enemies on the battlefield.

Menard

My meandering comes to an end in Menard, where my only stop is for lunch at the Side Oats Café, named for Texas’ official state grass, sideoats grama. From a menu of imaginative entrées and side dishes, I choose a hearty and delicious grilled steak salad. Although I don’t linger, I drive away knowing I will come back someday. I want to hike on the 10-mile historic Ditch Walk, an irrigation ditch built by the Spanish in the mid-1750s, and visit the newly restored Presidio de San Sabá, established by the Spanish in 1757.

Happy Trails to You

As I head back to Austin, a little film reel of flashbacks plays in my mind’s eye. The tiny schoolhouse at Fort Croghan in Burnet. The old train depot in Marble Falls. The cold wind whistling through the soldiers’ barracks at Fort McKavett. Mason’s pretty town square. The surprise of Lampasas, with its murals and public art. Longhorn Cavern’s secret passages and shy creatures. As the images roll past, I can’t help humming to myself that lilting, cowboy farewell: “Happy trails to you … until we meet again.”

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Carol Moczygemba, executive editor