Thursday, April 29, 2010

Location Scout #1: Bandera

Mentally stripping away the changes wrought by the passage of time and the activities of humans is something I'm accustomed to doing by now, but there's no denying it's harder to do while driving than at any other time. So I pulled off onto the shoulder a couple of times, to birdwatch and make copious illegible notes (it'll be all right as long as I transcribe them soon enough) on soil characteristics, the succession of wildflowers, the smell of the air, insects and other fauna, and other things that my characters, picking their way down from the hills on horse and possibly camel-back, will have plenty of time to notice. I'll have to take care to remove some features - starlings and dandelions did not overrun the Texas countryside in 1864 - and add in others - the faunal assemblage would have been far more abundant, with butterflies rising at each step, and more diverse, including mustangs, bears, and panthers - but that's easy enough. The climate has also changed, but both 1863/64 and 2009/10 were unusually cold, long winters, and though we haven't had anything like the spring floods that hit the Hill Country and south Texas in late March 1864, I've been through enough floods to extrapolate.

From San Antonio proper to Helotes, the terrain beneath the asphalt and years of brush spread by domestic livestock and fire suppression is all open, rolling hills, at one time covered with rich nutritious mesquite grass and mottes of live oaks. Past Helotes, the Hill Country starts, high sculpted hills with cedar (as we call ash juniper) clinging to thin soil over limestone, cut by frequent creeks. The air, when you get far enough away from the internal combustion engine, has a distinct aroma, partly a generic "country" smell that anyone from Iowa would recognize, but with a spicy undertone that I don't think is the cedar, but might be. The term "spicy" is used by travel writers of the 19th century, too, so whatever generates it, it is native.

A picnic in Bandera's city park on the Medina River rewarded me with several cypresses plenty old enough to have been there when Len would have been. The bridge swallows in Bandera build rough pebbly nests not at all like the firm clay ones under San Antonio bridges, and I didn't see a single heron. Nor did I see any fish in the river, but one of the decaying cypresses had boards nailed on it that could most parsimoniously be explained as a seat for fishermen, and a dead alligator gar was washed up on a sandbank near the bridge, so I expect that was a function of the time of day.

The Frontier Times Museum has the virtues and the defects of the local museum. Founded as it was by J. Marvin Hunter, Bandera County's most dedicated historian and founding editor/publisher of Frontier Times, it is larger and more coherent than a lot of them, with a purpose-built building erected in 1930. History is literally built-in, with the fossil-studded central fireplace sporting a millwheel cemented into its mantelpiece: the very same millwheel that washed out of a mill on the Pedernales, that Mormon leader Lyman Wight saw in a vision and went out to retrieve. Not only that, but an Indian mano or grinding stone is inserted into the axle hole. Everybody in the county who had anything remotely interesting deposited it at the museum when they couldn't keep it anymore, from taxidermied animals to a huge collection of bells, from a comforter spun, dyed (with elderberries; a beautiful blue in a complex check pattern called "Snail Trail and Cat Track"), and woven at home to a shrunken head; from a Civil War era rag doll to a picture of John Wesley Hardin's corpse.

Therein, of course, lies the weakness; despite the general Western theme, a lot of "cabinet of curiosities" stuff (dressed fleas), exotic items, and personal-interest collections with little provenance are included. Not everything is labeled, and some of the labeling is inadequate, with "x number of years ago" and "very old" used instead of dates. The large collection of books is all under glass, which is just as well as most of them are falling apart; but that means if the title isn't clear and there's no label, or you can't tell which book a label refers to, you're out of luck. Still, it was possible to get a fair idea of what sort of books the pioneers of Bandera had available - lots of religious tracts, a tiny Iliad, Burns, McGuffey readers, arithmetic books developed in England and printed in New York, Luther Bibles and King James Bibles, Webster's Dictionary, a French book detailing the names, life stories, and associated flowers of each saint for each day of the year.

I saw first-issue Confederate money (I suspect that second issue money never made it as far as Bandera), shinplasters, and one-cent pieces from the 50s, but no Mexican gold or silver older than 1883. Oh, well, I can find books about that. Amasa Clark's camel-hair pillow is on display; so is the shawl which Annie Schickenden wore when she sang for the King and Queen of Prussia, and brought with her when she came to Texas in 1846. Where else would I see those?

I also brought in my Peterson and compared it to a taxidermy display of the birds of Mason County. (I guess there wasn't a Mason County museum when the person who stuffed these died and his grandchildren had to decide what to do with them; or maybe the taxidermist was a friend of Hunter's. You can't think to ask everything!) Now I know regional names for the lesser goldfinch (Mexican canary or Arkansas goldfinch), Bullock's oriole (Texas oriole), kestrel (blue darter sparrowhawk), and summer tanager (redbird). That Mexican canary answers a long-standing question. Wild-caught "canaries" used to be routinely sold in straw cages San Antonio markets, as pets, and I've always wondered what species this might be. So now I know!

Wonderful opportunities lie in the collection, as the staff will tell you. A diary sits in one case, written by some nameless person in New York in 1835-37. It was bought in an antique store in San Antonio in 1916, where it no doubt landed because it mentions the fall of the Alamo. I asked if it had ever been transcribed, and was told no, but not because they don't want it to be! Transcribing is hard, time-consuming work and volunteers can only do so much. If I ever write a story set in that time period, and no one has gotten to it, I may do it myself; until then, I can't spare the time from the rest of my life. She's hoping to lure a graduate student into the job.

The sole staff member on duty that day, whose name I'm afraid I never asked (she never asked mine either, but I don't think that makes us even because I doubt she's blogging about me), was extremely helpful. She took the rag doll, fragile as it was, out of its case to be photographed, and she knew where "the Slide-off" is - the hill where, do what they would, the shingle-makers who founded the town always lost the top of their load when they took their shingles in to San Antonio to sell. She also gave me directions to the oldest building in town, currently under renovation.

Huffmeyer's Store on Main claims to be the oldest, but it wasn't built until 1874, and a block beyond is 11th street, the actual first street in town. I took a picture of a real estate office which claimed to have been built in 1860 and operated as a home, store, school, and first bank in Bandera (banking was illegal in Texas until Reconstruction; this explains much of our economic history); but the oldest building in town stands at the corner of Cypress and 11th. It's a limestone building with a gallery, once covered with a coat of stucco, and currently in the revealing disarray of restoration. It looks to me as though its two rooms were built at two different times - the limestone blocks are different - and with the stucco mostly worn off and windows glassless you can see, even from the street, how the wooden frames were fitted and the windows arranged to catch the breeze. Across the street is a sharp drop-off into a lot full of trees and cedar waxwings; beyond that lot, I almost immediately came to the tourist cottages on the edge of the park where I picnicked. The builder chose the best spot in town - a view of what would have been the ford of the Medina, but well out of the flood plain. Our Texas summers would have been relieved by the position of the house and gallery relative to the prevailing breeze, while the northers would have been closed out with shutters and the thick stuccoed limestone blocks. Who needs central heat and air?

At the library, a beautiful well-designed building, they told me that the historical marker I'd failed to find as I came into town was Polly's Chapel, and it was well off the main road. I had turned back when I drove for a while on a road that got ever narrower, thinking I'd missed the marker and was heading into somebody's ranch; and they said you did feel that way getting there, and to just keep going. So on the way back I tried again.

If I had known in detail what the route was like, I probably wouldn't have gone; and wouldn't that have been a shame? If you are ever in the Bandera vicinity and want to visit Polly's Chapel, you should turn off at the Historical Marker sign, on Privilege Creek Road. Follow Privilege Creek Road, at 30 MPH or less, through all its many lane-and-a-half windings, being prepared to pull over and creep past any of the people who live back there on their way out. Be polite and wait your turn at the narrow bridge over Privilege Creek - watch for killdeer. Drive right on through the cattle guard at the sign that warns: "Loose livestock" and onto the gravel road. If you don't mind the dust you raise (the slower you go the less dust) this is a beautiful stretch of road, parallelling the creek, which at this point is lined on the opposite bank with steep limestone cliffs. The first fork you come to won't confuse you as it will have a sign saying "Polly's Chapel" pointing straight over the ford.

Yes, you will have to drive through Privilege Creek. Don't do this if the water is at all high! Moby has a low undercarriage, but we got through all right. On the other side you'll soon come to another cattle guard, and right past it there's another sign for the Chapel, pointing you to a two-rut road with a slight grade on one side and cedar and live oak scrub all around. If you meet somebody coming out, one of you will have to back up. That's all there is to it.

But the chapel clearing is beautiful and peaceful (except for the sound of destruction equipment beeping and roaring somewhere - the terrible thing is that the country is so beautiful, everybody wants to live there, but they can't live there without dragging the city after them), and the chapel itself is a tiny gem. Policarpo Rodriguez, one of the most interesting men to ever live in Bandera County, built it himself out of limestone blocks after he got religion of the Protestant kind in 1878. The date on the cornerstone is 1882, too late for me; but that's okay. It's in use today, with electricity, an acoustical tile ceiling, picnic tables, and a garden-shed-sized restroom building out back. Lots of tempting trails lead into the live oak/cedar brush, but I restrained myself and did a single circuit of the clearing. Most of the birds eluded me, as they always do in this sort of terrain; but that's all right. The birds are an excuse to go to places like this. One bird I thought was going to be a mocker showed me a head like a chickadee, then vanished, so that's my big birding mystery for the trip.

I saved one shot in the disposable camera (I'd have a digital one by now if I hadn't driven into that light pole) to take the view from the Slide-Off; but when I got there I didn't think it wise to stop. Another time, perhaps. After all, I might not even use this location.

Next week, if all goes well, I'll scout Medina County.

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