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Centuries of History

2011 April 2
by Jan Wilkinson

Centuries of History

By John Hallowell Mon, Oct 18, 2010

Menard has a century more history than most Hill Country towns, since the Spanish built a presidio here in the mid-1700s.

Menard has a longer history than most Hill Country towns; as far back as 1753, an expedition sent to explore the Apache territory found two excellent sites for a presidio near the San Saba River, and in 1755, another expedition searched for evidence of mineral wealth in the Menard area.

The first European settlement in the Menard area occurred in 1757, when an expedition financed by Don Pedro de Terreros, one of the richest men in Mexico, arrived April 19 to build a fort and a mission. The soldiers in the party were under the command of Don Diego Ortiz de la Parrilla; the priests were led by Father Alonso Giraldo de Terreros, cousin to the financier.

The fort (or presidio) was built on the north side of the San Saba River, just west of the present townsite. It was called the Presidio San Luis de Las Amarillas. About three miles downstream, on the opposite side of the river, the priests built the Santa Cruz de San Saba Mission.

The 300 Spanish settlers were very diligent in establishing their new home in the wilderness. Along with all the buildings, they built a dam on the San Saba River, and dug an irrigation ditch which diverted water from above the dam to the wide, fertile valley where the town of Menard now stands.

The land was inhabited largely by Apaches, and it was they who were the focus of Father Terreros’ mission. But unbeknownst to the Spaniards, a fierce tribe of invaders from the north, called Comanches, were about to descend upon central Texas, and the mission would bear the brunt of their invasion.

Less than a year after the establishment of the mission, 2,000 Comanche warriors surrounded it and burned it to the ground, killing Father Terreros and several others in the attack. The Presidio was not overrun, but its soldiers were helpless to come to the mission’s aid. Don Pedro de Terreros commissioned a mural to be painted in honor of his cousin, the martyred priest. It is the first known painting of a historical event in Texas.

Without a mission, the presidio was pointless, and although the Spanish replaced the original wood stockade with massive stone walls in 1761, it was abandoned in 1768. Over the next sixty years, only an adventurous few Europeans ever saw the impressive ruins.

One of those adventurous few was James Bowie, who visited the fort with his brother Rezin in 1829, and carved his name on the rock doorpost. Bowie’s curiosity had been aroused by a Lipan Apache chief named Xolic, who would bring considerable amounts of silver to trade at San Antonio once or twice a year. It seemed obvious to the enterprising young Bowie that there was a rich silver mine somewhere near Menard, and he was determined to find it.

Even though Bowie was newly married to Ursula Veramendi, daughter of the vice-governor, he joined the Apache tribe about 1830, presented Xolic with a silver-plated rifle, and led Apache fighting-parties against their enemies. According to legend, the chief showed Bowie the mine in 1831.

Bowie immediately deserted the tribe, returning to San Antonio to gather a force to seize the treasure. This aroused the enmity of a young Apache chief named Tres Manos (three hands wore an enemy’s severed hand on a cord around his neck), who led an attack on Bowie’s treasure-hunters on November 21, 1831. While Bowie had been warned by a friendly Comanche, and was able to hold off the attack, he retreated to San Antonio without any treasure.

Bowie’s family died during an epidemic while he was away, and the heart-broken adventurer turned to drink before famously dying at the Alamo. No one has ever discovered the fabled mines.

There wasn’t much activity in the Menard area during Texas’ time as an independent republic (1836-1845), but when the Adelsverein purchased land for German settlers, their Fisher-Miller grant included the southern half of Menard County. Few, if any, of the original German settlers ever made it to Menard.

One German who did visit the Menard area was Dr. Frederick Roemer. In his 1849 book called “Texas”, Dr. Roemer described his surprise at finding the ruins of quite an extensive building in the wilderness many days journey from the abode of civilized man. He was one of many who used the old presidio as a campsite in the century after it was abandoned.

William Huff was one of many Texans who headed for California during the gold rush of 1849. In his diary, Huff describes a stop at the site of the old Spanish mission, when his party stumbled across part of the old ditch and found artifacts left by the retreating Spaniards. He was well aware of the “lost mine” legends, having heard stories from a son of one of the original Spanish settlers.

In 1852, after Texas had joined the United States, the army established Camp San Saba in what is now western Menard County. It was soon renamed Fort McKavett after a hero of the Mexican War, and more than thirty limestone-and-cypress buildings were erected to accommodate several hundred soldiers. A town grew up around the fort, which provided protection from Indian attacks.

A new county named for Michel Branamour Menard (the founder of Galveston), was formed from part of Bexar County in 1858, and the county seat was a new town called Menardville, near the site of the old presidio. Threats of civil war interrupted the new county’s growth, and Indian attacks increased dramatically after Federal soldiers were withdrawn from Fort McKavett in 1859.

After the Civil War, Fort McKavett was staffed by the famous “buffalo soldiers”, and, mostly due to their presence, the county’s 1870 population of only 667 was nearly sixty percent black. They brought peace to the surrounding area, and Menard County began to grow during the 1870s. Menardville became the major commercial center for the area ranches and an overnight stop on several of the north and west cattle drive trails, including the Great Western Trail to Dodge City, Kansas.

In 1874, William J. Vaughan and a few partners rebuilt and expanded the old Spanish irrigation ditch beginning about five miles above the town and ending at a point about two miles below the town. In 1886, an engineer named Gus Noyes came from Maine, and bought the majority of shares in the project. He built a dam in 1890, and extended the ditch, watering the whole valley even in times of drought, and making Menard a major center of Texas agriculture.

By that time, the threat of Indian attacks was slight, and dozens of treasure-hunters devoted their lives to searching the hills and valleys around Menard County for the lost mines of the San Saba mission. Some tantalizing discoveries were made, but the mines were not found. N.H. Pierce, who wrote a history called The Free State of Menard in 1946, describes the search this way: “Men have disemboweled mountains, drained lakes and turned rivers out of their courses, hunting for the elusive silver.”

In 1884, a boy who would later become famous as the publisher of Frontier Times arrived with his family in Menardville. J. Marvin Hunter’s father taught schoolchildren in a two-story lumber building. Hunter later recalled living in a one-room rock house near the downtown area, which consisted of several stores, hotels and saloons. The First Baptist Church was a small lumber building with split-log benches. A race track was out near the cemetery.

Mrs. Luda Avery Johnston was a cultured southern belle from Alabama who married an army sergeant named Will Johnston in 1875, at the age of 16. They were stationed at Fort McKavett in 1879, and moved to Menardville in 1881, where Sgt. Johnston opened the Rock Saloon and became one of the town’s leading citizens. She recalled dances every Friday night in the second floor of the old courthouse, (later the Luckenbach Hardware store). Usually the music was from a lone violinist, but sometimes the band from Fort McKavett would perform.

N.H. Pierce eloquently recalled Menard’s early years in the foreword of the Menard history book: “Deeds of valor were so commonplace in those days as to go practically unnoticed; loyalty and sacrifices were routine and expected from all. Every day was a chapter, and every citizen was a maker, of history.”

The town’s first newspaper, the Menardville Monitor, was founded in the late 1880s, but as Menardville grew into a civilized little town, it was rocked again by the forces of nature. A terrible flood swept through the town in June of 1899, washing away bridges, stores, offices and homes. A photographer named Noah Rose, who had taken a hilltop picture of the town’s business district the previous New Year’s Eve, took another picture from the same vantage point during the flood; the contrast was horrifying.

But the town came back stronger than ever; the Bevans National Bank was founded in 1903, and the arrival of the railroad in 1911 turned Menard into a boomtown (the name was shortened around that time). The widow of famous Texas Ranger Captain Dan Roberts attended a reunion of Texas Rangers in Menard in 1924. She was much impressed with the changes in the town she remembered from years before. “We traveled from Austin to Menard by auto in a few hours, she recalled later. A trip that in the old days would require four days.”  She discovered a town of twenty-five hundred to three thousand inhabitants, with beautiful modern homes. During the 1930s, Menard continued to prosper despite the depression that affected much of the country, and the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt some of the walls at the ruins of the old presidio to create a tourist attraction at the historic site. Growth continued until Menard reached a peak population of 4,521 in 1940.

In the meantime, the search for silver went on. One of the most famous prospectors was Frank “Old Man” Mullins; he arrived at Menard in 1913, and spent the rest of his life (he died in 1945) hunting for the lost mine. Judge J.R. Norton, from San Antonio, was another. He retired from a successful legal career to search for silver in Menard County; his partner was Princess Wenonah, the descendant of a Comanche chief and friend of Will Rogers, who had toured the world as an actress, performer and snake charmer. The pair spent several years and thousands of dollars tracking leads from old stories. They, too discovered some tantalizing clues, including a Bowie knife, a gun barrel and a man’s skeleton (presumed to be one of Jim Bowie’s force who was killed by Tres Manos).

When the town was founded in 1858, Menard was originally known as Menardville. The town was a trading post and overnight stop on north and west cattle trails. In 1899, the San Saba River flooded the town but the community rebuilt. The town changed its name to Menard and built a new railroad depot when the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railroad companies made plans to come to town in 1911. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway discontinued its service to Menard in 1972 but donated the old depot to the county for use as a history museum.

A Chamber of Commerce brochure published around 1940 called Menard, a thriving little city surrounded by scenic wonders. At the time, Menard County was a major agricultural center, home to more than 300,000 sheep, 80,000 goats, 23,000 cattle and 2,000 horses and mules. The Santa Fe Railroad ran daily passenger trains and thrice-weekly freight service to handle the large livestock shipments from this point. The brochure boasted of broad, paved streets, and an abundance of shade and water, a beautiful, 2,000-seat athletic field fully equipped with lights, and the modern four-story, 60-room Hotel Bevans, widely known as a tourist’s and vacationer’s headquarters.

Menard has always been a very patriotic town. During World War II, it was reportedly second in the nation, percentage-wise, in the number of locals volunteering for military service. Agriculture saw a general decline in the long drought of the 1950s, but oil and gas were discovered during that time, and oil production reached a peak of 270,000 barrels annually during the 1960s.

While the legends of long-ago battles and lost silver mines were never completely forgotten, the exact location of the old Spanish mission had become a mystery during the middle of the 20th century. Numerous excavations failed to produce any conclusive evidence before 1993, when Mark Wolf, a San Antonio architect and a seventh-generation descendant of a Spanish servant named Juan Leal, who survived sacking of the mission, enticed a team of archaeologists from Texas Tech University to join in the search. The team found pieces of a Spanish olive jar in a recently-plowed alfalfa field, and began a large-scale excavation (led by professor Grant Hall) which turned up hundreds of artifacts. The team was able to pinpoint the locations of the walls of the old mission by finding soil stains left by wooden posts.

Two big events on Menard’s social calendar are the “Around the Campfire” event in April, where hundreds gather at the old “stock pens crossing” for a chuck wagon dinner and all sorts of western entertainment, and “Jim Bowie Days” in September, when the whole town (plus visitors) turn out for a community party to honor Menard’s most famous visitor under the pecan trees by the San Saba River bridge.   (Update: Jim Bowie Days is in May.)

In 2007, the town held a 250th-anniversary procession from the site of the old mission to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Menard, where notable guests (including the Spanish ambassador, the bishop of the San Angelo diocese and archaeologist Grant Hall) addressed a huge crowd at a memorial service for the martyred priests. While Menard has matured into a quiet, stable rural community, it still celebrates its storied past.

By John Hallowell

John Hallowell is the past editor of several Hill Country publications. He has been exploring the Texas Hill Country for almost 20 years.

Originally published online at the website.

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