Published November 2009
To the many people who drive by daily on South Oakes Street just south of downtown San Angelo, Fort Concho has been here forever, and in a way, they are right. The two dozen limestone buildings that surround the currently lush Parade Ground date from the late 1860s and 1870s, and they represented the first permanent structures and settlement in the region. In the years that followed, “Santa Angela” established itself as a “whiskey and sin” village across the Concho River to separate the soldiers from their monthly pay. Over the next 22 years, the fort and the town grew and prospered together, and both underwent many changes when the U. S. Army marched away fron Fort Concho forever in June 1889.
The arrival of a railroad connection in 1888 and a second, direct rail line in 1909, helped San Angelo grow into an agricultural and ranching trade center. The old post had new occupants as civilians took up the homes that the soldiers abandoned.
The Santa Rita oil boom to the west in 1923 brought vast wealth to the city and soon the community had a new city hall, county courthouse, movie theater, hotels, office buildings, churches and a new neighborhood, appropriately named Santa Rita. Much of modern San Angelo stems from that 1923 oil strike. Meanwhile, historic preservation of Fort Concho starts in the 1920s, with the dreams and vision of Mrs. Ginevra Wood Carson, an effort that continues today nearly 90 years later.
Today, Fort Concho is considered among the best preserved frontier forts west of the Mississippi, and the long effort to save and restore it is as old as those of nationally known sites like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Greenfield Village near Detroit. The fort board and staff have been guided by a simple premise to physically restore the post to its 1870s appearance, but make it serve the widest possible audience within the broadest level of public service and education. That expanded mission within the heart of a major West Texas city justifies the motto, “Not Just a Frontier Fort.”
Many might not realize that Fort Concho has been a western art, photography and sculpture center in recent years. Believing that history can be interpreted through artistic means, the fort has brought a wide range of special exhibits to the site. Mexican retablo art, Native American photography, sculptures of western cowboys and soldiers, and portraits of the “Cowgirls of the Rodeo” have all brought the American West to life with color and style.
Fort Concho has also interpreted the lives of the Mexican vaquero and the famed African American Buffalo Soldiers with sculptures and paintings. On a daily basis the fort has several Eddie Dixon western sculptures on display plus an impressive Clyde Heron painting of Ranald MacKenzie’s attack at the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. A 2011 photography display will cover the history of Women in Baseball.
Another lesser known part of the fort’s resources is its impressive library and archives—a collection of books, photographs, microfilm, military records, vertical files, magazines and journals, and original records. These materials cover western, military and pioneer history, plus the heritage of San Angelo’s earliest years. Included in the collection are the papers of architects, doctors, bankers and businessmen. Genealogists find family in the Bible collection, military records, census records and city directories. Authors, historians, archeologists and students all make use of the wonderful research resources residing at the fort.
Behind the scenes sits the Fort Concho Collections, a warehouse of thousands of artifacts reflecting several centuries of human activity. Pioneer dresses, colorful quilts, weapons, farm and ranching tools, period furniture, toys, household items and military uniforms represent 80 years of collecting, a process that never ends.
In recent years fort staff members have created one or two special displays taken from these holdings, a tradition that will continue for years as there is so much to show. The fort welcomes future donations of items that fit the western/pioneer themes as well as the collecting time period of 1850–1920.
Fort Concho is also lucky to have its own “Army,” a living history program that has grown to cover the heritage of the Infantry, Cavalry, Buffalo Soldiers, Artillery, and various ladies’ roles, including laundresses and officers’ wives. In addition to the human element, equines played a major role in the establishment of Fort Concho. The recent acquisition of a mule team, Mac and Joe, brings that aspect to life, and soon visitors will see the fort’s period wagons rumbling across the Parade Ground. Mac and Joe live in the fort’s Living History Stables, a modern facility dressed in period stone that serves the fort’s mules and volunteer cavalry unit.
Fort Concho’s “troops” maintain a very active schedule, covering 50 events and programs annually, with many out-of-town “campaigns” at other historic forts, community festivals, and heritage events.
Throughout the year, the fort offers a wide range of programs that go beyond the standard walking tour—and those are exceptional, too, with the guides dressed in period uniform or 1800s clothing. In March, guests can learn more about Victorian fashion and customs with the annual Frontier Ladies School, and in October, the guns will sound for the site’s yearly Artillery Training School. During the Wednesday lunch hours in April and September, a wide range of local heritage topics and current events are addressed in our Speakers Series. In the summer, children enjoy “Fun at the Fort” and try their hand at 1800s games and baseball, soldiering, Native American crafts, chuck wagon cooking, and quilting and sewing.
For over 30 years, Fort Concho has offered the Frontier School, a recreated 1880s school day, held in the Schoolhouse/Chapel. Area fourth grade students raise the flag with a soldier and may visit him in the barracks. They perform lessons with 1880s slate board; eat their lunches out of old lunch pails, and get their recess exercise with a game of “Annie Over,” a popular ball game of the day. Children, whose parents enjoyed the same program in its earlier days, now attend!
Holidays offer more opportunities for the fort to expand its reach with Buffalo Soldier Day in February, Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day in May, and National Museum Day in September, when the staff produces a special display taken from the site’s collections. The annual Archaeology Fair in October makes all history fun and “hands on” with a make-believe dig, ancient craft making, pictograph painting and the shooting of a replica 1800s bow.
The site’s two largest special events, Frontier Day in June and Christmas at Old Fort Concho in December, each transform the site into active and festive place for children of all ages. Frontier Day celebrates our region’s agricultural and ranching heritage with sheep dog demonstrations and sheep shearing—two activities the average city child never sees up close, if at all. A mobile dairy classroom covers the many steps that bring milk to one’s glass. A rope making machine always has a long line of young people willing to try their hand.
All of the officers’ quarters have displays covering a wide range of heritage topics, native plants, 1800s games, with a full pioneer kitchen operating in the rear of Officers’ Quarters 6. The Fort Concho Enterprise, an 1800s baseball club patterned after a real team from that age, plays a full game on the Parade Ground according to the rules of their day. Mounted cavalry troops ride about the site and the artillery booms every now and then. The whole day starts early with a Lions Clubs pancake breakfast, and that represents the only activity that has a fee.
As big as Frontier Day appears, the annual Christmas at Old Fort Concho weekend tops it in scale and duration. Created in 1982 as a holiday fundraiser for the fort, the event now covers all 25 buildings and 40-plus acres for an extended three-day weekend. Operated by more than 1,000 volunteers, the event hosts over 15,000 guests, some coming from a dozen foreign countries, 15 states, and several hundred Texas cities and towns. A hundred merchants and artisans fill the various historic buildings while others display their wares in authentic tents on the Parade Ground, offering some unique shopping opportunities. On-going entertainment, children’s programs, special exhibits, acres of living history camps and drills, and a food court make this a full-day commitment.
The fort is also a unique place for a meeting or private party, as it makes available eight buildings ranging in capacity from 50 to 600, with different interiors reflecting 1800s Victorian elegance to the simple and massive space of an old stables. The Parade Ground also receives steady attention from area trail rides that end at the fort. Local youth teams play football and baseball on the big field and neighbors walk their dogs at night. The fort encourages such after-hours visitors as the ghosts don’t seem to mind.
And what would an old fort be without a few ghosts? Edith Grierson, daughter of the post commander Benjamin Grierson, tragically passed away in the upstairs bedroom of Officers’ Quarters 1 on September 9, 1878, a victim of typhoid fever. Her ghost has been spotted by several guests. Lesser known but occasionally seen soldier ghosts have been reported in the barracks. It can get very peaceful on site at night and one’s imagination does wander!
For the future, Fort Concho expects to continue with its popular slate of programs and events, while it seeks to rebuild a few missing barracks, create a new Visitor Center, and bring the site back to its 1870s appearance. In a way, the fort fulfills a mission similar to its military founders 135 years ago, providing a public service for traveling guests as well as its local citizens. Fort Concho has always been a part of San Angelo, and thanks to many citizens with vision, the fort will be here in 2017 when it celebrates its 150th birthday.