By Robert F. Bluthardt
Site Manager, Fort Concho National Historic Landmark
Published November 2012
In the last 30 years of the nineteenth century, San Angelo, Texas, developed from a “whiskey village,” serving the soldiers of Fort Concho, to a thriving trade and commercial center, where 6,000 folks lived, worked, and, yes, played! We sometimes forget that the need for recreation, entertainment, and amusement is both timeless and universal. Our ancestors at Fort Concho and in our community made good use of the natural resources, available equipment and their imagination to provide a break from the daily chores and routines we might find unbearable in the modern age. These photos, selected from the fort’s large collection, cover some of that era’s amusements and diversions. Some remain with us, and some have faded away, but all reflect a truly different age.
- Before the lakes were created and small dams slowed down the waters, the three Concho Rivers ran freely, and fishing presented opportunities for recreation and a better meal. Early Fort Concho officers often made special day trips with their families for a day with rod and reel, and several early reports from the new post bragged of the many varieties of fish that could be seen in the clear waters. Lake fishing has overtaken river casting, but the time-to-time angler can still be found, even on some of the Concho's downtown stretches.
- Nothing says summer relief better than a jump into some cool waters, and when not fishing, the citizens of San Angelo often took advantage of a cool swim. This circa 1900 shot of a family or friends outing reflects the modesty of the age with the full body swim suits, and note how many are staring right into the camera lens. Another smaller group on the river bank prefer to watch.
- Like fishing, hunting was both a recreational activity and a way to bring fresh food to the table. An early Fort Concho officer marveled at the wide range of animals, large and small, that could be found in abundance. Post commander Colonel Grierson once remarked how many of his officers and excess of "hunting and fishing on the brain." Over time, the plentiful supply of all animals thinned or moved more distant from the growing city, but these two hunters had a very good day.
- Before television, movies, radio, and digital entertainment, there was reading, and for many families a century ago a quiet afternoon with a good book or the latest magazine meant a relaxing time well spent. The earliest Fort Concho soldiers and their families eagerly awaited the latest publications that came by irregular mail, and by 1904, when this staged photo portrayed the Ragsdale Family of San Angelo, regular rail service would bring all printed aspects of civilization to the town. M. C. Ragsdale, with his feet on the classic roll top desk, operated a photography studio in San Angelo for decades and many of his photos survive in the fort's archives.
- It was not the national sport a hundred years ago, but these 11 students at the Old Fort Concho Elementary School form a line of scrimmage. The school was one of the first four ward schools in San Angelo. Replaced in the late 1980s by a new school on the fort's southeast corner, Fort Concho School looked just like its surviving twins of the Reagan and San Jacinto campuses. Note the oval shape of the football, thus discouraging the passing game of a generation later
- These students at the original Fort Concho Elementary School seem gung ho to get going with a rough game of football.
- Baseball, or "base ball" as it was first spelled, dominated the sporting scene along with horse racing and boxing as the lead sports in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The first formal baseball games in San Angelo were held on the Fort Concho Parade Ground, as shown here with one of the fort's teams in front of Barracks 2 in the mid-1880s. The fort's team would play teams from other posts as well as teams from San Angelo. The city had several minor league professional teams from 1905 onward, and is now represented by the San Angelo Colts. And history repeats itself at Fort Concho as the site has created two 1800s-style teams that travel and play other such teams across Texas.
- The bicycle craze captured the nation in the 1890s, and San Angelo was no exception. This staged photo represents the San Angelo Wheelmen, a period bike club. The rock ledges of the Concho River create an impressive background for this serious group. Both the bikes and the horses in the top section would be left behind by the automobile craze a generation later.
- This inset from the Wheelmen photo shows the variety of people who dressed up and brought their then-expensive machines to the photography event, from little girls to well dressed dandies very proud of their two-wheelers.
- It is New Year's Day in San Angelo in 1895, and four citizens are going out to "make a call" in proper Victorian style, with a footman on a donkey. The four men--Eugene Moon, Ralph Harris, Gilmore Gwin, and a Mr. Moody--wear their best formal clothes with proper derby hats. While calling on friends has not gone out of style, we rarely dress at this level today and probably do not use a chauffeur.
- Games such as cards and dominoes were very popular a century ago, and many families had dogs, but few had pets who could play! M. C. Ragdale, whose family was viewed in a previous photo, obviously staged this shot. The fort's collection has many of his whimsical photos. Mr. Ragsdale does not seem to trust the dog's next move.
- This photo captured a very unusually clothed group of Fort Concho officers and their wives, dressed for a for a Valentine's Day masquerade ball. Mrs. Grierson wrote the details of the party to her son Robert who was studying far from home. On the military frontier at Fort Concho, before railroads better connected the post and town to the outside world, entertainment was both creative and homemade. Such amusements were often highly talented, and much of this region's first music, theatre, and general culture started with the post's officers, soldiers, and their families.
- While most meals a century ago reflected a higher level of formality and style than our thrice daily feeds, any holiday meal in the early 1900s was an occasion for the best in the food, attire, and setting. The fort officers and men went to extraordinary efforts to make a Christmas or major holiday meal a true feast with memorable settings and decorations. This San Angelo family appears to be ready for some serious dining!
- By the early 1900s the horse was rapidly pushed aside by the motorized car and truck for local transport of people and freight, but horses did not disappear from San Angelo. Polo developed as a very popular activity with many clubs, teams, and area ranches that specialized in the raising and training of polo ponies. This 1920s photo shows a women's team in San Angelo, posed in front of one of the Fort Concho soldiers barracks. The sport had a temporary return to the site in the 1990s, when Fort Concho hosted a fundraising event featuring a polo match on the Parade Ground.
- Music has always been a welcome diversion on the frontier, despite the rather pained expressions on these young faces. Posing on the steps of the old Tom Green County Courthouse, they represent many musical efforts in San Angelo that began with the regimental bands that played evening concerts at Fort Concho. A community band carried on that tradition, and music remains a lively and diverse staple of this city's modern entertainment scene.
Images are provided courtesy Fort Concho National Historic Landmark. For use or more information about visiting the living museum of Fort Concho, call (325) 481-2646, or visit www.fortconcho.com.