Closing a Fort, Preserving a Memory: Private Power and Public Initiative in Fort Davis, 1890-1941
When thenSenator Redfield Proctor alighted from his stagecoach in Fort Davis in the late 1880s, he observed a community and post whose future neither he nor they could predict for the coming century. At the time the chairman of the U.S. Senate Military Affairs Committee, Proctor wanted to see for himself the value of retaining Fort Davis in the post-Indian wars age. Carlysle Raht, author of The Romance of Davis Mountains and Big Bend Country (1918), interviewed people who remembered the eastern senator's visit a generation earlier. Wearing a top hat and frock coat more appropriate for the halls of Congress than the streets of west Texas, Proctor ignored the fact that, in the words of Raht, "up to this time, the Government had been installing modern conveniences, such as bath tubs and plumbing, in the post buildings." The Vermont senator instead "found a very dry desert country, upon which he pronounced the verdict of 'no good."' Since no other of Proctor's colleagues would visit Fort Davis before voting for its abandonment, the town and surrounding Davis Mountains would lose the steady funding, prestige, and security that the Army had provided for nearly five decades. 
Thrown upon its own resources, the community of Fort Davis spent years weaning itself from the cycle of dependency that military spending created in the American West. The presence of the U.S. Army had opened the land for Anglo settlement. In addition, the purchase of beef, foodstuffs, and services for the officers and men of the fort brought steady wages at national rates; money that the thinly populated Davis Mountains could not have generated internally. The circle of ranchers around Fort Davis, whose economic and political power would grow with the absence of federal authority in the early twentieth century, might not have prospered amid the excellent grazing conditions that the mountains offered: good water, temperate climate (easily twenty to twenty five degrees cooler in summer than the surrounding Texas southern plains), and the black grama grasses that gave nourishment to cattle. Thus the forces of nature that had attracted Indians centuries before worked again to sustain the Anglo population, although the dynamics of power would shift from public to private initiative as the decades of the twentieth century progressed.
T.E. Fehrenbach, longtime historian of Texas, wrote about the meaning of the cattle business to west Texas, and its related impact upon race and class differences in the Lone Star state. "Texas, because of the Civil War," said Fehrenbach, "the interminable frontier, and the problems of the arid western half, was about two generations behind the dominant Northern tier of states in social trends and developments." These conditions of history, economics, and environment created "a tendency for the large cattle ranches of the 1870s and 1880s to consolidate and grow much larger in the next decades." Yet limited access to transportation and communication networks that crisscrossed the nation restricted the pace of change in far west Texas. Given this isolation, said Fehrenbach in his book Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (1985), "the whole history of Anglo-Texas was a history of conquest of men and soil, and with the closing of the last frontier no such powerful thrust and impetus could merely die." 
What separated Texas, especially its rural plains and mountains, from other parts of the nation was the rise of the urban-industrial society on the East Coast and around the Great Lakes. Ironically, refugees from the social and economic problems caused by that shift from farm to city in the late nineteenth-century found in the Davis Mountains a sanctuary from crime, violence, disease, and stress resulting from the rush to develop America's resources. These competing perspectives of agrarian and urban life would persist in the Davis Mountains throughout the twentieth century, even as local interests sought consensus on the creation of the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Had it not been for cities, there would have been no markets for the cattle that Texas ranchers produced. Had it not been for eastern investors, there would have been no capital to purchase land, stock, and hire labor on the great Davis Mountain ranches. Had it not been for wealthy tourists and "lungers [victims of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments]," there would not have been the sophisticated gentry who promoted preservation of the town and its abandoned military post. And had it not been for the federal government, there would not have been the means to recapture the history of old Fort Davis for future generations to visit and admire.
It is ironic that the story of Fort Davis and its surrounding area has not been told from this angle; a phenomenon that reflects as much the maturing of the history of America (and of Texas) as it does the avoidance or denial of local citizens to delve into their storied past. A statistical analysis of the nation and of Jeff Davis County reveals patterns of economic and ethnic reality that influenced the work of Fort Davis boosters, as well as officials from the National Park Service who came several times into the Davis Mountains to weigh the merits of the area's history. What emerges are the similarities and differences between west Texas and the nation, as evidenced by Fehrenbach's contention that the Lone Star state lagged one-half century behind the country in economic and social evolution.
The last time that the U.S. census bureau sent enumerators to Fort Davis while its military post remained active was the fateful year of 1890, when Frederick Jackson Turner realized that the statistical "frontier" had "closed." The Wisconsin professor wrote that a lack of open and free land would halt the American sweep across the continent; a phenomenon to which he ascribed the nation's sense of democracy and opportunity. Turner's generalizations about this statistic ignored the fact that two-thirds of all people west of the Mississippi River in 1890 lived in communities of 2,500 or more (hardly "rural" by nineteenth century standards), or that only eight million people resided in the entire West. This created the anomaly that historian Gerald D. Nash called an "oasis civilization," which he described as people gathering in large urban centers and avoiding the isolation, distance, and harshness of the rural West. 
Numbers mean little without evidence of human interaction and purpose. Yet statistics for Jeff Davis County (created in 1887 out of the vast Presidio County that stretched to the Rio Grande) reveal the scale of land, and the limits of human habitation, that left the Davis Mountains outside Turner's thesis of a "lost" West. In 1890 the county had 1,922 square miles (which would expand by 1930 to 2,263 square miles). Its total population was 1,394 (a density of three-quarters of a person per square mile), of whom 558 were women and 836 were men; a ratio not uncommon in military communities surrounded by ranches (both of which were populated primarily by men). In terms of racial and ethnic backgrounds, Jeff Davis County in 1890 had 37 blacks still remaining, despite the departure five years earlier of the black Army units, which had secured the Davis Mountains for Anglo control. Far more prominent were Hispanics, whom the census had yet to differentiate statistically (this would not occur systematically until 1970). Under the category of "foreign born," Mexico claimed 270 residents of Jeff Davis County, with other countries only in single figures. Native-born Hispanics were identified as "white" for census purposes, although that would not be the social definition in Texas or the Davis Mountains. 
Starting in 1900, patterns of change and continuity without the influence of the Army became quite apparent in the census data. The county's population fell 17.5 percent (to 1,150), while the state of Texas grew 36.4 percent (to three million). Nearly all of Jeff Davis County's decline came among "whites" (down from 1,352 in 1890 to 1,107 in 1900). Blacks increased to 43 that year, and more striking was the rate of black literacy. Two-thirds of black adult males were literate in 1900, while only 48 percent of Anglo and Hispanic males could read and write. The overall male-female ratio had also closed by then, with the county having 642 men and 508 women of all ages. Family size had also grown to 4.4 persons, a figure still less than the Texas average of 5.1 members in a statistical family. 
What these numbers seemed to reflect was the natural decline of the Davis Mountains population base caused by the closure of the post, along with the stabilization of sex ratios, family size, and balance of ethnic groups brought to the area by military service and support. But the emergence of the cattle kingdom mentioned by Fehrenbach also accelerated in the early twentieth century, as families expanded their acreage and their power in the community. Lucy Miller Jacobsen and Mildred Bloys Nored, authors of Jeff Davis County, Texas (1993), noted how "after 1880, Southerners moved into Jeff Davis County to challenge the northern, Republican, federal influence" created by the fort. "Jobs at Fort Davis became progressively scarce" in the 1890s, as the national economy sank with the Panic of 1893. "Many Hispanic families," said Jacobsen and Nored, "as well as others, moved to Shafter to work in the mines," while railroad construction around Alpine and Marfa drew still more Fort Davis families and individuals. Sealing the fate of many was Mother Nature, which in 1891 brought "an exceedingly dry year followed by a bitter winter." 
The same aridity that contributed to what local rancher Clay Miller called in 1995 the "highly cyclical" nature of the west Texas cattle business, provided a haven for urbanites with respiratory illnesses, and also for east Texans who contracted humid-climate diseases like malaria. Jacobsen and Nored spoke of the arrival in the 1890s of "health seekers," whose physicians prescribed the dry air and high altitude of places like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado. When these patients and their families came to the Davis Mountains, they found few accommodations for their indefinite recuperation. The grounds of the fort thus became their lodging, where the "lungers" shared space with Hispanic families who could not afford housing in town, and with "expectant mothers [from surrounding ranches who] waited out their terms there with friends or relatives." For a time a recovered tuberculosis patient, William Pruett, built a tent sanitorium five miles north of the fort, and also housed lungers' families in tents east of town. Health care thus created economic opportunity in the Fort Davis area, as did the arrival after 1900 of people whom Jacobsen and Nored called "the wealthy of pre-air conditioned Houston and Galveston [who] discovered Fort Davis as a summer retreat." They built expensive homes with wide, screened porches along Court Street, hired servants from the surrounding area, and created a life that the locals referred to as "Millionaire's Row." 
More evidence of this stability in the Fort Davis community came in the late 1880s, when ministers of several Protestant denominations came to the Davis Mountains to preach to the soldiers, their families, and the ranching community. The most prominent of these was Dr. William B. Bloys, born in Tennessee in 1847 and a graduate of the famed Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Reverend Bloys and his wife first came to Coleman, Texas, where for nine years he ministered to that rural community. In 1888 he too came to the Davis Mountains for his health, spending 29 years as the representative of the Presbyterian faith in the area. Because he had no church at first, Reverend Bloys used the chapel at the fort, and because he had no congregation he rented a buckboard and rode around town inviting children to Sunday school and adults to the service. Indicative of the multiracial character of Fort Davis was the receptive audience that Bloys found among Hispanics, whom the minister reached through the translations of Robert Fair, a black veteran who remained in town after the departure of the black units and who served as custodian of the post in the early 1890s. Equally important was Bloys' outreach to ranching families with his annual summer campmeeting, which served as much a function of social gathering as it did religious instruction and worship. 
It was people like Bloys who set about to change the character of the town of Fort Davis, and to adjust the community to the departure of the military. In a story written in 1963 entitled, "History of the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Davis, Texas," the unidentified author called Fort Davis in the 1880s "a lawless frontier town." Among the forces contributing to "its unsavory reputation" were "the vast distance from centers of civilization," the "general turbulence and disorder of the post-Civil War days," the unruly garrison of Negro soldiers," the "recent arrival of cattlemen and other pioneers, many of them literally a law unto themselves," and most distressing, "the presence of nine wide-open saloons!" The Presbyterian church took credit years later for the "steady and persistent influence" that brought "gradual change to a law-abiding community." By imparting piety and rectitude to the area, the Protestant ministers also changed the social and racial dynamics of Fort Davis, in ways that could be seen statistically and anecdotally by the early twentieth century. 
The most dramatic demographic change of the early twentieth century came with the departure of black citizens by the 1920s. Even though Jeff Davis County had fewer than two persons per square mile in 1910, the population had rebounded by 46 percent (to 1,678) There had been a decline of nearly one hundred people from "Precinct 1," which encompassed the town of Fort Davis. Yet the western side of the county (Precinct 4), including the ranching areas and the new railroad center at Valentine, had grown from 62 people in 1900 to 606 a decade later, increasing by a factor of ten. The number of blacks grew slightly from 43 to 47, and were now divided by the census enumerators between the category of "black" (12) and "mulatto," or mixed (35). This made the county four percent black, while the state of Texas was 17.7 percent black that year. Of the foreign born, 292 came from Mexico, and only 15 from Germany (the largest European producer of immigrants). Indicative of the county's deviation from national standards, however, was the statistic on education. Whereas the nation pushed for compulsory attendance under the directions of Progressive reformers like John Dewey, only 44 percent of all school-age children in Jeff Davis County were in attendance in 1910 (by comparison, five of the county's seven black children went to school). 
Jeff Davis County changed yet again in the turbulent years of 1910-1920, with the international crisis of World War I creating both opportunities and problems for community maintenance. Farmers and ranchers nationwide were encouraged to "plant from fence to fence for national defense;" a reference to food production for consumption at home and in war-torn Europe. Yet the need for manpower in uniform drew away able-bodied youth everywhere, with many not to return to their rural roots. These factors joined in Jeff Davis County with the outbreak in 1910 of the Mexican Revolution, which was marked by the threat of violence (both real and imagined), and the flight of Mexican citizens northward across the border to seek shelter and employment in American industry and agriculture. This volatility would result in the loss of nearly 12 percent of the county's population (to 1,445) from 1910-1920. Most striking was the departure of blacks, down from 47 to eight (a loss of 87 percent). Illiteracy rates more than doubled from 9.6 percent in 1910 to 20.9 percent in 1920, with white illiteracy at 11.6 percent and foreign born (primarily Hispanic) at 50.8 percent. 
Driving this demographic change, and hence the lifestyles of Jeff Davis County residents, was the expansion of large ranches in the Davis Mountains. In 1900 the census bureau had found 48 farms and ranches; in 1910 this had nearly doubled to 91. By 1920 the number had receded by almost one-third, to 62. Thirty-eight of these farms and ranches (over 60 percent) were 1,000 acres or larger, while only ten (16 percent) were 100 acres or less. The average size of these ranches (large and small alike) was 14,958.9 acres, with average dollar value in 1920 at $7.625 million (double 1910's amount of $3.73 million despite fewer farms and ranches). Most revealing of the concentration of power in the hands of large ranchers by 1920 was the total value of cattle: $2.36 million of the $2.42 million (or 98 percent) for all agricultural production in the county. 
The decade of the 1920s was marked nationwide by the statistical "victory" of urban areas over the historical dominance of rural America. For the first time since the census was taken in 1790, cities possessed the majority of all residents (52 percent to be exact). The political power of rural legislators was thus in jeopardy, as the U.S. Constitution dictated apportionment of congressional representation based upon percentages of population. Because rural interests did not want to surrender power to their city cousins, they blocked for the only time in history the reapportionment of congressional districts, so that they would not be outvoted in the nation's capital. Other manifestations of the rise of urban America were the car culture, the entertainment industry (especially Hollywood and the movies), and cultural interaction between blacks and whites in American cities (at once accommodationist and separatist with the coming of the "Jazz Age" and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan).
From 1920-1930, Texas grew at a pace equal to that of the nation (24.9 percent). This decade saw the rise of urban Texas, with all its attractions and temptations. In Jeff Davis County, the pattern was mixed, as the first five years of the "Roaring 20s" witnessed dramatic migration from outside. The accessibility of the county by car, the open space, and the improved national economy led the county to grow overall by 24.6 percent (nearly the state and national average). Precinct 1 (the town of Fort Davis) grew by 200 people (to 912, or 28 percent). For the first time in the census, the federal government in 1930 tried to enumerate Hispanics separately from "whites," calling them "Mexicans;" a term that many would repudiate because of the pejorative use of the word by Anglos in the Southwest, and one which the census bureau would discard thereafter until the 1970 enumeration. Yet because of that momentary usage, Jeff Davis County was found to have 1,046 people of "other races," mostly Mexican, for a total of 58 percent Hispanic, 40 percent white, 1.1 percent black (20 people, of whom 18 lived in Fort Davis), and the rest from other nationalities. 
This growth rate, and its concomitant ethnic dimensions, contributed to the rise in illiteracy in the county (up to 30.7 percent from 1920, or an increase of one-third, even faster than the population growth rate as a whole). For native whites, the rate was less than one percent, making nearly the entire increase a function of Hispanic migration. Ten of the fourteen black adults were also illiterate, and nearly all worked in categories of common labor or domestic service. The primary reason for this continued disparity in income and race was the expansion of local ranches, up nearly 30 percent from 1920 (to an average of 18,256 acres). Over 97 percent of all county land (1.784 million acres) was in pasturage in 1930, and nearly 98 percent of that (1.773 million acres) was on ranches of 5,000 acres or more (a doubling of large ranches since 1920). One quirk in the farm and ranch statistics from 1920-1930 was the short-lived attempt of small owners and tenants to gain a foothold in the Davis Mountains. The census bureau analyzed the health of the agricultural economy in mid-decade, and found that the number of county farms and ranches had more than doubled (from 62 to 128), with farm/ranch size shrinking seven percent (to 13,484 acres). Total farm value grew by more than a factor of three in those five years (from $5. 161 million to $16.778 million), with the average farm or ranch in Jeff Davis County in 1925 worth nearly 60 percent more than 1920 ($131,079). 
The prosperity of the Twenties did not continue, either nationally or in the Davis Mountains, as the collapse in 1929 of the New York stock market resonated throughout the economy in the desperate years of the Great Depression (the 1930s). Across the country, the value of agricultural production fell over 50 percent, stock prices dropped nearly 90 percent, and by the winter of 1932-1933 the adult unemployed population stood at 33 percent (with an additional 33 percent listed as "underemployed" with fewer hours, wages, or both). Jeff Davis County would suffer along with the rest of America in these years, although the population data was not as conclusive. The 1940 census report found 2,375 people in the county, up nearly 32 percent, and the density finally broke the county's one person per square mile (still half of Turner's "frontier" diagnosis of two generations earlier). The town of Fort Davis fell from 912 people to 537 (over 40 percent), while the northeastern quadrant of the county grew by a factor of six (from 106 to 652). Precinct 3 (the southeastern county) grew from 57 in 1930 to 481 (900 percent), and the growth in far west Jeff Davis County led to incorporation in 1936 of the town of Valentine (499 people, or nearly 92 percent that of Fort Davis). 
Population movement seemed to reflect the ability of the large ranchers to maintain their levels of employment, even though the value of their holdings (land and stock) dropped along with the national totals. The value of cattle in the county fell over 60 percent (to $1.8 million), and all stock declined nearly 40 percent (to $2.257 million), even as the number of farms and ranches grew slightly (from 99 in 1930 to 104 in 1940). One indicator of the meaning of this change was the collapse of the modest fruit and vegetable production of Jeff Davis County: down to a mere $20,250 in 1940 (from $52,676, or a decline of 64 percent). There were in 1939 a total of 25 farms and ranches that sold or traded less than $250, while there were 23 ranches that sold/traded over $20,000 each. The 22 poorest farms and ranches did a mere $2,514 in business combined, while the 30 richest ranches transacted $ 1.424 million in 1939, for an average of $47,000 per ranch. By comparison, the national minimum wage for hourly labor was 25 cents, and the per capita income for all Americans in 1933 was $400. Thus the poorest quarter of Jeff Davis County farms and ranches produced less than three-fifths of the national average for income, while the wealthiest third produced on average 420 times that amount. 
The disparity of wealth and poverty plaguing Jeff Davis County in the years between the first and second World Wars explained in part the federal government's belief that it had a duty to redress the economic grievances of the Great Depression. Until 1920, most Americans had encountered government primarily through postal clerks, law enforcement officers, and perhaps military service. T.E. Fehrenbach noted how that war had destabilized the urban and farming sectors of the Lone Star state, and how advances in technology (especially the automobile) transformed the landscape. "Texas went from a horse culture to something resembling an automobile culture in one swoop, " said Fehrenbach, as "roads hastened economic improvements, urbanization, and school consolidation in almost every region of the state." This process of urbanization (Texas by 1933 was 67 percent rural, closing the gap with the national pattern of 41 percent rural population),"began to drain off some of the misery from the cotton fields." Then the twin ravages of economic collapse and the environmental disaster of the "Dust Bowl," where the southern Plains lost much of their topsoil to winds and the overplowing of new land, created the diaspora from the region to California and the Far West more heralded in John Steinbeck's novel about "Okies" on the "Route 66," The Grapes of Wrath (1939). 
Local residents of Fort Davis could not have predicted these conditions when in 1910 they hosted their annual Independence Day celebration. On that Fourth of July, the parade boasted no fewer than 25 automobiles, even though there were no paved roads into the Davis Mountains. The state would not build a highway yard in the county until after World War I, prompted by passage in 1916 of the Federal Highway Act, whereby the U.S. government would construct a series of paved roads across the country to expedite commercial and military travel. This did not deter the creation also in 1910 of the Fort Davis "Improvement Club," whose duty it was to promote economic development in the region. Its literature, and that of the Fort Davis Dispatch (begun in 1911), mentioned prominently the environmental pleasantness of the Davis Mountains, especially drawing attention to the 5,000-feet altitude of the town. 
Dramatizing the prospects of a western town was not a new idea, as communities like Los Angeles had grown exponentially in the early twentieth century through a combination of transportation, communications, climate, and advertising. Fort Davis, like its peers throughout the West, hoped that growth could create new jobs, promote land sales, and improve the quality of life in an isolated region. This urge to advertise one's way to economic health had its parallels in the Davis Mountains with the appearance of Carlysle G. Raht, who had visited the area with his father in the summers when he was young. Raht moved to Fort Davis in 1916, determined as a graduate of the University of Texas to write a dramatic story of the "old" West like he had heard from his professors in history. The Austin school in the early twentieth century had become a center for regional study, among whose graduates were J. Frank Dobie, the noted folklorist of tall tales and legends of the Southwest; Herbert Eugene Bolton, a Wisconsin native who admired the stories of Spanish occupation of the area, and who at the University of California would create the "Borderlands thesis" of Spanish history; and Walter Prescott Webb, best known for his pathbreaking study The Great Plains (1931), written in the depths of the Depression and the start of the Dust Bowl about the struggle of farmers and ranchers to control the environment of the West. Raht wanted to find his version of all three stories (folklore, Spanish conquest, and cowboy culture) in the Davis Mountains, and his efforts went far to demonstrate to outsiders the distinctiveness of the area, if not their actual history and tradition.
Raht's endeavors were aided by the research of a young reporter named Barry Scobee, whom Raht had met by chance in 1917 in the newsroom of the San Antonio Express. Scobee, who had grown up on a Missouri farm dreaming of writing history, asked Raht if he could make a living in the Davis Mountains about which Raht spoke so glowingly. Scobee was described in later years as a "mild-spoken little fellow with a bald head, a good heart, and a sincere likeable character that charmed everyone." Upon his return to Fort Davis, Raht corresponded with Scobee, offering him the opportunity to manage the Hotel Limpia, opened in 1912 to serve the wealthy summer visitors to the area. The constraints of wartime limited the Limpia's income, and by extension Scobee's, and he and his wife Katherine survived only because Raht hired the former reporter to "travel over the area with him in an old flivver to gather material for his book." Scobee volunteered for service in World War I, only to report to basic training as the war ended in Europe. He and his wife left the Davis Mountains for opportunities in the Pacific Northwest, and returned in 1925 with the intention of selling stories to popular magazines about the glamour and drama of the old Southwest. 
The book that Raht and Scobee compiled fit the pattern of excitement and action that gripped audiences' imaginations in the post-World War I era. It also served as the history text for many local residents and visitors, who were fascinated with Raht's stories of derring-do, conquest, outlaws, bandits, and the like. Raht furthered the importance of his work by claiming in the preface: "In gathering my data I have attempted to eliminate the personal viewpoint of the narrator, as well as of myself." He declared that he had "written out of sheer love of the country and a great admiration and respect for the hardy pioneers who had conquered it." Adding to the book's "authenticity," and perhaps its historical irony, was Raht's acquisition of historical documents on the Spanish era (1540-1821) from the "Archivo General Nacional," or National Archives in Mexico City. He then asked Henry O. Flipper, the young black lieutenant court-martialled at Fort Davis in 1881 and now a mining engineer in El Paso, to translate the Spanish documents. 
Raht proceeded to describe Hispanic Texas in the most derogatory terms imaginable. In so doing he merely echoed the sentiments of the day among Anglo Texans, and reinforced local opinion on the inferiority of Hispanics (all of whom were called "Mexicans," even if they were natives of the United States and were considered "white" for census purposes). He also highlighted the class differences of Jeff Davis County by calling the great ranchers "a people who have never felt the cramping littleness of more thickly settled communities." Raht concluded that the ranchers were "literally 'monarchs of all they survey, "'ignoring their own dependence upon eastern markets, investors, technology, and also low-paid wage labor provided by Hispanics. 
What made Raht's negative characterization of Hispanics even more important was their "majority-minority" status in town and throughout west Texas. T.E. Fehrenbach wrote that "the Texan attitude toward Hispanic Americans, born out of long and unhappy experience with Mexico, was not essentially hostile; it was rather one of considered domination." After 1900 the Anglo power structure in Texas encouraged blacks to migrate elsewhere, and replaced their work with Mexicans because "the cost of land, irrigation, and crushing freight charges could only be met by using labor cheaper than any other in the United States." These economic imperatives, coupled with the political control that west Texas ranchers had in their communities, meant that "every major social change that came in the twentieth century was forced upon the state of Texas by outside pressures." 
Last Updated: 22-Apr-2002