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Chapter Three:
The New West Meets the Old: Creating Fort Davis National Historic Site, 1941-1961

While the Second World War redefined America in a thousand ways, the relationship between public initiative and private power in the Davis Mountains remained constant. From 1941-1960, local interest committed to creation of a national park at Fort Davis attempted to identify the financial means to acquire the post property and preserve its story. In addition, the local economy failed to expand with that of the nation as a whole, leaving the youth of Fort Davis little choice but to seek their futures elsewhere. What did change were political attitudes in the Texas congressional delegation, national sentiment for historic preservation, and the decision by the National Park Service after World War II to examine more closely the significance of the Davis Mountains' abandoned military post. Yet it would require a serendipitous sequence of political events to bring Barry Scobee's dream to life, and even then local boosters would wonder at times what exactly they had accomplished.

Economically, World War II revitalized the United States as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal social welfare programs had not. Gerald D. Nash wrote in World War II and the West: Reshaping the Economy (1991) about the stunning federal investment in military hardware, uniformed personnel, and support services from 1941-1945. Whereas the nation had faced in 1933 an unemployment rate of nearly one-third of the adult work force, by 1939 that statistic still hovered around 20 percent; this despite federal spending on such programs as the park service's CCC camps and the creation of new parks. Yet the imperatives of national security, coupled with the costs of a "high-tech" war against the Axis powers (Germany and Japan), led FDR to spend some $260 billion to prosecute the Allied effort. This translated into lavish expenditures in urban and rural areas of the country for military installations, defense plants, and the like. By 1945 southern California, for example, had garnered $45 billion of that amount, with smaller percentages going to other cities on the East and West Coasts, the Great Lakes, and the desert Southwest. Unemployment as a result of this federal investment dropped to a statistically insignificant one percent, and postwar planning attempted to maintain both that prosperity and the source of funding that had made it possible. [1]

In the years after the war, the nation's economy would pursue a mixture of public and private spending linked to military preparedness called the "Cold War" (the struggle between American democracy and Russian Communism), and the consumerism triggered first by pent-up demand for goods and services, then by the staggering population growth known as the "Baby Boom." Landon Jones wrote in Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation (1980) about the linkage between growing families in the postwar years, their increased standard of living, and the quest for comfort and security that included tourism and eventually settlement in the "Sunbelt" region of the South and West. Cities became places to earn a living, while the suburbs attracted the housing of these new families. They in turn sought escape from both settings in tourism and recreation, creating the statistic in 1954 that one American in three would visit a national park that year; up from merely one in sixteen at the beginning of the park system four decades earlier. Hitting the road, seeing America's wonders, and absorbing the complexity of the nation's past became goals for millions of citizens, and every town with some natural or historical attraction engaged in the quest for visitor dollars as well as conventional economic expansion. [2]

This shift of emphasis to mobility and leisure should have eased the path of supporters of park status for Fort Davis. So too should have been the essential conservatism of the nation from 1941-1960. Michael Kammen noted how the shared purpose of the war, plus the economic "miracle" stimulated by so vast a program of federal spending for national security, forced promoters of New Deal historical and cultural programs to reassess their themes. "If cultural relativism implied moral relativism," said Kammen of the more controversial New Deal agencies, "both would have to be discarded in favor of a traditionally defined idealism." Then after 1945, "older and individualized crafts looked attractive in an age of standardization. The calm of rustic museum villages looked desirable in an age of intense bustle." From this Kammen recognized yet another series of competing emotional forces at work on American historical memory: "The common denominators in postwar statements of mission stressed their educational objectives and their desire to preserve oases of the pastoral, pre-industrial past at a time of startling technological change." [3]

As it had prior to 1945, Jeff Davis County did not move in the directions of the rest of America in the postwar era. Pablo Bencomo and his peers from Fort Davis left town for service in the nation's armed forces, traveling the world and learning of the opportunities, and in Pablo's case, the freedoms awaiting people of all colors and classes elsewhere in the United States. Within the county, opportunity shrank as the fledgling tourism industry, cultivated so assiduously by the Mile High Club and funded by public revenues, collapsed with travel restrictions and the movement of young men and women into uniform or defense industries far away. Jacobsen and Nored recounted how the Davis Mountains State Park's Indian Lodge was forced to close for lack of patrons, only to reopen when "wives of cadets stationed at the Marfa Air Base were housed [there] after literally all available housing was utilized." Without visitors, federal programs, or donors willing to fund park creation, Fort Davis endured the war with little hope of tempering the forces that for a generation had limited its options. [4]

Statistics for the years 1941-1960 reinforce this cycle of isolation and decline for Jeff Davis County; conditions that the park service commented upon at length when asked in 1953 and 1960 to study the feasibility of a park at the abandoned post. The county's population fell in 1950 by 12 percent from the prewar census (from 2,375 to 2,090). This pattern became more evident when the four voting precincts were counted. Precinct l (the town of Fort Davis) had grown 14 percent (from 537 to 623); yet the village remained 32 percent smaller than it had been in 1930. Precinct 2 (the northeastern quadrant of the county) had dropped the most in ten years, from 652 people to 450 (off 31 percent), and Precinct 3 in the southeast declined 24 percent (from 481 to 368). Even Precinct 4, southwest of town and site of the "Valentine boom" of 1930-1940, lost population by eight percent. [5]

What these numbers meant for social and economic conditions in wartime Jeff Davis County was validation of Jacobsen and Nored's comment that "many youngsters moved away to find work elsewhere." The median income for the county in the 1940s was $1,773, or 78 percent of the Texas average. Fifty-four percent of all county families earned less than $2,000, itself an amount one-sixth below the state standard. Educational achievement for county adults in 1950 was a mere 7.8 years. This may explain the fact that 47 percent of all adults employed in the county in 1950 were classified as farm laborers. In matters of race, the census that year still counted Hispanics as "whites," but the black population had grown from 18 in 1940 to 26 in 1950; an increase of 31 percent, and a number of blacks greater than had resided in the county for a generation. [6]

By 1960 the statistical profile of Jeff Davis County had changed little, even as the successful movement for creation of Fort Davis National Historic Site got underway. The population base fell again by 24.3 percent; down from 2,090 in 1950 to 1,582 a decade later, the lowest number in 40 years. Population density slipped to 0.7 per square mile, against a national average in 1960 of over 30 people per square mile. These numbers translated into a depressing loss of 16.2 percent of all families in the "family-conscious" era of the Fifties. Unemployment numbers were also included for the first time in general county census data, and Jeff Davis County had 10 percent of its adults out of work. Education had not improved at all in ten years, again leveling at 7.8 years per adult. This statistic is striking in comparison to the national emphasis on schooling, triggered in the late 1950s by the Russian space launch "Sputnik," the baby boom, and the advancing complexity of the marketplace. The average American adult had by the year 1959 a 12th grade education, rendering Jeff Davis County some 35 percent below the nation's standard of learning. This also translated to median income , at $3,877 in 1960 only 79 percent of the Texas average ($4,884). More than one worker in three earned less than $3,000 (or $1.50 per hour, when the minimum wage was $1.25 per hour), which meant that 34.5 percent of Jeff Davis County workers received but 61 percent of the Texas median income. Finally, this pattern of decline affected the black population of the county. Census enumerators in 1960 could find only one black resident in Jeff Davis County (a loss of 96 percent since 1950). This may explain in part the confusion in the minds of local residents when the NPS historians sent to Fort Davis not only discovered in the federal records the importance of the black units to the post's history. This was manifest, in the words of Southwest Region historian Robert M. Utley, when county residents referred to the U.S. Army regulars as "nigger soldiers," even as they revered the white officers in command. [7]

In spite of these conditions, the Mile High Club kept to its goal of park status for Fort Davis; a dream that they hoped would come true in 1945 when local rancher Mac Sproul purchased for $16,000 the 640-acre site of the old military post. This was half the amount that the club had asked of the Texas Centennial Commission a decade earlier, and $9,000 below the price quoted to Judge Davidson a mere four years earlier by the James family. Sproul's acquisition brought ownership closer to town, and allowed local interests to seek alternative funding strategies. These emerged the following year (1946), when a Houston attorney, D.A. Simmons, offered Sproul $25,000 for 453.9 acres for the land encompassing the ruins of the old fort. Simmons had achieved an impressive career in the law, including service as an advisor to U.S. Senator Tom Connally (D-TX), to the fledgling international peacekeeping body, the United Nations, and in 1945 as the president of the prestigious American Bar Association (ABA). A magazine section of the Houston Chronicle claimed in 1956 that Simmons had first come to the Davis Mountains in 1902 with his father, assistant Texas attorney general D.E. Simmons. Supposedly the elder Simmons had "acquired" the fort "for his son . . . who was then five years old." Whatever the source of this information, the younger Simmons and his wife, the former Elizabeth Daggett, spent 30 years traveling to historic sites around the country, and it was their love of the past, said Simmons' widow in 1966, that "influenced his determination to do something about Fort Davis." [8]

The arrival of the Simmons family brought money and attention to the post that had been missing before the war from the efforts of Barry Scobee and the Mile High Club. The Houston lawyer organized the "Old Fort Davis Company," attracting as shareholders the business elite from town. Simmons told the Houston Magazine in February 1947 that he sought a "dual purpose of preserving this historical spot and for furnishing vacation homes for the ever-growing number of health and pleasure seekers who are at last learning of the scenic beauty and the health producing quality of the high, pure mountain air, both of which nature has so generously allocated to Jeff Davis." The new owner hired Dude Sproul and several other local residents to build a fence around the property, fill in the abandoned wells, erect a gate at the entrance, and convert "one of the old barracks into an information center and trading post. "The officers' quarters across the parade grounds would become "modern tourist apartments," said the Houston Magazine, and "most of the old buildings erected of adobe clay will be destroyed." Encouraging news to Simmons and the Mile High Club was "the reported plan of Dallas capital to build a fine resort near the 8,000 foot Mt. Mitre, which is only a scant dozen miles from Fort Davis." This would be proof to the outside world that the post and its environs could become "a gathering place of those who, in the summers to come will bask in the ever present sunshine and drink in the rare beauty and the pure air of 'mile high' Texas." [9]

Through his Old Fort Davis Company, Simmons was true to his word. He brought to the Mile High Club a sophisticated vision of promoting the post that included advertising in area newspapers in June 1947 about the dedication ceremonies for the completion of the 75-mile Scenic Loop Highway. The locals now had funds to print handbills that offered no less than eight reasons to stop in town, among them "The Old Fort Davis Riding Stables," managed by Ben Lotspeich; Hospital Canyon; "Indian Emily's Grave;" and "The Historic Ruins," which promised visitors the site "where Indian Emily died, and where the first Christmas tree in West Texas was set up in 1867," The source of much of this information was the Simmons-subsidized printing of Barry Scobee's book, Old Fort Davis, which incorporated all the legends and stories that the county Justice of the Peace had collected in his thirty years in town. The San Antonio Express took note of Scobee's work, and legitimized its place in the history of west Texas: "By preserving the spot's historic and romantic associations, Mr. Scobee's book should attract many Texans to visit the old fort and find their sojourn enriched." [10]

While the Old Fort Davis Company pressed the publicity angle, D.A. Simmons' work crews remodeled the first three houses along Officers' Row, and offered them for rent. This encouraged a group of five Fort Davis residents to approach Simmons in May 1948 to lease acreage in Hospital Canyon for construction of the "Fort Davis Boys Camp." They spent $10,000 to pour concrete floors upon which to install tents and a screened mess hall. They then leased the camp to a Mr. and Mrs. Tenney, managers of the nearby boys' camp at the Prude ranch, who envisioned an "exclusive prep school" at the post. This venture lasted only one summer, and by 1951 the company negotiated with Sul Ross State Teachers College and with George W. Donaldson of the Tyler school system to offer a summer institute for Texas school teachers interested in conducting their own outdoor education programs. Donaldson told the Alpine Avalanche prior to the start of the first (and only) Fort Davis teachers institute that his goal was to show postwar youth the "thousand and one things that go to make mentally rounded-out citizens in comprehending the country's resources." Speaking prophetically, Davidson warned that "many city children do not know where the milk they drink, nor the vegetables they eat, come from." The Texas educator admitted that "through no fault of their own they haven't the slightest notion of the meaning of conservation or the preservation of our national heritage of outdoor wealth and health and pleasure." Perhaps the beauty and history of Fort Davis could help "the generations now and to come . . . learn enough about these things to be instrumental in saving our country in its land and natural resources." [11]

Teachers institutes, no matter how appropriate, could not generate the revenue needed by D.A. Simmons to render Fort Davis a self-sustaining venture. On more than one occasion he confided to his wife, Elizabeth: "I don't know how we'll ever manage it, but I do not propose . . . to see that fabulous place further deteriorate." That sentiment led Simmons in 1949 to read in Texas Parade Magazine a story about the joint partnership undertaken by the state parks board, the Interior department, and the Catholic archdiocese of San Antonio to restore the Eighteenth-century "Mission San Jose" in that community. Simmons wrote to his friend, Gordon K. Shearer, executive secretary of the parks board, to explain his plans for Fort Davis and to seek advice on forging a similar agreement with the state and the NPS. He told Shearer that he had bought the post because he had learned while staying at the Indian Lodge of "a Dallas real estate man [who] was contemplating purchasing the site . . . , clearing off all the old ruins and subdividing it for mountain cabins for people in his vicinity." Simmons had heard of the work of the Mile High Club on behalf of the fort, and also "of the non-interest of anybody in Texas officialdom with authority to do anything about it." He then remarked on the power of politics to dictate creation of Texas parks: "I like Indian Lodge and the state park, but just why anybody would establish it and leave the old Fort with all of its history to disintegrate, is somewhat beyond me." [12]

Outlining his proposal to Shearer, the Houston attorney noted how he had refurbished a total of eight buildings on site, and had improved the assessed value of Fort Davis to $171,694.52. Simmons himself could not afford much more work at the post, and was being "approached by first one and then another to do something with the property." Among its suggested uses were "a super-duper dude ranch, excluding the general public, or that it be made into a super tourist motel in a transcontinental highway chain, etc." Clearly these options did not appeal to the former ABA president, who reminded Shearer: "I need not stress my point that it should be preserved for posterity." Simmons knew of the state park's board's "lack of funds," and that the legislature, "unless pressured by blocks of voters, is not likely to buy property for the interest of future generations." He then referred to Barry Scobee's Old Fort Davis, which called the post "the most active of the Indian forts in the [18]50s, 60s, and 70s." For this reason, said Simmons, "the people of this country in centuries to come will be more and more interested in this site." His records indicated that the post had "approximately" as many visitors "as are going down to the Big Bend National Park," and predicted: "Since it is the only cool summer spot in West Texas and is halfway between Carlsbad Caverns and the Big Bend Park, attendance in the future will undoubtedly grow by leaps and bounds." Simmons then closed by suggesting that in the event of his death (which would occur two years later), "I am quite sure the property would have to be sold for inheritance taxes." Given the postwar growth in travel that Simmons had outlined, he warned that someone else would be tempted to commercialize the fort; an outcome "which I would personally regret." [13]

Gordon Shearer did not offer any optimistic words to Simmons, who then hired a series of custodians to manage the property. The first couple to run Fort Davis were relatives of Mrs. Simmons, Mr. and Mrs. Walter M. Daggett of Pecos. They operated the post for one summer, and then the Simmonses contracted in 1950 with Ed Bartholomew of Houston and Leslie R. Scott of Alpine. The latter had been a radio announcer with KVLF-AM, and agreed to live year round at the fort. The Alpine Avalanche reported on January 13, 1950, that Scott would oversee a cafe, trading post, and "whatever seems needful to attract visitors to the Old Fort." Mrs. A.N. Alkire, the Fort Davis correspondent for the Avalanche, gave special mention to the post's "curio display," which she described as "the largest collection of Indian artifacts in this section of the country." She also noted that Scott would host a series of radio broadcasts on his former station, three times weekly, that highlighted the area in a "variety show" format of "music and talks." Scott, however, did not stay long at the fort, and Simmons replaced him with Louie Wiggs and Juan Razo. Ed Bartholomew also broke the lease after one year, and the Simmons family faced hiring more custodians without the prospect of additional revenue. [14]

The latest in a series of reversals of fortune for Fort Davis occurred in March 1951, when D.A. Simmons died of a heart attack at the age of 53. His wife, who would later marry John C. Jackson, recalled in 1966 how her husband's passing "spared him much of what I saw and experienced later" in managing the post. She wrote to the then-superintendent of the historic site, Franklin Smith: "You would have enjoyed knowing him, for he was a man of great depth, keen perception and vision." Without his advice and guidance, Mrs. Simmons advertised in the spring of 1952 in a series of Texas newspapers for someone to take over management of the post. The only serious respondent was Malcolm "Bish" Tweedy, a 34-year old war veteran and graduate of Princeton University whose father had been born and raised on a ranch west of San Antonio. Tweedy, who was living in San Angelo at the time, had married Sally Godfrey of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the year before, and their honeymoon had included an automobile trip to Big Bend and the town of Fort Davis. The young couple eventually wanted more regular working hours, and their sense of history and drama (they had met while working at the San Angelo Civic Theatre) led them to answer Mrs. Simmons' solicitation. [15]

The arrival of the Tweedys to Fort Davis began the final phase of the quest for a national park at the old post. Bish and Sally fell in love with the ruins, as they touched their sense of the romantic ((Bish recalled 43 years later that the grounds were "eerily beautiful"). They moved into one of the restored officers' quarters, took charge of the soda fountain and gift shop, and tried (unsuccessfully) to operate "The Bandana Room ," a restaurant where Sally cooked and Bish served guests. Their chief source of income was the gift shop, a venture that paid for itself with the steady visitation of summer ("10 to 20 people during the week days and often up to a hundred or more on weekends"). The first winter (1952-1953), however, brought few tourists and less money to cover the $300 monthly lease. The Tweedys did have more time to roam the grounds, unearthing dozens of artifacts, and to witness the continuing process of deterioration. One legend that the Tweedys encountered was the discovery of over 100 whisky bottles buried by the post sutler behind his store just before the Confederate forces in 1861 marched into the Fort Davis area. The sutler, whom Tweedy learned was "a stubborn old Yankee from New England," supposedly did not want the "'dang rebels'" to drink his whisky, and he hid the bottles so that they could not be confiscated for a Southern victory celebration. In reality, the bottles were discovered (buried end to end) on Sleeping Lion Mountain (west of the modern-day parking lot). Bish Tweedy conceded some four decades later that the NPS may never know the real story of the buried whisky bottles. [16]

This revelation led the Tweedys to close their dining room (they had served only about one dozen patrons that winter), and to convert the space into a museum. The notorious bottle collection was the "centerpiece," although visitors seemed eager to pay 25 and 50 cent admissions to view their "1858 quarter, the 10th Cavalry stencil and a lovely little brown earthenware ink bottle." The success of history as a drawing card for the Tweedys prompted them one night to discuss at a bridge game with George and Flora Merrill, longtime residents of Fort Davis, the need to preserve the site in some organized fashion. The Merrills agreed with the post caretakers that failure to solicit support from the federal and state governments rendered the next step "a community effort." Thus on February 18, 1953, the Tweedys hosted at their small museum 13 interested residents of the surrounding area who voted to become the "Davis Mountains Historical Society." They also decided to invite additional members for a second meeting on February 25, which selected as its officers George Merrill as president, R.D. McCready as vice-president, and Sally Tweedy as secretary-treasurer. Bish Tweedy agreed to become chairman of the museum committee, while Barry Scobee consented to assist him. Finally, the gathering voted to change their name to the "Fort Davis Historical Society," and to solicit funds for the "acquisition and preservation of the old Fort Davis Army Post and the preservation and marking of historical landmarks in the Davis Mountains area. "They would also attempt to "collect and display objects of historical interest in a suitable museum and to preserve in writing or in permanent form the interesting historical talks and events of this area since the days of the early settlers together with such photographs and documents as may deserve preservation." [17]

Energized with the ambition to succeed where others had failed, the Tweedys and their historical society colleagues undertook a letter-writing campaign to ascertain the merits of their proposal. A guest at the March 8 meeting, Mr. V.E. Smith, informed the group that "the national government is definitely interested in the restoration of the fort." It seemed that the NPS had inquired in February 1952 about including Fort Davis in its next round of studies, but no action had been taken. Mrs. Simmons came to the May 11 gathering in town, and expressed her interest "in working with the society to turn [sell] the property." At this point the members called upon Sally Tweedy to inquire of state officials the status of the Texas Historical Survey Commission. Allan Shivers, governor of Texas, replied that the commission would be appointed soon, and that he would support the inclusion of Fort Davis, as "several other people have written to me about this famous frontier post." [18]

One member of the society had also written to Lemuel "Lon" Garrison , superintendent of Big Bend National Park, seeking his advice on the process of incorporation into the park service. Garrison wrote to M.R. Tillotson, Region III director, informing him that the historical society had invited him to their June 8 meeting to offer guidance on application procedures. Tillotson indicated official approval of "the revival of interest in the preservation of old Fort Davis," and considered it "highly desirable for you to attend the meeting . . . and keep in touch with further activity on this line." He did warn the Big Bend superintendent: "Fort Davis has not been approved or definitely classified by the [NPS] Advisory Board . . . and that a conservative attitude towards new proposals is to be expected in general." The regional director also warned Garrison that local interests needed to know that NPS designation as a "national historic site," with management by the state of Texas (as had been done for "San Jose Mission National Historic Site" in San Antonio) meant that "the Service would not then be actually taking it over and probably would not be in a position to contribute a great deal toward the area's development." San Jose, by comparison, had received "technical advice and some assistance but very little actual cash." [19]

Traveling to Fort Davis on June 8, Lon Garrison met with 30 residents eager to hear how their neighbors to the south had brought the Park Service to far west Texas. The Big Bend superintendent gave the society a basic overview of his park, including "a review of tourist travel economics." In the question-and-answer session that followed, the most prominent query was "that the National Park Service might take over the area for restoration after purchase and administration as a National Monument." As politely as he could, Garrison outlined the paper trail from the NPS regional office to the service's s advisory board. He also "added that as a practical matter the problem of securing funds for the extensive work necessary just seemed almost impossible." In his report to Tillotson, the NPS official said that "the group [historical society] does not seem to be well unified, which is regrettable, for old Fort Davis is a charming place and deserves better treatment than it is receiving now." Garrison remarked on the efforts of D.A. Simmons to restore the property; a rendering that he considered "far from accurate." "Most of the buildings are about gone," the superintendent reported, "and another year will just about complete the ruin." Further complicating matters was Bish Tweedy's statement to Garrison that "Mrs. Simmons is now asking $200,000 for the 480 acres which is quite unrealistic in [the superintendent's] opinion." [20]

hospital steward's quarters
Figure 8. Hospital Steward's Quarters in ruins (1950s).
Courtesy Fort Davis NHS.

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2002