Monday, June 4, 2012

Fort Phantom, Stamford, & FM 600

Lake Fort Phantom

DJ and I started out on Memorial Day heading north of town. It had been years since we had been to Lake Fort Phantom, and DJ had never been to Fort Phantom at all. We were surprised when we got to the lake to see that many changes had been made since we were there last. It now has modern facilities, a play area for children, showers, a volleyball pit, and picnic areas. It is a far cry from the lake where I used to get cactus in my feet and had to walk through brush to swim from I was a child, even from when my children were tots. The change, however, has been very welcomed. The natural terrain around the public area is still rugged and you can still rough it if you prefer. The park was crowded, so we just stopped long enough to make use of the facilities. Be warned, they are not the cleanest and seemed that they do not get cleaned often. Yuk! Why do people have to be so nasty? Needless to say, I decided that I did not need to use the restroom that bad.

Fort Phantom

DJ and I headed up the hill to the old fort 14 miles north of Abilene on FM600 via my Honda Accord. The weather was much warmer than what they were originally calling for, and there was no breeze on the hill to help cool us. If you wish to visit the fort, you may want to come in the mornings or evenings during the summer. When we first arrived, we realized that they are building a visitors' center for the fort. The kiosk will include restroom facilities, parking area, and an educational center. I could find no information on the estimated complete date for the kiosk. The below pictures are representations of the current fort. If you want to see how the fort looked when it was operational, click here.

Fort Phantom was originally called the Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos. The site is located on a 22 acre plot. The fort was constructed between 1851 and 1853; and it was only occupied by five companies of infantry units until 1854, when the Army abandoned it. The quick decay of the hill is due to a fire that swept across the fort shortly after the abandonment. The abandonment was due in part to Lieutenant Colonel J.J. Abercrombie changing his orders from General Persifor F. Smith. Abercrombie was not familiar with the area, and did not settle in Coleman County as he was ordered. The land was too harsh to be inhabitable and the creek was brackish. Though the land was full of deer, turkey and bear, the men were in poor spirits. Despite the shortage of timbers and fresh water, the men continued to build the fort from a stone quarry located at Elm Creek, they thatched the roofs with brush, and the sides of the buildings were constructed of mud.

The fort was constructed in an effort to protect settlers heading to California for the Gold Rush from Penateka Comanches. However, there were very few encounters between the soldiers and the Comanche. These encounters were in the form of visits. Also visiting the fort would be groups of Lipans, Kiowas, and Kickappos.

Due to the lack of reliable water, and the harsh living conditions, Fort Phantom was left for the earth to reclaim. The fire that swept the fort was a mystery as to how it began, and it still stands as a mystery today. The remains of the fort were used as a way station and manned by Mr. and Mrs. Burlington in order to provide comfort to stage passengers. The station gained its name Phantom Hill by Warren Ormsby, who visited the fort in 1858 while traveling to California via stage.

During the Civil War, the fort was used by Frontier Battalion of the Confederacy led by Colonel J.B. Barry as a base of field operations. The fort was later used as a complimentary base to Fort Griffin in Albany during the Indian Wars of 1872. During this time, Union General Sherman visited the fort during an inspection. Surprisingly, a town grew up around the fort which contained 546 inhabitants. The town only held on hotel, one saloon, and one general store. I find the fact that any town in Jones County had a saloon quite amusing seeing how the county is a dry county.

Today, all that remains of the fort are the guard house, the many chimneys of the officer's quarters, blacksmith shop, medical quarters, and company quarters. A rock commissary storehouse still stands, as does the magazine that is located across FM 600. There are also rock remains of a bakery that once stood. In front of the guard house, there is a rock cistern. The fort is open to the public, and can be visited at no charge to the patrons. Remember, bring water if you are visiting in the summer because it does get awfully hot here.

Stamford, Texas

DJ and I continued on FM 600 toward some of my old stomping grounds, Stamford, Texas. There, I showed DJ where I resided on East McLendon and Hobart while I was in my senior year of high school. I had lived in Haskell until we moved to Jones County Road 618. When I went to band camp for drum major in Haskell, we lived on 618, but when I returned home after my two week camp, I found myself to have a new bedroom in a new home on McLendon. I was devastated as I was told that I would most likely not be allowed to be drum major if I could not get my transfer approved by the Stamford school board. I was elated when I got my transfer.

DJ and I passed Harmon Park in order to reach my home. Across from Harmon park stands three sculptures created by Johnny Anders, a brontosaurus, centipede, and a praying mantis. Anders is a local auto mechanic who creates the statues entirely of scrap parts from automobiles. Close observation of the mantis shows that the pipes are actually drive shafts. Further in town, across from the local Sonic stands a Tyrannosaurus Rex also made from car parts. His eye shines brightly when the sun catches the light.

Stamford Inn

Off of the town square, on the corner of East McHarg and South Ferguson Street, stands what remains of the Stamford Inn. This small town inn has quite a history. It was constructed in 1900 in beautiful Victorian fashion. The inn was a beautiful yellow color embellished with white gingerbread molding. The inn was a popular vacationing location for weary travelers. In 1924 a fire destroyed most of the building. A man named, Ernest fell through the floor of the building landing on a water heater while trying to rescue some of the other people who perished in fire. A total of five people lost their lives in the blaze. Today, rumors persist that the building is haunted by the spirits of the souls lost to the fire. The fire destroyed the building, and another was constructed on the site. Only the entrance to the building is all that is left standing of the Victorian construction. Eventually, the building was turned into a sanatarium/nursing home due to need after the outbreak of tuberculosis. Today, the structure is abandoned and has been since the early 1980s.

As teens, my brother and I spent many evenings exploring the old building. Inside, we found old hospital beds, many books on psychology, and an elevator shaft full of wheelchairs. The brightly colored paint still loosely clung to the walls, and chips had begun to drop to the floor. Dust often filled the air and would choke us if we breathed in too deep. We never ventured to the basement where Ernest fell through the floor, for the basement was consistently filled with water. The hair on our arms would stand on end while we sat on the floor among the ruins, and I never felt that we were in the building alone.

Today, the out buildings no longer stand, but the brush has been cleared from around the historic landmark. On the west side of the building, the bricks have begun to tumble and there are signs that warn people not to trespass into the building.

Swenson Land and Cattle Company

Directly across from the Stamford Inn is the Swenson Land and Cattle Company that was established in the mid 1800s by Svante Magnus Swenson, who was the first Swedish Settler in the State of Texas. Swenson owned land throughout the Big Country area and sold the land to different families. There are several ranches throughout the area that are known as Swenson Ranches, one of which is the ranch to the west of Throckmorton, Texas, where my Aunt Kathie once lived. I remember spending a lot of time at the ranch visiting my aunt and my cousins. Of all my memories, the most rememberable memories include chasing jumbo grasshoppers that frequented the ranch. I also remember spending all of our time running around in the tall grass and open fields with my cousins.

DJ and I decided that the heat was getting to us enough that we needed to stop for a drink at the local Sonic. Since DJ and I always end up at a Sonic during happy hour while we are out and about in the Big Country, I decided that I will begin to photograph the facade of each Sonic we stop at. The one in Stamford has a cartoon bulldog painted on the front, and paw prints with names and numbers written in them. If you were wondering, yes, the bulldog is the mascot for Stamford Independent School District.

DJ and I headed out of town and stopped at the Coolers right at the Highway 277/Highway 6 intersection. I was hoping to get some of that delicious chicken that I had grown to love throughout my childhood. However, the convenience store has changed a great deal since it became a Coolers, and it does not sell any cooked food nor does it have a food case. I was very disappointed.

DJ and I continued north on 277 and turned east on 618. I showed him the old home that I grew up in, which is now grown up with brush and difficult to discern from a distance. I told him of my memories of flying down the freshly plowed cotton fields in Scott's Odyssey toward the marina at Lake Stamford. I laughed when I talked about all of the fun my brother and I had in the area. This is where my brother and I were our most careless. It is where we shot fireworks in the evening and chased each other with Roman candles. It is where we spent very little time in the home, and it is where we were virtually free from parents. My mother worked evenings, and my dad was in Huntsville working Death Row.

I didn't tell him of the darkest memories I have of that place. It is the home that was falling to pieces. It is where the bathroom wall fell in, and a rattler of a diamond back shook in my face when I attempted to squat to urinate. Had the snake not been wrapped around the pipe, I could have lost my life. I backed slowly from the restroom with my pants still down tugging to pull them up on my way out the back door. I screamed to my father that there is a rattlesnake in the bathroom. He told me there was not; but when he reached the back door of the home, he could hear the rattle from the snake. Daddy grabbed a can of Raid and rushed to the bathroom. He sprayed the bug spray into the snake's eyes continually until the snake fell back down into the wall.

While I was at band camp, the snake had found a hole in Scott's bedroom closet. The story goes that the snake was head level with Scott, when he started to rattle. Scott had been outside with his friend, Mickey, cutting weeds with their machetes. Had Mickey not been quick to think, who knows what would have happened to my baby brother. With one lop of the machete, the snake's head fell to the floor. Dad had a bright idea to pickle the six foot rattler to show me when I returned home from band camp. He called it "Pam's snake."

This home is also the home where I lived when my family began breaking apart. It is where the battles between family members peaked, and my sister moved out. It is where we lived when Daddy and Mom decided that they were not going to stay together. It is the place where each of us infected one another with one another's venom and our passions rose with one another. It is the place where I was once once stung by a scorpion and my leg was numb for three weeks. The old homestead looks more sad than when we lived there. Back then, I never thought it would be possible.

Further down 618, DJ and I traversed to the marina at Lake Stamford. Again, I was disappointed. I could not remember where on the Lake my grandmother's old cabin was, for we had been there only a hand full of times. The lake was low, and the fishing dock now sits on dry land. The lake always seemed so grand and wonderful when I was little, but it was nothing as I remembered. Now, a faded memory, I chose not to shoot the lake, as there was nothing of interest to shoot.

However, the memories of the cabin still hold strong. We spent many family gatherings at the lake including the Thanksgiving when I paid dearly for stealing an egg from a goose. Believe me when I say that bites from geese hurt delicate toddler fingers. I am just lucky that I didn't break the egg when it fell back to the nest. I remember nights at the lake being wonderful, and I loved watching the moon glimmer on the water.

Bethel Lutheran Church

DJ and I left the lake and were soon back on FM 600. While traveling, I spotted the black steeple of the Bethel Lutheran Church. The church was built on land owned by the Swenson's in 1932, the year my grandmother was born. The gothic architecture of the church has fascinated me since I was a little girl. Most trips to Abilene were made on FM 600 opposed to Highway 277 because we bypassed the small towns before the State decided to bypass the towns by snaking the highway around them. We always passed the church, and I always watched the steeple as we passed by.

Next to the church is a park, and I can't help but remember that I had once played in this park. I remember there also being a creek nearby. One of my earliest memories is of playing next to the creek bed and being able to see the steeple towering over the trees. This is the creek I fell in and got bit by a spider above my eye. Hence, the reason for one of my pictures as a toddler with a swollen eye. Believe me, there are several pictures of me with a swollen eye. I think that I must have been very clumsy as a child, not that being clumsy has changed at all.

Anyway the church still stands in its beauty and glory. The steeple still rises high above the earth and into the sky. I really love how the photos of the church came out. If I could, I would have photographed every inch of the glorious building.

Drilling Rig & Nugent

FM 600 twisted and turned across the countryside, and I spotted, near to the road, a drilling rig. I begged DJ to stop so I could get a good shot of the machine. The tower jutted into the air and the purr of the engine brought a flood of memories to mind. The rich smell of fresh oil filled the air, and I snapped off many shots of the machine. I remember going onto the drilling rigs with my father, and the camaraderie of the men who operate the machine. The days were often hot, and long. As evening would approach, there was often a big barbecue with plenty of chicken, hot dogs, and burgers. The men would laugh and cut up with one another as they sat around the fire sharing a beer. I remember one catching a rattle snake, removing the head and rattle. He kept the head, and I was given the rattle. I wonder what ever happened to that rattle. The man gutted the snake, skinned it, and placed it on the grill. I believe that was the first time that I ever tried snake. Once, they grilled a cotton tailed rabbit that they caught earlier in the day, but this was not the first time I had eaten rabbit. No longer welcomed on the platform or at the doghouse, I returned to the car and we left.

DJ and I traveled further down 600 until we entered Nugent. South of Nugent sits an old wooden home that is no longer in use. The home sits alone, isolated from people in its harsh surrounding.

Our trip soon ended, and I realized that these are all fading memories, and I know that I can never go back. So much has changed in the areas where I once roamed free. I have grown older, and nothing is the same. I can only go back to the way things used to be in my memories. When I close my eyes, I can still feel the cool waters of the lakes on my skin and the cool breeze of the winds brush across my face. I can still hear the laughter of my brother in my ear, and I can still see the smile on his pale freckled skin. I still feel the warmth of the fire, and I can still taste the chicken and snake that I loved so much. Only when I close my eyes do these memories once again become real.

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