Riding the Old Spanish Trail, Part 2: A Road Trip Through West Texas in the 1920's
This article serves as the second installment in an ongoing series on the Old Spanish Trail auto trail, describing a road trip heading west out of San Antonio, Texas in the spring of 1926. The first article, covering the section between San Antonio and Kerrville, can be read here. This article picks up where we left off and covers the section between Kerrville and Fort Stockton.
The noontime sun bears down on you as you gingerly scrape the loose tar off of your bumper with your old flint chisel. You try your absolute hardest not to chip the paint, although a little bit of damage in the process is inevitable. You won’t have to deal with sticky tar for much longer, though, since the road ahead is going to revert mostly to gravel, much to your chagrin. You check your watch and try and estimate how much more driving you’ll be able to do before you lose daylight. So far you’ve traveled about 70 miles in the span of two hours; your speed has vacillated mostly between 30 and 40 miles per hour, with occasional stretches where you could push 50 (hopefully you won’t encounter very many motorcycle cops out in the bush!) It’s 12:00 PM now and you have about seven and a half hours of daylight left; if you keep going at your current rate you’ll probably make it as far as Ozona or Sheffield before you conk out — maybe Fort Stockton if you really push it. With your fuel, water, and beef jerky supplies topped up, you gird your loins and hop back into your 1925 Chevrolet sedan for the long, lonely, dusty road ahead.
You pull out of Weston’s Garage in downtown Kerrville and turn left onto Main Street, keeping your eyes peeled for the distinctive red, white, and yellow signs for the Old Spanish Trail. You bid a bittersweet farewell to asphalt roads as you drive over the little concrete bridge over Town Creek and into open countryside. High up on a hill to your right, you can just about make out some cobblestone buildings with a broad panorama of the surrounding valley, which you presume to be the new Methodist encampment that’s being built. You’re no longer following the railroad tracks— in fact, you won’t see any railroad tracks at all until Fort Stockton. Apparently, the main reason the Old Spanish Trail follows this distinctive route through the Hill Country rather than following the Southern Pacific mainline to El Paso is that railroad service is paltry in this part of Texas due to the rough terrain. The locals paid top dollar to get the Old Spanish Trail association to run their new highway through their communities, and judging by how isolated you feel already you can see why! You once again start paralleling the Guadalupe River on your left, although it’s not very easy to see from the road due to the sheer difference in elevation.
As you approach the tall concrete bridge over Goat Creek, you notice a young boy fishing off the side of the bridge. You honk your horn to alert him to your presence; he turns around and leans against the railing as he waves you past. You’re glad there aren’t any cars coming the opposite way since the bridge barely has enough room for two Tin Lizzies. You wonder how much fish the kid expects to catch since he’s fishing just downstream of a large concrete weir, but hey, he probably knows more about the area than you do. It’s not long before you find yourself in the tiny little hamlet of Ingram. Your guidebook has almost nothing to say about the town; it’s so tiny it doesn’t even have a gas station, much less an OST councilor. As you pass through the town, you catch a glimpse of the little country hotel which may very well have been a stop for cowboys on the Great Western Trail as they travailed north through the wilderness to Kansas. There haven’t been any cattle drives along the trail in many years, though, due to the arrival of railroads in South Texas; the Old Spanish Trail is now pretty much the only thing keeping the little town alive.
As the road meets the confluence of Johnson Creek and the Guadalupe River, you hang a right onto the road towards Mountain Home; from now on, you’ll be following Johnson Creek to the northwest. As the road bobs and weaves through the undulating hills, you notice what appears to be a Model T driving down a hill on the wrong side of the road. You slow down before realizing he’s actually moving away from you — sure enough, he’s driving up the hill backwards! You remember having to do this quite often when you drove a Model T; since those antiquated old cars didn’t (and still don’t) have actual fuel pumps, the gas is fed into the carburetor via gravity, and reversing the car up the hill puts the fuel tank higher than the engine, thus allowing gas to flow into the carburetor without starving the engine. Once you reach the summit of the hill, the driver of the Model T pulls to the side and waves you past, presumably green with envy. As you continue along past the many sheep and goat ranches dotted along Johnson Creek, you cross another skinny concrete bridge over Fessenden Creek. Just up ahead is the brand new Heart of the Hills Fish Hatchery, slated to become one of the biggest fish hatcheries in the country. The hatchery is situated over Stockman’s Springs, a former watering hole on the old road from Mexico to Indianola and a possible stop during the expedition of Cabeza de Vaca in 1534. You soon find yourself in the tiny town of Mountain Home; although it’s only half the population of Ingram, it actually boasts a gas station and supply store, along with a tourist camp on Johnson Creek.
Driving northwest out of Mountain Home, you find yourself passing through a remote and isolated land known as “The Divide”, a strip of land along the Edwards Plateau that functions as a natural dividing line for rainfall runoff. First settled back in the 80’s, the area is now mostly home to cattle, sheep, and goat ranches — and very, very little else. Just this morning you woke up in one of the biggest, most prosperous cities in Texas; now you feel so lonely you could scream. After what feels like an eternity of driving through desolate wilderness, you at last see a sign indicating that you’re crossing from Kerr County into Kimble County. The next settlement along the way is Segovia, a town apparently so tiny and unimportant it doesn’t even warrant an entry in your guidebook. You eventually cross over the low water crossing on the Johnson Branch of the Llano River, the first of eight such crossings made by the Old Spanish Trail. You blow through Segovia almost without noticing; aside from a small gas station, there’s almost nothing there to notice.
Just before you reach the long bridge over the Llano River into Junction, you encounter an imposing, statuesque middle-aged man with an impressive ten-gallon hat riding down the other side of the road on his horse. He hails to you and you pull over; you can tell by the badge on his vest that he’s a Texas Ranger, just like your grandfather. He gives you a friendly hello and asks how the road into San Antonio is. You reply that it’s mostly smooth sailing; no washouts or accidents that you know of, although some of the creek crossings coming into Bexar County have higher water levels than usual due to a storm passing through the night before. He thanks you and the two of you part ways. You initially puzzle over whether or not he could make it into San Antonio on horseback before nightfall, although since he’s most assuredly an experienced rider you bet he probably could. You wonder what he and his fellow rangers have been up to since the skirmishes with banditos and Villistas along the Mexican border have pretty much stopped in the past few years.
Junction, situated on the “junction” of the North and South Llano Rivers, is definitely the most viable town you’ve passed through since Kerrville, and fairly similar in terms of appearance, minus the asphalt-paved roads. It also happens to be the junction of several state highways as well, such as Highway 23 from Ballinger and Highway 29 from Austin. As you find yourself in the town square adjacent to the old courthouse, you pull into the Loeffler Motor Co. garage to refuel and ask about the road ahead. Almost as soon as you step out of the car, your stomach quakes and makes a rather indignant growling noise. You realize that it’s almost 2:00 in the afternoon and you haven’t eaten since breakfast, so you decide to eat lunch here in Junction. As you pay for your gas, you ask the proprietor, Emil Loeffler, about good places to eat here in Junction. He recommends the newly rebuilt Fritz Hotel on the south side of the town square. “Look for the Spanish-looking building with the red roof”, he says, “you can’t miss it.”
He is correct — almost as soon as you pull out of Loeffler’s and turn south, you can see the distinctive red tile roof of the beautiful Spanish Colonial-style hotel poking out over the nearby houses. You pull in and enter the hotel’s immaculately clean and new lobby, looking and feeling a bit worse for wear. You ask the desk clerk if the hotel restaurant is open to non-guests; he jovially affirms this and leads you into the elegant dining room. As it turns out, the desk clerk is actually the hotel’s owner, Joe P. Fritz. There are a fair few people already eating in the dining room, mostly fellow travelers along the Old Spanish Trail. You settle in and order some chicken and dumplings with a side of cornbread; for such a gentile setting, you almost feel guilty for ordering such a provincial meal, but you know you can never turn down some good chicken and dumplings. You spend about 40 minutes at the Fritz, occasionally conversing with some of the other patrons, such as the intrepid family of four who have driven in all the way from California en route to visit relatives in Louisiana. “We would normally take the train, but we wanted to give the children an adventure they’d remember…” Says the father. “I’ll admit, though, so far it’s felt a tad more Swiss Family Robinson than we’re comfortable with.” However, you can tell by the smiles on their faces that despite the long trek, they certainly have few regrets.
You bid goodbye to Junction as you drive across the bridge over the North Llano River, anticipating more of the same scenery you’ve been immersed in for the past few hours: winding hills, high rock outcroppings, shady groves, sheep and goat ranches, and low water crossings over the Llano River. Unsurprisingly, it’s exactly that. As you’d expect during the springtime, most of the low water crossings have a decent flow of water; not enough to bog you down but enough to warrant shifting down to second or first gear as you wade on through. It was cool in San Antonio this morning, but as the sun hangs high in the sky it’s becoming quite hot, most likely 80° or more. You’re thankful you have a handy flask that you can top up at just about any of the low water crossings — the spring water in this part of the country is pure enough to not need distilling and cold enough to be perfectly refreshing. You hardly see another soul as you putter down the road to the little town of Roosevelt; you try and hazard a guess as to how many cars and horses this stretch of highway sees in a day — whatever it is, it’s not many. The little town of Roosevelt is home to Camp Wagner, a lively tourist camp situated on the banks of the Llano. As you come into town from the south, you can see the tourist cabins of Camp Wagner dotted along the riverside, with a fair few travelers and holidaymakers out fishing and row boating on the river. Aside from the camp, a general store, and a boardinghouse, there is little to see in Roosevelt and you pass right on through quite quickly.
As you leave Roosevelt and approach yet another low water crossing over the Llano, you see something you’ve been dreading the entire trip: a stranded car. Right on the edge of the river sits a very dusty Maxwell Touring car; outside the car you see a man inspecting the front right wheel as his wife looks on in concern. You pull over to assist them, hoping and praying it isn’t a broken axle. Thankfully, it’s not — it’s just a leaky tire. The man claims that the tire was damaged after the couple ran over a particularly large stone in the road just a few minutes ago and was just about to cut some rubber off of one of his boots to patch the leak. Thankfully, you have a sturdy Firestone blowout patch and a piece of old inner tube in your trunk in case of just such an emergency. After prying off the damaged section of tire, you insert the blowout patch underneath the cracked rubber and push the old chunk of inner tube up against the patch to help prevent friction between the patch and the casing. The couple thanks you profusely for your help; the man shakes your hand and gives you two Peace dollars as a token of his appreciation. You modestly accept his offer with a mushmouthed “thank you very much” and you part ways with the couple, never to see them again.
It’s not long before you pass from Kimble County into Sutton County; you’ll most likely reach Sonora by around 4:00 PM. You pass by the little supply store at Camp Allison and the site of the old Fort Terrett on the headwaters of the North Llano. Once a cavalry fort on the old San Antonio-El Paso Road, it was abandoned in 1854 and has since been converted into a family-owned ranch. The road is still being worked on in this area; while you don’t see any construction crews out today, you do see evidence of newly graded gravel along the scenic bluffs of the North Llano. Not long after you cross the river for the last time, you encounter the first of many bumper gates that you’ll stumble upon in this part of the country. While certainly very convenient for ranchers, these novel new entryways are rather harrowing for motorists; you have to come to a complete stop right before the gate, shift into first gear, quickly lurch forwards to bump open the gate, and try to get out of the way in a hurry before the other side of the gate comes back around and gives your rear bumper a harsh smack. You also have to be very vigilant about sheep and goats following you in and out of the gates, as well as making sure there aren’t any animals hidden behind the gates before you bump them. They’re sort of like revolving doors in fancy hotels, except in fancy hotels you don’t have to worry about damaging your car or flattening someone’s goat.
After many more miles and a few more bumper gates, you arrive in the sizable town of Sonora. Sonora is still very much a pioneer town; with no rail access to speak of, supplies are carted in from cities such as San Angelo and Kerrville, both several hours away by wagon train. Despite its isolation, however, the town seems to be thriving, with two garages, a cafe, a general store, a tourist court, and a hotel. As you approach the town’s gaudy, ostentatious Second Empire-style courthouse, you pull into City Garage to restock on fuel and supplies. You take full advantage of the garage’s generous offer of free ice water before topping up your fuel and setting out once more. So far the car has performed admirably; no leaky tires, no broken axles, no radiator leaks, and amazingly, no overheating. To allay your worries, however, you pull out your trusty flax water bag from the trunk, fill it up with water, and hang it over the emblem on the front of the hood, which will help cool down the radiator as you venture further out into the desert. With everything packed and ready to go, you set out once more on the road towards Ozona as the sun casts long shadows on the ground.
The scenery between Sonora and Ozona is really more of the same, “the same” in this case being gargantuan ranches with bumper gates, mostly sheep and goat, situated amongst the rolling hills and increasingly scrubby foliage. About 20 minutes out of Sonora, you feel a sudden urge to use the facilities, no doubt due to your enthusiastic consumption of the free ice water earlier. With no manmade facilities in sight, you decide simply to pull over and use nature’s facilities. After strolling a sufficient distance away from the road, you pick a spot near a barbed wire fence to do your business. While your trousers are unbuttoned, however, you suddenly hear an unmistakable rattling sound. Oh boy, you think to yourself. This is going to get worse before it gets better. You look to your left and about 15 feet away sits a decent-sized rattlesnake, not fully coiled but definitely aware of your intrusion and possibly rearing to strike. Following your grandfather’s advice, you stand still and try not to make any sudden movements as a way of assuring the snake that you’re not an immediate threat. After a brief staring contest, the snake’s rattle dies down and it flicks its tongue at you a few times before turning away. You slowly walk backwards away from the snake, pants still unbuttoned, but mercifully the snake starts to slither away. Once you know you’re safe, you button up at long last and make a beeline for the car. It’s easy to forget just how vulnerable you really are out in the boondocks, particularly when you’re caught with your pants down.
Ozona reminds you a great deal of Sonora; both are isolated towns without rail access that rely mainly on the Old Spanish Trail and both are major centers for wool and mohair. However, Ozona also marks the beginning of the great oil fields of west Texas, with many wells scattered to the north and the west. As you approach the surprisingly massive Hotel Ozona, you weigh the decision of whether or not you want to press on to Sheffield and Fort Stockton or just pull in and stay in Ozona for the night. You’re exhausted, your arms are weak, and the sun is already in your eyes. Try as you might, you just can’t stomach the thought of four more hours of this. At exactly 6:30 PM, you pull up to the hotel, shut off the engine, and take a moment to reflect on the 200-odd miles you covered in just eight hours. Just a generation ago, covering such distance without taking the train would’ve taken an incredible amount of effort and skill. Nowadays it’s as easy as turning a motor on and off. Who knows what the future will hold? Maybe the whole country will be linked by asphalt or concrete-paved roads, four or more lanes wide, with speed limits as high as 60 miles per hour! You leave the key in the engine, grab your trunk, and head on into the hotel, ready to have a nice dinner and retire for the night. It’s a long, lonely, dusty road ahead of you, but you’re ready for it.
Texas Transportation Museum (www.txtransportationmuseum.org)
Old Spanish Trail Centennial website (www.oldspanishtrailcentennial.com)
David Rumsey Map Collection (www.davidrumsey.com)
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection (legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/)
Historic Aerials by NETR Online (historicaerials.com)
National Bridge Inventory Data (bridgereports.com)
Hotel Historian Blog (blogs.uh.edu/hotel-historian/)
Texas Escapes Online Magazine (www.texasescapes.com/)
My Texas Mornings, Rita McWhorter (www.texasmornings.com/)
Traveling West on The Old Spanish Trail Highway, Louis J. Blume Library, St. Mary’s University (library.stmarytx.edu/ost/roadway/)
Rand McNally Auto Road Atlas of the United States and Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, 1927
Old Spanish Trail Travelog, West Texas Edition, 1925
Official Automobile Blue Book: Volume Four (Western and Transcontinental), 1923