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Ruins of the commanding officers quarters at Fort McKavett

Ghosts of a bygone era stand pale white on the Texas plain; buildings that represent a time when the polite Victorian culture of the east collided with the harsh reality of the wilds of Comanche country.

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Recently our office volunteered to whitewash at Fort McKavett State Historical Site. As well as getting to experience the technique of traditional finishing process, this fort affords the opportunity to experience valuable architectural precedents first hand. Perched on a hill on the banks of the San Saba River and nestled in the heart of Comancheria, it also gives us a glimpse into frontier life and stands as an enduring monument to Texas history.

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Founded in the 1850’s to protect settlers in nearby towns against the Indians, the location of the fort occupied an important location for American soldiers trying to defend the Anglo-Texan frontier.  The river and springs made this a spot resplendent with resources situated near the upper route between San Antonio to El Paso.   The hope was that the fort would offer protection to the migrating immigrant settlers.

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Proposed location for fort

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The San Saba river

Near by, just 20 miles from McKavett sit the Ruins of Presidio San Sabá, where 100 years earlier the Spanish mission  was initially set up to defend the Lipan Apaches against the Comanches–which as the test of history shows ended up being an exercise in futility.

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Ruins of Presidio San Sabá near Menard

Originally a civilian settlement McKavett went through several shifts in residents before closing in 1859 after being abandoned by it’s inhabitants for safer territory. Eventually, it was opened as a military post by the U.S. Infantry in 1869. The fort was closed again in 1883, but some civilians remained and the town survived and grew.

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Early map of Fort McKavett

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The fort that Sherman called “the prettiest post in Texas”

During the military occupation there were Dragoons–which later became Cavlary–infantry, as well as soldiers from all of the four famous Buffalo Soldier regiments who lived in the fort. The first Medal of Honor was awarded to an African American soldier for his service after the Civil War here.  The fort also boasted the first weatherman in the area as well as well paid women who served as laundresses. McKavett was a major supply depot and provisioner of the other forts to the West.

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After the hostilities were resolved and settlers moved into Fort McKavett the fort began it’s 2nd civilian history. It was designated a state historic site in 1968, but the last residents did not abandon the fort permanently until 1973.

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The fort school in 1894

The fort was built mostly of whitewashed stone partly due to a shortage of wood in the area. Whitewashing is an inexpensive lime based paint. It has been used in both interior and exterior applications and has mildly antibacterial properties. In American culture it has long been associated with poverty–and a southern expression even developed “too proud to whitewash, too poor to paint.”

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close up of the whitewashed wall

The settlers would make their own lime over the course of a few days in a kiln they built. Many other ingredients can be added to the whitewash mixture including  water glass, glue, egg white, Portland cement, salt, soap, milk, flour, and soil to name a few. Colors and tints can also be added to create colored washes.

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Kiln to make lime used in plaster for the buildings as well as in privies at the fort.

In the UK, the color Suffolk pink that graces many a house in rural England (now a paint color) originated as a whitewash tinted with animal blood.

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An example of “suffolk red” orginally created from tinted whitewash

As well as for houses, whitewash is commonly applied to the bottom of trees all over the world, especially fruit trees, to prevent sun scald.

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An early image of fruit trees in Texas with their trunks whitewashed

Another way that whitewashing was used was as an easy way for the Germans to apply winter camouflage during the second world war.

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In the present, the day couldn’t be more beautiful and the work of applying the whitewash is relaxing and gratifying. I realize why the site is considered one of the best preserved examples of a Texas military post. With the exception of the ruins of the commanding officers quarters, the structures stand remarkably intact as you will see in the photos to follow taken by different members of our staff.

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A view of the river from the porch

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The road cuts through what would have been a vista that stretched as far as the eye could see

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A crew from Michael G. Imber, Architects lend their hand at whitewashing

Walking around the site, with well worn rocks standing the test of time against the weather and the effects of countless people reminds me of the permanence that certain architecture can achieve to speak to us of generations that have come before. Easy visions of how people lived visit us as we paint and I am grateful for the care taken to preserve such a Texas treasure.

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