BRONTE, Texas — I was zipping through the sere, dry landscape of west Texas on U.S. 277 when I suddenly saw the sign.
“Fort Chadbourne. Ride on in!!”
I was on my way to another historic fort, Fort Concho, a National Historic Landmark in San Angelo, still about 50 miles away. But once I noticed the giant cowboy-boot spur (the world’s largest, no doubt) that acts as an entry gate, I knew I had to take a look.
Fort Chadbourne, I learned during my visit, was the immediate predecessor of Fort Concho.
The army built the first fort in 1852 to protect the frontier, but after the Civil War moved the outpost to the new Fort Concho, located on the Concho River, where water was much more plentiful.
The older fort, which was completely abandoned in 1873, has been undergoing restoration since 2001. The story behind that restoration might be as interesting as the fort itself.
The historic site and large museum represent a completely private venture, headed up by Garland Richards, whose family has ranched the land where the old fort sits for generations.
Richards said that when he was young, he assumed that every boy grew up playing in the ruins of an abandoned Indian Wars-era fort. When he grew up and learned they didn’t, he eventually decided to share his good fortune with the world.
Although discouraged in the venture by preservation “experts,” he pressed on, he said.
Richards established the Fort Chadbourne Foundation, and using much of the material from the original fort, he, with members of his family and other volunteers, re-erected many of the stone buildings on their original foundations.
The results certainly prove the naysayers wrong. The Fort Chadbourne Foundation even received a state preservation award for its innovative reconstruction and preservation techniques, methods that other historic sites have since adopted, Richards said.
Visitors today will find a new welcome center with a large and beautiful museum displaying many items, including many that Richards, who naturally became a history buff, collected himself.
The site is introduced with the museum’s Emmy-winning documentary “Lost Fort,” narrated by actor Barry Corbin, who I know best from his role on the TV series “Northern Exposure.”
Guests can even watch the video from authentic Western saddles. (Comfortable benches are available for those who don’t insist on such authenticity.)
Included in the museum’s collection are 400 historic firearms, military and American Indian artifacts — including hundreds of items unearthed during the fort’s renovation — and even a beautiful antique 19th-century bar, used to host receptions and other museum events.
During a visit to the museum, guests will learn about many of the men and women who made their mark at Fort Chadbourne or just passed through, including soldiers George Pickett, James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee.
One display honors all of America’s Medal of Honor recipients, including the six recipients who served at Fort Chadbourne.
On the grounds of the fort, visitors can tour six restored buildings and Butterfield Stage — the only fully restored stop in the state of Texas. The stage, which ran between St. Louis and San Francisco, had a stop at the fort from 1858 to 1861.
Visitors also will see many ruins, which have been stabilized but otherwise look much as they did when they were a playground for young Garland Richards.
For more information, call 325-743-2555 or visit www.fortchadbourne.org.
— Steve Stephens is a travel writer for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. Email him at sstephens @dispatch.com or follow him on Twitter @SteveStephens.