Margaret Hoogstra, regional coordinator for the Texas Forts Trail, spoke at a recent luncheon of the Early Chamber of Commerce. Hoogstra said rural Texas is the number two leisure destination in the state’s tourism industry. She called it “heritage tourism.” The term may have different meanings, but one is that it defines historical and cultural tourism attractions like those found on the 650-mile Texas Forts Trail. Coincidentally, we had just returned from traveling parts of the trail the day before Hoogstra’s talk in Early.
I could say my wife and I were staying close to home this summer because of the high cost of gasoline, but truth be told, traveling in rural Texas is our number one choice for touring. The destination this time was Fort Davis. Recognized as the highest town in Texas at 4,900 feet, the cool temperatures make the town an attraction for visitors during summer months. According to the travel brochures, prior to the advent of air-conditioning, the climate brought vacationers from East Texas and the Hill Country. It presented an especially attractive destination for us this August with the unusually high temperatures that seemed to start far too early in Brownwood. The summer months can bring occasional showers in the Davis Mountains and in our short stay we experienced several of them. The cloud cover in the evenings put a damper on star gazing and kept us from visiting the McDonald Observatory, but we found it exhilarating to renew our experience with rain.
It was 30 years ago this summer, 1978, that our family made its first excursion into West Texas. We briefly visited Fort Davis on the way to our intended destination, Carlsbad Caverns. Another trip we stayed in Fort Davis attending a West Texas Press Convention, but most of the time was consumed by activities of the newspaper convention. We were determined this trip was going to allow time to explore the town.
Our first stop was the fort for which the town is named. Fort Davis is a National Historic Site and is administered by the National Park Service. It was a key post in the defense system of West Texas. From 1854 until 1891, troops stationed at the post protected travelers and mail coaches on the San Antonio-El Paso road. One can see the remnants of the road that traversed through the fort. Named after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the fort is located in a box canyon on Limpia Creek and surrounded by cliffs known as the Apache Mountains. The Trans-Pecos region was home to few Indians, but Mescalero Apaches came down from southeastern New Mexico and Comanches and Kiowas came in from the plains raiding the settlers. The last major military campaign involving troops from Fort Davis occurred in 1880 and the fort was abandoned in 1891 in an effort by the army to consolidate its frontier garrisons.
Another self-guided tour visitors can take while in the area is the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens. One can take an easy walk from the visitor’s center along a path that leads them by native plants and trees, most of which have labels identifying them in route to a cacti and succulent greenhouse. There are also hiking trails for the more adventurous visitors that lead to beautiful overlooks. We hiked the Modesta Canyon Trail that led down into a beautiful canyon and Modesta Spring providing crystal clear water for a stream flowing through the canyon.
The woman who rented us the small adobe cottage in which we stayed recommended a 75-mile drive she said was as much a “must see” as the observatory. The drive climbs north out of Fort Davis on Highway 118 toward the observatory and shortly past the turn off (78) to it, the drive turns south on 166. The ranch road goes south and then loops back northeast into Fort Davis. The topography and geology of the countryside changes often and sometimes abruptly. The innkeeper was correct. The nearly two-hour drive was worth every minute of it.
Heritage tourism represents many things - it may be historic forts and national landmarks of natural beauty. It can also be a leisurely walk through the streets of a quiet town taking in the different architectural styles and stopping to eat at a restaurant that is not a carbon copy of one in a hundred other towns. It is the things that make communities unique and attract visitors.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.