The Ghosts of Camels Past – Part I

The Camp Verde Store ~ Then

Like donning a pair of well-worn boots, easing into rural Texas elicits sighs of pleasure. Scuffed in places, streaked with mud, even a bit run-down about the edges, the place is comfortable — often more functional than stylish, but not given to pinching the soul.

Over time, you discover that slipping into country life requires little more than a willingness to slow down. After leaving efficient but nerve-wracking interstate highways behind, I met the world’s most dependably satisfying burger in tiny Center Point, served up under a sign that read, “This is not Houston. This is not Dallas. We don’t do fast. We do good. Your choice.”  

It’s still the world’s best burger, and I still make the choice to stop every time I’m in the neighborhood. Then, hunger sated, I turn south and west, passing the fire-ravaged hay barn that lives only in memory; the determined Norfolk pine; the chickens and guineas ranging along the edge of River Road. Where frayed and fraying ropes hang like pendulous vines from swamp-worthy cypress, young boys swing out across the water, shrieking with delighted fear.

Though tempted to stop, to risk everything for one ecstatic arc across the Guadalupe, I turn away from the river, choosing instead to traverse the low-water crossings of Turtle Creek.

Even when the crossings are dry, flood gauges belie the serenity of sun-warmed rock and gurgling, placid water. The creek can run hard, fast and deep as many rivers. When I find it in flood, I’m forced to turn, to retrace my route, to improvise. Moving up and around the ever-steepening hills, I cross one ridge and then another, descending at last to the nearly hidden and unmarked turn onto narrow, rutted caliche: my way through limestone and cedar into the silence of the valley.

Up on the ridges, sight is everything, and realtors sell the view as much as they do the house. But in the valley, it’s sound which enlivens the day and limns the contours of the night.

The rough starting cough of a chain saw; the faint polyphony of bees worshipping before mountain laurel; the sharp, upward cry of a suddenly plunging kestral: all are familiar, but none communicates the essence of “country” (or the comings and goings of neighbors on the ridge) more dependably than the percussive slap of a screen door.

Cabins and houses aside, the best doors along the Bandera Highway may have been those at the old Camp Verde store. Combining a final, substantive Thwack! with an assortment of sproings, whines, flutters, and squeaks, the doors never failed to amuse. Given their entertainment value, it was worth pulling one open a time or two, simply to hear it close.

If you had the time and needed a break from antiquing, or fence-pulling, or bike-riding, you could stop at the store, pull an old-fashioned soda in an old-fashioned glass bottle from the ice-filled, old-fashioned washtub, then settle in to listen to the doors’ thwack and sproing as old-fashioned cowboys passed by, touching their hats in gestures of respect: as if it were their sole pleasure in life to greet you before picking up their mail.

Then, everything changed. Traveling from Bandera one day, I decided to stop at Camp Verde and purchase a drink at the store.

To my confusion and dismay, the old General Store seemed to have disappeared. The only building visible from the road, a great heap of Hill Country limestone, was surrounded by manicured grounds and a huge parking lot. It might have been an expensive Kerr County home, or a shop designed in the style affectionately known as Faux Fredericksburg.

The Camp Verde Store ~ Now

Doubling back, I parked and began to explore. Thanks to a marker placed next to the front doors by the State Historical Society, I knew I’d  arrived at the Camp Verde General Store and Post Office, but the old general store I’d known and loved had been renovated, transmogrified, spiffed up, or destroyed: depending on your point of view.

In lieu of thwacks and sproings, the heavy wood and glass entry doors closed soundlessly. Railings and landscaping militated against porch-sitting. The newly-added restaurant was beautiful, with an appealing menu, but the tin wash tub filled with ice was gone.

On the other hand, it was clear that the new owners of the store, San Antonio-based Camelot Hills Group, LLC, had taken substantial care to connect the new, glizty retail space with the building’s history and the local community. Donated hats and boots — many inscribed with signatures and well-wishes — line the walls.

Furnishings from the old store have been utilized everywhere: old counters and bins restored and rearranged to showcase new products.

The store’s collection of vintage advertisements delights the eye.

The post office endures, as well. Some of the original boxes share wall space with newer versions, but if you look closely, you can see the mail that’s been tucked into old and new boxes alike. Despite the changes, those gallant cowboys still come by to pick up their bills and advertising circulars.

To be sure, store shelves are stocked with the same upscale merchandise found in any Texas boutique — scent diffusers, high-end purses and kitchenwares, jarred candles, hand-painted bluebonnets. If you need deer corn, a come-along, or steel chain, you’d best head elsewhere.

On the other hand, purchases at Camp Verde are tucked into lovely bags, with lovely ribbons added by request.  Every bag carries the historic name, as well as the date of the store’s establishment.

It’s a memorable logo, but if you’re not from the area, or not familiar with Texas history, you might ask, as did one bemused customer, “What’s with the camel?”

Clearly, the camel is integral to the store’s marketing plan. It’s on a sign facing the road: vibrant and appealing.

Camels plod along stair railings, and peer at customers from behind the counters.

On a balcony, a stained glass version longs for sunlight to enliven its colors.

And on the front lawn, tucked between the store and Verde Creek itself, Arthur keeps watch: his presence a reminder of the role played by Camp Verde in one of the quirkiest episodes in U.S. military history.

Established as an Army post in 1855,  Camp Verde was surrendered to the Confederate government in 1861, re-occupied by the United States in 1865, and finally abandoned in 1869.

During the camp’s brief existence, it grew up around the Williams Community store: a precursor to the Camp Verde Store, and an establishment whose primary business seems to have been selling liquor to soldiers.

The men of Camp Verde might have been forgiven their desire for drink, since their camp had been declared headquarters for a caravan of camels, sent their way in 1856 by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

Camp Verde, 1861

Before going over to the Confederacy, Davis unsuccessfully pitched camels-as-transport to the Senate twice in the early 1850s. Then, in March, 1855, while serving as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, Davis found a way to fund his camel experiment. He attached a $30,000 rider for camel purchase and transport onto a bill meant to fund road and bridge repair in Illinois.

 THIRTY-THIRD CONGRESS, SECOND SESSION— Chap. 169. Sec 4.

And be it further enacted, That the sum of thirty thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby appropriated, to be expended under the direction of the War Deparment in the purchase of camels and importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes.

Approved March 3, 1855.

Over the next two years, as questions arose over the progress of the project, a second resolution was passed.

IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES. February 2, 1857.

Resolved, That the Secretary of War be directed to furnish the Senate with any information in his possession, showing the results of the trial of the camel as a beast of burden and for the transportation of troops; and showing, also, the characteristics and habits of the animal, and the number imported up to the present time.

The entire record of the correspondence has been preserved online, along with this cover letter:

War Department, Washington, February 24, 1857.
Sir: In compliance with the resolution… I have the honor to transmit herewith the correspondence and reports of the officers charged with the purchase and importation of the camel, and its employment for purposes of transportation in the military service of the United States, together with the information obtained from persons who were considered the best authority as to the general characteristics and habits of the animal.
Under the appropriation of $30,000, made on the 3d of March, 1855, seventy-five camels have been imported. The aid furnished by the Secretary of the Navy in the use of a storeship returning from the Mediterranean greatly reduced the cost of transportation, and enabled the department to introduce a much greater number of camels than was originally calculated, and has secured to the government the means of making the experiment upon a scale which will sufficiently demonstrate the adaptation of the animal to the climate and circumstances of our country and its value for military purposes.
The limited trial which has been made has fully realized my expectations, and has increased my confidence in the success of the experiment.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, JEFF’N DAVIS, Secretary of War

The first shipment of camels arrived at Indianola in the spring of 1856: only a decade after that community’s establishment at Indian Point, and thirty years before the port’s disappearance in a second, lethal hurricane.

Thanks to experienced handlers, the camels survived their voyage to Texas remarkably well, and no doubt moved inland more easily than did the German immigrants who preceded them. But their arrival at Camp Verde was only one moment in a long and remarkable saga: one stretching from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to Persia, to the wilds of Los Angeles.

As events unfolded, there would be other curiosities, including the Brush Arbor Apparition, and the Red Ghost. But those are different tales, for another day…


For background on the Texas port of Indianola and its role in early immigration and trade, please see Winds of Change: The Travelers.
Comments are welcome, always.

The Capitaines and the Chickens

Boudreaux’s been much on my mind of late.

In 2012, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens in art and literature, he emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want the complete chicken experience, come to Cajun country for a real Mardi Gras. They dance for chickens over here.”

As proof, he sent along Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. After watching the hour-long film with a certain degree of astonishment, I tucked the link into my bookmarks and resolved to make my own run to the Louisiana prairie to witness the celebrations.

A year later, and the year after that, I remembered Boudreaux’s email only after it was too late to make plans. Each year, I watched the film again and thought,”Next year.”

This year, I remembered, and made some inquiries. After a few phone calls, a conversation or two, and a text, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called a friend who lives in Louisiana’s bayou country and said, “Pack your bags. We’ve got chickens waiting.” (more…)

Published in: on February 21, 2015 at 11:59 am  Comments (97)  
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La Danse de Mardi Gras

Say “Mardi Gras,” and it’s almost guaranteed: most people will think first of New Orleans. Other cities have their celebrations, but only in New Orleans has the combination of beads, bare breasts, fancy-dress balls, beer and Bourbon Street been elevated to high art.

In Cajun country, there’s no lack of beer and beads, but the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras at the center of the celebration has a slightly different emphasis: community, Capitaines, charity and chickens. (Yes, chickens. More about that later.)

In places like Iota, Church Point, Eunice and Mamou, the Mardi gras (when used as a plural for participants, it’s pronounced “grahz”) prepare for the courir, or run, under the direction of their Capitaine.  On horseback or in wagons, they visit surrounding farms, collecting ingredients for the communal gumbo that will be served later that night.

In exchange for rice, potatoes, or even a chicken, the Mardi gras frolic for the entertainment of the farmer and his family, singing a variation of a song known variously as  La Danse de Mardi Gras or La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras. A mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and often heard in dance halls or concerts, the song may be the oldest in the Cajun repertoire.
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Published in: on February 14, 2015 at 10:37 am  Comments (91)  
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Winds of Change, Part I – That Prescient Name

Detail from a painting of the lost city of Indianola, Texas ~ Shannon Salyer
Courtesy Calhoun County Museum (Click image to view the complete painting)

Today, the privilege of naming a community seems reserved for real estate developers. The names they choose for subdivisions, gated communities, or urban high-rise housing — Candlewick, Pickwick Village, The Towers — function primarily as marketing tools. While the names may reflect an area’s history, or a neighborhood’s geographic location, often they do not.

In times past, residents named their own nascent communities. If contention over the choice arose among the citizenry,  or if conflict developed between a town and the Postal Service, the history of the naming process could become as interesting as the history of the town itself.

Some places changed their name so often even residents could forget where they lived. In New Hampshire, the Plantation of Penney Cook became Penney Cook; then Pennacook; then Rumford; then Concord. In Arizona, Swilling’s Mill became Hellinwig Mill; then Mill City; then East Phoenix. Finally, the name we know today — Phoenix — became permanent.

Some names were obvious choices. Washington, Franklin, Madison, and Jackson rose to prominence as Americans honored men who contributed to the nation’s founding. On the other hand, Oxford, Paris, New London, and Winchester became almost as popular. It’s easy to imagine a little nostalgia in the naming process: perhaps even a longing to be as well-regarded as more historic cities. (more…)

Published in: on January 12, 2015 at 7:56 pm  Comments (80)  
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The Warmth of the Frio

The Rio Frio came by its name honestly. Spring-fed, shallow and clear, it’s a cold river: perhaps the coldest in Texas.  It can slow to a trickle in summer heat, and, when in flood, puts roadways underwater in a flash.  But if the Frio is flowing well, singing steadily over the rocks, its coursing is pure pleasure.

Other Texas rivers — particularly the Guadalupe, the Comal, and the San Marcos — are famed as venues for kayaking and tubing, but they flow through urban centers. When the season ends and river rats dry off for a final time, there still are dance halls and concerts, festivals, antique shops, and galleries to entertain the crowds.

Along the Frio, things are different.  As the weather turns and school begins, provisioning companies shutter their doors until spring.  Families continue to gather at Garner State Park for weekends of camping and fishing, and birders flock into the valley to track the autumn migration. Hunters fan out into ranchlands in pursuit of whitetail, while autumn bikers test themselves against the famous hairpin turns and steep grades of the “Twisted Sisters.”  Still, the pace of life begins to slow. As it does, the Frio and her people show a different face to the world: a face filled with unexpected beauty and warmth.
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Published in: on December 7, 2014 at 4:58 pm  Comments (99)  
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