SAN YGNACIO, Texas — About two centuries ago, a Mexican boy named Jose Villarreal and a companion were captured and taken by raiding Comanches north across the Rio Grande.
After the two escaped, they found their way out of the hostile wilderness by following the North Star.
The San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/2cP9jzj ) reports decades later, in 1851, Villarreal, a blacksmith, built a simple iron sundial that was placed over an arched stone doorway of “El Fuerte,” the oldest structure in this colonial river town.
According to local lore, the device, which keeps Mexico City time, was Villarreal’s tribute to the celestial body that had guided him and his companion to freedom.
As San Ygnacio approaches the bicentennial anniversary of its founding in 1830, the old sundial still presides over the massive old fort, which, after decades of decline, has been lately bustling with carpenters, masons and other workers.
“A year ago, the south stone wall was rubble. Now it’s quite lovely. This is a fabulous thing that you wouldn’t expect to see in a small town,” said Gigi Rodriguez of the River Pierce Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that owns the fort.
The dramatic ongoing resurrection of the structure, the oldest in San Ygnacio, is being funded by a $269,130 grant from the National Park Service, plus nearly as much in matching funds from sponsors.
Work began in June after five years of study and planning. If all goes well, the project will be finished by the end of the year.
River Pierce officials hope the restored fort will stimulate a cultural and business revival in San Ygnacio, a sleepy settlement of whitewashed Mexican-style structures, modest houses and mobile homes about 30 miles south of Laredo.
With a picturesque historic district and quiet streets where chickens and stray dogs wander, San Ygnacio evokes another time. It is anchored by a classical Mexican plaza with a gazebo, benches and a tiny, alabaster Catholic Church that was built in 1875.
Among the town’s better-known admirers was architect O’Neil Ford, who oversaw the renovation of San Antonio’s La Villita and designed the campuses of Trinity University and UTSA, among many prominent projects. He died in 1982.
“He was quoted as saying this plaza was a very beautiful example of border vernacular architecture. He loved the space, the place and thought it was romantic as well,” said painter Michael Tracy, a co-founder of River Pierce.
But the pulse of San Ygnacio has slowed with the years, and it now attracts few visitors.
“In a month, I’ll probably run into two to five strangers, and they are usually coming to look for birds. When the weather cools, a few people drive through just to check us out,” said Christopher Rincón, executive director of River Pierce.
“I’ve heard that 1,000 to 1,200 people live here, but I don’t know where they are. I’ve never seen them,” he added.
Surviving raids and floods
Despite nearly two centuries of trials, including raids by Indians and border bandits, war, accidental fires, hurricanes, river floods, ill-advised modifications and general neglect, the fort complex, which occupies half a city block, is largely intact.
“The incredible thing about this project is that it was almost untouched. San Ygnacio didn’t even have a paved road until 1935. The only thing that has touch it lately is the oil industry,” said restoration expert Frank Briscoe, 53, recently working at the site.
“This is all I do and it is probably the most challenging and gratifying project of my career,” said Briscoe, an architectural conservator.
Others, with deep local roots, also are involved in the project.
“I grew up here and whoever made that sundial was related to me,” said Jose Villarreal, 27, who with his younger brother Daniel now is working on the site.
“I’d come over and play inside. Everything was falling down. It was abandoned for 30 years,” said Villarreal, a pipeline welder idled by the slump in the oilfields.
A bumper sticker on his huge black welder’s truck, parked nearby, read: “Pipeliner wives have lots of problems. Money ain’t one of them.”
“Everyone is proud of the fort. In 30 years, I’ll be telling my grandchildren that I helped remodel it,” he added.
Known formally as the Treviño-Uribe Rancho, the old thick-walled structure on a bluff above the Rio Grande is one of the last good examples on the border of colonial Mexican ranch architecture.
Similar 18th- and 19th-century structures, including all those in Old Guerrero, Mexico, vanished under the rising water in 1953 when the river was dammed to make Falcon Reservoir.
The original structure, called “El Cuarto Viejo,” or the Old Room, was built in 1830 by Don Jesus Treviño, a city leader and rancher from Guerrero who established a ranch here in 1830.
Defense against raiding Indians dictated the construction. The original one-room building had 26-inch-thick stone walls, no windows, three heavy doors and an escape hatch to the fireproof roof.
The surviving mesquite door was secured by a mesquite cross bar and opens on heavy wooden pins at the top and bottom. Two towers once stood by the south door, complete with gun ports to fight off attacks. Along the outside wall, built much later, are more gun turrets.
Unlike other such border settlements which succumbed to Indian raids and were abandoned, San Ygnacio survived, grew and prospered, later under the leadership of Trevino’s son-in-law Blas Maria Uribe.
Eventually, the 8-foot stone wall was built to enclose the settlement and rooms were added. In several of them, dates and intriguing messages in Spanish were inscribed in the cypress roof beams, with some still legible.
“Let us work for Peace and Liberty,” reads one dated May 15, 1854.
Another, in a different room and dated Dec. 3, 1871, reads “The Peace of Jesus Christ Be With Us. Saint Ignatious, Pray for us.” In that room, historians noted, the builders no longer found the need for gun ports to defend against Indians.
By that era, San Ygancio was a ranching hub and an important border point for crossing cattle to Mexico. It also was a platted town with a church and more than 600 residents.
When the Texas-Mexico Railroad reached Laredo in 1881, its connection to the outside world finally was assured, ending the era of isolation, wagon trains and pack mules.
In subsequent years, San Ygnacio weathered cross-border ripples from the Mexican Revolution, and survived the damming of the Rio Grande.
The town got a reprieve after 200 residents signed a petition asking to be spared condemnation, noting its elevation placed it above the reservoir’s highest anticipated levels.
A rediscovered jewel
Unlike some historical buildings in San Ygnacio that were altered or modernized over the decades, the old Treviño-Uribe Rancho was relatively untouched, preserving it as a jewel to be rediscovered.
Workers, including the two Villarreal brothers, this month wrestled with the heavy new cypress roof beams in one of the dark old kitchens.
“It’s kind of a big day,” Briscoe, the restoration expert, said as the last beam was muscled into place.
“There must have been a fire here in the early 1800s. It destroyed all the vigas (roof beams) in the kitchen except one, so we used that one as an example,” he said, pointing to a charred beam.
With that job done, the first phase of the restoration came to an end.
“We’re at a real juncture. I think today we’ve finished the really heavy-lifting part. Now we shift to more detailed work,” he said.
And, said Briscoe as he gave a room-to-room tour, more historical revelations are likely to come to light soon.
“For me, one of the most mysterious parts is the Cuarto Viejo, the oldest structure in San Ygnacio. This is a pretty rare door. We think it’s an original from 1830. Instead of hinges, it has pintles,” he said of the mesquite pins.
“There are a lot of writings, even scratchings, on the back side of the door that we’d like to know more about. The leading theory is that they have something to do with Indian attacks,” he added.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com
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