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Old Texas Mission Ranch Buried in Funding Limbo

posted on December 24, 2009

FLORESVILLE, Texas (AP) - Ruins that archeologists call one of

the last links to the original ranches and cowboys that shaped

Texas have been kept behind a gate, literally buried, for more than

two decades - awaiting the funding that would allow people to see


The 18th-century Rancho de las Cabras complex, with its stone

building remains, was a birthplace of the large commercial ranching

operations that would help define the state. Preservationists have

long hoped it could be fully excavated and opened to the public,

but so far, the site has been unable to attract the money it would

need from Congress or the National Park Service's stretched budget.

"It's one of these kind of once-in-a-lifetime sites. You're not

going to be able to see something like this anywhere in the

world," said National Park Service Archaeologist Susan Snow. "The

mission ranches brought what we know today as the modern cattle


The 100-acre site about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio was

donated 32 years ago to the state, which handed it to the National

Park Service nearly 15 years ago as addition to the San Antonio

Missions National Historical Park.

Texas park officials realized in the 1980s that they couldn't

afford to protect the ruins, so they covered the walls with sand in

an effort to prevent them from disintegrating before archaeologists

could fully document and shore up the site. Until a month ago, no

one had seen them since.

Archaeologists from the National Park Service and the University

of Texas-San Antonio removed some of the sand to see how the walls

were holding up and found them - some several feet high with their

mortar disintegrated - still standing.

There is still no money to preserve the site, so the park

service reburied the walls to protect them from the elements and

the feral hogs that roam the area.

Park Superintendent Scott Bentley estimates it would take $3

million to $4 million to preserve and open the site to the public.

It would cost $300,000 to $400,000 annually to operate it. Plans

were drawn up a decade ago and missions park officials hoped their

request would soon be funded.

But the site is in a queue with other proposed projects, and so

far Rancho de las Cabras has received funding only for relatively

modest road improvements or maintenance. Otherwise, it needs a

congressional appropriation - something National Park Service

employees are barred from directly lobbying for.

Rancho de las Cabras, like other mission ranches in south Texas,

was built by the Spaniards as a source of wealth for its mission

community, Mission Espada.

The missions were founded to turn indigenous tribes into Spanish

citizens, and the communities were built with farms and ranches to

offer financial support and protection from the raiding Apache and

Comanche Indians. Each mission had a prominent church, since the

native residents had to convert to Catholicism to become Spanish


The ranches were used to graze cattle, goats and sheep. The

Spanish transplants and Indian converts who drove herds to the

mission compounds for slaughter every 10 days were Texas' first

cowboys, Snow said.

Each of the five missions clustered along the San Antonio River,

including the Alamo, had its own ranch. Rancho de las Cabras, or

"goat ranch," had 1,272 head of cattle and 4,000 sheep and goats

at its peak in 1762. It supported about 170 people at Mission


As the ranches became part of larger tracts in Texas'

flourishing ranching industry, the remnants of most mission ranch

buildings and artifacts vanished to the elements and looters.

But Rancho de las Cabras had more than simple adobe or wooden

structures for shelter. It had permanent buildings including a

chapel and four adjoining rooms started in the 1750s with sandstone

quarried at the site. The chapel, which the archaeologists did not

uncover last month, is believed to have been plastered - a mark of

a more sophisticated development.

Archaeologists have also found remnants of some unexpected items

at the site, including decorated ceramics and rings with gems -

"things you wouldn't expect a cowboy to have," Snow said. There

is also a packed clay floor in the compound, like a patio, another

relative luxury for a ranching outpost, she said.

That has led to suggestions that the ranch, which sits 25 miles

from Espada and at the confluence of the San Antonio River and

Pecosa Creek, could have served passing travelers or had another

use in addition to providing food for its mission community, Snow


"This was an extraordinary operation," Bentley said, looking

at the remnants of the stone walls that were being covered again.

"It's one of those hidden treasures."


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