THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Beneath Texas sands, a historic ranch awaits funding for preservation

Archeologist Cyndi Dickey worked to protect a wall at Rancho de las Cabras, a birthplace of the Texas ranching industry. Sand covers much of the site while funds are sought for preservation. Archeologist Cyndi Dickey worked to protect a wall at Rancho de las Cabras, a birthplace of the Texas ranching industry. Sand covers much of the site while funds are sought for preservation. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)
By Michelle Roberts
Associated Press / December 25, 2009

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FLORESVILLE, Texas - 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 them.

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 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 else in the world,’’ said Park Service archeologist Susan Snow. “The mission ranches brought what we know today as the modern cattle industry.’’

The 100-acre site about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio was donated 32 years ago to the state, which handed it to the Park Service nearly 15 years ago as an 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 archeologists could fully document and shore up the site. Until a month ago, no one had seen them since.

Archeologists from the 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 Rancho de las Cabras has received funding only for relatively modest road improvements or maintenance. Otherwise, it needs a congressional appropriation - something 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 citizens.

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.