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Home Improvement

Repairs are needed at Big Bend Ranch’s historic Sauceda House.

By Melissa Gaskill

A time machine occupies the center of Big Bend Ranch State Park, and it could use a little work.

In reality, Sauceda House is an authentic early 1900s ranch dwelling. It operates a bit like a time machine by giving visitors a taste of early ranch life in this remote and rugged corner of the state. About 100 years of use, the past 10 of those by paying customers, have left their mark on the house, currently closed to visitors and awaiting a possibly extreme makeover.

This state park takes in land from nearly half a dozen former ranches, including the Chillicothe-Saucita formed in 1905 by George A. Howard. Saucita, Spanish for “little willow,” referred to trees growing around nearby springs. Howard set up the operation’s center in what is now the Sauceda Historic District and park headquarters. (No one seems to remember when or why Saucita became Sauceda.)

Sauceda House

Sons of neighboring rancher W.W. Bogel bought the land in 1915 and established their ranch headquarters there. By 1923, the Bogels worked more than 25,000 acres and had brought their families to the site. At that time, the house had two bedrooms and a bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen.

World War I, drought and the Great Depression conspired against the families, and in 1934 they sold the ranch to brothers Edwin and Manny Fowlkes. Manny and his wife, Patricia, expanded the house in the 1950s to accommodate their six children, installing Mexican floor tile indoors and out.

The Fowlkeses, too, lost the ranch, this time to drought and a wool market crash; in 1958, Len G. McCormick of Midland bought it from banks holding the notes. McCormick built the bunkhouse and several outbuildings still in use. He later sold to his partner, Julian Sprague, who died shortly thereafter. Sprague’s family sold the property to Robert O. Anderson, a rancher and oilman with holdings in New Mexico and, for a time, the largest private landowner in the country. Anderson planted palm trees and built low adobe walls around the yard of the house. After a brief stint as a private hunting lodge run by Walter Mischer of Lajitas Resort fame, the ranch became Texas Parks and Wildlife Department property in 1988.

“One reason we maintain the ranch house in its original style is because it allows people to step into that way of life for a while,” says park Superintendent Karl Flocke. “Some people come to stay in the house specifically to experience the old Texas ranch mystique, the fantasy of this being your ranch. And because it’s a state park, public land, this actually is your ranch.”

The main living area has a beautiful floor of handmade tiles, likely from Chihuahua City, Mexico, according to Flocke. But many individual tiles have worn edges and faded colors, the result of decades of use and the rigors of cleaning what has been, essentially, a tiny hotel.

A shared fireplace between the living and dining rooms probably once served as the main heating source for the house. Some furnishings came along when TPWD acquired the ranch, including a 10-person wooden table in the dining room beneath an incongruous oil painting called The Unicorn Defends Itself, a depiction of one of a series of seven tapestries known as the Hunt of the Unicorn. Woven between 1495 and 1505, possibly in Brussels, the originals hang in The Cloisters in New York City. Perhaps the painting belonged to Anderson, a collector of Indian art as well as head of a million-plus-acre ranch and chairman and chief executive of what eventually became Arco. Or, maybe real estate developer and Houston banker Mischer brought it here. It’s something for future diners to ponder.

Sauceda House

The house has a spacious, fully furnished kitchen; three bedrooms, each with a fireplace; and two bathrooms featuring skilled tilework, including a tiled bathtub in one.

A screened-in porch stretches the width of the east side of the house — a very pleasant place, especially in the evening. The historic district sits at about 4,300 feet above sea level, which makes it some 10 degrees cooler than down on the Rio Grande on any given day.

A tile mural on the porch sports more gaps than a 5-year-old’s smile, the missing tiles carefully placed on a nearby window sill like teeth awaiting the tooth fairy. One comes off in Flocke’s hand as he contemplates what it would take to repair this and many other aches and pains of the structure.

“Parts of the house are 100 years old,” he says. “We don’t want to just slap paint on something that isn’t right. We need to get down to the root of its troubles, things like old pipes and electrical wiring put in by ranch hands. In addition, we have been managing it for competing interests — the comfort and use of visitors, which involves providing what people expect from a hotel, versus its historic significance and preservation.”

In the spring, Flocke brought in TPWD historic architect Dennis Gerow to take a look at the house.

“I did my own assessment just based on observation,” Gerow says. “A lot of handmade things in the building will be difficult to replicate.”

Sauceda House

During his inspection, Gerow noticed drainage issues around the perimeter of the building and asked an adobe expert from Marfa to look at the adobe wall. He also hired architects to assess the condition of the house and recommend priorities for its restoration.

Deterioration of walls due to moisture represents a major issue, says architect Laurie Limbacher, and the sources of the moisture need addressing first of all. Then, to determine the full extent of damage, the cement-based plaster covering the walls needs to be removed. TPWD faces decisions such as whether to replace the plaster, and with what, as well as what sorts of replacement fixtures and materials to use.

“Without a lot of documentation on these buildings, we don’t know if they had plaster originally, or a lot about the details,” says Limbacher. For example, the house currently has windows clearly added later in its history, but no one knows what type it had originally. “There are lots of decisions to make, and to do these things properly will take more time and effort. It is important to start doing something, though, because if these conditions are not addressed, the damage will continue.”

Another big issue is finding people to do whatever work eventually gets done.

“For people to journey all the way out there, the project needs to be big enough to make it worth it,” Gerow says. “But none of the work is impossible. Most of the structure is in reasonably good shape. It’s a simple building in terms of construction and well-built to begin with.”

Gerow says the ranch house is a significant piece of the landscape and culture.

“I’d like to see some upgrades to the aesthetics, including furnishings, to make it more authentic, representative of the area and the aspirations of the people who moved out there,” he says.

In other words, to make it once again a proper time machine, taking visitors back to the old ranching days on this wild landscape.

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