Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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From the Earth

Fort Leaton and the adobe legacy of Big Bend Ranch State Park. 

PERCHED ON A RIDGE, above the muddy Rio Grande, Fort Leaton State Historic Site in Presidio County rises naturally from the desert landscape, its tan adobe walls at home among the arid mountain ranges that encircle the horizon.

The 1848 trading post, which is the western gateway to Big Bend Ranch State Park, fits its surroundings for good reason: The earthen construction materials of mud, sand and straw come from the local terrain. For centuries, residents of the Big Bend region relied on adobe buildings because of the availability of such materials, the relative simplicity of adobe construction and the way thick adobe bricks keep interiors comfortable in the intense desert environment.

Covering 486 square miles in far West Texas, Big Bend Ranch State Park is home to numerous adobe buildings that persist across the park. The structures — some operational and others in various states of ruin — serve as landmarks in the region’s historical timeline.

“The adobes are the vernacular architecture down here and such an integral part of our history,” says David Keller, an Alpine-based archeologist and adobe specialist who owns D Keller Consulting. “They perform remarkably well in desert climates, and they’re just stunning aesthetically. It’s important for people to be able to experience an adobe like Fort Leaton because the building provides a dramatic thermal advantage compared to other building styles.”

A sprawling, 1-acre compound, Fort Leaton first took shape as a general store during the turbulent colonial era — when Indigenous, American and Mexican cultures collided on the frontier. Later in the historical timeline, adobe ranch homes such as Casa Reza and the Crawford-Smith House recall the boom-and-bust travails of shepherds and cattlemen of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Lajitas, about 50 miles downriver from Fort Leaton, the state park’s Barton Warnock Visitor Center brings the timeline into the modern era with the state park’s opening in 1991 and the growth of an ecotourism economy. (The Mission Style visitor center is not adobe, but the cement-fortified adobe bricks in the courtyard nod to the park’s earthen forebears.)


Crumbling Structures

THE INGENUITY and simplicity of adobe buildings — low-tech construction with earthen materials — also present maintenance challenges for park officials. The Chihuahuan Desert’s relentless wind and pounding rainstorms degrade the mud-based buildings if they’re not maintained, especially when a roof collapses. Old, neglected adobe structures are a common sight around the region, their mud bricks gradually melting back into the ground.

Given adobe’s historical relevance, however, Big Bend Ranch State Park has redoubled its efforts to care for the park’s adobe structures using traditional methods and materials. Earlier this year, the park called on Keller and adobe restoration expert Pat Taylor, of Mesilla, New Mexico, to conduct an adobe workshop for park employees at Fort Leaton.

“We had gotten away from the traditional methods of adobe, which is why you see the dilapidated nature of some of the adobe buildings in the park and some of the damage at Fort Leaton,” says Nathanael Gold, park complex superintendent. “We didn’t have the correct recipes and techniques to maintain our structures in the most appropriate and responsible way, staying true to traditional methods.”

Park archeologist Tim Gibbs says staff turnover and a lack of documentation in recent decades have resulted in a mishmash of maintenance techniques at Fort Leaton. Since the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reconstructed the fort in the 1970s, workers made repairs with chemical amendments, including adhesives, sealants and cement. The chemical products helped fortify the adobe plaster against the elements, but they also had the unintended consequence of not allowing the buildings to breathe.

“Cement stuccos were revolutionary in the sense that now you have a durable outer skin that erodes less and requires a lot less maintenance,” Gibbs says. “However, it also doesn’t allow moisture and salt to move through. What happens is you end up with moisture and salt rising from the ground and getting trapped. And then you have delamination of the outer plaster and the deterioration of the adobe bricks themselves.”


For the state park training, Keller and Taylor taught 10 staff members the basics of adobe construction and maintenance, such as using their hands to throw a base coat of adobe plaster onto the bricks. They also worked together to test different mixes of sand and dirt to find the best plaster recipe for patching the fort’s walls. Participants practiced their adobe skills on a mausoleum on the Fort Leaton property and on the fort’s 15-foot walls. 

The adoberos tested various types of clay-rich dirt gathered in the area and settled on an adobe plaster mix containing dirt, sand, straw and mule manure. The manure contains enzymes that help the bricks harden while retaining permeability to enable the moisture to shed.

Keller says the workshop made significant strides over a few days, and he hopes their work will propel the park’s adobe maintenance forward. “We really want to find the best clay source and the best sand-clay ratios to optimize our mixes and dial that in to start with,” he says. “What we’re encouraging them to do is eventually replace the entire exterior of Fort Leaton with unamended mud plaster, which is a huge thing to ask them to do.”  

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Multicultural History

THE CLIMATE BENEFITS of adobe are evident to visitors stepping inside Fort Leaton for a tour of the historic home. Even in summer, when the temperature averages more than 100 degrees, adobe’s thermal advantages make the rooms tolerable even without air conditioning. The walls, between three and four feet thick, moderate the daily temperature swings of the arid desert, keeping the interior cool in hot months and warm in the winter.

Historically, thick walls also provided protection from threats such as bandits and tribal raids. Former bounty hunter and trader Ben Leaton and his common-law wife Juana Pedraza moved from Mexico to Presidio del Norte in 1848, the same year the U.S. and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Historians believe a trading post may have existed on the property before the couple arrived, but Leaton and Pedraza are credited with establishing the outpost as we know it today. Leaton did not come by the land honestly — he paid the mayor of Presidio del Norte to forge a title for the surrounding acreage, dispossessing several Mexican farmers of their fertile riverside land.

The couple chose the location of their new home partially because it was situated on the Chihuahua Trail, a trade route linking Chihuahua City and San Antonio. Tour brochures and exhibits with period furnishings depict how the fort’s numerous rooms were likely used, including as a parlor, a dining room, a trading office with a sales window to the outside and a bakery with a wood-fired oven.

In the corral area within the fort’s perimeter, crumbling adobe partitions represent pens and jacales that could have accommodated traveling parties and their livestock when they stopped for shelter and provisions on the isolated frontier. A replica of a massive wooden wagon with 9-foot wheels recalls how freighters harnessed oxen to move silver bullion and other goods from Chihuahua City to the U.S.  


A litany of legends surrounds Fort Leaton — known locally as el fortin (the fort) — thanks to its multicultural history and the lawless nature of the frontier borderlands. Arian Velazquez-Ornelas, the fort's office manager, notes the orignal builders laid the brick tiling at different angles on the floor of adjacent parlor rooms. They did the same with the vigas, log beams that support the roof.

“It was supposed to confuse the Devil when he would swing over the valley from the Sierrita Santa Cruz [in Mexico] to the Chinati Mountains, wreaking havoc over the land,” says Velazquez-Ornelas, pointing outside to a notch in the mountains in Mexico. “The legend is that a priest actually climbed up there to do battle with the Devil and locked the Devil in a cave.”

Legend also holds that an altar built into the dining room wall stems from a fight over the fort’s ownership. As the story goes, a member of the Burgess family fatally shot Edward Hall — Pedraza’s second husband, whom she married after Leaton died — as he was dining. The Burgesses later moved into the fort, and just to be on the safe side, built the altar to ward off evil spirits.

Tales of diabolical conflicts and Old West assassinations don’t sound so far-fetched when you’re visiting the wide-open desert and Fort Leaton. The fort’s silent adobe rooms convey a sense of timelessness and immersion into borderland history. Connections like these are hard to create, which is why Big Bend Ranch State Park officials are intent on preserving this relic of the frontier.

Gibbs says the park’s recent adobe workshop was a small project, but “it represents hope for the long-term maintenance of this structure. We now have a formula and a method.”

And it all comes back to mud.  

Fort Leaton State Historic Site is one of several adobe buildings in Big Bend Ranch State Park. The land that is now the park has been home to at least 28 ranches established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to park officials. Many of those families lived in adobe houses, which are accessible to visitors today. The park requires entry permits, which are available at Fort Leaton and the Barton Warnock Visitor Center. Be sure to check weather conditions and carry plenty of water.

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Casa Reza

The Reza family settled in Panther Canyon in about 1907 and lived in a cave before building an adobe house.
They raised sheep and goats and drew water from the Ojo de Leon spring to irrigate corn, beans, pumpkins and chiles.

Hikers can reach Casa Reza by parking at the East Rancherias trailhead on FM 170 for the Rancherias Loop backpacking trail. The adobe ruins of Casa Reza, now covered by a sheet-metal roof, are about 7 miles into the 19-mile loop, adjacent to a cottonwood grove in Panther Canyon. Water is available at the spring.  


Sauceda Ranch

Constructed in the 1910s by the Bogel family, the Sauceda Ranch house is at the center of what would become Big Bend Ranch State Park. The family’s adobe house was expanded over the years under different owners and served for a time as a guest house for state park visitors. It’s now closed due to structural issues.

From Presidio, drivers can reach Sauceda Ranch by going east on FM 170 to Casa Piedra Road. Signage points the way about 20 miles to State Park Road and then Sauceda Ranger Station, which is home to a small museum and a bunkhouse with beds available for $35 a night.  

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Crawford-Smith Ranch

The Crawford family built this adobe house in 1915 along the Marfa-Lajitas Road in Fresno Canyon. Sustained by springs along Fresno Creek, the Crawfords raised angora goats and operated a candelilla wax factory. They also cultivated a vegetable garden, a citrus orchard, figs and grapes.

To reach the adobe ruins of the Crawford-Smith House, drivers with high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles can depart the Sauceda Ranger Station on Madrid Falls Road and travel about 9 miles to Mexicano Falls trailhead. The adobe home is at the end of a 1-mile hike.   


Casa Ramo and Chupadero Ranch

Ramon and Juana Aguirre built Casa Ramon about 1909 and raised nine children in the 13-by-18-foot house. Rehabilitated in 1982, the one-room house is in relatively good condition with a concrete floor and tin roof. Once owned by Aguirre, Chupadero Ranch is a crumbling adobe that changed hands multiple times and served as the home of a fence-builder named Amador Hernandez Estrada.

Located in the remote northern Cienega Region of the park, Casa Ramon and Chupadero Ranch are accessible from the East Casa Piedra Road Trailhead, which is about an hour’s drive from Presidio. It’s a difficult 9-mile one-way trip to see both sites.

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