That description was heard numerous times among those attending the celebration marking the Tropical Trail Region’s 100th event: a tour of Mission Sin Caja, an authentic replica of a Spanish mission and the 1800s era village of Lonesome Dove, an authentic South Texas town fashioned after the village in the movie “Lonesome Dove.”
The people referred to as visionaries were Kurt House and Charles and Nancy Hundley—the brainchildren of the South Texas destinations.
House, who had the authentic Spanish mission constructed, said the legend of Sin Caja can be found in J. Frank Dobie’s book, Coronado’s Children.
He added that when people think of history in South Texas, usually the King Ranch comes to mind. He said much more history—rich history—can be found in South Texas, and it needs to be taught.
For example, writer and author J. Frank Dobie was born on a ranch in Live Oak County, the same county where House’s ranch and mission are located.
He said the Sin Caja legend dates back to the 1850s, when a pack train was traversing the Nueces Strip, that area of rolling hills and brush between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande.
The 30-donkey pack train was loaded with silver and arrived at the only “mountain” in the brush country that dominates the Nueces Strip, which is rolling hills and flatlands.
A 14-year-old boy with the pack train was sent off to gather fresh water.
When he returned, all of the pack train’s members had been killed.
The boy buried the men in shallow graves without coffins. It is said that the silver was also buried somewhere in the area.
The mountain or mesa thereafter was called the Mesa Sin Caja (without coffins mesa).
The mission, constructed of 1,200 tons of limestone and designed after the Mission Conception in San Antonio, was named Mission Sin Caja.
Looking south from the Mission Sin Caja on House’s Live Oak County ranch, one can see Mesa Sin Caja jutting up out of the earth about 10 miles away in the Nueces Strip.
House added that Live Oak County’s native son, J. Frank Dobie, should be remembered always for chronicling South Texas history and legend.
House said the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war between the United States and Mexico also set the border between the two countries. Mexico wanted the Nueces River, and the United States wanted the Rio Grande as the geographical element marking the border.
The United States won that argument as it had won the war, but the Nueces Strip then became one of the most dangerous areas in Texas.
“The Nueces Strip is a significant part of Texas history. It was the wildest outlaw infested area, especially in the 1870s-80s,” House told the 107 participants on the Tropical Trails tour.
Consequently, McNelley’s Rangers came to clean up the area.
McNelley and his Texas Rangers were responsible for breaking up the Sutton-Taylor feud in DeWitt County, but he also was credited for stopping Mexican bandits and rustling in the Nueces Strip, often using unorthodox methods—even crossing the border against orders not to.
House said these examples were reasons why he built his Mission Sin Caja. The mission also serves as a memorial to his parents, a gathering place for his family and a place for hunters to stay.
“Live Oak County should have a historical place for the children to learn history. My vision is for school children to have a living history place to learn the Mexican, Spanish heritage,” he said.
“You can’t find this history in most books...maybe the King Ranch,” he said.
So in 2002, the first plans began to form for the construction of the mission.
“I wanted Rio Grande type architecture,” he said.
He also started a vineyard and plans to produce Mission Sin Caja wine. Nearby, just as a real mission would have had in its day, a pen of Texas longhorn cattle greets visitors.
“When I was a kid, I played on that mesa,” said Dewey Bellows, who was born in Live Oak County and now resides in Refugio. Bellows was with a large contingent of Refugio Countians on the tour.
Bellows said he and his young friends never knew about any silver on Mesa Sin Caja, but he remembers caves in the mesa, even one that went clear to the top.
To contact House about a tour or event, go to www.missionsincaja.com.
“It was extremely interesting,” said Shirley O’Neil, president of the Bee County Historical Society and member of the county’s commission.
“I liked the tour. I loved the storytellers,” she said.
Several storytellers in re-enactment garb captivated tour goers at the Mission Sin Caja.
“I have a lot of ties to Live Oak County and a lot of ties to Sin Caja,” she added.
O’Neil’s parents married in 1932. “They lived out there in tents,” she said.
“They would go walking – Mom was 15 – on the (mesa) and one time they saw a rabid coyote, and they killed it with rocks,” O’Neil said.
“It was tough living. You had to be tough. At 15 years old – What do they know? ‘It’s sick. Let’s get rid of it,’” O’Neil said.
She said the Mesa Sin Caja is territory she was familiar with.
“It’s something I knew something about. It is memories of my folks, their early years and their way of life,” she said.
Mary Margaret Campbell of George West, said she especially loved the re-enactors: Garza Montemayor and W.W. Wright, two important 19th century personage to the history of Nueces County.
The Nuecestown Gunfighters and South Texas Historians provided the re-enactments.
As with House’s mission creation, the Hundleys have also established a village where history comes alive in north McMullen County.
Based on the movie “Lonesome Dove,” a story by Larry McMurtry, and a town where a cattle drive begins, Lonesome Dove Village mirrors that town and history.
In the book, we read about the town of Lonesome Dove, a dusty border town, where two partners, Gus McRae and Capt. Woodrow Call, decide to drive cattle to market.
The story is based on two real people in history: Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving.
Charles Hundley said he couldn’t bring the country to the city for Nancy, so he “brought the city to the country.”
“All cities start the same way: a hodgepodge. If there is a need, you build for it,” he said.
He added that he and Nancy were getting the question, “How many can you sleep?”
“So we built the hotel,” he explained.
He said people come to Lonesome Dove Village for the experience, not just the hunt, meeting or wedding.
Participants of the tour were treated to four realistic shoot-outs by re-enactors.
The Hundleys have also constructed the second man-made bat cave in Texas. After a year of being complete, the bats visit, but they have not taken up residence.
Bats are beneficial to ranchers because of the amount of insects they eat.
Charles says he will put bat houses in the cave to entice them. Once the bats take residence, the cave can accommodate up to a million of them.
The village includes a hotel, saloon, general store, assaying office, church (weddings are held here), jail, saddle shop and others. Most of the buildings have lodging in them, including the jail.
To contact the Hundleys about hunting and lodging, business meetings, and other events, go to www.highlonesomehunting.com.
Campbell praised House and the Hundleys for what they were doing: “Keeping the history of a simple time alive in the cyber age. These people have paid keen attention to detail.”
Irene Muguerza, of Refugio, said “Just awesome. I want to go back and see what I missed.”
Tim Delaney is the editor of the Refugio County Press. Contact him at 361-526-2397 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.