Las Norias de San Antonio
In 1806, surveyor Jose Antonio de la Garza, working on behalf of the Spanish officials in Mier, traversed the land grant to be called “San Antonio Viejo.” Included in his notes were stark observations on the lack
of suitable water across the land in question. Despite Garza’s inspection, he could not have known about the vast groundwater resources that would one day support a thriving community. Nor could he have known of the innovations that would be used to access such water. Garza did find one small laguna he called “San Antonio.” On later maps this same laguna was called El Guajolote – “the turkey.” Most notably, in the 19th century, El Guajolote was one of the few areas of surface water mapped between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River.
Over the decades that followed, the community of San Antonio Viejo grew nearby to El Guajolote and served as a station along the major trade route to Mier through Roma and Rio Grande City. The community was sometimes referenced as las Norias de San Antonio – the San Antonio Wells. The area was a military camp. A center of commerce and a way-station for travel between commercial centers of Corpus Christi and San Antonio to the North and Mexico to the South.
It’s the Wells!
As the name suggests, it was the wells at San Antonio Viejo that made it possible for the area to be such an oasis in the Wild Horse Desert. It was the innovations of early Tejano ranchers and merchants that transformed this area. And those innovations constantly involved water – how to get it, and how to move it. In the early years, it was shallow hand-dug wells that fed the community and the demands of livestock. As the community grew the water demands must have stressed the capacity of the few hand-dug wells in the area.
There is good evidence that those Tejano ranchers stayed on the edge of innovation, even though they were isolated in the remotest reach of South Texas.
Here is the evidence. About a half mile north of the old community (now known as Rancho Viejo) is an old hand-dug well that has all the signs of being well over 100 years old. Taken alone, this is not that unusual,
for there are over a dozen such wells on the San Antonio Viejo. What is unusual are the other things in and around that well.
Next to the well is a heavy cast-iron pump. With a little research on the markings on this pump body, we discovered that it was manufactured in Beloit, Wisconsin and was used during the 1870s into the 1890s – evidence shows this to be a pump (a working head) used for an original “Eclipse” windmill. The original Eclipse was a wooden windmill, and it was uniquely designed to adjust to changing wind speeds, as well as direction. The Eclipse was invented by Leonard Wheeler, a Presbyterian minister serving as a missionary to the Ojibwe Indians near Lake Superior. Wheeler first patented his windmill in 1867. In 1901, when the patent ran out, other windmill companies began to use Wheeler’s design.
The hand dug well and the ancient windmill head is perched on a small presa (an earthen dam) on the downstream base of a dry arroyo (drainage) that has been dug-out and walled with sillar (caliche blocks). This 3-sided enclosure, just upstream from the well, is about 150 feet on each side, with the upstream side being open. This forms a big bowl in the middle of a drainage, with the hand-dug well centered above the downstream wall. The top of the wall, at its downstream base, is about 8 feet above the bottom of the impoundment. The impoundment would have held a substantial amount of water – but it would have remained dry without some water from elsewhere. At the time, the project must have taken a huge amount of labor; for it was probably constructed when an ox-drawn cart was the main method of moving the heavy caliche stone from quarries.
Nearby, but upstream of the impoundment, are the remains of another heavy pump-body. This is a “Meteor” Double-acting Force Pump produced by the Gould Manufacturing Company out of Seneca Falls, NY. The Gould’s Catolog for 1885 explains that this pump is to be driven by steam or wind. Only yards away is the remnants of a live steam vertical boiler that would likely have been used to power the “Meteor” pump.
The evidence lines up: before the turn of the 19th Century, the Tejano ranchers of San Antonio Viejo had used the leading innovations of the day to assure their water security. They developed a small impoundment, and then they used both a steam engine and a wind turbine to assure that the impoundment retained water.
Shipping all of this equipment to what amounted to a frontier outpost would have been all but impossible up until 1883 – when the Texas Mexican Railroad was opened. This narrow gauge “Tex Mex” railroad connected the port at Corpus Christi to Mexico through Laredo. The route swung south through Peña Station, connecting this South Texas center of overland trade to the merchants in Corpus Christi and Nuevo Laredo. From Peña Station, near present-day Hebbronville, wagons and ox-carts freighted goods south to Rio Grande City through Randado, San Antonio Viejo, and Guerra. This was likely the route that this equipment took from Wisconsin and New York, so that the community of San Antonio Viejo could survive drought and build a stable ranching community.
We now have well-over 100 working water wells across the 150,000 acres of San Antonio Viejo Ranch alone. In much the same way as those Tejano ranchers of the 19th Century, we pay attention to our water resources. Whether it is changing our water delivery to get better grazing distribution, installing up-to-date solar water pumps, or dealing with water quality problems – it is all water management. And there is no surviving without it.
Note: Thanks to Chris Huff and Janie Dominguez for contributing their research on the Eclipse windmill.