Like many before him, Bob Bluthardt ventured West and came to Texas looking for opportunity. Over forty years later, Bob is an acknowledged expert in baseball and Texas frontier history and is proud to call Texas home.
He has served on the boards of many local and statewide organizations to include the Society for American Baseball, the Texas Association of Museums and Preservation Texas. He is a long-time member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Association of Museums and the American Association of Living History Farms & Museums. He has served in an ex officio capacity on the Texas Forts Trail board of directors since its establishment in 1998. We’re pleased to count Bob as one of our state’s “authentic people” and hope you enjoy getting to know him better through the following interview.
Tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. I was a true city kid just as my parents were, and as were their parents. I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood; we were two blocks from the subway. My dad was a fire captain. Mom worked at a downtown department store. I attended city schools. It was a great place to grow up.
There were great opportunities that I now look back at and am kind of jealous. In the late 1960s, I could walk down the street, hop the train and be at Fenway Park in 40 minutes. In the winter, I could walk down the street, take two trains and be at the Upper Boston Gardens in 38 minutes. Today, you know, if I want to go see a ball game – it’s “let’s see who’s playing,” “where’s the nearest motel” and it becomes a two-day trip!
I never thought I’d leave. Like most kids in the ‘70s, I really had no idea what I was going to do. After high school I went to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts – a nice conservative Catholic school. I had two majors: American History and Latin.
Upon graduation, I just thought I knew a lot. So, I put my resumé together and sent it out to 125 museums. Four responded; I got an interview with two of them. The one that hired me was the Salem Witch Museum which was just a tourist trap. But they had some exhibits, and they also ran a pseudo-colonial house nearby. And they hired me in January of 1978 to live in the colonial house – which was kind of cool – and give tours on the weekend and work at the main building up the street. Starting in the summer season, I worked full time; the housing was free, and I thought it was great. And then in October, they said, “Well, now you on unemployment and we’ll pick you up in the spring.” And I said, “No, that’s not the way things work.”
In a serendipitous moment while walking down the street, I met my high school history teacher who asked, “what are you doing?”
Then he asked if I went to Brandeis?
Didn’t you take Latin?
Yes. And I’m always looking for something.
I’ll bet the Latin School will pick you and it’s $36 a day. Pretty good money and no heavy lifting. It’ll keep you in beer and skittles until you figure what to do next.
So, I went up there, signed up and it turned out the Boston Latin Academy had a Latin teacher who was sick. I was picked up the next week. She died the next month, and I picked up her program for the whole year. It was October ’78; I signed what’s called a provisional contract with the city school system, and I was teaching five years after I graduated in the same high school.
The next year, they didn’t have a slot for me, so they moved me over to the other exam school in Boston – Boston Latin School, which was two blocks from my house; I could roll out of bed, walk up the street, teach and be back in my house while other guys were still just getting on the expressway.
After two years as a schoolteacher, I thought, “This is good but there has to be another way to make a dollar and I’ve always liked museums.” So, I decided to go to graduate school and applied to six programs. I was accepted at the Cooperstown Graduate Program at the University of New York, which was prestigious at the time. But I turned it down because I didn’t want to spend two years in upstate New York, even though the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was just round the corner.
Instead, I attended The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I liked that because it was in a city, and it was a one-year accelerated program. Money was an issue, and the program was geared towards education and programming; it was really a teaching certificate in museum work and was more of what I wanted to do. It was 1980-81 – a great year to be in D.C. The hostages in Iran came home and there was a big parade; Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
GW Bush and Texas with hot stuff in 1981; Texas was the place to be. Oil was $35 or $40 a barrel which today would be like $200 a barrel. The Cowboys were really good. And J.R. was the scourge on TV. Texas was it.
So, I put out my resume and landed several interviews in Texas. One was in Lubbock but that was a part time or six-month job. I didn’t want to do that. Then I spent a weekend in Snyder where there was an art museum – which eventually was disbanded. It would have been interesting. It was a well-paying job and came with an apartment. The people in Snyder were really nice. But I just wasn’t feeling comfortable.
After Snyder, San Angelo looked like New York City! There was history, folks are nice, the pay was more than I was making in Boston, and they wanted me. I thought, “Yeah, I could do this for a couple of years.” The duties for the education director were director of education programs and tours, and eventually living history and teaching, just all the fun stuff. I hired on January 27, 1982.
When I left Boston, it was 15 degrees and a blizzard. I got to San Angelo, and it was 82 degrees and sunshine. I thought, “My God, I’m going to heaven!”
It was like any adjustment. I mean, it was a different age. There was no Internet – entertain yourself. It was a lonely first year or two. I was single and didn’t really have anything; I had some books and clothes, but I mean, I didn’t bring any furniture. But the work was good, and we were very busy.
Then in 1995 the assistant director retired. I was not the logical person, but I was the second in terms of seniority and had the most experience in various things. I was kind of enjoying what I did but then I was 40 years old and thought if I don’t make a move to up my game, I may not get that chance. So, I was promoted, and I learned all about the money and the maintenance and the management, the politics of boards. Just all the stuff that really runs the show.
And then the fort director – John Vaughn – had a stroke in the spring of 1997. I was made acting director. John medically retired that following January. The City posted the job, but they pretty much knew I was interested, and I was selected. So, I was in the right place at the right time; the two years I spent as assistant director was good preparation. I don’t think I could have done it without that experience. As the director you have to follow the money, you’ve got to know how to do a budget, you’ve got to know who answers to who at City Hall – just all those little things that no one ever sees.
So, when you came to Texas, what did your family think?
I think a lot of folks were shocked because I was pretty provincial and pretty set my ways and pretty much a kid. I think everyone was utterly and totally flabbergasted and shocked that I came out here and certainly didn’t think I would last. I did, and in retrospect, life is too short to worry about where you haven’t been.
I made a career here and I’m proud of it. And maybe I would have done the same back East, I don’t know. But I’m proud of where I am, proud of what I did, proud of the people I’ve worked with and no regrets.
Yes, I missed the seasons. I missed the pizza. I miss – sometimes – the sports. I don’t miss the politics and the traffic.
Texas has been good to me. San Angelo has been good to me, and I hope I’ve been good for the city and the state.
How do you explain Texas when you go back East?
That it is different. You can’t discount the fact that it was an independent nation. You can’t discount the fact that it has its own brand. It’s not necessarily accurate, but what brand is?! Cowboys and oil wells. Cowboys and Indians. Cattle and rustling.
Texas is now 93 or 94% urban, but it’s the cowboys and Indians and the oil wells that define it. The folks who pay attention know that Texas is in the forefront of technology, medicine, real estate and communication. Yet several places promote themselves as the Texas you really expect. It’s a whole different way of looking at things. Not better or worse than some places, I think, but different.
And Texas is big. Yes. (We’ve never heard of Alaska.) It is big and it’s hard to explain to people. After I moved here, one morning my phone rang at six in the morning and it’s my mother.
“Are you alright?”
“I just heard there was an earthquake in some place called Van Horn.”
“Well, I’m not anywhere near there. Van Horn is west of us by 300 miles.”
“But you’re alright?”
And I said, “OK. You’re in Boston, right?”
“300 miles from you is Baltimore.”
This would go on for years until she figured out the geography. Hurricane strikes Corpus Christi; she called. Tornado hits Amarillo; she called. It’s hard to explain to people distance; you know, it’s measurable in hours and sometimes in days. And try telling people it takes all day to get out of the state!
Texas is huge, it’s a huge thng. And with its many different territories, there are different characters. In the end, what state doesn’t have a different character, East or West or North and South? If you’re in Chicago, downstate has the rubes. Well, Texas has so many different regions! That’s what makes it so much fun.
But it was definitely cultural shock and the best advice I ever got was from a college professor who said, “Just look upon this as a great big circus – or theatre – and enjoy it every day.” And that’s what I did.
When I came to Fort Concho, I didn’t know Grierson or Mackenzie from a bucket of bullets! I didn’t know any of this stuff, and part of my job was to get smart fast, so I did what anyone is supposed to do in a new job: I read everything I could get my hands on! I still do, even though most of what I do now is administrative. I still read as much history as I can.
I bought my very first car in Texas. Who needs a car in Boston? I didn’t have as many weekend duties, and I wasn’t married. I would just drive and go places. I’m proud to say I’ve probably seen more of the state than most locals – and that’s partially my job. It is a great state.
As the director of Fort Concho, you were part of the resurrection of the Texas Forts Trail and were on the original board. What are your recollections?
In the late 90s, I had vaguely heard of the thing. The highway signs were still around. But for many years tourism was not treated with the utmost respect. Well, eventually tourism “came out of the wilderness” as Churchill would say, and people began to realize that tourism was an economic engine, a job creator. A brand maker. And in Texas, it was of course, HemisFair in 1968 – although the Texas Centennial in 1936 helped a little bit – that on the state level, people began to realize that tourism was really something.
Here in San Angelo, Marion Szurek was the head of the convention and visitors bureau and Marion and I had worked on a variety of things. She said these tourism trails are going to be resurrected and there’s going to be a board of directors. The Forts Trail was tagged to be the program’s pilot project. So, we agreed that I would serve and from the beginning, I’ve been involved with the heritage trails program and the Texas Forts Trail.
Truth be told, at Fort Concho we were already cross promoting and collaborating in a sort of informal way. When I was the education director, I tried to keep in close touch with all the other forts. “What are you doing? Let’s not double book a date. Let’s help each other out with events. I can send my Calvary to you if you send me your artillery.”
This is the unique thing about tourism and that’s hard for folks to understand. If you’re at Fort Concho and our guides hear you’re headed west, we can say ok, get off the Interstate in Fort Stockton; they have a nice exhibit there. Oh, you’re going north and east? OK, go to Forts Chadbourne, Griffin, Richardson or Belknap. You’re going to the border? OK, go to Forts Brown, Ringgold, Macintosh or Duncan or Clark. We lose nothing and no reasonable person can argue against the benefits of cross promotion.
What are your thoughts on ghost tourism?
You can’t be a snob when it comes to promoting and getting people interested in history. This gets to a broader thing that you just don’t put your shingle out and say, “history here today.” We do history through music, history through art, history through food. We do history through bike tours and sports. We do history through paintings and sculpture programs and talks – through special exhibits, ghost tours and Halloween tours. We have many tools in the toolbox and if we get somebody interested in the history, that’s good. You’ve got to make it fun. You’ve got to make it interesting, relevant.
Yes, we get people who aren’t particularly interested in history, but they might like a Chuck Wagon breakfast. They might like a Western painting. Or a Western song. They might like old time baseball. They might be interested in ghosts and ghost stories – are there ghost stories related to Fort Concho? There are a couple.
There’s “Dead Ellis,” Sergeant Cunningham, Ranald Mackenzie, but perhaps best known is Edith Grierson. That’s a story within |a story within a story and just so sad.
Again, ghost tourism is one of the tools in the toolbox – not the primary one – but if it gets people interested in the fort’s history, the buildings, the life of children on the frontier, sanitation and everything in between, then good.
Any final thoughts about Texas?
Geographically, ethnically, culturally, I like it all.
One piece of advice I have for somebody who’s going to move. First, you’ve got to decide that you’re going to be part of the community. And then learn as much about it as you can about it. You feel comfortable when you know your community’s history. Put your roots down, even if it’s only going to be for a short time.
How many people in Dallas have the slightest clue where John Neely Bryan’s cabin is? Yet it shows the humble beginnings of Dallas. How many people in Fort Worth know there was an actual fort? How many people in San Antonio realize that the Alamo was one of several missions stretching out like an emerald necklace to the south? How many know how and why? I just can’t conceive of living someplace and not knowing the why and how of where you are.
HISTORY & HAUNTINGS
AT FORT CONCHO NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK
Today, Fort Concho National Historic Landmark contains most of the former frontier army post and includes twenty-four original and restored buildings. It is a museum and an ongoing historic preservation project owned and operated by the City of San Angelo, Texas. In recent years, Fort Concho has been recognized as among the best-preserved posts of its era west of the Mississippi.
Fort Concho was established in 1867 by the U.S. army on the Concho River. The post consisted of at least forty buildings built from native limestone and covered more than 1,600 acres. When the post was deactivated in 1889, most of the buildings were quickly converted into civilian homes and commercial storage space.
With well over twenty years as an active frontier military post, there are plenty of tales to be told of those bygone days. Some of them are just a little spooky!
Just to set the stage, there’s “dead Ellis.”
Ellis was a Buffalo soldier stationed at Fort Concho who died. Allegedly. He was found dead on his bunk one morning, so he was taken to the hospital where the surgeon declared him to have passed on – dead. His body was moved to the dead house and that night his friends stayed up with him. But then he wasn’t dead. He was either dead drunk or he was comatose for some other reason. Regardless, as his friends surrounded his body, Ellis suddenly popped up and said, “Where am I?” Of course, this frightened his friends who hastily departed – some of them exiting from windows that weren’t open! Ellis became known as “dead Ellis” and lived a long and happy life until he died for real. The second time Ellis died, a large crowd attended his service; many were there to see if he was going to pull off a second resurrection! Now, Ellis isn’t one of the ghosts, but it’s a good story!
There have been numerous sightings of a shadowy soldier in the post headquarters that most believe to be Second Sergeant Cunningham, the only soldier to die at Fort Concho. Cunningham was an Irishman, a decent soldier and an alcoholic. Eventually he was hospitalized with complications from liver disease. Aware that his death was imminent, Cunningham requested to be moved back to his barracks so that he could spend his last days with his friends and fellow soldiers. He lingered for about two months and died on a cold Christmas Day.
One time while working in the headquarters building during the Christmas season, Conrad McClure, a fort staff member, saw a shadowy figure in a blue soldier’s uniform brush past him while he was tending to the fireplace. McClure was sure this had to be Sergeant Cunningham. Other sightings have led some staff to believe that Cunningham does not like females to be in the headquarters building.
Perhaps the most well-known ghost story at Fort Concho involves Edith Claire Grierson, the young daughter of Colonel Benjamin Grierson and his wife Alice Kirk Grierson.
Colonel Grierson was stationed at Fort Concho as regimental commander of the 10th cavalry and the family was living in Officers’ Quarters 1 (OQ1). Edith was a young girl who loved to dance and enjoyed the “hops” held at Fort Concho. She shared her mother’s love of books and rode her pony regularly. She was well-known, well-loved and treated as the “daughter of the regiment.”
Shortly after her thirteenth birthday in August of 1878, Edith became sick. Reflective of the times with bad sanitation and bad drinking water, Edith had contracted typhoid. Sick in her upstairs bedroom, she was burning up with fever. Her father wired department headquarters in San Antonio and requested ice to help lower the fever. Carried in by horseback, ice was delivered by special courier. Two weeks after falling ill, Edith passed away at 13 years of age on September 9, 1878. Her funeral service was attended by almost everyone at Fort Concho and she was buried at the Fort cemetery. Later, she was relocated to San Angelo’s Fairmount Cemetery and at the request of Dr. Samuel Smith, Edith was buried in the Smith family plot.
Over the years, numerous people have reported seeing Edith’s apparition in the bedroom where she died. Most often, Edith is sitting on the floor playing the game of jacks which was her favorite game. Those who have seen her report that the room is very cold when they enter – cooler than any of the other rooms in the house. Typically, Edith acknowledges the presence of a person when they enter the room by turning her head and smiling at them and then turns back to her game of jacks.
It’s also been reported that objects in the room have been mysteriously moved. Others report seeing Edith standing on the staircase in a long peach-colored dress. Some have reported the sounds of a ball bouncing and footsteps on the staircase, doors slamming shut of their own accord.