Of the many species of exotic animals inhabiting the Texas Hill Country, the first to arrive were camels from the Middle East, part of an experiment undertaken by the U. S. government before the Civil War. Some observers at the time termed it folly; others believed it to be genius. In any case, the camels continue to intrigue 165 years later.
The camels came to Texas thanks to U. S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who ultimately became president of the Confederacy. Davis theorized that camels could outwork and outlast other beasts of burden in resupplying military outposts on the western frontier. In 1854, Davis was successful in securing $30,000 from Congress to test his idea, and Maj. Henry Wayne was assigned to procure camels from Egypt, ship them across the Atlantic and march them from Indianola on the Texas coast to Victoria, then to San Antonio and finally Camp Verde between Kerrville and Bandera.
On August 26 and 27, 1856, 33 camels arrived at their new home, a cavalry installation that was “one of a chain of military posts established by the United States in western Texas after the annexation of Texas, in 1848, for the protection of settlers against hostile Indians,” according to Army records. It‘s conceivable that one of the officers assigned to the area at the time – Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, whose specialty was engineering – laid out the camp. Other officers with connections to Camp Verde who like Lee went on to serve as Confederate generals were Albert Sidney Johnston and John Bell Hood, namesake of Fort Hood near Killeen.
Kerrville historian and newspaper columnist Joe Herring says that people tend to focus on the unusual creatures imported from far away and fail to remember the problem those animals were being used to solve.
“The United States had vast new territories in the 1840s for which it had no practical routes for civilians, military or trade,” he explains. “The experiment associated with Camp Verde was an important continuation of efforts to survey and understand these new lands, and that’s why so many important names from history are associated with the small Hill Country military outpost.”
After the Civil War broke out in 1860, the camp passed into the hands of the Confederacy, and in 1865, the U. S. government again assumed control. All in all, the camels hauled more over longer distances than mules and horses, but lack of federal funding after the war and the rise of railroad transportation doomed the camel experiment. On November 30, 1869, Camp Verde was deactivated, and a fire in March 1910 destroyed buildings at the site. Today, a historical marker on Camp Verde Road a mile west of State Highway 173 summarizes the place’s relatively-brief-but-colorful story.
Yet the history of the camel experiment lives on, thanks to the Camp Verde General Store situated near the intersection of Ranch Road 480 and Highway 173. Camel imagery in the form of sculptures, paintings and even stained-glass windows permeates the two-story, limestone mercantile founded in 1857 as the Williams Community Store. Soldiers from Camp Verde frequented the store for essentials and especially alcohol since consumption of the latter wasn’t permitted at the camp.
Today’s Camp Verde General Store, which welcomes guests seven days a week except for major holidays, was built in 1908 after a flood washed away the original structure. Its quaint and comfortable feel derives from the well-worn wooden floors, pressed-tin ceiling, old-time display cases and vintage postal boxes. Manager Lisa Emmons says the store offers shoppers jewelry, candles, housewares, a vast selection of jellies and salsas, skin care products, kitchen accessories and much more.
In 2012, a restaurant next to the store was enlarged to accommodate more customers and offer more-varied fare. It seats up to 85 hungry patrons and tempts them with lunchtime entrees such as meat loaf, chopped steak, hamburgers and chicken strips. Two years ago, the restaurant began serving breakfast delights such as French toast, omelets and huevos rancheros. “It’s important to note that we’re a totally-from-scratch restaurant with locally-sourced food products,” says Dominic Brown, restaurant manager.
If they still have room after consuming more-than-generous portions, diners can opt for cool treats at the gelato bar and a choice of toppings. Other favorite desserts include coconut cream pie, banana cream pie and the apple basket a la mode. Some come adorned with chocolate in the silhouette of a camel. Tables and benches on the tree-shaded patios surrounding the restaurant and store enable guests to eat in the fresh air when the weather cooperates.
When Christmas nears, the staff transforms the store into a holiday wonderland with lights, tinsel and creative displays of must-have gifts. In past yule seasons, a juvenile camel-sized sculpture sporting a Santa hat appears to be casting an approving eye over the festive scene from a second-floor vantage point.
Long ago someone claimed that a camel is actually a horse poorly designed by a committee. Its reputed limiting factors include unusual appearance, ungainly manner and poor temperament. But Major Wayne and his contemporaries showed the camel did indeed prove to be valuable on the western frontier as one successful expedition after another sallied forth from a Texas oasis, Camp Verde.