“The post of Tejon is on a little plain, entirely surrounded by high mountains, beautifully situated in a grove of old oak, at this season the fort is most romantic and beautiful.”-Ft. Tejon State Historic Park, quoting from a text in the 1850’s.
Fort Tejon is a fort near where I live, no longer in use, but turned into a historical site. The fort was used during the civil war era even though the Fort itself never experienced the war. They were more like the National Guard, trying to keep the Native Americans where they were permitted. They also sought to keep robbers and thieves at bay, guarding one of the most hidden paths in the mountains. The fort contains several buildings: a prison, a fort with barracks, the commanding officer’s house, a blacksmith shop/woodshop, and a kitchen.
Hot, but breezy, I visited Fort Tejon for their Independence Day celebration, which would include the firing of cannons. I hiked alongside my husband, eager to read every sign I could come across regarding the history of the Fort. One of the first signs was regarding the use of camels at the fort. Yes, you read that right. Camels. Camels were used to transport supplies as an experiment, believed to be better acclimated to the climate. However, they were soon retired, as the whole camel idea was an experiment.
Once I was over the idea of using camels, I proceeded to see the old buildings, including a prison and a guardhouse. The prison and the guardhouse were unbelievably hot and narrow, and I read that the prison guards had 24 hour shifts. If they didn’t stay awake in those 24 hours, they would be severely punished. I’m not sure I could’ve stayed awake in that claustrophobic space myself.
Next, we proceeded to the main building, which contained a downstairs gift shop and upstairs barracks area. The barracks was both a museum and a barracks, because part of it was used to tell the history of the Dragoons who were stationed there, as well as the tools they used, and part of it was there to demonstrate the actual living space of the soldiers. What I noted most were the saddles, armor, weapons and overall dimensions of the living area.
I noticed a saddle which would hold both a sword and a gun, as well as a pack saddle for the donkey or perhaps, camel. I took pictures of both and noted that they would be great inspirations for my own story and how a saddle with swords or equipment would actually look. I proceeded from the museum display of the saddle to the barracks area, where there were tons of bedrolls lining the large, wooden space. Above the bedrolls were shelves and hooks, where the men stationed would hang their coats and personal items. In the center of the room was a rack which contained the swords of the regiment, and which a tour guide, dressed as a Dragoon, was happy to explain.
Each sword contained a long rope and a cuff, and the “Dragoon” explained that this is so they wouldn’t lose their weapon while stabbing on horseback. They could kill someone and then drop it, allowing their wrist hold to slip it back into their hand. While he explained this, I noted that he had a wool jacket with a linen undershirt, as well as shoulder accents with frills. Asking him about it, he explained the wool would protect slightly against attacks, and that the frill accents were for hanging items indicating rank. When I asked about the heat, he said that wool wasn’t too bad because it would dry out better than cotton, which would soak the skin. All of this information I tucked into my memory, hoping to see if I could use it in my stories.
About this time, they were readying the cannons. We emerged from the barracks and headed to the audience area, where we stood under a large oak to observe the cannons. The “Dragoon” in charge announced that they would fire a cannon for every state in the union until California. There were two cannons, one made of copper and one of iron, and you could see the difference in sound, despite having similar ammo. As the “Dragoon” announced each state and description, following a strict chain of command with the other “Dragoons” readying the cannon, I could not help but think that now I knew the meaning of the words, “rockets red glare.” The cannon noise was incredibly loud, and most of us wore earplugs. Yet, it was beautiful, the smoke floating over the canon, and the cries of the Dragoons echoing against the mountain. Once during the fanfare, one of the canons blew an O, and I was reminded of Gandalf blowing rings with his smoke in The Lord of the Rings.
The cannons finished, we headed for the commanding officer’s house. On the way, we passed a chicken coop and kitchen. The kitchen was blazing hot, a fire actually burning in the fireplace. Two teenagers, dressed as servants, sat and actually cooked two meals-pot roast and cobbler. They used Dutch ovens with coals on top of the lid, the contents only revealed upon request. I asked the volunteer “servants” if they got to eat the meal afterwards, and they said yes. With a smile on my face, I noted this arrangement so that I could use it for my book.
We arrived at the house, where I met a woman who was creating lace using a weaving instrument. I was fascinated by this process, but not as impressed as I was regarding the history of women in the house. The woman of the house was Lady Gardiner, who lived in the house because of her husband’s rank. However, she could be displaced if another office with a higher rank arrived, forced to live somewhere else. There were also other women who worked there as a laundress, hospital matron or household servant. Rank between women was definitely enforced, with Lady Gardiner at the top and the others in their respective places.
After my research at the house, we headed towards the blacksmith and woodcutter’s house. The blacksmith was demonstrating to another group, and both my husband and I were becoming quite hungry, so we passed the blacksmith and headed into the woodcutter’s area. The woodcutter had a long table for his woodcutting. Then, all around the room, there were tools of various types hanging on the wall for use. The “carpenter” voluntold me to use a wooden object which would refine the wood surface. As I attempted to help the wood cooperate with my arms, I realized quickly how difficult the job of the carpenter could be. Yet, there was something wistful about doing something Joseph and Jesus undoubtedly did in the past. The “carpenter” also informed me that they wish to turn the area into an old-fashioned shop, where teenagers could become interns and learn how to carve wood in the ways of the past. I thought it was a splendid idea.
As we walked back to our car, I reflected on everything I had seen and read. I still felt like there was much to learn from that place and I vowed to return. The mountains became my solace while I digested the information, clinging on to the fliers I had gathered as a means to learn about the history of a time gone by.