SFA Story: The History of Stephen F. Austin State University

Celebrations at SFA in the 1930s

The Stone Fort Museum is built on the SFA campus

Stone Fort
The Old Stone Fort

In discussing the ‘Old Stone Fort,’ we have to ask some questions. Do we mean Gil Y'Barbo's stone house located at the present site of Commercial National Bank? Do we mean the 1907 Memorial Building on the Washington Square where the public library began and where SFA held some of its classes in 1923-24? Or, are we referring to the Stone Fort Museum, the existing Texas Centennial structure built on the SFA campus in 1936? For the Stone Fort Museum, tradition has merged these three buildings, albeit they have separate identities. The Stone Fort Museum is a place that evokes both strong emotions and youthful indifference.

The Stone Fort Memorial Building, built in 1907 on Washington Square and owned by the Cum Concilio Club, had already seen several incarnations before it became part of SFA’s history; it was used as a library, a meeting room, a reception hall, and a museum When the new college was forced to open in 1923 on Washington Square, it pressed into classroom service every available space with a roof. The Memorial Building became part of SFA’s history during this first year. It served as a classroom (along with every other available corner with a roof), the first home of the Department of Home Economics and the Y. M. C. A., and the place where the Stone Fort annual staff met to declare their intention to publish the first yearbook. After SFA moved to the main campus, the Cum Concilio Club in 1925 deeded the Memorial Building to the Nacogdoches School District for use as a classroom and museum.

By 1934, the decaying structure was an embarrassment. Reverend George Crocket, East Texas Historian and SFA Professor Emeritus, in addition deplored the confusion which pictures of the building were giving to tourists and visitors. Concerning a postcard showing the Memorial Building as the Old Stone Fort, Crocket “wrote to the gentleman explaining that the building in the picture was only a memorial to the Old Stone Fort, and that the date on the post cards for sale in the town was wrong.” Visitors began to express grave disappointment when seeing the building, according to a report in The Daily Sentinel in 1934. Repeated incidents like these, the article continues, “served to bring together a group of interested citizens of Nacogdoches who pledged their efforts to try to remedy the present conditions.” This was the beginning of the Nacogdoches Historical Society.

With the added impetus of the approaching Texas centennial celebration, it wasn’t long before talk of a ‘new’ Stone Fort took shape:

"So, with the launching of an intensive drive for membership the local Historical Society gives ‘promise of heroic action.’ And if it proves necessary, the membership committee will wear long hair until the required number of members are secured to start rebuilding the Old Stone Fort (the first money collected will be used for this purpose).” The Daily Sentinel, April 17, 1934

After two years of planning, the State Board of Control awarded a contract to H.C. Hatchl, of Nacogdoches, for $18,488.35 to raze the 1907 Memorial Building and erect a replica of Gil Y’Barbo’s stone house on college grounds. A. W. Birdwell, President of SFA, and Hal Tucker, the Nacogdoches architect, picked out the site for the structure at the north end of Clarke Boulevard. The question, “Why rebuild the Old Stone Fort on Clarke Boulevard?” became a hot one in 1936.

Not everyone welcomed the news of the Stone Fort’s move to the SFA campus. One Houston Ex-Student, on May 28, 1936, wrote to the Sentinel :

“I have just noticed in the Homecoming Edition of the Sentinel that they are going to build the replica of the Old Stone Fort on some land to the rear of Dr. Birdwell's home. It appears to me that this is a mistake, and by all means should be corrected before it is too late. Surely the people of Nacogdoches can profit by the mistake made in 1906 or 1907 when they rebuilt the old fort on the high school campus - as it turned out to be an out-of-the-way place as far as tourists were concerned. It appears to me the object in rebuilding the fort is to get it where it can be found as easily as possible and to place it where as many people-tourists-as possible; can visit, and I can't see why in the name of peace they are going to put it way back on an "out of the way' street, so to speak....Let's not make a mistake and "hide" the old Fort again. We are proud of it and naturally want people to see it, but there are thousands who are not going to take the time and trouble of trying to find it if it is tucked in some out of the way place. Yours very truly, Richard Haltom."

Concern over the site resulted in a town meeting on June 2, 1936 attended by about fifty residents and members of the Historical Society. Mr. Phil Sanders reported on the activities of the local centennial committee, which included Dr. A. W. Birdwell and Hal B. Tucker, and the meeting ended in an endorsement of the site by a vote of five to one.

The deciding vote, however, had come out of Austin. The State Centennial Committee was only willing to allotted state funds for the rebuilding of the fort if “the building were placed on state property and its maintenance guaranteed.” This stipulation, approved by the Board of Regents, accompanied Nacogdoches’ successful request for $20,000 for building the replica. Remember, this was the Depression; there was little local money for such a project. The Redland Herald reported on June 4, 1936, “It developed that a great deal of the agitation for changing the building site came from a lack of information - not only about the site chosen but of a great amount of business details which have been ironed out and cleared up with the letting of the contract.”

By mid-June, workmen began pouring the concrete foundation. At the same time a crew of workers began razing the Memorial Building located on Washington Square, another group began to quarry more rocks “near the Ernest Simpson home east of town excavating some 400 yards of native iron ore rocks to be used in the replica."

[The opening of the Stone Fort Museum took place on October 16, 1936. See the article entitled “Celebrating Homecoming and History.” JLJ]

The Pine Log commented at the opening, “This time it will not serve to ward off Indians, nor as a seat of justice, nor as a house of controversy, but as a historic museum for Stephen F. Austin.” Considering how apathetic students of today are, there was considerable interest by college students in the history of the Fort and in its introduction to the campus in 1936. It should come as no surprise that the new college at Nacogdoches and the Stone Fort would become buddies, following each other around town as they have. Residents who had long worked to preserve Nacogdoches’ history found a fresh audience in the college faculty. Initial meetings of the Nacogdoches Historical Society included new names such as Mr. T. E. Ferguson, Mrs. Karle Wilson Baker, and Miss Ida Pritchett.

The Stone Fort Museum has a long and colorful history of storytelling. The first curator of the Museum, Mrs. Lois Foster Blount, was the first faculty member to be hired by Dr. Birdwell in 1923. After years away from the college, she returned after the death of her husband to take the curator’s position. Mrs. Blount recognized the visitors' need to share personal history:

“A number of people have come telling me that they remember the fort as it was when it stood at the corner of Main and North Fredonia where it was torn down in 1902,’ Mrs. Blount said. She smiled and told how one woman a few weeks ago visited the fort and told her that she had been married there. ‘I knew almost everything else had happened in the building, but that was the first time I had heard that people got married in it,’ the curator commented. Other stories are told by the visitors who livid in Nacogdoches when the fort was still a public building. They tell how the middle downstairs room was a saloon with a grocery store on the right and a fruit store on the left. Upstairs were the gambling rooms which were entered from the outside staircase by those who did not value their reputations. The respectable people either went through the saloon downstairs or climbed up a ladder in the lean-to at the back and entered the gambling rooms through a window. The first drunk man she ever saw, one visitor explained, was lying in the east front door of the fort. Another visitor told about a fight he witnessed between two men on the landing of the outside stair in which one man was choking the other. So, just as the old building was alive for many years with the people who were making history, now it is alive with those who come to hear the story of the days now past.” (1936)

Students have preferred to create their own stories using the Stone Fort Museum as their backdrop. The famous April Fool’s Day issues of The Pine Log annually use the Fort as part of their spoofs. The ones during World War II were particularly creative:


Faculty Forces Holding Out In Old Stone Fort;

Supported By Alpha Chi, Men's Chorus And Dive


Machine Guns, Anti-Tank Guns And Other Light Weapons Are Being Loaded

Picked crew of WAAKs are now engaged in target practice.


Miss Gladys Fox Tracked To Her Lair In The Old Stone Fort And Captured

Newspaper accounts over the years reveal a museum that has responds to changing needs, public opinion, and public policy. In 1938, an exhibition of hobbies and the accumulation of Nacogdoches collectors was held as was an exhibit of costumes and properties sponsored by the Karle Wilson Baker Dramatic Club. The Cum Concilio Club even organized a Garden Club in the Fort in 1939. Just before the war, the Red Cross made the Museum its headquarters. Brownie Troops have always loved the Museum. In 1952, the Museum became a stage set in the renewed version of “The Pageant of Nacogdoches.” Various SFA clubs, including the Sawyers, Foresters, Lambda Gammas, and Austinites have used the Fort. In 1964, it was even the site where they ran the “Ugly Man Constest.” When Governor Bill Clements vetoed the Museum’s funding from the University’s budget, the Fort was kept open through the raising of emergency funds.

In 1981, Dr. James Reese named Dr. Jim Corbin as the new curator with the charge to integrate the museum more closely into the mission of the university and communtiy. Plans were immediately made to use the Stone Fort Museum to protray the historical development of East Texas from 1779 to 1900, the period of the Old Stone Fort’s existence. After an eighteen month renovation, which included a new roof, porch and additional space for office and storage, and improved air conditioning, the Museum had a grand reopening in 1992. The exhibit at the reopening was ‘The Puebla of Nacogdoches and the Stone House,’ and ‘Chroniclers of the Borderlands.’ Other exhibits since then have included: “Traversing the Wilderness: The El Camino Real in East Texas,” “Fabricating Fashion, From Colonial Times to 1900.,” and “Archaeology in East Texas.”

The Stone Fort Museum has made a great deal of history, real and imagined, on the SFA campus, yet it remains an enigma to many college students who pass by daily. With a mandate to interpret the history of Nacogdoches and East Texas through the nineteenth century, the Museum still has a great deal of research to be done, and many stories left to tell. It is a vibrant part of the heritage of SFA.