through the bug-splattered windshield of a low-flying Ford Escape,
like just another tired and dusty town on the long list of once
vibrant Western Texas communities diminished by paved roads and
fast automobiles. But something is stirring along the quiet red
dirt streets of Pontotoc that catches my interest, so I jump on
the brakes and pull in for a closer look.
Pontotoc, pronounced "Ponty talk" by locals, straddles Highway 71
and Brady in northern
Mason County. The
reddish brown sandstone buildings in Pontotoc are similar to the
buildings in Mason
Settlers first moved into the area in the 1850s. Major Robert Kidd
named the town for his former home of Pontotoc, Mississippi. Pontotoc
is a Chickasaw Indian word meaning "land of hanging grapes."
It was an odd name for a frontier town that didn't know a vineyard
from a rice paddy. Grapes had little to do with the history of Pontotoc
for the first 150 years. More about that later.
| The 1872 farmhouse
in Pontotoc built by the German Emigration Company.
Barr, Jan 2019
claim to fame was the San Fernando Academy, billed as the first
normal school for teacher training west of Austin.
"Discipline is strict yet paternal," an 1880s advertisement read.
"There are no saloons or kindred evils in Pontotoc to lead the young
astray. Nothing but pure water, pure air and a healthful location."
The Mason County News called the magnificent sandstone schoolhouse
"the Pride of Pontotoc." Ladies in the community sold chances on
quilts to buy a bell for the tower atop the handsome two-story building.
San Fernando Academy opened in 1883 with 100 students. Tuition was
$1.50 to $2.50 a month, depending on the subjects taken. Miss Minta
Brown taught music for an extra $3 a month. Room and board was $7
to $10 a month.
The school's reputation quickly grew. Wealthy parents especially
liked the remote location - far from the sinful ways of Austin and
San Antonio. Applications poured in. The second year enrollment
The academy stimulated growth in Pontotoc. By 1887 there were 20
businesses in town including 4 blacksmiths shops, 2 grocery stores,
2 doctors, a barber shop, 2 saddle and harness shops and a law office.
Pontotoc was officially a boom town.
Then boom turned to bust. Typhoid fever hit Pontotoc in 1887. Water
turned to poison. Even swimming in it was deadly.
So many people died the cemetery filled up. The town had to open
a new one.
San Fernando Academy tried to stay afloat as enrollment dropped,
but when a $1,000 note came due, the school couldn't pay. It closed
ruins of the former San Fernando Academy.
In Pontotoc, even the ruins have a picket fence
TE Photos, September 2000
| Pontotoc Thrift
Former Pontotoc Post Office
Barr, December 2018
As the new
century approached, Pontotoc held on to its post office and a few
businesses, but otherwise the town began a slow slide into obscurity.
The public school took over the academy building. A church in El
Dorado rescued the bell.
Citizens tried revive the town by creating a new county with Pontotoc
as the county seat, but Mason
County squashed the movement like a skunk on the highway.
All towns occasionally have a bad year. Pontotoc had a bad century.
For the next hundred years Pontotoc held on - just barely. Peanuts
kept the area going for a time; then they lost their subsidy.
Through the lean years Pontotoc was famous for one thing. Photographers
knew the place as having some of the most picturesque sandstone
ruins in Texas. The crumbling ruins were especially handsome in
the springtime. They seemed to float on a carpet of Bluebonnets
and Indian Paintbrushes.
Then in 2003
Carl and Frances Money bought property in Pontotoc The property
included an historic estate once owned by the German Emigration
Company. Two years later the Money family planted 5 acres of Tempranillo
grapes in a field behind a restored1872 farmhouse built to house
immigrant families searching for permanent homes on the Texas frontier.
Pontotoc Vineyard made and bottled its first wine from the 2011
These days Pontotoc is looking pretty good for a town that skipped
the entire 20th century. Like a grapevine that produces its first
tender shoots in early spring, the "land of hanging grapes" is showing
signs of life.
"Pontotoc's San Fernando Academy," Mason County News, August
"Marker for Pontotoc-San Fernando Academy To Be Dedicated July 23,"
Mason County News, July 13, 1972.