Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) provides us with a personal story of her girlhood in San Antonio, Texas- interconnected with a Comanche legend.
Knocking on a gate set in a high wooden fence at the last property on the street, I was amazed to see it opened right away by a tall, gray-haired woman wearing a faded dress and bib apron.
“Did you come to see the mill?” she asked. “Come on in, so I can close the gate.”
“No ma’am, I just came to visit,” I said, looking around at a large, weathered, wooden structure to my left, a white, adobe house in the back, and a garden of rose bushes.
“Well, I’m glad to show you around. You see, this is a very famous mill.” She took me inside to read a plaque, telling the history of the Battle of the Alamo. In wonderment, I walked farther into large interior of the antiquated building with its high rafters.
“You’re looking at an abandoned mill, the very place where Ben Milam hid out just before he led his men to make the assault on the Alamo, back on December 5, 1835.” She proudly pointed to signs and old paintings
I could only stare, open mouthed.
“You know how Ben Milam asked the men, ‘Who’ll go with old Ben Milam to the Alamo?’”
To my delight, I discovered that, in spite of the distortions that come with the passage of time, that the mill was not only real, but was one of the most historic properties in San Antonio. Once part of the lands of Mission Concepción, the farmstead and Spanish colonial grist mill was later deeded to Manuel Yturri y Castillo, where he built one of the few adobe houses in the city in 1840. Yturri’s granddaughter willed the property to the Conservation Society in 1961; the society restored the mill and returned historic structures.
It must have been Ernestine Edmunds, his granddaughter, whom I met on my girlhood adventures on Yellowstone Street, who lived on the property until her death.
The fingers of history that crept along the San Antonio River from its mission days to the 1950s, and included our nondescript street of urban, industrial sprawl, were fascinating to me then and now. Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, commonly called Mission Concepción, was founded in 1731 by Spanish Franciscan missionaries on the lands of hunter-gatherer Coahuiltecan people who spoke many different languages. The Pajalats were the most prominent group among the three hundred first at Mission Concepción.
Comanche Legend, “Grandmother River’s Trick”: Once the little fish that lived in a river, who was their grandmother, were in danger of being eaten by the garfish. The garfish, because they were long and slim, could catch the little fish easily. When the little fish fled through the water and tried to hide near the edges of banks and in shallow places of the river, the long garfish darted after them, poked their slim snouts into the hiding places of the small fish and snapped them up in their sharp teeth. The hungry garfish were everywhere. They ate and ate but were never filled. They swam after the little fish day and night, churned up the river mud and gave the little fish no rest.
The little ones at last cried out to their grandmother to do something to help them. Grandmother River did not like the garfish, and she liked the little perch, the bass and the minnows. She decided to play a trick. She called to a big cloud that floated over her to send down some of its rain. The cloud heard. Twisting its dark, wet hair it sent down the rain in a great flood upon the river
“Yes, ma’am, I’m in fourth grade—we’re studying Texas history. Ben Milam was a Texas scout and a hero; he led a volunteer attack and took the Alamo from the Mexicans, but he got killed right away.”
“You’re a smart girl. Not everyone knows that history of the Alamo. Since you are interested in this, I have another sight for you.”
Outside, across the well-kept gravel path was a rock grotto, like shrines I’d seen for saints, with a deep hollow in the center. There, with hands clasped in eternal prayer, was the Virgin Mary, a plaster statue, surrounded by flowers in foil-covered coffee cans, set in crevices.
“She comes here, you know,” the woman said in a reverent whisper, “and she talks to me. Do you believe in the Virgin?”
“Come, and kneel to pray.”
And so I knelt on the rough ground, that afternoon and in later visits. Though the Blessed Virgin never appeared to me, I was impressed by the grotto. As this astonishing memory came to me in a blur in later years, I wondered if it were an apparition of its own: Was this place real and was it Ben Milam’s hideaway that fateful night?
The subjugation of the indigenous people by the Spanish colonials was meant to convert them to Catholicism and use their labor in building the limestone mission church, an enterprise that took twenty years of arduous quarry work until its dedication in 1755. The irony was that due to disease, Comanche raids, and attrition of those who became absorbed into Latinx culture, the Mission failed. Abandoned by 1794, Concepción’s lands were distributed to the thirty-eight remaining Native Americans.
The heritage of indigenous and Latinx culture in San Antonio was its bedrock, yet it has been undercut by the Anglo cowboys who rode in with their cattle and ranches. When we lived so close to colonial history on Yellowstone, we often attended Sunday Mass at Mission Concepción, its stone construction the most well-preserved in the nation, an acknowledgement of the zeal of the Franciscans and the skill of the Coahuiltecan people. It was a haunting place, full of shadows and candlelight.
Whether Ben Milam really hid in Yturri’s abandoned mill the night before the assault on the Alamo in 1735 is not for me to say. Historians disagree on which abandoned mill was the famous hideaway, but if you’d ask Ernestine, there’d be no doubt.
As the rain began pouring into Grandmother River she began to grow larger. She grew until she rose out of her banks and poured over the dry land. When the garfish saw what was happening they thought that here was a good chance to swim out upon the bushes and see if they could find something more they could eat. Instead of staying between the banks of the river with the little fish the garfish began to poke their noses into places where they had no business to be. They swam under the trees and the bushes and rolled their greedy eyes up at the grasshoppers and beetles.
And now Grandmother River played her trick. Quickly she gathered up her skirts to her knees and began running down to the sea, and as she ran she began dropping along her banks the dirt and sand she was carrying. Before the garfish saw what she was doing she had built up the banks higher than ever and had left them in little pools by themselves.
What a rage they were in when they saw how they had been fooled! Grandmother River just gurgled along in her banks and the little fish played around as they pleased.
Note: I wrote this braided narrative as a writing exercise in a class called Memoir Fusion in May 2021, with three strands of 200 words each that included: personal narrative, objective history of the place, and a legend or myth that connected to the theme. This is a mixed-genre piece that seeks to provide a larger context for the personal story. If I were writing for a published work, I would develop transitions and a tighter weave.
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