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Camp Verde General Store

Written by Rob McCorkle.

An armadillo? Forget it. A horny toad? No chance. How about the mythical jackalope? You’ve gotta be kidding. The single-humped camel reigns as Camp Verde General Store’s mascot and ubiquitous logo. It embellishes everything from French soaps to wall clocks here. This combination mercantile/post office/restaurant/historic landmark owes its longevity—just shy of 150 years—to the dromedaries brought to nearby Camp Verde by the military in 1856. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis initiated the camel experiment to see how the military pack animals would fare in the American West.

Today, the two-story structure, between Kerrville and Bandera, welcomes local ranchers, motorcycle clubs, classic-car enthusiasts, and others cruising the Hill Country’s backroads. And if you believe in ghosts—and who doesn’t around Halloween—the venerable store provides the perfect setting for a pesky trio of spirits said to haunt the place.

Overlooking cypress-lined Verde Creek, Camp Verde General Store sits just north of the intersection of Texas 173 South and Ranch Road 480, the latter a scenic stretch of road that hugs the creek as it rolls past verdant ranch land on its way to the German-settled burg of Center Point, six miles downstream.

Opened in 1857 as the Williams Community Store, the establishment operated only on payroll days, serving soldiers from Camp Verde, which stood a mile to the west, looking to quench their thirst for alcohol. The military establishment provided the men with liquid refreshment, but military regulations prohibited intoxicants. Charles Schreiner, a young rancher who would later help put Kerrville on the map, purchased the store in 1858 and operated it and a post office at the site until he joined the Confederacy in 1861. Walter S. Nowlin re-opened the store and post office in 1899, but a turn-of-the-century flood washed it away.

Six months later, the store was rebuilt in a Southern Colonial design using locally quarried limestone. Nowadays, the tin roof and a second-story balcony with a pine railing and posts lend the building a rustic look. Life-size woodcarvings of 19th-Century soldiers stand sentry at opposite ends of the front porch. Wooden benches beckon travelers to sit a spell.

Inside the building, with its well-worn wood floors, pressed tin ceilings, beaded board walls, and handsome antique display cabinets, you sense by-gone days. Mounted deer heads, weather-beaten cowboy hats and boots, and a wooden Indian just inside the front door add to the Hill Country decor. One corner of the store’s ground floor still serves the Camp Verde community’s postal patrons.

Although antique items, such as manual typewriters, women’s lace-up shoes, and an upright piano still decorate the interior, Camp Verde General Store has undergone a transformation in recent years. It was once a typical country store, offering little more than soft drinks, snacks, and a few anachronistic curiosities, but today the store operates as a post office, eatery, and fully stocked emporium.

The Old Camp Verde Café serves a light breakfast, lunch, and snacks that appeal to the living—and perhaps the dead, too, judging from the ghost stories related by locals and revealed in the Camp Verde History scrapbook. The café menu even honors Ruthie, a well-known local spook said to haunt the store: A “Snacks for Ruthie” section lists nachos, pork tamales, and other Mexican fare.

Ruthie, said to be a woman in her late 20s or early 30s, also has a sweet tooth, according to a local ranch hand. As the story goes, one night the cowboy heard the store’s burglar alarm go off and alerted a sheriff’s deputy. As the two searched downstairs, the ranch hand set a cookie out on the table for Ruthie, as he sometimes did. The two men went upstairs to search for intruders, but saw no one. When they came back downstairs, a bite had been taken out of the cookie. The two men ran from the store, vowing never to return after dark.

That wasn’t the first time, however, that employees had reported ghostly mischief.

Former store employee Angie Baker of Kerrville recalls encountering the specter of a little girl in one corner of the room while she was turning out the lights for the evening. “I barely got a glimpse of her, but she was short and had long hair. I’ve heard other stories about people arriving at the store first thing in the morning to find a children’s book left open or toys scattered on the floor as if someone had been playing with them,” Angie says.

Melissa Treviño, the store’s operations manager and buyer, says that she herself hasn’t seen any real evidence of the restless spirits’ handiwork. On a couple of occasions, she has put an item down, and then found that it has been moved, but there could be a number of explanations for that, she says.

When she’s not waiting on customers, Melissa scouts for unusual gift items to stock. The philosophy behind Camp Verde General Store’s merchandising, she explains, is to offer items made by Hill Country artists and craftspeople.

Patrons can find fine jewelry, trendy dishware, scented candles, gourmet foods, clothing, and rooms brimming with enough other merchandise to keep most shopaholics busy for hours. In keeping with the store’s historic ambiance, many items are housed in the glass display cases.

Upstairs rooms built on both sides of the building bulge with more merchandise. The westernmost room contains large wooden bins filled with every candy imaginable: jellybeans, chocolate candy cigarettes, bubblegum, and more. Parched patrons need only reach into a cooler for a soft drink, beer, or bottled water to wash down their choice of gourmet chips, peanut brittle, ice cream bars, or any number of other tempting confections and snacks.

Hungry travelers can choose from several salads under the menu’s “Camel Food” section, build their own deli sub, or select from a handful of grilled or toasted sandwiches. A hot plate-lunch might feature anything from spaghetti and meatballs to fried catfish. Diners can sit at one of the indoor tables or dine alfresco at a shaded patio table in the Camel Corral. (This picturesque courtyard and the surrounding grounds have made the store popular for weddings and other gatherings.)

The San Antonio-based Camelot Hills Group, LLC, purchased Camp Verde General Store in 2004 from Joyce and Roland Walter. Nearby sits the Bowman family ranch, which includes the remains of old Camp Verde. Robert E. Lee, an Army captain (and an architect), stayed at the ranch while he helped lay out the post in the 1850s. After the Civil War started in 1861, Confederates took over the camp. In 1865, Union forces reoccupied Camp Verde, but abandoned it four years later, which effectively ended the camel experiment.

And what of the camels?

Yellowed newspaper clips in Camp Verde General Store scrapbooks relate the varied fates of these hearty, but cantankerous “ships of the desert.” During the Civil War, 80 camels and two Egyptian drivers ended up in Confederate hands. Before long, though, the camels were widely scattered.

Some were used in salt pack-trains that ran to San Antonio and other military posts from salt lakes such as La Sal del Rey and La Sal Vieja in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Some were set free on the open range near Camp Verde; others were used to pack cotton bales to Brownsville; and, according to The Handbook of Texas, one found its way to the infantry command of Captain Sterling Price, who used it throughout the war to carry his company’s baggage. Records show that in 1866, the U.S. Army sold 66 camels to Bethel Coopwood, who was a soldier, lawyer, judge, and businessman in Texas, California, and Mexico. Coopwood used the camels to haul freight for a while between San Antonio and Mexico. Still others were sold to the circus or auctioned off in California, and a few escaped to roam the desert.

Yet another Camp Verde camel story reported by the press addresses a different kind of ghost that haunted the area’s cedar breaks in the waning days of the 19th Century. The unattributed quote goes as follows:

“A circuit preacher once delivered a sermon under a brush arbor near Camp Verde. He read the scripture from Matthew 23:24: ‘Ye blind guides that strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.’ He suddenly became speechless, stared beyond the congregation as if transfixed by some holy apparition. Churchgoers turned to witness two camels emerge from the nearby woods.”

So, if you’re in this ghost-hunting neighborhood, don’t be too surprised if you see a cavalryman leading an eight-foot-tall camel down to the banks of Verde Creek. They may be on their way to the store to enjoy one of Ruthie’s snacks.

Camp Verde (zip code 78010) sits on the north bank of Verde Creek, 6 miles southwest of Center Point, near the junction of Texas 173 South and Ranch Road 480, in the southeastern corner of Kerr County, just 3 miles north of famed Bandera Pass. The community sprang up around the Williams Community Store, the forerunner of today’s Camp Verde General Store; 830/634-7722. Camp Verde’s first post office was established in 1858. Hours: Daily 9-5.

The Old Camp Verde Café (830/634-7722 for phone orders; 634-3275 for fax orders) serves breakfast and lunch. Lunch served until 2 p.m.

The Texas Camel Corps, owned and operated by Doug Baum of Valley Mills (254/675-HUMP [4867]; www.texascamelcorps.com), offers monthly camel treks at Monahan Sandhills State Park and occasional ones at Big Bend Ranch State Park and in the Middle East.

The 150th anniversary of the original Williams Community Store, complete with camels, will be celebrated June 23, 2007. Call the Camp Verde General Store for information.

From the October 2006 issue.

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