The site of the old Torrey’s Trading Post No. 2 is today nothing more than a brushy hilltop five miles east of Waco, visited by more buzzards than cars.
But for a young nation called Texas, it was a strategic hub of commerce and diplomacy with Native Americans, located on the western edge of Anglo settlement.
The post was established in 1844 at the behest of Republic of Texas President Sam Houston, who negotiated peace treaties with several Texas Indian tribes at a nearby council grounds.
The state recognized the importance of the site in 1936 by erecting one of its coveted Centennial Markers, etching in granite the history of a frontier superstore.
But today, that marker lies face-down under the brush, on fenced private property more than 100 yards from the nearest county road, creating a conundrum for guardians of local history.
Officials with the McLennan County Historical Commission, which oversees local historical markers, say they would like to renovate the marker and figure out a way to make it more publicly accessible.
But for the past four years, the commission has been unable to get permission to maintain the site, said Ken Brittain, the commission’s marker committee chairman.
“It really needs a lot of work,” Brittain said. “What we’d like to do is get a monument company to go out and build us a substantial base and set that marker up so it won’t fall over again.”
The site off Highway 6 is owned by the Jim McDonald family, which has bought up thousands of acres of eastern McLennan County property during the past couple of decades. Tom Felton, a rancher who leases the trading post site and other McDonald properties, has let commission volunteers onto the property in the past but not in the past four years.
In an interview this week, Felton said he’s mindful of the importance of the site to Texas history, but the owner is cautious about letting people onto the property without a written agreement.
“I would visit with any of them, but I’d tell them basically the same thing: That it’s up to Mr. McDonald,” Felton said.
He said the site has had problems over the years with trespassers, and the more attention drawn to the site, the more risk there is of vandalism, unauthorized treasure-hunting or damage to livestock.
“You let the public in, and it just creates too much liability,” he said. “The public cannot be trusted to any extent. You give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.”
Brittain said this week that he’s been unable to contact McDonald, who has several residences around the country, but he would like to reach an agreement with the landowner.
Felton said he has thought about the possibility of a historical marker near the road recognizing the history of the trading post and council grounds, but he’s concerned about traffic hazards.
“It would be very dangerous with people stopping on that narrow road,” he said.
Brittain said the commission would be open to putting up a roadside marker, perhaps with a cutout from the road where visitors can park. He said he would even like to explore the possibility of buying the site for a county park of about 12 acres, but Felton said the landowner wouldn’t be interested.
Brittain said he doesn’t think the Texas Historical Commission would allow the marker itself to be moved. The local historical commission asked the state historical commission in 1966 and again in 2014 to move the granite marker to Highway 6, but state officials opposed moving it.
The 1966 effort resulted in a small metal historical marker placed at Highway 6 and Harrison Road. After the 2014 request, Texas Historical Commission officials suggested putting up a larger metal marker at that location and continuing to discuss access with the property owner at the original site.
“We recognize that the monument is currently inaccessible to the public. However, moving the monument may result in the original location of that historic site being lost forever,” Texas Historical Commission historical marker coordinator Bob Brinkman wrote to the county commission on March 25, 2014.
Texas Historical Commission spokesman Chris Florance said it’s unusual to have a historical marker on inaccessible private land.
“We do try to place those in a public right-of-way so people can see them and interact with them,” Florance said. “It’s hard for us to say what happened. This might have been publicly accessible in 1936.”
A hand-drawn map from 1966 in county historical commission records states that the marker even then was off its foundation and was covered in weeds and brush. The map shows where the buildings of the trading post complex had been. The last of the log buildings had burned in 1929, so the geography of the location was still within local memory, according to the document.
Tied to Waco history
The story of Torrey’s Trading Post No. 2 is intertwined with Waco history.
George Barnard, who started the post near Tradinghouse Creek in 1844, later settled in the newly surveyed town of Waco and established a new store at Lot 1, Block 1, becoming one of the town’s most prosperous and influential citizens.
But when he built his first log trading post, he was just a 25-year-old entrepreneur who was still recovering from a scrape of bad luck south of the border.
Barnard came to Texas from Connecticut in 1838 and joined up with the frontier merchant firm John F. Torrey and Bros, according to an entry on Barnard in the Handbook of Texas Online.
In 1841, he headed southwest with the ill-fated Texas Santa Fe expedition, ending up a prisoner of the Mexican government at the infamous Perote Prison in Veracruz, Mexico.
After his release and return to employment with the Torrey Brothers, he was assigned to go scope out a Central Texas location for a new trading post.
President Houston in 1843 started a series of treaty negotiations at the council grounds near Tehuacana Creek, the exact site of which is still unknown. Provisions included protected hunting grounds for natives and an agreement that they would shop at government-approved trading posts, according to the entry. Texas officials later broke the treaties over Houston’s objections.
Barnard’s trading post, of which he soon became full owner, traded items including gunpowder, hatchets, bullet molds, beads, combs, refined bear oil, tobacco and whiskey for animal hides, according to Roger Conger’s “A Pictorial History of Waco.”
The trading post shipped to Houston stacks of deer, buffalo, bear, raccoon, fox, beaver, bobcat and panther hides. Between 1844 and 1853, Barnard processed 75,000 deer hides.
Amid the trading, Barnard was often called on to mediate disputes among rival Native American tribes.
As Native Americans moved up the Brazos under pressure from white settlement, Barnard and his brother Charles also established frontier mercantile operations in Fort Graham and Glen Rose.
By 1851, Barnard had moved to Waco, where he established a leading store for the new village. He acquired a large estate that includes what is now Old Waco High School, became a pioneer Waco Mason and helped bring the Waco Tap Railroad to town.
He died on March 6, 1883, having seen Waco evolve from a riverfront outpost to a prosperous small city.