Ruins that archeologists call one of the last links to the original ranches and cowboys that shaped Texas have been kept behind a gate, literally buried, for more than two decades _ awaiting the funding that would allow people to see them.
The 18th-century Rancho de las Cabras complex, with its stone building remains, was a birthplace of the large commercial ranching operations that would help define the state. Preservationists have long hoped it could be fully excavated and opened to the public, but so far, the site has been unable to attract the money it would need from Congress or the National Park Service's stretched budget.
"It's one of these kind of once-in-a-lifetime sites. You're not going to be able to see something like this anywhere in the world," said National Park Service Archaeologist Susan Snow. "The mission ranches brought what we know today as the modern cattle industry."
The 100-acre site about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio was donated 32 years ago to the state, which handed it to the National Park Service nearly 15 years ago as an addition to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
Texas park officials realized in the 1980s that they couldn't afford to protect the ruins, so they covered the walls with sand in an effort to prevent them from disintegrating before archaeologists could fully document and shore up the site. Until a month ago, no one had seen them since.
Archaeologists from the National Park Service and the University of Texas-San Antonio removed some of the sand to see how the walls were holding up and found them _ some several feet high with their mortar disintegrated _ still standing.
There is still no money to preserve the site, so the park service reburied the walls to protect them from the elements and the feral hogs that roam the area.
Park Superintendent Scott Bentley estimates it would take $3 million to $4 million to preserve and open the site to the public. It would cost $300,000 to $400,000 annually to operate it. Plans were drawn up a decade ago and missions park officials hoped their request would soon be funded.
But the site is in a queue with other proposed projects, and so far Rancho de las Cabras has received funding only for relatively modest road improvements or maintenance. Otherwise, it needs a congressional appropriation _ something National Park Service employees are barred from directly lobbying for.
Rancho de las Cabras, like other mission ranches in south Texas, was built by the Spaniards as a source of wealth for its mission community, Mission Espada.
The missions were founded to turn indigenous tribes into Spanish citizens, and the communities were built with farms and ranches to offer financial support and protection from the raiding Apache and Comanche Indians. Each mission had a prominent church, since the native residents had to convert to Catholicism to become Spanish citizens.
The ranches were used to graze cattle, goats and sheep. The Spanish transplants and Indian converts who drove herds to the mission compounds for slaughter every 10 days were Texas' first cowboys, Snow said.
Each of the five missions clustered along the San Antonio River, including the Alamo, had its own ranch. Rancho de las Cabras, or "goat ranch," had 1,272 head of cattle and 4,000 sheep and goats at its peak in 1762. It supported about 170 people at Mission Espada.
As the ranches became part of larger tracts in Texas' flourishing ranching industry, the remnants of most mission ranch buildings and artifacts vanished to the elements and looters.
But Rancho de las Cabras had more than simple adobe or wooden structures for shelter. It had permanent buildings including a chapel and four adjoining rooms started in the 1750s with sandstone quarried at the site. The chapel, which the archaeologists did not uncover last month, is believed to have been plastered _ a mark of a more sophisticated development.
Archaeologists have also found remnants of some unexpected items at the site, including decorated ceramics and rings with gems _ "things you wouldn't expect a cowboy to have," Snow said. There is also a packed clay floor in the compound, like a patio, another relative luxury for a ranching outpost, she said.
That has led to suggestions that the ranch, which sits 25 miles from Espada and at the confluence of the San Antonio River and Pecosa Creek, could have served passing travelers or had another use in addition to providing food for its mission community, Snow said.
"This was an extraordinary operation," Bentley said, looking at the remnants of the stone walls that were being covered again. "It's one of those hidden treasures."
On the Net:
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park: http://www.nps.gov/SAAN/index.htm