Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Comstock, Texas

by
Doug Braudaway

Val Verde County is home to one incorporated community today, and it represents the historic trend of urbanization and the near depopulation of the countryside in West Texas. In years past several communities were established around the county. As a result of that urbanization trend, most of them are gone. But one of those rural communities, in the south-central portion of the county, survives.

Comstock, Texas sits about thirty miles northwest of the Val Verde County’s county seat of Del Rio. Like several of the old rural communities, Comstock’s origin lies in a conjunction of railroad and agriculture. The Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad Company was constructing a rail line westward from San Antonio in 1881. In the day of steam engine locomotives, water sources were critical to the railroad’s operation. The countryside of central (what is now) Val Verde County was lightly populated with scattered ranches and grazing land. When the rail line was completed in 1883, ranchers were much more able to market and move agricultural products out of the previously isolated areas.

In Comstock’s earliest existence during the summer of 1882, “Soto City consists of about a dozen tents, mostly saloons and restaurants…. The people there are looking for a station, but I do not think they will obtain it, for the reason that there is no water in convenient distances.”[“Del Rio Booming,” San Antonio Weekly Express, August 10, 1882, in George O. Perkins, page 112.] As a result, the suggested townsite was relocated before people put down roots. “The original townsite thirty miles west of Del Rio was called Sotol City and was established at the Cow Creek crossing. The town site was moved eastward to the present location of Comstock soon after. The reason for moving the town was the existence of a natural lake in Comstock which was used for water. The railroad used a side car for the first post office and soon erected a stock pen for loading livestock.”[Comstock Study Club, page 1.]

The name of Soto or Sotol City was quickly replaced by the railroad. Comstock is named for John B. Comstock, a railroad employee, in this case a dispatcher. [La Hacienda, privately published, page 147 Sotol is the name for a thorny desert plant, common in the area.] As with many other railroad towns, including Langtry also in Val Verde County, the railroad company named the stations—and hence the town—after their people.

The community grew to several hundred people, in town, in addition to the visitations of ranch populations from the lower Devil’s River country. No records from the 1890 Census for Val Verde County survived the fire, but the 1900 Census shows 348 enumerated persons. W.B. Carter, born in Comstock in an former saloon building in 1923, remembers a Comstock of about 350 persons during the 1920s and 1930s. [Willie Barton Carter to DB.]

While few stores remain in Comstock today, and many residents routinely travel to Del Rio for shopping, early Comstock boasted a variety of establishments. The Phillips Hotel and [Ben] O’Bryant Hotel; the D.C. Denny Lumber Yard and Eagle Pass Lumber Company; the Sweeten Blacksmith Shop, Heabner Blacksmith Shop, and Culpepper’s blacksmith shop and garage; George O’Bryant meat marker and ice house, W.E. McCarson’s Comstock Mercantile Co., Joe Bendele’s grocery, Rodrequez Grocery, the Edwards and Billingsley Grocery provided essential community business operations. [Comstock Study Club, pages 1-5.] As hard to believe in a modern economy, Comstock was once large enough to support two automobile dealerships: McClusky’s Ford and Humphrey’s (once common) Hupmobile. [Willie Barton Carter to DB.]

Railroad operations in town included the Railway Express Agency. The Agency was a general freight office for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The S.P. also maintained a passenger office with waiting room. [Willie Barton Carter to DB.] The presence of the rail line, that rail line, meant that Comstock had railroad access to the Gulf Coast and Pacific Coast, and the rest of the world.

Besides the railroad, another important transportation business of the early days was the Deaton Stage Line. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, George Deaton delivered people, mail, and cargo from Comstock north to Juno in the northern part of Val Verde County and on to Ozona, in Crockett County (roughly where Highway 163 lies today). W.B. Carter’s father, after resigning from the Texas Rangers, operated a freighting service, driving trucks along roads that were not paved until the 1930s and carrying cargo to and from the ranches. [Willie Barton Carter to DB.]

Deaton Stage Line ad.
This Deaton advertisement is reproduced in La Hacienda, page 353.

Other businesses included the Starr Movie Theater, Smith and Schrier’s Tourist Court (the “motel” in that day and age), and Dick Bishophausen’s barbershop. Joe Ramsey’s drugstore offered medicine for people and screwworm medicine used to treat cuts during sheep shearing as well as service at the soda fountain and ice cream parlor. Eating establishments were common: the Blue Hills Café, the Matador Café, John Palmer’s Café, and Bessie Babb’s Café near the railroad tracks. There were many more. “Businesses in Comstock have centered on the railroad, ranch activities, and small town goods and services.” [Comstock Study Club, pages 4-5.]

A key element of the Comstock business community was the wool and lamb industry. Sheep and goats are more common than cattle in the thin soil of central Val Verde County. Sheep are more commonly raised for wool, but lambs are also exported from the area. As the sheep shearing crews collected wool, it was bagged and compressed into burlap bags. Comstock served as a collection point for the nearby ranches. The often busy woolhouse sat next to the railroad tracks as similar facilities in towns across West Texas.
Wool Sack Logos.
Most of the wool sacks were painted with one of three logos to identify the destination of the sack. The block V represented Val Verde Wool & Mohair Company; the diamond D meant Del Rio Wool & Mohair Company; and the circle P represented the Producers Wool and Mohair Company in Del Rio.

As cattle were also raised and sold, the stockpens alongside the railroad tracks were another part of community. In addition to holding livestock until the animals could be loaded onto railroad cars, the stockpens area also served as a campground for Fort Clark cavalrymen.

The Comstock community was also a sometime home to Texas Rangers. The 1900 Census shows four “state rangers” in camp: Henry Dubose, M.H. Wright, James Moore, and [Charles ?] Sandhers. W.B. Carter was born in Comstock as a result of his Texas Ranger father’s assignment to enforce state law in the rural area between the Devil’s and Pecos Rivers. Ranger brothers Frank and Harrison Hamer were also assigned at one time to the area. [Willie Barton Carter to DB. A published source, John H. Jenkins and H. Gordon Frost, “I’m Frank Hamer”: The Life of a Texas Peace Officer, State House Press: Austin, 1993, speaks of Del Rio, near Del Rio, and around Del Rio.]

The two most common Texas theological denominations were represented in Comstock. Catholic services were held in houses by visiting priests of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate beginning in 1896. The Comstock Catholic community was often served by priests from Del Rio. The parish was organized under the name Mary, Queen of the Universe Church, while priests often visited from Del Rio’s parishes for services. Comstock Baptist Church shares roots with Del Rio’s Baptist congregations. The same Reverend Frank Marrs helped organize congregations in both communities, and the same “Goodwill” chapel car served as early meeting places. [See the VVCHC marker application for Del Rio Baptist Church on file with the THC.] Organized services began in 1899 in the Comstock Missionary Baptist Church and continued after 1902 as the Comstock Baptist Church. [Comstock Study Club, pages 6-14.]

Comstock’s schools seem to have begun in 1896. The first schoolhouse was a one-room building. In 1924 a new schoolhouse was built on donated land, and more teachers were hired. W.B. Carter remembers attending school in the 1920s-1930s in the school with four rooms with students grouped in pairs of grades: first- and second-graders together with one teacher, third- and fourth-graders together, etc. [Comstock Study Club, pages 14-16; Willie Barton Carter to DB.]

It seems the decline of Comstock occurred as a result of two principal trends. During the twentieth-century, Americans moved from the countryside and rural communities to the urban centers. The Second World War accelerated that trend. W.B. Carter left Comstock in 1942, drove a truck helping build Eagle Pass Army Air Field until joining the Marine Corps, serving in Guadalcanal, Guam and other Pacific Theater sites. After the War, Carter did not return to Comstock though he remained in contact with family and friends. [Willie Barton Carter to DB.]

The second trend was technological advances, particularly in railroad transportation. During the 1950s, oil-burning, steam-powered locomotives were replaced by diesel-electric locomotives. The new locomotives required less maintenance and fewer facilities. The roundhouse and machine shops in Del Rio were dismantled as were similar facilities along the West Texas line. The railroad presence was greatly reduced in Del Rio and very near eliminated in smaller towns. (Railroad yards in San Antonio and El Paso are the only ones left on the West Texas line.)

It seems that bustling, booming town is now very nearly history. Other than the tracks, most of the railroad facilities are gone. U.S. Highway 90 does not include even a traffic light, and most drivers do not stop in at all. Nevertheless, Comstock, Texas remains well-remembered by the oldtimers who were born and raised there. The Val Verde County Historical Commission is ready to remind modern visitors that Comstock was is one of the communities that helped build western Texas.

Bibliography—
Willie Barton Carter to Doug Braudaway, personal interview, January 30, 2010.
Comstock Study Club, Comstock: Friends and Neighbors, privately published, @1970.
George O. Perkins, “The Early History Of Val Verde County,” Master of Arts Thesis at Sul Ross State College, January 1954.
Whitehead Memorial Museum and Val Verde County Historical Commission, La Hacienda, privately published, 1976. (Cited as La Hacienda.)