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What is Fort Worth’s oldest historic site? It’s not what you’d expect.

October 3,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Richard Selcer here.

The last remnant of the little frontier settlement on the bluff now known as Fort Worth is not a well-preserved structure in Log Cabin Village or a crumbling monument in a park setting; it is not even man-made. It is a small stand of live oak trees known as Steel’s grove, standing lonely vigil in a concrete planter box in the shadow of the Criminal Courts and Jail.

They have been there since the soldiers constructed the military post in the summer of 1849. They left them standing on what was the northwestern edge of the parade ground near the horse stables to provide a little shade for man and beast from the merciless north Texas sun.

Three of the hardy oaks survived the next 170 years of clear-cutting, urban growth, weather extremes, and arboreal diseases to receive finally a stay of execution in the form of historic designation, which came with a pledge to try to preserve them for future generations.

The trees are known as Steel’s grove because when the army moved out in 1853 and settlers took over the buildings, Lawrence Steel (usually misspelled as “Steele”) grabbed the stables for Fort Worth’s first public house, called Steel’s Tavern after its owner.

Steel purchased a bell that he put up in front of his hotel to announce stagecoach arrivals and departures from Fort Worth starting in 1856. Steel’s bell stood there until 1871 when it was moved to the Masonic hall. Even in those early years someone recognized the historic significance of the trees. About 1854 a small metal commemorative plate was nailed onto one of them bearing this inscription:

“This historic tree

First Hotel and Stagecoach Office 1853

Site of Steel’s Tavern Established by Lawrence Steel.”

Today, nobody knows who our first historic preservationist was, but his work was a reminder in the following decades that these trees were not to be touched. Or maybe it was just luck that no one took an axe to them.

Steel’s Tavern was Fort Worth’s only stage stop and hostelry for years, until 1876 when the stage stop was relocated to the new El Paso Hotel on Main. In the meantime, Lawrence Steel had sold out to Albert Andrews, who operated the place as Andrew’s Tavern. When the railroad came to town in 1876, it was renamed the Transcontinental Hotel. Through all the changes, the little grove of trees stood bravely just outside the door.

Over the years, the bluff was occupied by businesses moving in around the public square, plus an open-air market and two successive county jails. The dwindling number of empty spaces became prime real estate. In the early 20th century, the Federated Women’s Clubs of Fort Worth proposed turning the last remaining empty lot (the northwest corner of Houston and Belknap) into a park memorializing the fort. County commissioners put the kibosh on that idea when they secured title to the property for a new jail (the present Criminal Courts building), completed in 1918.

An empty piece of land tucked between the building, the street, and the river was designated Heritage Park, which did not include the historic stand of trees, in danger of making its “last stand” at any time. The trees survived because they were not worth the trouble to cut them down. Their venerable age and historic significance had been forgotten as bark grew over the 1850s plate. History-minded Fort Worth columnists like Claire Eyrich, Mary Daggett Lake, and Duane Gage did what they could to keep Steel’s trees alive in the public consciousness.

Things were looking bleak until 2018 when a state historic marker was put up commemorating Steel’s hotel. A separate marker for “Steel’s grove” is waiting to go up nearby with funding provided by the Fash Foundation. (The state historical commission does not put up markers for trees, no matter how old.) Linda Fash Bush and never-say-die members of the Tarrant Cunty Historical Commission have ramrodded the effort.

Next time you venture downtown, take some time to view our historic trees. Park close to the intersection of Belknap and Houston then walk down the sidewalk past the Criminal Courts building toward the river until you come to the trees on the left. Those little live oaks represent Fort Worth’s oldest historic site. Against all odds they have witnessed 170 years of history. Who knows how many more years they will stand vigil?