One of the first challenges stonemason Baltazar Espinosa had in salvaging two rare jacales, or huts, from the 1836-45 Texas republic, was piecing together a fireplace and chimney, using the original sandstone that had crumbled into a pile of rubble.
"First of all, you have to investigate where everything started. Then you follow the ghost of the outline of the old chimney," as seen in markings on the wall, Espinosa said.
For several weeks, Espinosa and a small crew have worked to stabilize the jacales, owned by descendants of Blas Herrera, a Tejano scout who rode into San Antonio in mid-February 1836 to warn residents of the approaching Mexican army. After being added last year to the National Register of Historic Places, the family's Von Ormy ranch, where the huts are located, recently was named one of the 10 most endangered historic sites by Preservation Texas.
Ron Bauml, the conservation society's property restoration manager, said Espinosa has skillfully reconstructed the chimney like a jigsaw puzzle.
"Just by looking at the stones, he could tell which were corner stones and which were in the interior," Bauml said.
Experts say a full restoration would cost well into six figures. But with a $17,000 grant from the conservation society, the jacales are getting enough care and attention to protect them from natural elements that can destroy a primitive structure.
Espinosa, whose résumé includes work at the Alamo and 1920s stone structures at Woodlawn Lake, has been recognized by the Texas Historical Commission and the conservation society for his work with native stone and adobe.
The jacales, two of only five known to exist in Bexar County, are the type of structure many settlers occupied, at times temporarily. Walls were made of horizontal cypress laths, with river gravel, sandstone and adobe mortar reinforced with straw and horse hair pressed in between.
The family's ties to the ranch date to a 1774 Spanish land grant. But many families in the area fled east after the Spanish Royal Army crushed the first republic of Texas at the Battle of Medina in 1813. According to the National Register nomination, the property first appeared on tax rolls in the name of Blas Herrera in 1845. He had 800 acres valued at $300, and three cows.
Herrera and his wife raised at least 12 children and had a dairy farm, horses, oxen, swine, corn and bees for honey.
Bauml said plans for the jacales include window covers and other protection to allow ventilation but keep out rain and animals. In some areas, modern plaster on exterior walls must be replaced with mud plaster and a lime mix, then whitewashed, so the walls can "breathe" out moisture from the ground and retain their historic look.
The conservation society also is negotiating with Herrera's family on a conservation easement so the preservation group can inspect the site annually. Any significant alterations to the property would need the group's consent.
"This is a wonderful resource, and a real tangible part of our history," said Nancy Avellar, conservation society president.