"From Fort, to 'Flat', to Legend"
The legendary Fort Griffin began as a military fort in 1867, one of several in West Texas. Griffin and other forts such as Fort Phantom, Fort Concho, and Fort Belknap were established by the government as means to protect settlers from Indian attacks and outlaws. On July 31, 1867, Lt. Colonel Samuel Sturgis and four companies of the Sixth Cavalry arrived on the designated spot where Fort Griffin was to be. The spot was located on a plateau overlooking the Clear Fork of the Brazos River in the northeastern corner of what was to officially become Shackelford County in 1874. First named Camp Wilson, the outpost was later renamed Fort Griffin, in honor of the late Major General Charles Griffin, who had been the commander of the Army's Department of Texas and who had made out specific plans for the building of the new fort. According to "The Handbook of Texas", building the fort was a slow process, but eventually it would have enough barracks to accomodate six companies of soldiers, the post band, the administration building, a hospital, eleven buildings for officers' quarters, a guardhouse, a bakery, a powder magazine, five storehouses, forage houses, four stables, a laundry, and a workshop. Most were wooden buildings, a few made of stone. Once the fort was complete, its need was soon justified. Indian attacks across northern Texas from the Kiowa and Comanche tribes of Oklahoma Territory began to increase, keeping soldiers busy for several years into the 1870's. The attacks, known as the Red River Campaign, continued for years until the Texas Army, which included Ft. Griffin troops and members of the "white man friendly" Tonkawa tribe, finally defeated the Kiowas and Comanches at Palo Duro Canyon in 1874.
During the early days of the military fort, a settlement began to emerge below the plateau where the fort stood. This settlement became known as "The Flat" since it was located on level land under the plateau. In five years, this settlement would become a rustling, bustling frontier town. Some of the settlers were local ranchers and farmers, who were law-abiding citizens. But the town soon attracted an array of buffalo hunters, tradesmen, ladies of the evening, and cowboys who would often pass through the town while driving cattle herds on the famous Western Trail that ran through the area. Some were law abiders, many were law breakers. Numerous well-known western figures, some with good reputations and others not so good, lived or passed through the town during this period, including Pat Garrett, Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, Johnny Golden, John Wesley Hardin, Lottie Deno, and Mollie McCabe. At its height, the town could have had a population of over 10,000. Business houses of all kinds sprang up to meet the needs of the growing population. In addition to numerous merchandisers, the town had many saloons, restaurants, drug stores, and dance halls. In 1874, lawlessness required the military to declare martial law on the town and Fort Griffin soldiers ran many lawbreakers out of town for good. Shackelford County only existed as an attachment to Jack County for judicial purposes. In early 1874, the prominent citizens of the area petitioned the Jack County court to allow Shackelford County to exist on its own. Their request was later granted that September. The town of Fort Griffin was immediately designated the county seat. However, this was to be only temporary. A group of mostly farmers and ranchers, disenchanted with the lawlessness and immoralities of Fort Griffin, sought to build a new town to serve as the Shackelford County seat. Land for the new town was donated by Henry Jacobs. The townsite was located in the central portion of the county, which many thought would be an ideal spot. The town was named Albany and immediately began to grow. In November of 1874, county citizens voted on which town they would prefer to be the permanent county seat. To Fort Griffin's disappointment, Albany was chosen by a vote of 54 to 39. From that point, many merchants began moving away from Fort Griffin and setting up their shops in Albany. Much of the population of Fort Griffin followed. As the 1870's came to a close, so did the number of buffalo. Buffalo hunting and the hunters that traded in Fort Griffin had been vital to the town's economy, but when the buffalo began to disappear, Fort Griffin suffered. In 1881, two events were to serve as the final blows to Fort Griffin. After 14 years of guarding the area from outlaws and Indians, it had become apparent that civilization was beginning to push even further westward. Fort Griffin was no longer on the so-called "western frontier" as it had been in 1867. The Indian threat was no more. There was no longer a need for the fort. At sundown, on May 31, 1881, the U. S. flag at the fort was lowered for the last time. With the departure of the soldiers who traded in the town, Fort Griffin had only one chance left to survive. When the Texas-Central Railroad began to approach Shackelford County from the south, Albany and Fort Griffin began a struggle to see which town would have the benefit of railroad tracks passing through it. Fort Griffin citizens put up a valiant effort to secure the railroad, but their hopes were shattered when Albany citizens raised $50,000 to entice the railroad to go there. The railroad, as expected, did just that. Fort Griffin's fate was sealed.
Fort Griffin was left as a small rural community with a school, post office, and a general store. By the 1940's, the school was consolidated with Albany's. The post office and store later closed. Today, all that is left of the town and the fort are preserved at Fort Griffin State Park, located on U. S. Highway 283, 15 miles northeast of Albany. The park, opened in 1936, is a major tourist attraction in Shackelford County. But the park is not the only reminder of Fort Griffin. Each year, a locally produced outdoor musical called "The Fort Griffin Fandangle" is performed in an amphitheater just outside of Albany for thousands of visitors. The musical tells the story of the settling of Shackelford County and Fort Griffin. The Fandangle, created by the late Robert E. Nail, began in 1938 as an Albany High School senior class play called "Dr. Shackelford's Paradise". The initial performance was so popular, that it was later enlarged and performed to larger crowds by members of the community. The Fandangle has been performed almost every year since and has become part of Shackelford County lore. With the help of the "Fort Griffin Fandangle" and Fort Griffin State Park, the old military fort and the once rustling, bustling frontier town, nicknamed "The Flat", will always be remembered.
Much of this history came from an August 16, 1981 article in the Abilene Reporter-News, entitled "Fort Griffin: A Glimpse of Yesterday".
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