One hundred years ago, there was no Interstate 10 and no direct route across the vast expanse of Texas or the nation. At the dawn of automobile travel, an association of interests came together to promote the notion of driving across the southern part of the country, and the Old Spanish Trail Highway was born.

The origin and development of the OST, as it is commonly called, are meticulously detailed in a new book by Midland author James Collett, The Old Spanish Trail Highway in Texas. The book is the latest in an ongoing series by Arcadia Press that focuses on the histories of small towns, cities, and regions across America.

Collett will be in attendance at the Boerne Book and Arts Festival on Oct. 2, which is being revived as an in-person event in the town’s Main Plaza following last year’s pandemic-driven cancellation. The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Author James Collett pens a new book titled The Old Spanish Trail Highway in Texas.
James Collett is the author of a new book titled The Old Spanish Trail Highway in Texas. Credit: Courtesy / James Collett

Among the various panel discussions of the day, the 3:30 p.m. discussion will feature Collett, moderator Paul Barwick, historic hotel photographer David Peché, and Charlotte Kahl, who founded the Old Spanish Trail Centennial Celebration, which took place in San Antonio in 2019.

A transformation of America

As a youth in Sheffield in the 1950s and 1960s, Collett worked at his grandfather’s gas station and noted all the tourists passing through town who sometimes stopped at his other grandparents’ mom-and-pop hotel across the street or his parents’ restaurant.

“We always watched the California people going one direction and the Florida people going the other,” he said, which included “hippie buses” coming through his tiny Texas town during the ’60s.

Collett recognized that “even though I’m in the country, I’m connected to this bigger world that I wouldn’t have been in a little town that was off of the main road.”

That main road was the Old Spanish Trail Highway, which at the time in Texas was a collection of roads that formed a meandering path across Texas, from the town of Orange in the east, to San Antonio and through the Hill Country, then west to El Paso.

Outside of Texas, the OST’s eastern origin was in St. Augustine, Florida, and through the efforts of hundreds of small-town and city participants, it eventually ran all the way to its western endpoint in San Diego. The vision of the Old Spanish Trail Highway Association, headquartered near the midpoint in San Antonio’s Guenther Hotel, predated by decades President Dwight Eisenhower’s initiative to establish the nationwide interstate system.

For Collett, the OST presaged a new America, for better (burgeoning interstate commerce) and worse (the death of small towns bypassed by the interstate).

Though he saw the effects in Sheffield, “I never realized, ‘Hey, I’m part of this huge, big transformation of American life,’” he said.

An old map shows the Old Spanish Trail route coursing through the southern parts of the United States.
A map shows the Old Spanish Trail route from Fort Augustine, Florida, to San Diego. Credit: Courtesy / Old Spanish Trail Association Archives, St. Mary’s University

As he explored the original imprint of the trail, through Sugarland, Flatonia, Seguin, Marion, Cibolo, Schertz, Boerne, Comfort, Junction, and on through Fort Stockton and Van Horn, Collett marveled at how so many small towns worked together to establish the route, which for some meant paving dirt roads.

He dug through many of those towns’ archives to form the photographic backbone of his book, with more than 200 historical photographs packed into 128 pages.

In the last chapter, titled “Retracing the Trail,” Collett notes that several modern-day towns along the original route have maintained vestiges of their vintage look and feel. “Façades may have altered,” he notes in a caption for an image of downtown Flatonia, “but traces of old filling stations, grocery stores, restaurants, and motels may still be discovered along original OST routes.”

Though his book is not a guide for following the original OST Highway, Collett said he hopes it encourages road wanderers to seek out this essential piece of Texas history. Using the historical images to make comparisons to the present day, “you can kind of see here’s the way it looked then, and here’s the way it looks now.”

Anyone interested can access a detailed map of the old and new OST routes on the Texas Historical Commission website.

Other discussions

The OST panel discussion will be preceded by other discussions and readings, beginning at 10 a.m. with a focus on Texas ranch wildfires with author John Erickson, followed by a conversation about World War II heroines. Another ranch discussion will follow that talk at 12:30.

The Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, which runs the festival, began publishing its own books in 2019. Its latest publication, a poetry anthology titled Easing the Edges: A Collection of Everyday Miracles, themed toward finding positivity amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be featured with readings at 1:30 p.m.

A lighthearted look at Chicana pop star Selena featuring children’s book author Diana López will follow.

“I think we’ve kind of found our niche,” said librarian Robin Stauber, in “building a book festival to celebrate … Texas literature.”

The Boerne Book and Arts Festival is free and open to the public.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...