The most famous of all the missions is San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo.
More than a dozen Spanish missions spread from East Texas (even Louisiana) to the Mexican border. Some missions are in Mexico, which used to be part of the Spanish territory of Texas.
But one mission is likely to be missed on that trail: the Mission Sin Caja, which sits on a hill in western Live Oak County near the Choke Canyon water tower.
Mission Sin Caja’s cornerstone reads “Established 1755 plus or minus 250 years in memory of H.D. and Mildred House.”
Kurt House, the son of H.D. and Mildred, built the Spanish-style mission on one of his ranches near Simmons City. The edifice can be seen from miles away.
The ranch has about 1,200 acres in Live Oak County and about 300 acres in McMullen County.
“I think Live Oak County needs a landmark. San Antonio has theirs and Goliad has theirs,” House said.
He explained that the main reason he built the mission was to have it as a memorial to his parents.
But there were other reasons, too.
“My family likes to come to the ranch, especially my in-laws from Houston. We always celebrate Easter and Thanksgiving here. The object is to get away from all that – no Internet, phone or TV.”
House, who is 65, studied anthropology at Southern Methodist University and taught there in the 1970s, said he is acutely interested in Spanish missions.
Missions, he said, were self-reliant. The padres in the missions oversaw growing and producing their own food, collecting water, teaching Christianity to the American Indians and making wine. The missions also served as a fortress and safe place when needed.
“A mission was a Spanish institution invented to administer all the necessities of life to the indigenous population. The padres thought it was important to convert the Indians to Christianity.”
House said the padres practically lived on nothing, sometimes eating dirt to get that full stomach feeling.
“The mission was more than a church. The padres had to take care of all the Indians’ needs – not just spiritual but also physical.”
The Mission Sin Caja also has a vineyard, as was traditional for the padres who first brought grapes to California, for example, and House is currently evaluating six different grape varieties to see which is best, including the original variety known as “Mission.” And a building that will serve as a winery is being outfitted.
Eventually, he will have a wine cellar, too.
“This is Southwestern style, evolved from necessary local materials, not Tudor or any other foreign imported architectural style.” House said.
The floor plan for Mission Sin Caja is similar to San Antonio’s Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion. And House has filled it with replica furniture and fixtures and original pieces that accent the Spanish colonial period.
“I started collecting Spanish Colonial architectural materials about 30 years ago, without really knowing why,” he said.
Some of those pieces include six 18th century-style Spanish Colonial benches made from original plans of solid mesquite by local furniture craftsman Dan Manning of George West.
Other elements in the mission include doors from an 18th century mission in Mexico (the doors are identical to those stolen from the Alamo in the early part of the 20th century), other 18th century doors, mesquite tables, art, Spanish armor and chairs that are 300 years old from a museum in Pennsylvania, and much, much more.
“My dream is to make this into a living history center – bring kids to see a blacksmith in action, hide tanning, loom weaving and flint knapping, all the things a Spanish mission would have had,” he said.
He said all the schools have to do is call and set a time for a living history tour. The phone number is 361-786-2681.
Mission Sin Caja sits on a hill overlooking what Texas historians call the Nueces strip – an area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande.
House said this frontier area of small rolling hills and the Nueces River Valley originally inhabited by American Indians and then bandits was the wildest part of Texas even up to the 1920s Prohibition era.
The Spanish sent five overland expeditions to try and find the French fort that LaSalle had established near present-day Victoria, House said.
One of those overland explorers was Alonzo DeLeon, who was the first to describe a striking feature on the Nueces Strip – a mesa that juts up and can be seen for miles around and from Mission Sin Caja, about 15 miles distance.
“Early explorers and settlers used that mesa as a landmark to navigate by,” he said.
The story goes that an expedition was attacked at the mesa. The lone survivor buried the dead without coffins. So the mesa was named Sin Caja. The name translated into English means “without a coffin” although many times you see it misprinted as San Cajo and other mistaken words. Even J. Frank Dobie in his book ‘Coronado’s Children’ refers to it this way in his chapter ‘Where Parrallel Lines Intersect.’
“When I built the mission, I decided to name it after the mesa,” House said.
“I had the vision to build the mission about 10 years ago, and we poured the slab in 2005.”
House studied Spanish architecture in Mexico and Spain for 10 years to keep close to an authentic mission as possible.
“My wife Susie and I also went to Spain and were fascinated by Moorish architecture,” he said.
To authenticate the mission further, he had all electrical connections laid underground, hiding 21st century giveaways.
“We really started in 2009,” he said.
Now, in Phase 3 of the plans, which includes finishing six casitas, two suites and the winery building, House said he would take a break and rest for a period.
The next phase includes a swimming pool shaped like a Spanish quatrefoil (same shape as windows in the mission), blacksmith area, wine cellar and other features.
House said one more reason for building the mission was economical.
“I will accept reservations from people who want to stay – a bed and breakfast type of deal,” he said.
House already has the first wedding scheduled at the mission. And he said he has up to a 16-person capacity for lodging.
So the mission will be available for various corporate and civic events, for hunters and for those wanting to escape to a peaceful setting.
“And it’s more for functions that foster preserving history,” he said.
House said he has a Sept. 15 fundraiser scheduled for the Former Texas Ranger Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving history of the Texas Rangers, which is scheduled to build a new History and Education Center in Fredericksburg. He said the information and application to join can be found on the website:
Mission Sin Caja promises to be House’s vessel to preserve Texas and Spanish history.
“I want to infect people with enthusiasm and desire to learn history,” he said.