When an engineer and inventor decides to build a house, you can rest assured it will not be done in the usual manner. That was the case with G. W. Fulton when he designed and built a house for his beloved Harriet on the shores of Aransas Bay.
The walls were built from pine planks, five inches wide and over an inch thick, stacked and spiked together.
Inch thick cypress siding was then nailed to the exterior and the interior received an inch of gypsum plaster over cypress lath. The floors were constructed like one of the walls laid flat, but instead of cypress siding, they were covered with tongue and groove pine flooring or tile.
If the Gulf could dream up a storm strong enough to knock down Col. Fulton’s house, it would fall over in one piece.
Born in Philadelphia, George Ware Fulton had come to Texas in 1837 after spending time in Indiana as a schoolteacher and watchmaker. He became an officer in the Texas Army, worked for the General Land Office and taught school. One of his pupils was seventeen year old Harriet Smith, daughter of his friend, Treasury Secretary and former provisional governor Henry Smith.
George and Harriet married in 1840 and soon moved their growing family back east where economic prospects were better.
George and Harriet in later years
George became a railroad superintendent and civil engineer, learning the design of suspension bridges from John Roebling (of Brooklyn Bridge fame). Roebling had enough faith in George to pass on bridge building contracts he was too busy to handle.
The Fultons were doing very well, but Harriet was longing for Texas. In 1866, while George was away, she wrote him a letter saying:
“Oh, Pa, how I should like to take a trip to Texas this fall. Texas! There is something fascinating in that name, Oh, how I love it. Suppose after you return from Baltimore, we pack up, take Georgie and go to Texas. What a treat it would be!”
George liked the idea.
It was not just nostalgia calling him back. Harriet had inherited a nice chunk of land on the Live Oak Peninsula from her father. By 1869 the Fultons were permanently back in Texas and George had increased the family land holdings to 28,000 acres.
A couple years later he joined with Youngs and Thomas Coleman and J. M. and Thomas Mathis to form the Coleman, Mathis, Fulton Cattle Company (which later became the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company, and then the Taft Ranch.) George W. Fulton was now a cattle baron and could give his wife anything she wanted.
Which brings us back the house. We call it the Fulton Mansion, but the family called it Oakhurst. Construction began in 1872 and the Fultons moved in four years later.
Fulton Mansion while the Fultons were still in residence
It’s hard for modern eyes to conceive what an odd sight it was, nestled among the live oaks in its then rural locale. It’s a city house, second Empire in style, with trademark mansard roof. It would have looked at home on a manicured lot in Baltimore or Philadelphia, but there it was perched on Aransas Bay.
The basement, built of concrete, housed the laundry, kitchen and furnace. That furnace was the heart of a central heating system that forced hot air through the fireplaces of the upper floors. It also heated water for doing laundry and for baths in copper tubs upstairs.
The kitchen larder featured troughs of cool flowing water to keep perishables fresh and a dumbwaiter to quickly move even the most elaborate meals to the dining room above.
Upstairs, the walls were calcimined a brilliant white and the walnut woodwork was varnished to a high sheen. The rooms were furnished in the latest styles, purchased in Cincinnati and brought down the Mississippi.
There were two water systems: well water was pumped by a windmill into a cistern for irrigation and laundry. For drinking and bathing, rainwater was channeled from the roof to another cistern. This was pumped to an attic tank in order to feed the several lavatories by gravity.
The mansion also had gas lighting, supplied by a carbide gas generator behind the house, where calcium carbide reacted with water to produce acetylene gas.
A late 19th century carbide gas generator
The Fultons loved their home and loved entertaining guests. But nothing lasts forever.
George Ware Fulton died in 1893 at the age of 83. Mrs. Fulton soon moved to Cincinnati to live with her daughter, saying:
“Although it is such a lovely house, I have not the slightest desire to ever live there again. The charm has fled for all time.”
The house was sold in 1907 and Mrs. Fulton died in 1910.
Over the next six decades it changed hands several times, suffering decay and indignities. In 1952 the basement was turned into a restaurant. In 1960 the front lawn became a trailer park.
Fulton Mansion Trailer Park
In 1976 the mansion was acquired by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and restored to its former glory.
But like I said, nothing lasts forever. Forty years of standing up to the Texas coast took their toll. A second renovation was completed 2014.
Then Harvey blew into town in August of 2017. The metal roof peeled and twisted. Water came in and damaged some of the plaster work. But to old house sat like a rock. Repairs have were made and it is as solid as ever.