Photography of Pontotoc Vineyards by Josh Hailey
by Terry Thompson-Anderson
The story of Pontotoc, in Mason County, is the tale of a small town established in the mid-1800s that struggled to become a viable community. According to the records at the Texas State Historical Association, the town’s first merchant, Mr. M. Robert Kidd, named the town and the nearby creek after his hometown of the same name in Mississippi. The economy around Pontotoc was primarily based on cotton, cattle, wool and pecans, and at the peak of the town’s growth, local vendors included a blacksmith, saddleries, a newspaper, two doctors, a hotel, a general store, hardware store, barber shop and a movie theater.
In 1872, the German Immigration Company founded a farm and built a large house to service German immigrant families seeking a new beginning in the Texas Hill Country. A post office was opened in 1880, and in 1882, Pontotoc seemed poised on the brink of a boom. The San Fernando Academy was established in a grand sandstone structure in the center of the town and drew students from all over Texas in pursuit of teaching certificates. At its largest capacity, the school boasted 200 students and was the pride of the town.
Then, in 1887, tragedy struck when a typhoid epidemic nearly decimated the town.
The local cemetery filled and a second one was created. Suffering from low enrollment, the beloved San Fernando Academy was shuttered shortly thereafter. Efforts were made to quickly bolster the town’s economy, including an unsuccessful attempt in 1890 to form a new county called Mineral County from portions of Mason, McCullough, San Saba and Llano counties and establish Pontotoc as the county seat. Many attempts were made to bring the railroad through Pontotoc, but the town was always bypassed. And even though a mica-mining operation was established in 1920 that gave the town a small economic boost, the population never grew beyond 300. Then, in August 1947, tragedy struck again when a disastrous fire ripped through the movie theater and burned most of the downtown area, including the abandoned academy.
When Carl Money first saw Pontotoc in 2003, it was little more than ruins—albeit haunting and impressive ruins. Money, an attorney and an Army major who serves as deputy regional supervising counsel of the Office of Soldiers’ Council that represents Wounded Warriors, found the town and its possibilities compelling. He envisioned establishing a farm so that his future family could enjoy an agricultural lifestyle much like he enjoyed as a child in Greenville, the sixth generation of a family of East Texas cotton farmers. In 2003, he purchased the historic German estate and its surrounding five acres.
Having traveled much of Europe for years while pursing an education, Money developed a great interest in wine. Years later, while teaching law in Spain, he became enamored with the tempranillo grape and the fabulous wines produced from it. After purchasing the original property in Pontotoc, Money began to study the best use of the land. The unique terroir of the Llano Uplift in the northern Hill Country with its mineral-rich Hickory Sandstone soil promised to be a perfect venue for growing grapes. And, interestingly, the word “Pontotoc,” Money discovered, actually means “land of the hanging grapes.” With help from his father, Donnie, his uncle, Ronnie, and a handful of friends, Money created a five-acre vineyard planted with tempranillo grapes. Uncle Ronnie is currently the vineyard manager, working in conjunction with winemaker Don Pullum, owner of Akashic Vineyard in Mason.
The first vintage of Pontotoc wines from the 2011 harvest has already made quite a name for the winery, and the three wines—San Fernando Academy, a blend of eight Mediterranean varietals; Smoothing Iron Mountain, a tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blend; and Estate Tempranillo 2011, a 100 percent estate-grown tempranillo—have been embraced by the wine drinkers of Texas and beyond. The 2011 San Fernando Academy was listed in Texas Monthly’s Top 10 Texas Red Wines of 2012, and it won bronze at both the 2013 Houston Rodeo International Wine Competition and the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition and a silver medal at the 2013 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
Money, now with wife, Frances, and kids Harper, Ella and one on the way, hopes to establish Pontotoc as an agricultural tourism destination. He’s restored the historic German house into a bed-and-breakfast and also purchased the remaining downtown properties—including the ruins of the San Fernando Academy. The original Pontotoc grocery/general store and hardware store became the tasting hall and winery for Pontotoc Vineyard, and like the bodegas of Spain, they’re family friendly. The exposed sandstone walls and arched doorway that opens into the winery provide an intimate atmosphere. The tasting bar is from the interior of an old pharmacy in Austria, and there’s a long wooden table from the Bexar County law library that graces the center of the hall and is flanked by stately benches from a railroad station in England.
The space originally occupied by the old post office will eventually become the Dotson-Cervantes Winery, owned by former Oakland Raider Alphonse Dotson and his wife, Martha Cervantes. The pair has been growing grapes for years at their large vineyard in Voca. Most of their production is sold to Fall Creek Vineyards, where the couple’s own wine, Gotas de Oro, is produced and bottled. And in the former barber shop, Don Pullum will set up an Akashic Vineyard winery and tasting area. Money anticipates these restorations to be complete by October 2013, just in time for Texas Wine Month.
Money also intends to restore the old theater, providing a venue for film screenings, live music and perhaps even a theater troupe. Eventually, he’ll work with engineers to shore up the soaring walls of the San Fernando Academy ruins to create a large pavilion for events under the Hill Country stars.
With a vision to revitalize the community of Pontotoc as a cultural and agricultural destination, Money is off to a great start. As the project moves forward, new life is being breathed into the town and economic opportunities are opening to the 200-plus residents who never gave up hope that Pontotoc could rise from tragedy and ashes.