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Ralph A. Smith

LIMEKILNS. Lime had many uses for farmers, ranchers, and townsmen on the frontier. It was used for making concrete, mortar, and plaster for all sorts of stone construction, as well as for softening water and reducing the acidity of butter, cream, milk, and "sour" soil. Cooks used it to make hominy, tacos, and tortillas. Other uses included tanning leather, blowing fish out of water, destroying diseased animal bodies, killing termites and weevils, drying cuts on livestock, whitewashing, sanitizing outhouses, and making sheep-dip.

Kilns were important under Spanish and Mexican rule, as well as later. The ruins of at least ten Spanish caleras can be seen today near the stone missions and the one stone-lime mortar presidio. Beginning in the 1840s German colonists built the best kilns and made the best lime. Most of their Kalköfen were in Bexar, Comal, Gillespie, Kendall, Kerr, Mason, McCulloch, and Taylor counties. Any group of two or three houses was usually accompanied by a limekiln in these German areas. Most kilns for calcining quicklime from limestone in pioneer Texas were built west of the Balcones Escarpment. They were generally dug near the edges of dirt banks and straight down or with inside walls shaped slightly like bowls or jugs. Several had stone curbs. Some families burned rocks on top of the ground under piles of dirt or mixed with logs; others devised sundry other types of kiln. But most American kilns were the creek-bank type. Most common was the family-type kiln, dug about ten feet deep, six feet across, and two feet back from the face of a bank with an opening in the lower, outer side.

Community and commercial kilns were larger and sometimes entirely under or above ground. Among a score of well-known German kilns still partly standing are the Andreas Lindig kiln, built in 1874 and located in the present Lyndon B. Johnson State Historical Park, several kilns of Conrad Kappmeier in Comal County, and the George H. Kalteyer kilns in San Antonio. The last burned the lime for building the Capitol in Austin from rocks quarried from the site of the Sunken Garden in San Antonio. Among the largest Texas commercial kilns whose ruins remain are the McNett kiln in Lampasas County, the Logan Gap kilns in Comanche County, the Doc Carter kiln in Concho County, and the J. D. Cahill aboveground kiln in San Marcos. One of the largest community kilns was at Lime Spring in Mason County. It was unusual in that it was on level ground and was shaped like a spittoon, being eighteen feet across at the bottom, fourteen feet across at a man's height, and sixteen feet across at ground level. It had no door at the bottom for ventilation or for raking out the ashes and quicklime. The lime from a community kiln, in contrast to the commercial ones, was not sold.

Cooking lime involved an enormous amount of work: digging or building the kiln, gathering rocks, cutting, hauling, and pitching a great amount of firewood down the kiln, maintaining vigilance at the kiln around the clock for about two weeks, and slaking the quicklime. To cook high-quality lime thus required a skilled cook, rocks, fuel, and controlled cooking. The cook wanted the hardest and oldest limestone available. Bluish or grayish, streaked, fist-sized chunks of surface limestone were preferred, particularly weather-exposed pieces obtained from hilltops. For fuel, the cook preferred live oak, post oak, mesquite, or brush, in that order. The heat had to be maintained at 1,800° F or higher. By tapping with a hammer or breaking open a hot stone, the cook could tell when the lime was done. After the kiln had cooled for a week, the quicklime stones and ashes were raked out through the side hole. The stones were slaked, that is, put in water so that they would crumble, and then were used, sold at the kiln, or hauled off to a limehouse and sold for fifty cents to a dollar for a hundred pounds.

Early West Texas kilns supplied lime in the 1850s through 1870s for forts Phantom Hill, McKavett, Lancaster, Griffin, and Concho, where their ruins can be seen. Making lime in pioneer kilns came to an end when railways brought in Portland cement and advanced fuels. A commercial economy developed, and the old-timers who had made the lime began to disappear. Erosion and bulldozing have also contributed to destroying the remains of over 130 kilns in thirty-eight counties.

Ralph A. Smith, "Old West Texas Limekilns Are Mostly Mysteries, Memories, and Material Remains," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 52 (1976).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Ralph A. Smith, "LIMEKILNS," accessed May 25, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/dkl02.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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