By Christa and Tony Torres
The National Park Service and HistoriCorps gave us the opportunity to volunteer on a cooperative restoration project for two weeks at the old Army outpost of Fort Piute in early April of 2013. The historic stone ruins of Fort Piute are located within the Piute Mountain Range along the Mojave Road near the east boundary of the Mojave National Preserve in California. A group of ten volunteers including our cook/ crew chief Josh Carr and master stone mason Terry Alexander from HistoriCorps and NPS Archaeologist David Nichols were involved in the project. We camped on site for two sessions lasting through April 12, 2013. The project was sponsored by the Mojave National Preserve, HistoriCorps, and Cornerstones Community Partnerships
The workshop volunteers were trained in techniques used to stabilize the existing masonry walls using earthen mortar mined onsite. The last time the National Park Service had done this was in 2005. We were to locate, evaluate, and mix earthen mortar from local sources and use this for rebedding stones and repointing joints within the historic stone walls. This meant finding a good source of sand, clay, and water along Piute Creek and then carrying the heavy sandbags and water buckets up a steep embankment to the ruins located approximately 100 meters away. This was only the first step. The next step was to make the “mud” or mix the ingredients for the mortar. After a period of experimentation a mix of one part clay and three parts sand was chosen as the best compromise of strength and pliability. Prior to rebedding and repointing you must carefully plan ahead in order to replace the stones in their original locations.
We began “stabilizing” the surface of the stone walls which ranged from five to six stone courses high (approximately 4 feet). The top surface had been heavily weathered and the mortar was in very poor condition in some areas. To provide an area for the new mortar the old mortar will be cleaned and raked from the joints. It is important to fully remove the old loose mortar so that the new mortar can adhere to the sides of the joints. We knew with a limited volunteer crew and only two weeks to work time would be run short. We concentrated our efforts on the surface of the remaining structure, and then moved to the vertical portions of the interior and exterior walls. Several historic artifacts were observed mixed into the existing mortar during our work. Items discovered during this process included a percussion cap from a rifle (possibly a Sharp’s 1848. These carbines and rifles used percussion caps, and came in .36-.52 cal. and could produce a rate of fire of about 4-5 shots per minute. The Sharps rifle was adopted by the Army during the Civil War), a small metal buckle, and an embossed metal button. Prehistoric Mojave pottery sherds were also seen on the ground surface inside and outside the fort.
The experience and friendship we found at Fort Piute will be long lasting. We hope the blood, sweat, and tears (of laughter) will endure for another ten years.