There was a time when a swollen late-day sun, on its way to touch off another colorful sunset in Mansfield, also sparked a terrestrial spectacle along a section of Walnut Creek.
It was then the towering red-clay formation known as Red Bluff glowed, seemingly under its own power.
“It was a deep red, not a bright red,” said Faye Rydell, 75, who remembers being in fourth of fifth grade when she first saw it, after her parents finally let her join them on a trip to town for supplies. “It would kind of remind you of a fire, a hot fire. It was very pretty.”
Such a view hasn’t existed for decades. Red Bluff still towers, but now so do the wild cottonwoods and post oaks that shield the cliff from the evening sunlight.
Red Bluff inspired the name of a residential subdivision that backs up to the creek, but, apparently, no written history. At least none collected by the Mansfield Historical Museum and Heritage Center, according to museum specialist Verne Raven.
“It’s just a place that they called that,” Raven said. “People used to go and picnic there years ago. It was a popular place.’’
Raven does have a physical piece of Red Bluff history at the museum – a cannonball sitting in a permanent display case. It’s believed to have been a practice round fired into the bluff during a Confederate artillery exercise, Raven said.
“It’s hearsay,” he added.
But it’s possible. Julian Feild,who along with Ralph Man founded Mansfield around their sawmill and gristmill in the mid-1800s, also was a captain in the 15th Texas Cavalry who “milled and delivered flour to the Confederate Army,” according to the Texas State Historical Association website.
The cannonball was discovered some 45 years ago by Al Stubenrauch’s children as they scouted the banks of Walnut Creek. They didn’t know what they had found.
“They were playing with it like a shot put,” said Stubenrauch, who moved to Mansfield in 1968. “I took it away from them.”
Many years later, he gave the cannonball to Dr. Robert Smith, a longtime Mansfield optometrist whose ancestors settled in community around 1875. He let it sit around his office on Main Street for several more years. Then one day, he said, “The whole bomb squad came down.” City fire officials were checking to make sure the cannonball didn’t contain an explosive charge.
They have been known to go off, even 150 years after they proved to be duds during the training. In 2008, a Virginia man, an avid prospector of buried Civil War relics, was killed when a 9-inch, 75-pound naval cannonball he was trying to disarm exploded, according to the Associated Press.
But the Red Bluff cannonball was cleared, and Smith donated it to the museum on behalf of Stubenrauch.
Smith’s ancestors, who migrated from Georgia in covered wagons – one carried a grand piano -- bought 1,280 acres that straddled what is now East Broad Street and extended north to take in a large section of Walnut Creek, including Red Bluff. Generations of the family lived on the land until the last parcels were sold in the 1950s, Smith said.
The city acquired the bluff area of the creek years ago as part of its ongoing development of the Walnut Creek Linear Park, which is planned to span the city’s midsection from west to east, said Shelly Lanners, the city’s director of community services.
The 12-foot concrete trail that forms the backbone of the park climbs to the top of Red Bluff, between the creek and the namesake subdivision. But since the bluff is directly underfoot, it’s not one of the sights of the park. Seeing the full face of the bluff would take a more challenging hike.
“I’ve always heard it’s been in our history forever,” Lanners said. “Everybody knew about the area.”
The city owns the creek property only to the middle of the creek. The north side of the creek, including the trees, a hay field and horse pasture, is owned by Mansfield cardiologist Alan Taylor. He bought it in 1997, the year before he started his practice in the city.
He said the entire area is rich with relics. “In the hay field, we’ve plowed the field and found arrowheads,” Taylor said. “Supposedly, it is an old Indian ceremonial ground dating back before the white men.”
He had a reliable source.
“One of my patients was an Indian medicine man,” Taylor said, adding that he died about six months ago, well into his 90s. “When we bought it, we were told about it. Then he became my patient, and when I mentioned where I lived, he knew all about it. He knew all of the tribes that came there.”
The creek banks beneath Red Bluff also were fruitful arrowhead-hunting grounds, recalled Ralph Walker, 92, who retired after 40 years as a college professor.
“We went all around the creek, looking for arrowheads and anything else,” he said. “We played on the bluff all the time. It seemed like a real cliff.”
Adding to the verbal history, 73-year-old Bill Hubbard said Native Americans on hunts would herd buffalo over the top of the bluff to kill or maim them.
“I’ve heard all these tales,” he said. But the tellers, he added, “are all dead.”
Smith, who first saw Red Bluff when he was 6 or 7 years old, left Mansfield for college in 1969. When he returned eight years later, he noticed a change in the evening view of Red Bluff. Stands of trees were rising against its face.
“When I came back home to Mansfield in 1977, you could see like half the bluff,” recalled. “The bottom was covered by trees.”
Smith, longtime chairman of the city’s Historical Landmark Commission, has a passion for fading history. Even a small slice of nature that served for swimming and fishing and playing – and watching red clay brighten in the sunlight.
“It was just a landmark, a reference point,” he said. “It is a landmark to old-timers, but new-timers don’t know about it.”