One thing about photography that I find interesting is its ability to cause us to become emotionally invested in places that we would otherwise have no connection to. Locations where we take images become important to us through the resulting photography.

Ruins of a settler's home in Pontotoc, Texas
March 20, 2016

I'm often drawn to abandoned places when shooting. These old buildings have stories to tell, and often times the only person to tell them is someone with a camera. We document them in their current state and ponder what they were like in their glory days. The sad truth is these places won't be around forever. They will continue to break down and eventually cease to exist altogether. 

One of my favorite such places is the tiny community of Pontotoc, Texas. Sitting off Highway 71 in Mason County, Pontotoc was once a thriving community with a bright future. The San Fernando Academy was constructed there in 1882 and success seemed certain until a typhoid fever epidemic decimated the population. So many died in 1887 that the town's cemetery filled, causing a second to be created. The Academy closed its doors in 1890 and many residents moved to the nearby town of Mason. In 1947, a devastating fire swept through the downtown area, effectively destroying much of it. The little that wasn't burned was left standing. 

The ruins of the San Fernando Academy under the Milky Way. Shot on September 22, 2013

Today, a handful of residents still call Pontotoc "home". Several fascinating ruins make the town an interesting stop for photographers. I personally discovered the town in September 2013 and decided it would be a great place photograph the Milky Way, as it is far removed from light pollution. 

The ruins of the San Fernando Academy under the Milky Way. Shot on September 30, 2013. 

The ruins of the San Fernando Academy under the Milky Way. Shot on September 30, 2013. 

It was a two hour drive from home, but worth every second. The view of the Milky Way there is spectacular. I fell in love with the landscape of rolling hills surrounding the town and the ruins exceeded my expectations. I returned 8 days later to photograph again. On my second trip, while photographing a settler's home, a property owner wary of my presence held me at gun point until he deemed me as non-threatening. I was on public property and totally within my rights, but this is Texas, I understand. The experience didn't make me love the town any less. Over the past few years, I have made a couple more stops while hosting photography workshops, but didn't take pictures of my own. 

I decided I was long overdue for another visit with my camera. Yesterday, we packed up the family and made a day trip out of it. 

We arrived late in the afternoon, I took the turn towards the San Fernando Academy, when I heard Savannah ask, "what's that pile of rubble?". My heart sunk. I knew before I even looked. One of my favorite shooting locations was no more. 

We found a resident, who wished not to be identified, and asked him what happened to the ruins. Surely the locals didn't tear it down. He informed us that the collapse occurred during severe weather just three days before our trip. A supercell passed directly over the town and took a piece of its history with it, finishing the job a blaze started nearly 70 years ago. The man claimed a tornado struck the Academy, which is feasible as it was the only damage we saw in the town (other than a piece of a metal roofing in a nearby ditch). He went on to say the sound of the crash was so loud that he heard it from inside his home several blocks away.

Me standing in what once was the San Fernando Academy. Photo by Savannah Williams. 

In a way, it felt like a part of me had died as I stood there looking at that pile of rocks. I can only imagine how the residents feel, as well as those that once lived there with their families. As you can imagine, there's not much in the way of news coverage in Pontotoc, and the San Fernando Academy was a long uninhabited building, so it's not like most people would even care. I feel the obligation to let people know the San Fernando Academy sadly is no more.  

I wish I had gone back and shot it more often. I had what I thought was going to be a great concept for that location, that's never going to happen now. If there's a place that you really enjoy photographing, I urge you to get out and shoot it again. You never know, tomorrow it could be gone forever.