The Last Frontier
What Texas once was, Marfa still is.
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Not one member of the Big Bend Dance Club of Marfa doubted this would be a fine July Friday night. One of their favorite bands, Al Dean and his four All Stars, had driven in 470 miles from Freer. Friends from Fort Davis, Alpine, Pecos, Valentine, Van Horn, and Presidio would be here, couples that the vast expanse of country seemed to swallow up between ritual events like weddings, funerals, high school football games, or the Bloy’s Camp Meeting.
Although it was midsummer, outside the air was a cool 57 degrees. At an elevation of 4800 feet, Marfa is virtually as high as Denver, and during this July its evening temperature would average a degree or so lower than in Anchorage, Alaska. Marfa’s neighbors 25 miles to the east had been so enamored of the climate between the Davis Mountains and the Rio Grande that they named their town Alpine. The people of this most isolated part of Texas are proud of their weather, just as they are, in a quiet, secure sort of way, proud of the way of life they have sustained more or less unchanged since the high days of the cattle kingdom. But what made this particular night special was the light rain that began falling as the pickups and sedans circled and parked around the Beta Sigma Phi Community Center, like buzzards coming to roost at dusk. Rain was a tonic that changed facial expressions, erased wrinkles, lightened voice tones. Rain had the same effect on the Big Bend Dance Clubbers as getting money in the mail, and in this semiarid region of Texas, where a wet year would see barely fifteen inches of rainfall, it amounted to the same thing.
Inside, Al and the boys with the glamorous Maxine on drums blended ballads, waltzes, jitterbugs, put-your-little-foots, cotton-eyed Joes, and schottisches, 25 songs a set thrown out with the regularity of a Wurlitzer jukebox full of dimes. Everybody danced. No one refused an offer. Within the first hour, coats were abandoned, and hairdos unraveled as the temperature on the dance floor climbed with the pace of the dancers’ enthusiasm. The dancing styles varied from ice-skating champions to dippers and heel lifters, energetic old boys unconsciously imitating oil-field pumps, and dancing fanatics whose years of practice had transformed them into mechanical windup dolls.
While the men wore variations of their daily work clothes, the women on the dance floor stood out. In this ranching county, women play not subordinate but supporting roles. As teachers, shop clerks, waitresses, government clerks, wives, and mothers, they blend into the fabric of daily life without a hint of contrast. But, every other month at the Big Bend Dance Club, they had sanction to spread their wings and show their plumage. They wore formal evening gowns, pajama pants suits, slacks, slit evening gowns, long granny dresses, cowgirl pants so tight you could read the date on a quarter in the hip pocket; they sported bouffants, fluff-outs, ponytails, pageboys, a chignon or two, and they wore an astounding number of shoe styles. Each outfit was a statement that, since it would have to suffice until the next dance two months away, carried few subtleties.
The land around Marfa also cradles no subtlety. It is hard country, so four-square in the Texas myth that it was the location for that most mythic of Texas movies, Giant. The lack of rain, the wind and sun, the sharp drainage and hungry animals keep the fat and drapery from this near bare-bones territory. A touch of soft gentleness appears only in time of rain when the thick skin of grama grass springs to life on the Marfa Highland Plain. Here, among the 3892 square miles of Presidio County’s mountains and barrancas, washes, cliffs, valleys, tors, and screes, man is an insignificant figure. There is one of his species per square mile, just as there was in 1850.
If space and aridity define this country, so does silence. There is not the rich polyphony of forest noises—frogs, birds, cicadas—nor the marsh sounds of the coastal plains—Southern bullfrog belches or spring peeper chirps. It is as if the land was so full of silence that there was no room for sound. Presidio County would remain virtually as quiet in 1977 as in 1885 except for the whirring of the windmill, the swishhhh-bang of a ranch-house screen door, the hum of Border Patrol aircraft, the comings and goings of a few thousand people, and the most important sound heard on the frontier, the low three-toned wail of the railroad whistle announcing a link with the outside world.
When the newly arrived founder of the county’s most historic ranch, Lucas Brite, climbed atop Capote Peak on Columbus Day, 1885, he wrote in his journal that he saw no sign of man. No windmills, no roads, no watering places or domestic livestock. By Christmas the next year there were 60,000 cattle in the county and the new ranchers had leased all available water. The way of life they transplanted here became associated the world over with Texas. Although larger forces are gathering that may soon end it forever, it is a way of life that continues in Presidio County to this day.
What Brite and other pioneers discovered was really two countries. On the north are the rolling plains and the grasslands of the Marfa Highland, a plateau 75 miles long and 35 miles wide that benefits from moderate rainfall. To the south is the hot, merciless Chihuahuan Desert—stool, ocotillo, maguey, creosote, and mesquite—country as angular as the Spanish dagger plant. Here only the meager Rio Grande provides a thin ribbon oasis. Separating grassland from the desert floor is a continuous east-west range topped with 6000-foot peaks—the Sierra Viejas, Chinatis, Bofecillos, Chisos. Brite stood on the edge of the highland grasses on the Rimrock, an eight-million-year-old, 6000-foot igneous uplift, and gazed hundreds of feet below to the desert, marveling at this definitive break in nature.
The Rimrock divides cultures as well as landscape. South is Presidio and the home of the brujo and curandero, a 400-year-old Hispanic way of life, an agrarian civilization huddled near the Rio Grande. North of the mountains would rise the Anglo culture of Lucas Brite—railroads, ranching empires, Rotary Clubs. The Hispanic and Anglo cultures mingled on the ranches, in Marfa and Presidio stores, in the high schools; but not at parties, clubs, churches, or in the cemetery, where Presidio County’s deceased Mexicans lie buried on either side of the Anglos in the middle.
As the residents of this isolated, rough county are insignificant, so are the few towns. Scattered south along the Rio Grande are the villages of Presidio, Redford, Candelaria, and Ruidosa. On the Highland Plain to the north, Marfa, the county seat, exists as a ranching-supply center and Border Patrol headquarters, in some ways almost an ideal American village of Thoreau, of Whitman, of early Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, and Owen Wister, of the village store cracker barrel, but set instead on the open road and far horizon, a small town on the clear uncluttered sweep of a high grassy plateau. Named by the wife of a railroad president for the princess in the Russian novella Marfa Posadnitsa, the town grew from a whistle-stop on a frontier railroad. Once it was the center of a vast county stretching from Van Horn to Sanderson, an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island. In 1887, to appease the residents of Fort Davis and Alpine, portions of Presidio County were taken to form Jeff Davis and Brewster counties.
In 1955 George Stevens came to Presidio County to film Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant, the epic of how oil changed Texans and their relation to the land. The movie presented a tale of Texans true to their individuality until the land unexpectedly, almost effortlessly, yielded unimagined riches. The wealth made new creatures of the people; their tragedy was in their yielding to the wealth and forsaking the old values. Not one acre of Presidio County, however, has ever yielded a drop of oil or gas. The filmmakers had to build their own oil field in miniature out on the Evans Ranch. Yet the ghost of the movie still lingers in the county, even as the last few timbers of Riata, the Giant ranch house, stand black and weathered next to a brand-new ranch-style mansion Clay Evans has built west of town.
No matter how evocative these Texas myths may be, the land remains, as always, cattle and desert country where making a profit depends on rainfall; where the quotidian beat of the county rarely changes; where for some the metronome regularity of life is paralyzing, warping and narrowing the spirit; where for others the exclusive devotion to the land and cattle, the well-worn paths of conduct, and the total immersion in nature mean serenity and salvation. As Texans become more and more urban, Presidio County becomes more and more a special place, beyond even the myth-making power of Hollywood.
In Presidio County a nineteenth-century way of life clings to a last foothold. This story is about the county and the people who have made it. While women and Mexican Americans have played crucial roles in the county’s history, the main shaping influences of the county’s dominant way of life have been Anglo males. Whether rancher, farmer, or miner, they followed their dreams to a landscape almost determinedly impervious to their ambitions. This is the story of what they have made, of the small town that anchors their far-flung pursuits, and of an old homesteader, still living as a frontiersman, who ties them all to the past that dwells so clearly in their present.
As in many small towns, the high school is a major unifying institution. The Marfa Independent School District covers 3048 square miles, which means that students scattered in an area the size of Dallas, Harris, and Galveston counties attend the same high school. The head of the district is therefore an important man. In the midst of the dancers, Marfa School Superintendent Carl Robinson looked worried as he moved counterclockwise to “Red Necks, White Socks, and Blue-Ribbon Beer.” Always formal, Robinson was easy to spot in his dark suit and horn-rims, with a high forehead marching back to meet reddish, riffling hair. He more than slightly resembled the radio commentator Paul Harvey. He was not the sort of man to take off his coat.
Robinson was worried about finding a band director. Phil Rogers had been a good one, but after four years he was moving to Midland to work for Merrill Lynch. Robinson couldn’t blame him. Being band director was an incredibly demanding job. You had to instruct all ages in instruments, sight reading, and marching, as well as pacify the Marfa Shorthorn Booster Club and keep peace with the faculty. Where to find such a paradigm? There were other worries, too. West Texas Utilities was proposing additional stadium lights, and the trustees had to fill two vacancies on the board. There was always dope to worry about and pregnancies (four last year), not to mention how to provide transportation for the 25 Mexican American students from Redford, 76 miles away. At least the Redford kids, as they were known, were all fine children, and that reminded Robinson of other blessings. The new coach, Jim Bartlett, had a winning season last year, the first in a while, thanks largely to Espy Howard, a great linebacker and fullback who received a scholarship to West Texas State. Despite being almost deaf, Espy had done well in class. He didn’t have to hear anything on the field. He could smell that ball. A find, even-tempered Christian young man, he made his dad and granddad, who ran Exxon and Mobil stations across from each other at one of Marfa’s two blinking lights, puff up with pride like old toads.
There was more to be thankful for. Thirty-four kids had made the National Honor Society; Lee Bennett’s Junior Historians had done well in Austin at the state competition; and the tennis team had placed second both in boys’ and girls’ doubles. Once again a majority of last spring’s forty-member graduating class (fourteen boys, eight girls, more Mexican Americans than Anglos) had college plans. For those high school seniors not going to college, however, particularly if their parents did not own a ranch or business, the future in Marfa and Presidio County looked bleak.
A few young men were coming back after graduation, but almost without exception their last names had been on their property rolls for fifty years. Jim Miller, Tom Wood, Bodie Means, Chili Bean Ridley, Robert White. Jimmy White III, Jim White’s son working out on the Brite Ranch, was a lucky one. His dad had married Jane Brite, one of the heirs to the Brite Ranch, 88,573 acres. In this masculine country, many penniless young men gained their fiefdoms by marrying high school sweethearts who happened to be heirs apparent to big ranches. No one thought that gaining a ranch by marriage was unusual or belittling. It was simply that parents owned ranches and worked land in Presidio County rather than owning town houses and working for corporations. But ownership of such vast fiefdoms created a local aristocracy far more obvious and important than a town house empire could ever be. And marriage into such an aristocracy was not without its historic responsibilities.
The Texas cattle industry grew from its origins in the mesquite brush country in South Texas, along the Nueces and San Antonio rivers, where Anglo herders traded techniques, tools, and stock with Hispanic vaqueros. One great thrust traveled north through the Cross Timbers region—near Jacksboro, Fort Belknap, and the Brazos River—on up the Chisholm, Great Western, and Shawnee cattle trails to Dodge City, Wichita, and Abilene, Kansas, and Sedalia, Missouri. Another headed west over the Edwards Plateau, crossing the Devils and Pecos rivers to the Trans-Pecos, bringing to Presidio County the vaquero and a hardy crossbreed called the Texas longhorn.
When Lucas Brite left Frio County in the spring of 1885 with half a dozen friends and 730 cattle (140 were his), the range country east of the Pecos River was practically full. Cowmen back in San Antonio and Austin knew the buffalo were gone and that Colonel Ranald Mackenzie and the Army were ridding the vast West Texas lands of the last Comanches, Kiowas, Mescaleros, and other Apaches. So they came west with their longhorns and Durhams, by trail drive or railroad, into Pecos and Van Horn on the Texas & Pacific and into Alpine on the Southern Pacific. In 1884, a rancher named Jim Hiler forever changed the face of the Presidio County cattle business when he brought in the first Hereford. With its meaty carcass, the Hereford, first imported into the United States in 1817 to replace scrub-range stock in Kentucky, quickly replaced the tougher longhorn and became famous to cattlemen around the country as the Marfa Highland Hereford.
Since the beginning, whether you raised fat, prize-winning Highland Herefords, or sheep and goats, or alfalfa, livelihood in Presidio County has relied on one thing: water. No matter how rich the man, how large the ranch, whether he depended on pipe, windmill, Jake Tanks, divining rod, or witching stick, there has never been enough water. The word “rain” dominates every conversation. Did you get any, how much, where, hope you do. Its absence is the common denominator of the American West.
The ranchers’ favorite Bible verse is Psalm 121:1-2: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord which made Heaven and Earth,” although they don’t always agree with verse 6 (“The Sun shall not smite thee by day”).
Many ranchers in Presidio County remember when help cameth not for seven years. The great drought began in 1950 amidst the celebrations and rodeos marking the county’s centennial year, a trial by blistering sun, hot winds and dust, and dying cattle. In the end came bankruptcy and the death throes of a way of life. Cattle bought at $250 a head in 1950 sold for $65 in 1956. The familiar penurious sequence began with a rancher taking larger loans on his land, trying to hold his herd together, hoping for rain. When the rain still didn’t come, the productivity of the land no longer carried the service on the debt. Then the rancher had to borrow more money from the production credit association and perhaps touch his friend at the Marfa National Bank for one more loan. He pleaded with the Federal Land Bank for help to pay inheritance taxes, mortgages, operating expenses. Finally, when the rain never came, there was nothing left to do but sell the land, pay the bills, and leave.
Roy H. “Happy” Godbold watched this destructive spiral in the 1950s as a board member of the Marfa National Bank and from his office as owner and operator of Godbold Feed and Supply, Marfa’s largest employer next to the federal government. From his military nest egg after World War II, Happy spent $6000 for an elevator from an old mica mine and $5200 for an Army quartermaster warehouse, and began Godbold Feeds. He is a strong-looking man in his early fifties with a comfortable paunch, clear blue eyes, and benign grandfather smile. He always wears a soiled Stetson to match his khaki shirt and khaki pants. When the bank board meets, however, he dresses up in a clean Stetson, blue shirt, and khaki pants.
Inside the warehouse, Happy and his manager, Chili Bean Ridley, make supplemental dry cattle feed. A 75-ton press mixes molasses and steam with ground milo, alfalfa, phosphorus, vitamin A, and salt to produce Godbold’s 37 per cent protein Grass Buster feed block. From mid-November to May, Chili Ridley oversees around-the-clock crews who load 50,000 pounds of blocks and pellets on each Godbold truck for delivery to hungry cattle around Texas. Ridley and Godbold deal only in pellets and blocks of dry feed, and not in the liquid feeds that are gaining popularity. A ton of blocks cost $146; the same amount of pellets is $20 cheaper.
Both liquid and dry feed have their committed advocates. The advantage of liquid feed is the same as relying on a butane gas company delivery man. For the price, you get the liquid feed, the delivery man, and his truck. He assumes control of your supplemental feed operation, periodically bringing the liquid feed for your scattered troughs. However convenient the liquid feed operation may be for humans, dry feed advocates say cattle get too accustomed to the liquid, consuming five, six, or seven pounds a day. They also believe dry feed is better for the cow’s digestion, since it does not alter the bacterial action in its first stomach as liquid feed is supposed to do. Many ranchers simply limit the intake of liquid feed by scheduling less frequent deliveries. But, in whatever form, supplemental feeding is necessary, and adds to the cost of raising cattle.
“There is no way to make a living in the cattle business in this country,” say Happy Godbold, riding to his six-section ranch (a section is one square mile of 640 acres) down the Casa Piedra road, southeast of Marfa in the creosote-mesquite country. “If your family has been here seventy years and has no land payment, you might make a little money, but not a living. No rancher I know has a savings account. Damn, that old steer is getting some flesh on him, ain’t he, Chili?”
Where could the flesh have come from? Eating what? The four or five head of cattle, masticating under the aegis of Godbold and Ridley’s Squat Cattle Company, seemed surrounded by thorns, inedible creosote, and pronged cactus a Cyclops wouldn’t nibble on. If there was grass at all, it was knee-high to a cicada.
“Down here you run a much smaller number of head per section, not the twenty-five or thirty they run near Marfa. You better have half your grass on the ground come the first of May to last until the late summer rains. If it rains. In a dry year like this one, you cut your numbers to what the land will feed to keep the cows alive. You can’t rely solely on buying feed from me or trucking in hay. You’ll go broke even quicker. So you have to go to market.”
While most cattle ranchers in Presidio County are not turning much profit because of poor cattle prices, little rainfall, and high costs, some do quite well. It helps to have no land debts, to be favored with shallow wells, and to be able to raise other stock—sheep and goats—for added income. This works particularly well in the mid-county mountain areas where one family with 23,000 acres netted $50,000 last year. But such a profit is rare. Expenses and cattle prices see to that. A ranch bought in 1945 with 700 head could be operated for $10,000 yearly. Today, insurance alone for a big ranch cost $15,000. Feed costs have risen from $30 per ton in 1945 to $150. Today, a rancher pay $140 a calf and typically incurs expenses—leasing, taxes, insurance, labor, medicine—of $190 per calf in the nine months it takes to raise it to market weight. If the calf then sells, as they have been selling, for $220, the rancher is looking at a $110 loss.
Ranchers survive with a constant hope that cattle prices will improve and by a constant effort to cut costs. They hate vegetarians as much as drought and rising expenses. The only way to meet expenses is to borrow against future cattle sales. However, there have been only three good years for cattlemen since 1945: 1950, 1963, and 1973. The Siren’s song to sell and get out is sweet and compelling. Land appreciated 11 per cent last year and plenty of oil-rich Texans are seeking tax shelters and playgrounds in this beautiful rugged country. But most Presidio County ranchers try to hold out. Like Ulysses’ men, they fill their ears with wax, resisting the sweet music of instant cash that would end their perpetual indebtedness.
On his own ranch Happy was studying the progress of the two things he hoped would better his land. One was root plowing. A bulldozer had dragged a twelve-foot, four-ton blade shaped like a cowcatcher across 2500 acres, snapping off and uprooting unwanted shrubs at root level. Moving the cattle to another section, he had reseeded the ground with either Layman’s Love or one of the grama grasses. After six months, the plowed land resembled a strip of AstroTurf carpet next to a desert field. But at a cost of $13 per acre, Happy was still not sure the effort was worth it.
Happy Godbold and Chili Ridley were also trying something else: four-wing saltbrush chamiza (FSC), a fodder shrub that cattle eat in the arid regions of the Mideast and Australia and which has spread into Texas from New Mexico. On his son Carlton’s lease, Happy was pleasantly surprised to see the forty cows fleshy despite low grass and no supplements. One morning at dawn he saddled a horse and followed the steers out to pasture. They led him to a bush he had recognized before, FSC, an edible shrub with a 35-foot taproot and no lateral roots to compete with other grasses. The hope of Australia, Israel, and Saudi Arabia may also be the hope of the Godbold Ranch and the Squat Cattle Company. Now, much of Happy’s land is sown with chamiza seed and the four-foot plants dot the landscape.
From Alpine to Marfa to Valentine, 63 miles east to west, everybody knows you don’t call Chili Bean Ridley, “Chili Bean.” Either “Chili” or “Bean” but never both. It is doubtful he would look up or turn his head if someone, in an instance as rare as high cattle prices, addressed him by his given Christian name, Edward Alton. It was “Chili” or “Bean” or something more vulgar to his seven fellow graduating seniors in Valentine High School nine years ago; or to his rowdy friends at Sul Ross, devising schemes to cut all the range animal science courses for the week for a Juárez run; or to the boys on Happy Godbold’s loading dock. The Mexicans in Valentine couldn’t exactly pronounce Chili’s father’s name, Chilton, so it got shortened to Chili. When Uncle Noel Everett came to the see the newborn second son of Chili Ridley, the water-well driller, he decreed the babe “Chili Bean” and the name stuck.
Like his name, Chili’s features reflect the desert Southwest: hair gold as sunshine, parted in the middle like his nineteenth-century ancestors’; sky blue eyes that stare minutes without the normal restful blink; a clear gaze; reddish-brown complexion; a son of Mother Nature. He has the same deliberate unexcited air as his boss, a quiet manner that embodies his whole philosophy. Chili Ridley has never been to a disco, would as soon be shot as endure the people, the smoke, the noise. He would rather think that the word refers to part of a plow.
He only leaves the county to see his friend B.C. Bennett, a cattle buyer for the Clifton Cattle Company, Clifton, Texas; or for weddings and funerals; or to water ski and fish and eat seafood with rancher friends near Corpus Christi; or in search of single women, the reason most single men leave Presidio County. Single women are also as rare as high cattle prices. Chili knows he may be missing something in life, staying around, running his ranch west of Valentine and helping Happy with the Squat Cattle Company. But another place is always hotter, always colder or drier, certainly more polluted, more crowded and noisier, and besides all that, he admits he can’t escape the land any more than he could spend his paycheck on Nik-Nik shirts and command a table at Maxim’s.
If there is a common feeling binding people together here, it is a distaste for cities. Chili Ridley and all the rest would no doubt apply Mark Twain’s phrase about mankind— “a museum of diseases, a home of impurities”—to Dallas, Houston, and so on. City folk, they say, don’t understand the peace that comes from living with eighty-mile vistas. City claustrophobia leads to narrow thoughts and mean spirits. So many defenses for self-protection in cities: defenses against freeways, against hustlers, noises, criminals, architectural ugliness, against all kinds of obscenities that offend mind and eye, and, worst of all, defenses and masks that people wear for protection against each other.
Life was hard enough without masks. Chili Ridley loved his open country because, simply, it made him feel real. After returning from his occasional trips to Houston or Dallas he felt he was one of them, one of the living dead, all style, no substance, a victim of misapprehensions of what life was all about. No matter how good it was to see friends, he always felt guilty for having left the country.
Chili knew how to read the country. All his life he had worked it, ridden over it, helped his dad throw up windmills on it. He knew that fewer rattlesnakes seen in the summer meant drought. By July, he had killed only six, three times less than midsummer’s usual harvest. Rabbits and deer coming to the paved county highway at night meant that pastures were burned up since animals were seeking the only green grass left—that watered by runoffs along the road. Chili knew that the best thing to scatter in the shallow water of a cattle tank or lake to attract minnows was Gravy Train. He knew that mule deer and jackrabbits were behavioral kin as were cottontails and white-tailed deer. A mule deer and a jackrabbit will run off and stop in mid-clearing curiously looking back at you, unconcerned about blending into cover. Cottontails and white-tailed deer will disappear into the bush, seeking camouflage at any cost. Chili knew all this as he knew his own habits.
He followed the unwritten codes of conduct that seemed more important to cattlemen that written laws. These governings were the historical adaptation, like the windmill, barbed wire, and six-shooter, to an unfamiliar country where laws and customs of the more civilized East did not apply. Out here other customs prevailed. Never go on a man’s land without permission. Don’t ask how many sections he has. Never step over a man sleeping on the floor. Don’t mess with a man’s hat, and, of course, never throw a hat on a bed. Never rope another man’s cow that has wandered on your land. Corral it. Never take a man’s last chaw. Chili especially followed that one. He was a fervent dipper of Skoal chewing tobacco—worm dirt, some of his disgusted friends called it.
If Chili Ridley was long in gaze he was short in speech. Ridley on after-dinner plans in Marfa:
“Chili, what do you want to do tonight?”
“Can’t do it here.”
On chile serrano potency:
“Bean, that pepper hot?”
“It’s got chances.”
He was married once, to a schoolteacher from California, but it didn’t take. So Chili takes his thoughts and desires—building a house in the canyon on his ranch, or putting a lot of money together, or lucking into a good woman—he takes them to the country, out to Happy’s place to check on Squat’s cattle. Maybe it will be a lucky day. Maybe the ground will be hubcap deep in runoff rainwater and the cows will have gained hundreds of pounds eating creosote and mesquite. Who knows? But at least out there it will be open and roomy, and part of him.
Happy Godbold and Chili Ridley’s Squat Cattle Company does in fact make money, but not because of rain or high prices or lush grassland. It is a small, carefully planned venture that they operate themselves, on horseback. In February 1976, Squat paid Clifton Cattle Company $34,770 for 225 head of cattle for a steer operation. Expenses amounted to $14,500 for the usual: medicine, freight, feed, ranch repair, and miscellaneous (scale fees, interest, horseshoeing, chute charges). After 257 days and an average of 325 pounds added per animal, they sold them in October for $55,000, leaving them a small profit of $13,000, including $6000 from hedging in the commodities market. They were not fooled. Luckily, it was a way of life, not a living.
With so many variables and expenses and being at the mercy of cattle prices and government policy set far away, perhaps Chili Ridley and Happy Godbold’s smaller, controlled operation was the future of the cattle business. Perhaps the huge ranches and cattle herds of Giant and the Texas mythology are withering away into smaller, more economically sound entities. Perhaps the secluded imperial domains and cattle empires are destined to disappear forever from the West. But that future, like so much else, will be shaped far from Presidio County—in Congress, in big corporations, in the government bureaucracies. The same is true for farming.
Mike O’Connor watched the dancers whirl by, eyeing the heiress to the Seven-Eleven franchise in Alpine, the only Farrah Fawcett-Majors hairdo in the Beta Hall. Was she married or not? The answer was important because O’Connor had been down on his farm in Presidio for two months straight supervising the pitiful harvest of his partnership’s alfalfa, cantaloupes, onions, and long green chile peppers. Mike O’Connor, like his across-the-yard neighbor, Chili Ridley, was in the cattle feed business—liquid, not dry—and had done well. But his first agricultural operation had left him deep in debt. Thanks to the United States government—as we shall see—he had reaped only a whirlwind.
But tonight he was going to enjoy himself. He was glad to be out of the hot Presidio sun, to have a drink, to dance and eye the ladies and to see old friends like Wilburn Elliott, the local beekeeper and producer of Elliott’s Best Pure Honey, certainly the best Mike O’Connor had ever had. As always, Wilburn seemed to be preceded by his cinemascopic smile.
“Well, Wilburn, bet these girls look good to you being as you been down in the country with just your bees.”
“I don’t know, Mike. Looks to me like these ranchers took the girls to the market and the pigs to the dance.” Wilburn’s grin threatened to circle his ears and lap itself. “Don’t you be eyeing that Alpine gal, she’s married.” Wilburn, a lifelong bachelor in his fifties, would know, thought Mike. Besides she’s danced with the same guy three straight dances and looked bored during “An Empty Bottle, a Broken Heart, and You’re Still on My Mind.” Must be married.
“Mike, you do any good down there in Lapland?” Wilburn knew he hadn’t. For the second time, Mike took his eyes off the dancers and looked at Wilburn. “Lapland, where’s that?”
“Lapland. Presidio. Where Mexico laps over into Texas,” said the beekeeper, immensely pleased with his joke, his grin setting new girth records.
“You know we didn’t. We lost everything but a few cantaloupes and onions, some of the alfalfa. About all we have left is Ratón, that Mexican-hating German shepherd. You remember him, don’t you, Wilburn, the one whose mother was a Border Patrol dog? Ratón hasn’t done too well in Presidio. He hears mariachi music and acts like I’m getting knifed. How was your spring honey crop? I guess those bees loaf now that the weeds aren’t blooming?”
“No sir, Mike, no sir. They’re on vacation. They made me twelve thousand pounds of catclaw-mesquite honey this spring. Those little bitty fellers are tired. Come on down and I’ll show you how it works. I’ll show you the business end of a bee,” Elliot said, grinning as he left to shake hands with Sheriff Rick Thompson.
Farms are as rare in Presidio County as beekeepers. Without irrigation from the Rio Grande, and more important, the Rio Conchos flowing in through Ojinaga from Mexico, there would be none. Annual rainfall along the Rio Grande in Presidio County measures a bit over eight inches. Geographers save their dustiest term, “arid,” for any area receiving less than ten inches of rain a year: the Mideast, the Patagonian Desert, North Africa, and the Presidio Valley.
Seventy-two years before the founding of Jamestown in 1607, Cabeza de Vaca marched through the area of Presidio, where 225 years later, in 1760, Rubín de Celis founded what the Spanish called a presidio, a general store, fort, and mission of adobe where the clergy lived and worked on Christianizing Indians and Mexicans. Two years after Texas joined the Union, John Spencer, founder of one of Presidio’s most powerful families, laid out the plans for the present-day town. It is indeed “Lapland.” The Latin pulse and philosophy of life lap into all aspects of Presidio economics and social structures. Unlike South Texas, where the numerically superior Mexicans live under Anglo political and economic dominance, Presidio more resembles Laredo or Eagle Pass, where the Anglos have been a small minority for a hundred years and the two peoples blend together.
Still, Presidio is more like a Mexican village than a Texas border town. It has a rigid class structure. The wealthier Mexican Americans, along with a few Anglos, control the town’s purse. Its middle class—storekeepers, mechanics, cafe owners—provide rudimentary services for the population. Presidio is not incorporated, has no city hall, police department, paved streets (except the county-maintained highway), public library, waterworks, or sewer system; no barber, dentist, or baker; no newspaper, radio station, or public swimming pool. There is one doctor, a 79-year-old osteopath named Clyde Vaught, one lawyer, one motel, four cafes, a television cable company, six department stores, five grocery stores, a honey farm, four service stations, a justice of the peace, a bank, post office, and three bars. Presidio’s gay bar closed last spring.
Incorporation would mean Presidio would be eligible for federal revenue-sharing funds and could pave streets, build sewers, erect a waterworks similar to the one across the border in Ojinaga, and qualify for low-cost housing loans for the poorer of its 1200 citizens. But it would also mean higher taxes for the merchants, taxes for a mayor’s salary, police, city officers. The ruling families—the Nietos, Spencers, Armendarizes, Herreras—don’t mind the present tax rates. Pete Herrera’s new $50,000 home is listed on the rolls at $10,000, while no adobe hovel, no matter how squalid, is listed under $1000.
The effects of Presidio’s property tax inequities are nowhere better seen than at the high school on the eastern edge of town. The forty-year-old building is falling apart. Teachers need buckets in the classrooms during infrequent rains. Termites have enjoyed most of the floor molding in the typing room. Recently, the old steam-heated boiler exploded, and the administration had to dig deep for $12,000 for a new butane system. The gym is partitioned into classrooms on the south end and a library on the north. The new gym has no lights or bleachers. The football field is a stark green patch, no seats, among the cactus and sand. People have suggested lining up cars and using the headlights for illumination.
Presidio’s famous heat is overpowering. The heat and dust, dazing and relentless, turn Presidio into a brick kiln during the summer. The sun sucks everything dry. It is a hard, worn, rocky country, Hell’s Half Acre, no quarter asked, none given. The chronicler of Presidio’s heat is Oliver Harper, who came to Presidio in November 1929 and opened a hardware store, planning to stick it out awhile and then return to Marfa. He ended up staying, and Harper Hardware served as the town’s official weatherman, faithfully recording those harrowing statistics that compose its most meaningful history. Night after night he reported to the nation that Presidio was the hottest spot in the country. No longer the official weatherman, Harper still keeps his records. On June 17 and 18 this year the temperature climbed to 112 degrees, well below the record of 117 recorded in June of 1953, 1957, and 1960. In 1956, during the sever-year drought, total rainfall in Presidio was 1.52 inches. “Now that’s dry,” admits Oliver Harper, white-haired, twinkle-eyed, sitting at his hardware store desk beneath prints suggesting the Rockies and snow: grizzlies, moose, mountain goats, eagles soaring over white-capped peaks.
Presidio County has never seen the violent wars between cattlemen and farmers, because its farms were restricted to this corridor of the Rio Grande far south of the High Plains cattle country. The newest unsuccessful farmer, Mike O’Connor, came here to work as an accountant for Presidio County’s largest ranch and biggest taxpayer, the Diamond A Cattle Company (191,391 acres), 25 miles east of Presidio, after graduating from New Mexico State University. He had grown up in Carlsbad as a friend of the sons of oilman Robert O. Anderson, who owned the Diamond A and five other ranches in New Mexico. Mike knew the ranching business and he loved the wild country of Presidio County more every time he passed through.
He and his brother formed the O’Connor Brothers Loomix liquid supplemental feed franchise to keep Happy Godbold and Chili Bean Ridley on their toes. Last fall came the opportunity to buy a farm in Presidio: 170 acres on the Rio Grande floodplain, facing the river, half a mile south of Presidio’s main street. You could look over the fields of O’Connor Farms and see the neon signs of Ojinaga’s dusty red-light district across the river. The O’Connors paid $270,000 for it, including $145,000 down, which they had to borrow.
By the following spring the O’Connors had 50 acres in cantaloupes, 50 acres in long green chiles, 37 acres in alfalfa, and 25 acres in transplanted onions. Vegetable farming is a risk; it requires hard labor and costs three to four times more than producing row crops such as cotton or wheat. Not only that, it is impossible to know each year which vegetable will bring the highest price. Last year, onions didn’t pay production costs. The years before onions paid the bills. Farmers can never tell how much of what they are growing is being produced by other farmers. Too much of a good crop floods the market. And if costs become too high and consumers have to pay too much, they quit buying, and once again the market is flooded.
But the vagaries of the market were unimportant from the moment in late April when Border Patrol agents H.C. Murphy and J.W. Reed informed the group of stunned farmers gathered in the Oil Flyer Cafe that from May 9 to June 9 an additional detail of nineteen patrolmen would be in Presidio to pick up all illegal aliens. This harvest season the farmers would not have the traditional labor force from Ojinaga to help bring in the valley’s 5000 acres. That meant, simply, that the O’Connor enterprise was doomed.
The farmers fought back. They applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for temporary visas for Ojinaga citizens. The Labor Department denied the request, saying that the farmers had not advertised enough around the county for workers; that they had no adequate housing for laborers; and that they had balked at paying $2.83 an hour, which, although higher than the minimum wage of $2.20, was a figure the government determined would have “no adverse effect” on U.S. wage rates. So far as the farmers were concerned, they had advertised and no one came. They were willing to pay the minimum wage and a bit more. Were they supposed to build housing for nonexistent workers? They had no money for housing and were not eligible for federal low-cost housing loans because they were not a city—no sewers, no federal loan, no housing. But there were no American workers anyway.
For the inevitable remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Hollywood could do worse than hire Mike O’Connor for James Stewart’s role. Six feet two, green eyes, cowboy-lean, a fine honest face, O’Connor decided to do what any American would do: sue the bastards. Actually, the Presidio Valley Growers Association petitioned the El Paso district judge for a court review of the government’s decision, but O’Connor found the lawyer and pressed the case. Sufficiently impressed with the magnitude of the crisis, President Carter on June 9 ordered Leonel Castillo, the new commissioner of immigration and naturalization, to issue an order allowing Mexican workers to proceed across the bridge and save the harvest. But the long delay had been too much. Forty per cent of the valley’s onion crop was lost. The O’Connors suffered disastrous low yields with onions, cantaloupe, and alfalfa. They harvested 3 of the 47 acres of chiles. In July, when Mike closed the books on O’Connor Farms’ first season, the final figure was $46,264—in the red.
It was typical of O’Connor that the experience did not leave him bitter. He would try during the summer to borrow money from Marfa National Bank to start again. He felt the American system of redress had worked. No one, not presidents, immigration officials, or bureaucrats in Washington stood above a judge. On his wall O’Connor hung Judge William Sessions’ order to the Department of Labor to get cracking. O’Connor knew its contents as well as he knew his name.
For 400 years there have been farmers in Presidio County. There have been ranchers since 1850 and since 1883 there have been miners. The land has proved no easier for people seeking profits below the land than for farmers and ranchers coaxing along crops and livestock. In 1883, General W.R. Shafter from Fort Davis found evidence of silver twenty miles north of Presidio in the Chinati Mountains and organized the Presidio Mining Company. On Armistice Day 1918, the Texas Secretary of State issued a charter to the Capote Nitrate Company, capitalized at $100,000. Another $50,000 was spent in the fruitless pursuit of commercial nitrate before the company’s death in 1950. Meanwhile, American Metals had bought Presidio Mining Company’s silver operation, now in the town of Shafter, and mined $25 million worth of the metal from 700-foot-deep mine shafts in the nearby Chinati foothills before giving it up in the early 1940s when silver prices dropped to 25 cents per ounce. The mountains surrounding Shafter are still bare from the sacrifice of timber to the mine company’s wood-burning boilers before they switched to oil burners.
There may or may not be oil in the county. If there is, it would be a true wildcat, one hundred miles from any known production. There may or may not be copper, nitrate, molybdenum, or more silver. Azcon, a mining company from Colorado, has invested half a million dollars in a mining operation at Shafter, moving people into Mollie Biediger’s mobile home camp, leasing Russ White’s land, where you can spot silver slivers on the ground, and taking an office next to Mollie’s Big Bend Travel Agency in the old school building. Since 1968, a handful of companies have sunk millions of dollars into empty holes in search of uranium.
Pat Kenney, a geologist for Meeker and Company, still insists that the grandmother of all uranium lodes sits under Presidio County’s soil, bigger than the $30 million Utah-Colorado lode found in 1949. Kenney has spent a million of Meeker’s dollars to prove the theory that eons ago the large uranium deposits near Karnes City and Three Rivers in South Texas flowed out of the igneous volcanic intrusions and uplifts of Presidio County and down the ancestral Pecos River and Rio Grande. It would follow that the mother lode would still be in Presidio County. The geology is right. Uranium comes from volcanic rock either igneous flow rocks (which are lava beds), volcanic ash flows (the white tuffs seen in the mesa sides), or igneous uplifts (mountains like Santiago Peak, Chinati Peak, Mount Livermore).
The first thing Kenney learned nine years ago was that is was cheaper to lease a whole ranch than to pay surveyors to subdivide it. He leased the 125,000-acre Pope Ranch south of Marathon, some 25,000-acre spreads in Presidio County, and ranches along Highway 90 toward Valentine. He flew over much of it with a scintillometer , a device used to detect gamma radiation. Uranium, however, emits only low levels of gamma rays. A deposit the size of Rhode Island could be located under a one-foot layer of shale and the scintillometer would pass over it and the needle would not move.
After learning about the geology of the county, he eliminated all areas of worthless Cretaceous limestone and the gravel and sand alluvial areas south of the Rimrock. Equipment and money are the main problems. Local water-well drillers have the rigs to cut through anything, but they can’t go deep enough. South Texas outfits, rigged to go deep in soft rock near the Gulf, can’t go through lava. Kenney spent $20,000 trying to drill deeper than 720 feet in one lava bed. He drilled five 1500-foot holes in the C.T. Mitchell Ranch before dropping the lease. Nine years and a million dollars later he has still found nothing.
Some summer nights geologists, miners, and prospectors discuss rocks, current theories, and the temperament of local ranchers at Willis Williams’ Shafter House restaurant. His wife, Virginia, cooks with plenty of sweet Presidio onions, and her Mexican-style food is spicier than the dishes served at the equally venerated Old Borunda cafe in Marfa. Sitting out on the Shafter House screened porch overlooking the ghost town on those evenings, the men can watch the circling buzzards drifting like black ash against the blue sky before coming to roost in the cottonwood trees along nearby Cibolo Creek. The buzzards are probably symbolic of the whole mining venture in Presidio County.
Still, after the years, the money, the frustrations, and the failures, Kenney keeps at it, and old prospector convinced that tomorrow will bring the big strike. He knows it’s there—the biggest uranium deposit of all—buried safe from all his machines and knowledge, waiting to be unearthed. Perhaps next week. Perhaps never.
If the buzzards circled over uranium’s carcass, so should they over petroleum’s. Kenny knew as well as his signature the leases Atlantic-Richfield, Phillips, Gulf, Exxon, and El Paso Natural Gas had taken over the years and the location of attempted walls: the El Paso Natural Gas well southeast of Marfa near the radio observatory on the C.T. Mitchell land; the 18,000-foot Exxon try near Plata that cost $4 million over a year’s time; the geothermal wells Atlantic-Richfield drilled near Presidio; and Gulf’s well up on the Rimrock on the King Ranch’s Chilicothe property. Now Atlantic-Richfield is trying again, this time a 9000-footer on the C.T. Mitchell place, not far from the last dry hole. Out on the Williamses’ porch feeling the cool breeze, with two of the biggest and best burritos ever served to a man handily dispatched, anything seemed possible. Perhaps as much oil lay undiscovered as uranium. Perhaps none. If anything could change this country, it would be another Petrolia- or Ranger-size oil discovery or another Utah-Colorado uranium strike.
The lack of oil and gas sets Presidio County apart. The huge strikes in West Texas after World War II transformed Midland, Ector, and Scurry counties, creating cities such as Midland and Odessa and filling them with aggressive, rootless people, alien to their surroundings and intertwined with industry and speculative, shallow-rooted enterprises. While guaranteeing fortune, oil degraded the land and people’s feelings toward it. The land, which had been heroic and mystical, a link to one’s past as well as to one’s sustenance, became merely speculative capital. For better or worse, Presidio County has escaped the amenities and deformities, the population spurts and cash flows, the drastic psychic changes that accompany the discovery of oil.
It is not that the place couldn’t use the money a big oil find would create. Marfa’s economy depends on the predictable bureaucratic cash flow of the Border Patrol and unpredictable spending power of the ranchers. Presidio County, like two-thirds of the state’s rural counties, lost population according to the 1970 Census. There were fewer businesses and fewer heads of households under fifty years of age and the median family income was half that of the state’s average of $8490.
The future was painted in rosy rather than dark hues in the early forties when Marfa’s stores were filled with uniformed American boys. The 2700 acres of Fort D.A. Russell on the southern edge of town were packed with cadets and officers of the Second Battalion, 77th Field Artillery, and later, a contingent of German POWs. But the end of World War II brought the end of Marfa’s brief boom. Then came the drought of the fifties and the town sank in gloom.
Only when Hollywood came to Marfa in 1955 to film Giant did people stop thinking of going broke, of starving cattle, of monstrous mortgages, if only for awhile. Rock Hudson, Chill Wills (everybody’s favorite), and James Dean stayed up at Lee Bennett’s mother’s house in town. But what really made a man forget the drought was the impact of meeting Elizabeth Taylor at age 23 carrying a plate of barbecued ribs. At the barbecues Warner Brothers hosted for the townfolk working as extras or giving a hand with the livestock or, like Worth Evans, lending a ranch, her lithe young body, her eyes the color of Parma violets, her grin that promised everything literally stopped Marfa men in their tracks. She stayed up at the Charlie Hancock house with her hairdresser and came into town often, especially to eat enchiladas at the Old Borunda.
Hollywood had discovered Presidio County way back in 1929, when Below the Border, Flashing Spurs, The Texas Battle, and West of the Rockies were churned out, all in the year the country was going broke. But folks didn’t pay much attention to these oaters. Ranchers were making money and the grass was high. The Depression and Dust Bowl were yet to come. In 1955, however, Marfans needed that additional $10 a day they could make as extras in the barbecue scene or in the funeral filmed over at the Valentine cemetery.
Noland Kelley, Marfa’s funeral director, got to bury Sal Mineo, who played the poor Mexican boy whose family worked for Bick Benedict. For his beatitudes and lowering device he made more than the others, $1000 a day. Since director George Stevens liked the West Texas sunsets, the scene was shot at dusk. Kelley raised and lowered Mineo time and again through three sunsets until Stevens was satisfied. Besides earning $3000, Kelley learned cosmetic techniques—always helpful in his work—from the studio’s makeup crew. When filming was finished, his makeup friends gave him their cosmetic case (which he still has), a black tray with “Warner Brothers” stenciled on the top. Before his retirement in 1976, Kelley had buried 2497 people in 33 years, a bit over the current living population of Marfa.
Movie star memories still linger, but the physical evidence of that brief exciting period is almost gone. The Benedict mansion has fallen victim to the weather and is now only a series of boards supported by telephone poles. The handful of tiny oil derricks that Hollywood magic turned into miles of James Dean’s wells are rusting on their sides behind Evans’ son’s house. Sal Mineo lies in another cemetery. George Stevens is dead. James Dean wrapped his Porsche around a tree and was killed the same year Giant was filmed, Chill Wills is making commercials for television, and the old Paisano Hotel is closed.
Marfa is a town where no one is rich but no one starves, although avoiding the latter isn’t easy. People rarely take vacations. Noland Kelley and his wife, Mary Lou, did not take one long trip during the 33 years he owned Kelley Funeral Home. Marfa stores reflect the no-nonsense character of the land. Their signs advertise necessities: “Feed,” “U-Gas-Um,” “Patent Medicines,” “Groceries,” “Furniture,” “Credit.” The only allusions to leisure are the beer joints, a pool hall, two liquor stores (one run by the county’s only Jew, Walter Polsky), Mando’s Arcade, and the Branding Iron (the last vestige of the Paisano Hotel and Presidio County’s only private club). There are no fast-food franchises in the county, no golden arches, Kentucky colonels, or huts selling pizza; no karate studios, health-food restaurants, radio stations; no massage parlors, pornographic theaters, or XXX-rated bookstores. These offerings exist in places with money and people, where the fat of the land permits citizens such luxuries as learning karate or being massaged.
There are few street signs in Marfa and fewer street numbers. Everyone knows where everyone lives. Leave 50 cents in an empty egg carton inside your unlocked front door and the egg man will replace it with fresh farm eggs. A lazy fullback ordered to run the stadium steps wouldn’t mind—there are only seven. Everyone knows that airport manager Fritz Kahl’s house is the only one with a windsock on top, and they know about the town’s occasional affairs. All the kids know Marfa’s motorized zombies who cruise Highway 90 every night looking for something to happen and they know the two best places for parking, one down from the cemetery behind the drive-in, the other on the opposite side of town, down a road near Texas’ highest golf course. The kids know that at dusk, in the westering light, the sign for the Stardust Motel, a vertical Stardust atop a horizontal Motel, casts a scandalous shadow resembling an upraised third finger on the embankment across the road.
Marfa’s eccentrics—the dog man who wanders town with a cur trotting along behind on a leash, or the shell-shocked Mexican, Polito Alvarado, who travels everywhere in high-topped hiking boots, unlaced and without socks, and a cloth hat pulled tight over his head covering everything but one ear—are know, and catalogued and accepted as are those who have fallen deep into sin—a handful of alcoholics, one or two high school girls seized with nymphomania, the young hellions getting busted for dope and drunkenness.
As in every small town, covert truths and scandals are never mentioned, only alluded to by knowing glances, winks, uplifted eyebrows. For the most part, the people of Presidio County are decent and hard working and show little narrowness of spirit or other qualities of small-town Babbittry: smugness, hypocrisy, gross materialism, moral cant.
Everybody knows who works where and everybody knows that balancing the budget takes two wage earners—not father and son, but in many families, father and mother. Everybody in town comes to the post office at least once a day, since home delivery is for bigger cities. Bill Shannon sells stamps and money orders, while his wife, Mildred, teaches at Marfa Elementary. Going north across the Southern Pacific tracks that bisect Highland, the main street, the first store on the right is Jerry’s Uniforms, where Jerry Dickson clothes her husband, Gene, and the rest of his Border Patrol colleagues. Nasario Hernandez repairs boots at his shoe shop next door, while across Highland, his wife, Virginia, works in the bank. Past Nasario is the county’s only newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel, published by Pat Ryon. Dorothy Ryon is the high school librarian.
On north, past Gloria’s beauty salon, is the Palace Theater, which is closed in the summer while Joan and Paul Buren transfer their films to the Marfa Drive Inn next to the cemetery on Highway 90. Joan also works as District Judge Bill Earney’s secretary and Paul is manager of the Montgomery Ward order-store. Across Highland at the north end is the courthouse, which is still a desert-sand color after a June 1969 hailstorm battered away the previous pink stucco.
Coming back down Highland there’s Marfa Car Parts, Worth Evans’ town house in the old Texas Theater, the Paisano (handsomest hotel in the West), and Baker Jewelers. At the University of Texas, Smitter Baker met and later married Nancy Rawls, daughter of an old ranching family. Smitty soon learned he hated ranching, something the Rawls had done in the county since 1888, so he opened what was to be the first of three jewelry stores in West Texas. Next to Baker’s is the Marfa National Bank, whose president is a Marfa native. Then comes Gary and Carolyn Rogers’ real estate office.
Out on the highway, Eddie Pierce is king. Since arriving in 1946 from Rockwall to cure his asthma, Pierce had done well. He owns Eddie Pierce Ford and the town’s social nexus, the Thunderbird Restaurant. Pierce also owns the Holiday Capri Inn, the Eddie Pierce Apartments, and the Thunderbird Motel.
Aside from the landscape and the lack of people, life in Marfa differs from the city mostly in how its citizens live with time. In urban areas, hour-by-hour events, clock time, is the most important. There is no time to reflect on one’s history and sense of place. In Marfa, and more so in Presidio and the county’s other small settlements on the river, people live with history. Each moment of their lives is conditioned not only by that moment’s experience but also by the sum of experiences up to that time. Around them are the immutable mountains, plains, and sky, keeping a kind of unchanging time against which mere human comings and goings assume their appropriate, subordinate place.
No Mexican Americans attended the Big Bend Dance Club’s Friday night party, although they sometimes came as guests. There is one Mexican name listed on the 250-membership roster. Seventy-five per cent of the county’s 4800 people are of Mexican descent. Mexican Americans serve as jailer, county clerk, chief deputy tax assessor-collector, parole officer, county treasurer, and county commissioner (three out of the four). They own many of Marfa’s businesses. But no Mexican Americans are members of the Marfa Roping Club, the Beta Sigma Phi Club, the West of the Pecos Cowbelles, or the Marfa Rotary Club. Socially, the races stay apart. Most Mexican Americans don’t like to dance to George Jones and few Anglos know what a cumbia is, much less how to dance to it.
Although the schools have long been integrated, there are few mixed parties and few intermarriages, except between out-of-state Border patrolmen and local women like Delfina Heredia, a 1975 Marfa High School graduate who recently married Ed McCabe of Buffalo, New York. Delfina’s sisters, Pilar and Rosario, also married Border patrolmen.
Mexicans came to Marfa for the same reason Anglos did: economic opportunity. Despite their greater numbers, they hold no real political or economic power. Most are semi-skilled or unskilled laborers, although a number derive their incomes from managing or owning the smaller businesses in town. The loyalty to their mother tongue, plus the popularity of Mexican films, Spanish-language radio and Mexican TV programs, and Mexican bands and singers, all reflect a persistence to keep their distinctive culture. Like other Americans, most want to get ahead in their work; they want work that gives them satisfaction, job security, and a higher income. But in sparse, unyielding Presidio County moving up the status ladder is hard.
Still, Presidio County, like other Texas border counties, is where Anglo ranch life confronts the numerically superior Third World society of Latin America. Prejudices exist, mostly regarding job opportunities and salaries. It is the lower pay of Mexican Americans that is reflected in the county’s low median income. In Marfa’s public housing project 10 Anglo families live among 46 Mexican American ones. Of the 26 welfare cases in the county, only one father is Anglo, and he is the head of a mixed family.
Some Mexican American families have done well. The Prietos own the building in which sits Jerry’s Uniforms, a grocery, Exxon station, beauty salon, welding shop, two coin-operated laundries, and rental property. Genevive Prieto runs her beauty shop. Her husband, Mel, teaches at Marfa Elementary and works part-time for George Cross at the downtown pharmacy. Chon Prieto manages one of the laundries, works at Safeway, and oversees the ranch at Candelaria. The Zubiate family has a furniture store, cafe, Sixto’s Liquor, apartments, New Star Grocery, and until recently the Western Auto Store. Jesse Vizcaino serves on the bank board, runs the family department stores, and manages an 8529-acre ranch. Conrado Vasquez has had a ranch down hear Casa Piedra for many years. Conrado is a retired postal worker. His son, Mando, runs Mando’s Auto Shop. Mexican Americans own all the bars, one of the lumberyards, one of the cleaners, all the beauty shops and laundries, the mobile home park, and at one time two businesses, now gone, with the wonderful names of the “Chopin Block Lounge” and the “Lye and Brag.” But for most Mexican Americans, life here is just as it is all along the border: hard.
Only two people (his deputy, Gary Painter, six five, 250 pounds, and his jailer, Robert Guevara, six six, 260 pounds) would be bigger than Sheriff Rick Thompson at the Big Bend Dance Club, and they were elsewhere. At six four, 210 pounds, Thompson was the runt of the sheriff’s office. Thompson had been appointed to the job in 1973, six days after a retired Air Force major named George Duckworth put five bullets into Sheriff Hank Hamilton as Hank opened Duckworth’s car door to order him off the Rolston Ranch. Most people thought Duckworth was crazy, especially when they learned he had tape recorded the whole episode, including Hamilton’s last cries. He gave no reason at his trial for the murder. The jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
Hamilton had always been embarrassed wearing a gun and didn’t for the first few years as sheriff. He had one that day, but it made no difference. Not that there weren’t enough guns in the county. On any midmorning coffee break at the Thunderbird Restaurant pistols outnumber straw hats. In this isolated, barely populated county where crime is rare, there are more than forty Border patrolmen, two game wardens, two Department of Public Safety officers, four sheriff’s officers, ten U.S. Customs officials, three constables, and two city cops, or about 1.5 uniformed, armed lawmen for every 100 citizens.
Sheriff Thompson was glad to see the end of 1976, Bicentennial year or not. He had barely survived an old-fashioned, all-American, mud-slinging reelection campaign against Manuel Rodriguez, a former city policeman. Rodriguez beat him in the May primary by nine votes. After the recount, Rodriguez still had a five-vote margin. Thompson contested the election, and visiting District Judge Sam Paxson ruled Thompson the winner by five. Rodriguez appealed and a month after the country’s 200th birthday, the appellate court ruled Thompson the winner by three votes. Like most good politicians Thompson hadn’t forgotten the source of Rodriguez’ support: the Prietos, Vizcainos, Zubiates, Alex Leos, and other prominent Mexican American families. Thompson had gained enough Mexican American votes to win, but before the next election he would have to do some fence mending.
To Thompson, dancing with his wife, Barbara Jean, on this cool Friday night a year later, the election seemed a lifetime away. Tempers envenomed by the campaign had cooled and the animosity had disappeared almost immediately, as if most Marfans were grateful it was over and could turn their concerns back to the basics, like rain. As sheriff, tax assessor-collector, and custodian of the jail and courthouse, Thompson received $860 a month. The hours were long, the distances far, but he was thankful for the low crime rate. June’s rap sheet showed twenty arrests; two assaults; four auto thefts; a break-in; some traffic offenses. Most of the offenders were transients.
The real center for law enforcement in the county, however, is the Border Patrol. Drifting past Sheriff Thompson and his wife on the dance floor was Carey Clement “Doc” Whitman, the best tracker and best dancer in the Marfa sector Border Patrol. Dancing and tracking wets for 22 years had kept Doc slim as a flagpole. His green-eyed gaze was mild, and he could even look contemplative and dreamy, thinking of his upcoming January retirement and his homestead near Marble Falls. Doc was two years older than the Marfa sector Border Patrol headquarters, which was founded in Fort D. A. Russell in 1924 with a cadre of four. Liquor smuggling was the main challenge in those days. The old-timers still remember the group of Mexicans stopped on the Presidio Highway hauling a wagonload of fish. Inside each fish was a full bottle of whiskey on its way to the speakeasies. Now the problems are illegal aliens and dope. The Marfa sector covers the biggest geographical area in the country, 92,000 square miles with 22 counties in Texas, 18 in Oklahoma, and contains over a million people.
In Doc Whitman’s 22 years, the “little fellers,” as he called the illegals, had learned a lot. They could still walk 25 miles at night across the Marfa Plain from the Sierra Viejas north to Mount Livermore, avoiding rattlers and cactus. They still carried Clorox water bottles and plastic bags filled with sardines, flour tortillas, chiles serranos, and a few limes to quench their thirst. But huaraches had given way to Viet Nam jungle boots, and tennis shoes, and the stronger, long-haired young men outnumber their papas. They had learned to avoid making tracks on the smooth-raked dirt road paralleling the railroad track by wrapping their feet in burlap. Once a man had even attached horseshoes on his hands and feet and clomped across the path, up to a fence, and over into the pasture. Sometimes Doc wondered whether what he had done for so many years made any difference. It always seemed contradictory, tracking down people he knew wanted to work, while so many of his fellow citizens lived on welfare and food stamps. But he had done his job to the letter and considered himself lucky to have lived in Marfa his whole career.
When internal politics or politics between the green-uniformed Border Patrol and the blue-uniformed U.S. Customs got bad, Doc thought maybe Evans Means had the right idea. In this whole life, Doc had never met anyone like Evans, a loner, a mountainman, a tough old man of 85 who had lived by himself in his adobe and rock house below Sierra Vieja Pass, 35 hard miles from the highway, since 1913. There had been a wife, Louise, along the way, and time overseas in France during World War I, but Evans had always been a vaquero, a cowboy who wore a six-shooter and could handle ten mules and a wagon.
In 1901, when Evans was nine years old, he had come 500 miles with his family in a wagon train from Lampasas and settled at the old Double Wells Ranch, eleven miles west of Valentine. His mother had homesteaded the first of his sections in 1911, and Evans had staked out the rest two years later, 30191/2 acres all together at $1.50 an acre.
Evans had killed a man during his military service, not one from Germany but one from New Jersey. A big Italian doughboy who hated Mexicans thought he had found one and spent most of his off-time hours trying to pick a fight with the walnut-colored Means. Means recalled the scene as if it were yesterday while he stirred the two pots of apricots that had come off the trees his mother planted 66 years ago. They simmered in sugar and juice over the coals on his backyard grill. A cow and a few birds dug into the weeds and cans and bottles behind his house near the spring. After swishing the apricots about, he glanced toward his orchard where pomegranates, peaches, and figs were budding.
“I told him he was too damn big to hit with my fist and to cut it out. He said, ‘I been trying to get a fight out of you for three months. I’m gonna kick your ass and make you fight.’ I said, ‘You kick my ass and you’ll die.’ He came at me with a stick and I said, ‘What are you going to do with that stick?’
“He come at me and I never seen a feller jump as fast when my gun came out and went WRRRRRUP. It was kinda dark and I couldn’t see, but I hit him. That gun came out and went WRRRRRUP. That bullet hit him in the navel and carried him from here to my pickup. He lived about ten hours. Sumbitch still dead.”
Evans served two years in Leavenworth and was back by the end of 1920, working his place and getting free rides into town from rookie Border patrolmen who invariably thought Means was an illegal alien. He didn’t bother to let them know different until they got to Marfa so he could do his shopping: 100 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of flour, 300 pounds of frijoles, salt, coffee, Bull Durham, bullets, and a fifth of Jim Beam. Usually Doc Whitman brought him back.
His kin had always thought him a scapegrace, half crazy for staying down in the country, sleeping in that dirty room, and never going to doctor, and they were all dead and he was 85 and planting pecan trees and thinking how he’d laugh when he hid behind his door and threw hot stuff, High Life or Clearlight they called it, on the next wetback who broke his lock. “The Lord says that man shall live by the sweat of his brow. If you get too damn smart to work and sit on your ass, you’ll die in six months.”
Evans worked in his orchard, watched a few cattle and horses, and kept on making horsehair ropes. From time to time he did missionary work, armed with his .44 pistol. He needed to take another load of New Testaments to the Mexicans on the river and down below Ojinaga. The Rio Grande River Ministry people were all right but they couldn’t reach these hombres like he could. And he’d better get doing the Lord’s work because He had been good to him. Evans often thought, if the Lord gave him another life, only two things would he do different: raise cattle instead of horses and do more missionary work. To hell with the rest.
From El Paso to Presidio, Evans Means is a legend, a man who, for whatever reason, has gone it alone. He is a bridge from young Lucas Brite, whose ambition was curtailed only by how hard he worked, to the present-day cowman, bound securely by paperwork, the Department of Agriculture, and inheritance taxes. Doc Whitman wasn’t the only man who daydreamed about the tough old man. Many men did, especially when thinking of all the ways in which they had trapped themselves into mild versions of slavery: jobs, class convention, families, materialism, affectations, pomposity, laziness.
Evans Means has tested society and will have nothing of it. Like Huck Finn, he was just a young man with little education and great confidence in omens and his own clairvoyance. He embodies the inescapable dilemma of all frontiers and emerging new towns. To what degree must one person live alone and free and to what extent must he submit to society? Is man a social being, responsible to others, or an independent individual, accountable only to his conscience? This democratic paradox was the central question of America’s last century, recorded in her literature from Natty Bumppo, to Huck Finn, to Emerson’s “Divine Individual,” to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to the anguish of Billy Budd. Evans Means, at least, has made his choice.
The country is changing hands. More than half of Presidio County’s acreage is now held by out-of-county residents: 750,000 acres, 30 per cent, bought by West Texas oilmen like Bobby French and Bill Blakemore or politicians like Wayne Connally, Forrest Harding, or Cletus (Cowboy) Davis. Even the governor’s brother, Andy Briscoe, has a place down near Jack Kingston’s hot springs.
Whether they are politicians, like John Connally, Lyndon Johnson, Dolph Briscoe
(the state’s largest landowner), or John Hill, or accountants, lawyers, or bankers, rich Texans still don’t feel they have done anything unless they own a ranch. Making money doesn’t matter as much, really. A ranch is the most powerful status object, more meaningful than a Highland Park mansion or a membership in the Houston Country Club.
There are ranches for sale, since many of the families of Presidio County are caught between the romantic view of their own past and the realistic facts of their present situation. Cattle ranching is feasible only if they have outside income. Some are financially strapped. Some are just tired. And they are selling. A fellow from League City and a rich gas man named James Dyer bought Bryant and Alice Harris’ Kelly Ranch, 30,000 acres, for $115 an acre. Bobby French, Odessa oilman, bought Lorraine Johnson’s old Dipper Ranch, 34,000 acres, in 1974 for $132.50 an acre. Bill Shurley bought Joe Tom Bishop’s Alamito Springs Ranch for his son-in-law Gene Nixon. Joe Tom moved west and bought a place in the salt flats near Van Horn. Some of the old families are holding on: the Brites, of course: the Mitchells, Crossens, Humphreys, Howards, Pools, the Espys, all of whose ranches were founded between 1881 and 1890. But a few more ranches seem to change hands each year.
Gary and Carolyn Rogers from Houston are the agents of change. Gary Rogers Ranch Brokerage handled the French, Bishop, Harris sales. The Rogers arrived in Marfa seven years ago to take on an ultimately unsuccessful effort to resurrect the Paisano Hotel. Gary then handled ranch properties for his Houston friend Julio La Guarta, and became more familiar with ranch property in his next venture, taking hunters out in old Houston Light and Power half-tracks to herds of pronghorn antelope and letting them blast away at the curious animals. One year Rogers ran 102 antelope hunters through Presidio County in the eight-day season. Since 1973, Rogers and his wife have sold ranches exclusively, $23 million worth. Rogers says the ranches are basically uneconomical and sell for only one reason: the buyers are “double-barreled rich and they just want that land.”
As it was in the beginning, so shall it always be in Presidio County: “A great place for men and dogs but hell on women and horses.” “If it doesn’t bite it’ll stick you with a thorn.” “It’s got to rain enough to bog down a house cat before I’m satisfied.” No amount of grousing or cussing will ever end the quest for land in this country. For there is little else. Preisdio County is not like East Texas where the small cotton and corn farms engender problems, not prestige. Or the Gulf Coast where land is something to force pipelines through. Or West Texas where the petroleum culture cheapens its ultimate worth. Only in South Texas with its rich bicultural ranching tradition does owning land mean the same as in the Trans-Pecos.
However furious the changing of ranch titles, the country will remain the same. It is too far, too isolated from mainstream Texas, too wild and rough to become urbanized. The land has a way of repelling the get-rich schemes of “Davis Mountains Resorts,” or the “Lost Frontier,” or the plans by the Gulf Coast Real Estate people to develop the 96 Ranch near Evans Means’ place. Of all three, only weather-cracked billboards remain.
In Presidio County, neither the auto nor pickup nor hordes of new residents will ever blur the distinction between farm and ranch and town as it has in other Texas regions such as the Rio Grande Valley. Here the town is less important than the farm or ranch. The county, not the city, remains the more important political unit. Marfa’s population will continue to drop. Unless new Border patrolmen are assigned to the Marfa sector, the 23 houses on the market will sell slowly, if ever.
Marfa High graduates will continue to leave for brighter lights and bigger cities. The franchise restaurants will stay away, venturing only as close as Alpine, 25 miles east. So will freeways and smog, new factories, people, high burglary rates, and rape crisis centers. For some, Presidio County will always be interminably dull and mediocre, almost lifeless. For others, topping the hill and seeing the lights of Marfa will be like coming into harbor after a storm. For Marfa and Presidio County and the people living there, the land is their blessing and their curse.
At the Big Bend Dance Club hoedown, Friday was now Saturday and Carl Robinson still had his coat on as he danced with his wife, Ellen, to Al Dean’s finale, “Cotton-eyed Joe.” As if he was clairvoyant like Evans Means, his worried look had disappeared. In a month he would have a new band director and two new trustees, and he would be working on schedule changes. He was thankful the Legislature had again defeated Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong’s project of buying the Diamond A Cattle Company’s Big Bend Ranch, the largest taxpayer in the county. Despite the politicians’ promises and assurances, where would he have come up with the $10,000 the Diamond A paid last year in revenue for the school? Not from new cities or new factories or a migration of residents from Buffalo, New York, seeking warmth. Like everything else, it would have to come from the land.