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This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue with the headline “A Land’s End.”
What makes a place? Casa Piedra is deep in the Big Bend, about an hour’s drive from either Marfa or Presidio, much of that on a graded dirt road. For three decades this place was a community. In its heyday it had a schoolhouse, a post office, and a store. The railroad went through. Casa Piedra had a name. Then World War II came, and folks trickled away, lured to Marfa by steady, better-paying jobs related to the military base there. After that, through the fifties, a drouth dragged on until no more grass grew and hardly anyone was left in Casa Piedra. When the names written in the margins of photographs fade, and there’s no one around to tell the stories, is that when a place truly slips away?
The stories matter to Armando Vasquez. Armando’s hair is silver, and his eyes are lively and dark brown. He is slim and wears jeans and a baseball cap. He is toothy, and his smile, which comes often, is beautiful. He grew up in Casa Piedra, in the Vasquez family house, with its walls of framed photographs and its sunny kitchen. “My grandparents and my parents were here. I grew up here. All that means something,” he said one morning this spring. Armando is 93 years old. He is the keeper of the history of Casa Piedra.
“My father, Conrado Vasquez, was adopted by his aunt and uncle in Presidio,” Armando said. “When my father was a young man, his uncle had an accident—his horse spooked, and he passed away from that accident. My father didn’t know what to do. It was 1912, and he had a feeling that this place was going to grow. He opened a little store and a post office, and as the years went by he bought land south of my grandparents’ and moved the family there. The area was originally called Punta de Agua, for an artesian spring that wells up on the property. My father renamed it Casa Piedra because of an old rock house that was there.”
The Vasquez family originally lived in a small, flat-roofed house with no indoor plumbing; Armando recalls the labor of hauling water from Alamito Creek. In 1933, when he was eight, the family moved into a larger adobe house that Conrado had built. “He hired all the finest carpenters and adobe layers who were out of work from the Depression,” said Armando. “They built us a very nice house with all the modern conveniences.” The family lived in the back half of the house; a new store and post office occupied the front. This is still the family’s home place.
As many as seventy families settled the area. Most of them were sharecroppers; water was more abundant then. “I think it used to rain more,” Armando said. “The creek ran, and all this area was farmed. Beans, corn, cotton, hay—whatever people needed, they grew and sold a little bit.” These farming families, plus railroad workers and ranchers, were the chief customers at the store. They bought nails, flour, sugar, horseshoes, ranch supplies, cloth, cold drinks, and the like. Later, the store sold gasoline. Mail arrived twice a week. “This store was the center of activity,” Armando said. “Especially when the mail came. My father would get wholesale supplies from Marfa, but what he couldn’t get, the mail would bring.”
Vasquez family photos.
Photograph by Matthew Johnson
The home in Casa Piedra.
Photograph by Matthew Johnson
Armando, his older brother, and his two sisters—one older and one younger—rode donkeys to school each day, about a mile away. After school, he was kept busy stocking the store or caring for the cattle the family ran on their land. “My parents didn’t pamper me,” he said. “I fended for myself from day one. I don’t have no complaints.”
He remembers dances at the school or at ranches nearly every weekend, with an accordionist, a fiddle player, and a guitarist. Everyone went. He remembers hunting in the nearby hills. He remembers horses. “I love horses, always have.” As a teenager, he received a rare gift from his father: a red, blaze-faced filly that Armando named Seda, or “Silk.” She was fast. When another fellow proposed match races, Armando accepted, and Seda won a race with ease. His father, though, disapproved. “When you go to betting, there is always some misunderstanding, and bad things happen,” Armando recalls his father saying. His father made him sell the horse. “I regret it very much,” he said. “Seda. I still miss her.”
One by one, urged by their parents, the Vasquez siblings sought education beyond Casa Piedra. Armando’s older brother and sister were schooled in Austin, and his younger sister finished at Texas State College for Women, in Denton. Armando boarded with relatives for two years to attend high school in Marfa but left for the Army after his sophomore year, in 1943, spending the bulk of his war service in a tank battalion in France. When he returned home he married Josephine and settled in Marfa. They had three children, and eventually Armando opened a mechanic’s shop that he maintained for decades. He retired at age 72.
Armando returns to Casa Piedra once or twice a week, sometimes alone or with his son, Loretto, to check on the house and the family’s cattle. A few souls live on far-flung ranch properties in the area, but otherwise the landscape is unpeopled. The desert has taken back many of the farms and the structures that used to be houses or pens. The ground around Casa Piedra is gray with small rocks and dust. Creosote bushes wave spindly branches. In the summer monsoon, rain on the creosote sends up a heavy, gorgeously indefinable odor that is very particular to this land. Alamito Creek used to run; now it’s dry most of the year, though water exists below the surface and cottonwood trees adorn the banks, clapping their pretty leaves in a pretty music in the breeze. Dry old mountains slouch on the horizon in every direction. A doe bounds across the road and over a fence. A bobcat glances over her shoulder at an oncoming vehicle and continues on her way. A black cow nurses her newborn black calf. That’s what happens these days in Casa Piedra.
Right around the turn of the century, Armando and his younger sister, Conchita, began compiling family photographs, which they placed in the old store. Rows of serious-looking men in dark suits stand in front of an adobe building: that’s Uncle Carlitos Herrera’s 1917 wedding. Two dozen children, the boys in overalls, the girls in dresses, pose with their teacher: the Casa Piedra school, 1929. Armando’s long-ago relatives, both Anglo and Hispanic, were some of the region’s earliest pioneers. As Armando gazes at the images, he tells story after story. “My grandfather Natividad Vasquez was from San Carlos, Chihuahua, and he wanted to marry my grandmother Lucia Russell. He was a hard worker, but her father was a businessman in Presidio, and she had gone to school at the University of Texas in Austin.” Natividad’s prospects were considered below Lucia’s station. Her parents did not favor the union. “That’s why they had to get married at night,” said Armando. “It was the custom that she had to marry at night and she had to wear a black wedding dress.” The year was 1886.
The store’s old scale waits on a long wooden table. On display is his mother’s dainty wedding dress, from 1918, and her tiny, lace-up wedding shoes. Over the years the store has filled out with a mishmash of family treasures and knickknacks: a framed print of George Washington, cowboy pictures, antlers, a sombrero. A guest book by the post office cubbies contains dozens of signatures from visitors to Casa Piedra: friends, family members, even acquaintances from Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio whom Armando has brought here. “When we started, we didn’t know that we were converting it to a museum,” Armando said. “But that’s what we did. This is the museum of the Vasquez family history and a place that doesn’t exist anymore.”
But why is it important to tell the story? This desert country will no longer yield crops. It can’t sustain many cattle. Its gravelly floor is pocked with cactus and bristling with snakes. The people are all gone. Why hold on to a place that is not even a place anymore?
“My roots are here, that’s why,” Armando said. “We have 5,712 acres, the house, a few cattle, four artesian wells, and one windmill. Someday my son will take over, but it will never be for sale. And every time I’m here, lots of old memories come to mind.”