Texas’ Big Bend town of Terlingua still draws attention
TERLINGUA, Texas (AP) — In 1918, Howard Perry, the wealthy owner of the Chisos Mining Co., persuaded his wife Grace to join him here in one of the bleakest and most remote corners of the country.
The San Antonio Express-News reports Perry had built and lavishly furnished a large stone mansion on a hilltop above the mines where 1,000 or more Mexicans toiled for $1.50 a day, extracting and smelting mercury ore.
But after traveling by train from New England and then arriving on a freight wagon, Grace quickly decided that desert life near the Mexican border was not for her.
“The story goes, Mrs. Perry finally came down from Maine. She spent one night, and said, ‘I’ve seen enough,’” said Bill Ivey, who owns most of the Terlingua ghost town and is refurbishing the old mansion.
After the mines played out in the 1940s, Perry went broke and Terlingua was abandoned. It soon became a ghost town of roofless, primitive rock structures and rusting mining equipment.
Today, a century after Grace Perry’s hasty flight back to civilization, Terlingua is booming.
Somewhere along the way, the old mining town with its weird metal artwork, quaint rock casitas, derelict yellow school buses and ancient Airstream trailers — some bearing names like Rosie and Josephine — acquired an aura of romance and adventure.
Two decades of promotion by the county’s tourist council probably didn’t hurt.
“It’s a tourist boom. I don’t know precisely why, but in the last couple of years, people have found the place. We’re out there. We’re in magazines in Germany and China,” said Brewster County Commissioner Hugh Garrett. “People are realizing there is more than just Marfa.”
Land prices in South Brewster County are skyrocketing and vacation rentals are multiplying, as newcomers with plans and money arrive.
Some old timers, who came for different reasons, are bristling. Other locals, meanwhile, cannot find an affordable place to live.
And more is soon to come, as seen in construction sites along Texas Highway 170 that runs past the ghost town.
“Everyone wants to be part of the last best place,” said Ivey, 62, who worked for decades to make Terlingua a tourist destination in the Big Bend, about 450 miles west of San Antonio.
But the pace and quality of growth, especially on the perimeter that he cannot control, make him uneasy.
“It’s scary because I think we’re at the crossroads. Are we going to see the portable buildings come in and take over, or will it be people with a sense of preservation of this area?” he asked. “If someone comes here and wants to put in an igloo, you can’t tell him no.”
Even an igloo here would hardly be farfetched.
Already on the edge of the ghost town is a mock naval exhibit under a large sign that reads “Passing Wind.” It features a large black submarine surfacing from the desert, a replica of the Statue of Liberty and a three-masted ship.
And the once charming view to the east, toward the towering peaks of Big Bend National Park, is now cluttered by more than 50 structures, including tall white tipis available to tourists.
None of that was evident to a couple on their honeymoon who came during the dog days of late August. For them, Terlingua’s magic was just as advertised.
“The landscape is beautiful. It helps take your mind away from everyday worries,” said Oklahoman Tenaya Lofts, 43, visiting with Tye, 40, her new husband.
“And the quaintness and earthiness of the people who live here, they have found their happiness,” she added.
The night before, the newlyweds had gazed upward into the darkest of skies.
“We sat outside and watched the stars and the blood moon. And there was a fire in the forest,” Tye said.
One of the state’s earliest chili cook-offs, held here in 1967 as a publicity stunt, put Terlingua on the cultural map. Over the next 50 years, tens of thousands of chili hounds came for the annual fests.
In 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band did their part with the release of the “Viva Terlingua” album.
And eventually, the old mining town was resettled by a handful of hardy hippies and river guides.
“The old joke is that all the hippies moved here in the 1970s because they heard there wasn’t any work,” quipped Buckner Cooke, a ghost town resident.
Over the last couple of decades, it has acquired cachet as a must stop for savvy wanderers.
Some came for the live music and rib-eye steaks served at the restored Starlight Theater, once a movie house for the miners.
Others enjoyed hanging out on the broad stone porch of the adjacent Terlingua Store, quaffing longnecks with the colorful local characters, listening to their stories and the jamming musicians.
Still others came for the solitude and otherworldly desert vistas.
And well into the 1990s, only a handful of people lived in this part of Brewster County, where the summers are like caldrons and the amenities few.
Back then, all the drinking water came from rain catchment and wells. Fresh groceries and doctors were 80 miles away in Alpine. The nearest mall was in Midland, four hours to the north.
But for people seeking escape from modern society or complicated pasts, it was the price of freedom and privacy.
“We used to make our own entertainment, have house parties, get drunk together,” recalled Justice of the Peace Jim Burr, 66, who started out as a river guide, and now lives on 80 acres on South County Road.
Change and growth have come quickly: In 2010, Census counters found 291 people living in South Brewster County. Today, the winter population likely exceeds 1,000, according to several local sources.
Land values are also rising rapidly. In the last four years, according to the Brewster County Appraisal Office, the tax base for the Terlingua School District jumped from $80.4 million in 2014 to $108.4 million in 2018, a 35 percent increase.
According to one local hotelier, the first Terlingua listing on Airbnb appeared in late 2011. A search today on Airbnb for Terlingua and Study Butte, five miles to the east, reveals more than 70 listings, with more available on other travel host sites.
The options range from a simple tent or camper in the desert, to a large, furnished rock house, with everything in between.
Demand for lodging still exceeds supply, said to developer Jeff Leach, 51, who came from Austin five years ago. Leach is already renting out about 15 beds to tourists, with more soon to come.
“We have tipis, a travel trailer and little casitas units, and we’ll put in a handful more in the next couple of years,” he said, downplaying rumors of much bigger plans.
His construction supervisor readily confirmed that big things are in the works.
“We’re going to build 45 to 60 more along Texas 170. It’s a booming business,” said Brian Hamilton, 61, hard at work last week on a new casita.
To the east, ground is being broken for “The Willows,” an ambitious project on 270 acres. It will include a main house and casitas, and will cater to well-heeled clients, according to its website.
Some of the growth is driven by the two nearby parks. Last year, Big Bend National Park had more than 440,000 visitors, a record. Big Bend Ranch State Park recorded 31,000.
While some locals with real estate are profiting, they are also uneasy. “Don’t Let Terlingua Become Marfa,” reads one bumper sticker.
Artist Bryn Moore, 61, who arrived on horseback 34 years ago and converted her house into a tourist residence, sees the boom as a mixed blessing.
“The community, when things were slower, was more of a tribe. Everyone knew each other,” she recalled. “Now, there are so many different factions. We’ve lost the community we had. People are coming here and kind of destroying things with their enthusiasm.”
For old-timers who don’t own land, benefits of the boom are less obvious.
“Thirty years ago, the people who moved here had a little adventure in them. Now, it’s just people who have money,” remarked Clem, 70, an enigmatic character who once operated KYOTE 101, the ghost town’s outlaw radio station.
“They come here because land is cheap, but they don’t have a clue how difficult it is to live in the stinkin’ desert,” he said.
Clem has become somewhat of a recluse. These days he rarely shows up outside the store to have a beer and chew the fat, long the local social custom.
“Now I don’t go to the porch. It seems like we used to have intelligent, engaging conversations and that isn’t the case anymore. People I talked to for years aren’t there anymore,” he added.
Worrisome in a different way was a recent plan by Alta Towers of New Braunfels to build two 270-foot tall communications towers that would be illuminated at night.
One was planned for a site less than a mile north of the ghost town. The second would have been built near Study Butte, a few miles to the east.
The proposal prompted two-dozen letters of protest, including ones from representatives of both large parks, to the Federal Communications Commission. Both parks are designated as International Dark Skies Preserves.
The Big Bend has some of the country’s darkest night skies, and most letter writers raised fears about light pollution from the towers. One man was almost poetic in describing what he would lose.
“Last night, after sunset, I sat in my backyard and watched Mars rise over the Chisos Mountains in the east, as Venus was setting in the west. Overhead were Saturn and Jupiter, a crescent moon and the Milky Way, just beginning to glow. These planets formed an arc over my view to the south,” wrote Laird Considine, who has lived in Terlingua since 1999, in his letter to the F.C.C.
“Just to the left of where Venus was setting, less than one mile away, is where the tower will be constructed,” he added, requesting that an environmental impact assessment be required for the tower project.
On Sept. 4, Alta unexpectedly withdrew its tower applications with the FCC and a company lawyer announced that it intends to build shorter 200-foot towers that wouldn’t require night lighting.
“We were not anti-tower, so this is one of the best possible outcomes,” said Amber Harrison, a state park ranger who led the protest.
Realtor Kenneth Clouse said the land boom is almost entirely driven by people who plan to build tourist accommodations, with many of them from Austin.
“In the last two years, land prices have probably tripled. Right now, anything near Terlingua is $5,000 an acre and up. In the 1990s, if you could sell it, it would go for $300 an acre,” he said.
Earlier this year, a five-acre tract in the ghost town with no structures on it was sold for almost $80,000, Realtor Pam Clouse said.
Michael Drinkard, 64, who works at the Family Crisis Center, now sees families who cannot find a place to live.
“It used to be there were a lot of little houses, sheds and shacks that were for rent cheap. But in the last three years, a lot were renovated,” he said.
He said he encounters newcomers to Terlingua who arrive without any clue of the housing shortage.
“They’ll say, ‘I just got here from Oregon, and I don’t have a job or a place to live,’” he said.
“They thought it was a place they wanted to be or they saw it on a TV show. Ten years ago, it might have worked out. In those days, if you had a good attitude, someone would give you a job,” he said.
Drinkard, who has deep roots here and a good job, now finds himself in the same boat.
“I’m living in a travel trailer because there is no place to rent. I started looking in late 2016,” he said.
Down Texas 170 from the ghost town, a messy squatter’s camp has arisen in the brush behind the famous La Kiva Bar.
“Those are my employees, and two are my ex-employees. Probably all of them started out in tents,” said John Holroyd, owner of La Kiva. “If the campsites were to go away, so would the staff. They’d have no place to live.”
Others who visit South Brewster fall in love with the scene and buy land with the intent to build and live here, at least part time. But like Grace Perry a century ago, some quickly discover it is a difficult life.
“They only know what they experienced on the porch, that people here are happy all the time, playing music. They’ve found paradise,” said Carolyn Burr, 72, who has been here since 1984.
“But they have no idea of what it is like to live here: The water, the trash, the rattlesnakes, the heat. So they get disillusioned. Often they don’t stay long or they don’t come back. And that leaves another piece of property or a ruin. Desert trash. It’s exasperating,” she said.
Even longtime residents get tired of things like well pumps failing without warning, she said.
“Here it is, 115 degrees, and His Honor has to go to work on a well for a couple of days, and it’s down by the creek in snake country,” she said of her husband, the justice of the peace.
One old-timer who isn’t losing any sleep over all the changes is Catfish Calloway, 71, a retired river guide who arrived in the 1980s. He lives in a house on a hill behind the ghost town.
“It’s too late. There are Airbnbs everywhere. In the summer, there used to be three or four cars parked outside the trading company. But since 10 years ago, the parking lot is full. It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“When I come to town, I like to sit on the porch, or in the gas shack, smoke pot, drink beer and listen to stories. I enjoy the neighborhood now and I certainly enjoyed it 30 years ago,” he added.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com