1.11.2009,10:51 AM
Viva Terlingua!

Terlingua is a name of many faces, locations and meanings. With a history as long as the Spanish occupation of Mexico, communities called ‘Terlingua’ hopped around the Big Bend area like a desert jackrabbit. From
a location in the present national park, once near Lajitas and then to the modern community residing on today’s Texas map, Terlingua’s occupation has winked in and out like jewel washed down the creek.

No one really knows the origin of the name ‘Terlingua’. Although several theories exist most agree that the modern name was adulterated from earlier names. A common thread amongst all is ‘three.’ ‘Terlingua’ is thought to be derived from Tres Lenguas, Old Spanish for ‘three tongues.’ Extrapolating from that (and the most likely explanation) it might have referred to the three languages spoken in the area: English, Spanish and American Indian.

However, ‘three’ is associated with the name in other ways: the nearby three forks of Terlingua Creek, three locations with the same name, and three nearby mountain ranges: Chisos, Rosillas, and Corazones. Early maps show a Tarlinga Peak (present day Hen Egg Mountain) and Tarlinga Creek. Somewhere along history the former peak assumed a new name and ‘Tarlinga’ became ‘Terlingua.’

Cinnarbar, a mercury mineral, impacted the Big Bend area before and long after the mines were gone. Indians used the red mineral as body paint, but its association with mercury was not discovered until the late 1800’s. Before 1905 when cinnabar in Terlingua was announced in the science world, extracting mercury from the rock ore was uneconomical. The use of mercury in blasting caps turned that around.

Associated with recent volcanic activity, cinnabar is replete in the Big Bend area. Pieces of various sizes and shades of vermillion can be found almost anywhere in the desert near the mountains and in the draws. Abundance of the ore and access to cheap labor attracted miners and mining companies like flies.

Before all the miners came to the region a small community of Hispanics and Mexican Indians farmed land next to the Terlingua Creek not far from where it joins the Rio Grande del Norte. Small adobe huts on hillsides provided shelter near the flats where they farmed.

Construction of several mines in the Big Bend area offered means to make more money for poor Hispanic families in the small communities and refugees fleeing Mexico and bandits during the Revolution. Many families left Terlingua near the river and moved into the growing mine communities to work. The Mariposa mine, one of the largest in the area and approximately seven miles northwest of the present-day Terlingua, attracted hundreds of workers. The town that grew up around that mine assumed the name ‘Terlingua.’

A few families stayed near the river to grow vegetables and gather other materials for the demanding mining towns. It was soon called ‘Terlingua Abajo’ or Lower Terlingua. As the area’s population grew, estimated to be 2,000 people, many natural resources were overtaxed and some disappeared: cottonwoods on the river belt held up mine shafts and houses, livestock ate the grasses, and some indigenous bird and animal species were hunted or killed, many that never recovered.

The Chisos Mining Company brought in large equipment and eventually was the largest quicksilver mine in the world. Howard Perry, a native New Yorker, was president of the company and developed a town which also assumed the name ‘Terlingua.’ And the name remains today.

As the town grew, it became segregated. Hundreds of Hispanic workers built rock and adobe structures on the east side of the mine, the Anglos lived on the west side. Perry built a large hacienda-style mansion specifically for his wife, who never lived there because the desert didn’t agree with her.

Terlingua,1936. Photographer: George A. Grant. National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

Renown Big Bend photographer and chronicler Wilfred Smithers traveled to Terlingua in 1926 to document the quicksilver mining operations. Upon arrival Perry and his manager ordered him out of the village and the entire lower Big Bend. They were afraid of the negative publicity that photographs of miners’ working and living conditions might generate.

Smithers camped nearby and used desert roads to get about and take as many photographs as he could. Stories were relayed back by carrier pigeon to the San Antonio paper in which he wrote a column.

Perry also built a school, which was attended by all the children in the area regardless of status or ethnicity. As in all growing communities, a church and jail were erected and, most important, a trading post that sat on a hill overlooking much of the town. Looking down at all of this was the huge lurking Perry Mansion that remains today.

Quicksilver mining for mercury went bust in the mid-1940’s. Perry and the Chisos Mining Company filed bankruptcy and workers left in droves. A Houston company bought the town and set up a short-lived minning operation. In 1946, the last mercury flasks were transported out, the mining equipment removed and most of the buildings destroyed. Terlingua, known as the Queen of the Big Bend, was dieing.

An estimated 350 residents were in Teringua 1947, and in 1958 ten people lived in remaining buildings. It was a ghost town.

“Outside, all is quiet. Several buildings can be seen, and some of the mine shafts are still open. As the visitor leaves Terlingua and goes east, he sees the sizable graveyard, a grim reminder of the civilization which once flourished in the southern tip of Brewster County. Perhaps it is proper that this ghost town is nestled in the ghost-like shadows of the towering Chisos Mountains.” (James Day, 1960)

Terlingua Bad Rabbit Cars and Chili Bowls

In 1973 Mel LaVergne, a Houston investor, bought the town for $250,000. An underground water supply was located and restorations of the town for tourist venue were planned. Before the new water was found, the only source was the creek several miles away. Yet the town remained an unknown until the late 1980’s and early1990’s.

David Witts, a lawyer from Dallas (who was once disbarred) bought a 200,000-plus acre parcel including the ghost town of Terlingua and the Cherokowa Ranch. Witt’s buddy, famous race car driver and automotive designer Carroll Shelby, bought 125,000 acres of Witt’s property in the early 1960’s and renamed it Terlingua Ranch. They and their buddies used the land for parties, riding their dirt bikes and hunting jackrabbits. Shelby and Witt established themselves and their crony friends as town officials, mostly as a farce.

Witt and Shelby hatched a land development scheme in the late 1960’s and called it the Terlingua Ranch Land and Cattle Company. Sales were slow and low, so along with Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert, also known as the Godfather of Chili, started the World’s Chili Cook-off in 1967. It was a publicity and marketing plan; partly as a promotion for Mr. Tolbert's book, A Bowl of Red, and to help Shelby and Witt sell Terlingua Ranch property. The chosen location was, of course, Terlingua.

The Chili Cook-off was by invitation only and several celebrities competed for the winner. It was such a success that it continues to this day. Until 1974 women were not allowed to compete. Enough uproar broke their resistance and the first woman to win was from Fredricksburg, Texas.

Due to a spat between founders in 1983, the competition split into two organizations competing during the same time of the year and almost across the road from each other every November in Terlingua. A splinter group from California formed the International Chili Society in 1974, which holds its cook-offs in October. And a chain of national restaurants took seed: Chili's.

But the Chili Cook-off isn’t the only brainstorm associated with Shelby and Terlingua. The Terlingua Racing Team was born along with the Bad Rabbit logo. Shelby and his buddies liked to race their cars in the 1960’s, and Shelby dubbed them with the name “Terlingua Racing Team.” Life-long friend and automotive artist Bill Neale drew the Terlingua logo to adorn the cars.

In a recent interview, Neale explained, “The idea was to take some animal and use a form of heraldry the way you see them done in Europe. They do them with lions and eagles and gargoyles. I had done a rabbit ‘cause the jackrabbits are big in that part of Texas. He is holding his paw up to say no more peppers in the chili. Shelby liked it. He liked the yellow and the black. That resulted in Shelby asking me to help with a paint job in ’67 for the Trans Am. That’s when I added Terlingua Racing Team across the top of it. Then, the rest of it is kind of a long story about how much fun we’ve had putting it on various cars and things of that nature. It really has been amazing. It’s been on so dog gone many cars and airplanes.”

Terlingua’s Bad Rabbit logo was designed with Lucifer the rabbit and three feathers representing the local Native American tribes--Kiowa, Chiricahua and Comanche— and the bright yellow, the ever-present sun.

The Terlingua Racing Team emblem appeared on the 1965 Shelby GT350 Competition team car and the 427 Cobra that raced at Green Valley, Texas, in February,1965. Ken Miles drove the Shelby Mustang’s very first win that day. Now with real racing in their blood, the Terlingua Racing Team won the 1967 Trans-Am championship.

In the early 1970’s Shelby and Witt sold Terlingua Ranch and the town to the Great Western Corporation. They in turn transferred all the assets to the present developer, the Terramar Corporation, in 1976. But the Shelby legend continues to haunt Terlingua.

Last October Shelby and his company hosted a three-day Shelby Bullrun Challenge at Terlingua. For $2,500 per couple owners of any Mustang, Ford Shelby or other Shelby product were offered accommodations at the Lajitas Resort with meals and a feast of events: golf, poker, shooting, horseback riding, quarter-mile and tag-team drag racing, a road race, an all-day road rally, a car show and, of course, a chili cook-off.

Although a recent Rio Grande flood caused cancellation of the 380-mile rally and the 12-mile road race, they improvised with a winding road trip around Alpine, Marfa, and Fort Davis. At Lajitas, all the buzz was over the two new Ford Mustangs bearing the infamous Terlingua Bad Rabbit.

Two modified modifications are available built around the Mustang V6. You buy the Mustang V6 and Shelby makes the modifications at one of its regional mod shops. The basic package with the Terlingua dress-up goes for $8,995 installed. Performance packages with additional appearance items plus mechanical alterations add a hefty price of $18,995 installed.

Terlingua Reincarnated

Like many small fading towns and communities, Terlingua’s ghost fades in and out. From a population of over 2,000 in the 1930’s, ten in 1958, Terlingua now has just under 300. On holiday weekends and school break weeks, the number of people can more than double. During the Chili-cookoffs a swelling count can get up to 150,000 people. During hot summer months when even many of the locals find cool refuge elsewhere, the town sleeps with hardly a sigh.

Bill Ivey, a native of the area, bought Terlingua Ghost Town in an auction in 1982. Ivey grew up behind the Lajitas trading post, where his father was the storekeeper. Back then Lajitas had an official population of just seven, four of whom were Iveys. It was a small and simple community, unlike what it is now with the Resort.

“The Big Bend is not the kind of place you want to drive through and look out your window at,” Ivey commented in an interview. “It’s not the Grand Canyon, where you park your car, walk to the edge, take a picture, and then say, ‘Okay, let’s go to California now.’ Big Bend tourists want an active part in what’s going on. They want to hike, raft, and go get a beer on the porch in Terlingua. When I bought the Ghost Town, I wanted to make it a place you needed to go to if you were in Big Bend. But it’s not the reason anyone’s coming out here, and that’s why I’m proud of it. I did nothing more than let it happen, and a real community is there now.”

Ivey put a roof on the old movie house which is now a restaurant called the Starlight Theater. He plans to make a bed-and-breakfast out of the Perry Mansion and with local efforts restore the church and school that remain in ruins.

Ivey goes on to state his philosophy behind his plans for the town. He “ensures historic preservation at Terlingua by simply refusing to sell off any of it. He will lease an old ruin, but only if the lessee preserves the exterior and makes no additions that wouldn't be correct to the time and place of the old mining community. Tenants can fix up the inside as elaborately as they want, creating what Ivey calls ‘upscale ruins.’ “

"We've tried to preserve that image of ruins on the outside, and in doing so we've been able to build a residency of very creative people who've put a lot back into the community. They appreciate the opportunity to be here and appreciate the ghost town for what it is," Ivey says. "It's created a community we never had before. Lajitas and Terlingua were always one-man towns, but we're entering that community phase now."

Growing Pains and Home

I got a strong sense of that community when I visited with a few people in the town. Everyone remains independent, but a community bond is visible and they like to share it. The Ghost Town serves as a place to find social companionship in an area that is defined by isolation.

During my two-week stay in Terlingua living in a tent overlooking Long Draw, the land, weather and pulse of the locals resonated through the days and nights. I noticed some of the growing pains of the town: locals complaining of noise and scarring of the landscape from street-legal dirt bikes, too much traffic on the quiet and primitive Terlingua Ranch roads in the desert, more houses dotting the scenic landscapes, overburdened municipal water and waste utilities, too many night lights and too many people cluttering the local’s hangouts.

They all complain about the tourists. Yet tourism comprises most of their economic base. Everything is a trade-off; the key is finding a balance. With Big Bend and Terlingua now creeping into my soul and taken root, I found myself sharing the same sentiments of the locals.

New Year’s Eve day exploring west of Terlingua and Presidio –Ruidosa, Indio, and riding into Pinto Canyon- my companion and I headed to the Starlight Theater in the dark for dinner and refreshment. Exhaushted and hungry, dirty and sticky, covered with dusty sweats and helmet hair, we were seated at a table surrounded by people that didn’t belong here: Young faces with carefully applied make-up, coifed and bobbed hair, sequined blouses, preppy slacks and pop hats, gel-spiked hair and nerdy glasses, dangling earrings and ringed fingers, napkins politely folded on laps, middle-aged superficial smiles and furtive glances to see who noticed, pink-cheeked puffy faces over Dallas Cowboy sweatshirts straining fat midriffs, bored expressions straining for televisions or computer monitors, cell phones plied to ears, and the occasional sneaky eyes of a hungry wolf. The music distorted the chatting, clinking, whispering and laughter into chaotic noise.

I felt as though I was sitting in the middle of a zoo cage, out of place. A smirk grew on my face as I sat and watched the people around me. After being here for over a week and immersing myself, I realized I had stepped out of where I was before I came here and had come ‘home’. And these people were invading my ‘territory,’ an old familiar feeling from Maine and Oregon.

With a half-smile, I commented to the waitress, “Wow; an interesting mix of animals here tonight.” She laughed, nodded an acknowledgment of my meaning and replied, “Yes, there is. We get them occasionally.” The smirk on my face stayed all through dinner until I couldn’t stand anymore, craving the desert silence and solitude.

We paid our dues and went back to our tent and sleeping bags under twinkling stars in a giant black canvas. I smiled as I heard the coyotes sing in the New Year off in the desert somewhere in the distance, part of me running along with them in spirit.

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posted by Macrobe
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