2.07.2009,5:55 PM
Pieces of Terlingua: Resurrecting a ghost

Perry's Saga

I remember riding on a hill behind the Terlingua Ghost Town and stopping to intake the view below. On the gray and forest green ripples of desert below was a strange building half in ruins. It's vast size and boxiness seemed out of place with the other structures I had seen thus far around Terlingua. There was no softness, no earthiness, no blending with its surroundings. Instead it was like a big wart that had suffered an attempt to be removed or covered over with flim-flam makeup. It didn't fit. And a sense of sadness emanated from it. Yet it was captivating.

I later discovered that it was the ruins of an old mansion built for the owner of the Chisos Mine and town of Terlingua. When harvesting quicksliver from the belly of the desert was full force in the Big Bend region, a notorious 'business pirate' staked his authority and power over the land and people around him by building a single-story structure that served as his home when he was at the mines.

Howard Perry is classed with power industrialists as a 'business pirate': individuals of the early 1900's who pursued wealth and power through industrial expansion, usually indifferent to how they expanded their fortunes. Like many economic pirates he was ruthless, cold and overbearing. Few that knew him, both in business and even family, had any affection for him. Descriptions typically ran the gamut of cold, selfish, boastful, sneaky..... the usual picture of a powerful business tycoon. Yet he is still a mystery except his association with Terlingua, or depending on whom you talk to, Chisos.

If anyone searches for information of his past, three cities are likely to be associated with him: Chicago, Cleveland and Portland, Maine. It was the latter reference that spiked my curiosity. Having lived in south-central Maine for 14 years, the name, and hence the mystery, kept nagging me.

The only Perry that I knew in Maine was a local 'masquerading' as a State Police officer. He was the quintessential boy in school that got picked on and beaten up too many times so that he had such a self-esteem issue, he wore it all over his State jacket. He joined the State Police so he could wear a big hat and try to cinch his overhanging gut in with the jacket and belt. And he was totally ineffectual.

In a way I felt sorry for him because his low self-confidence was so obvious, no one ever took him seriously, especially as an officer. He botched everything: nearly failed his physical fitness test, a girlfriend robbed him of his savings, his mother hit him with her umbrella in public, and he hit a moose with the state car. I remember his rusty brown-blond hair sticking out underneath that giant hat and his face erupted in pimples. And he would hide his car while on duty for any chance of stopping locals if they went even a mile over the speed limit. He had few if any friends, but he wasn't a real bully.

I doubt that this Perry was related to Howard Perry of Portland, Maine. But every time I hear the name, that's whom I picture. Maybe they are alike in some ways: despite Perry's accumulation of wealth and assumed power, he died broke in a hotel room in Florida. But they were worlds apart in demeanor and composition.

Howard Perry was born in Ohio, described as a 'difficult child' by a nephew, and worked there with his father's lumber business until he left to join a lumber firm in Chicago. While living there, he quickly rose up in the ranks as a businessman, eventually marrying the daughter of Mr. Henderson, the owner of the large successful company in which he was then an associate director. He lived in Chicago amassing his fortune until 1914 when he relocated to Portland, Maine, his favorite vacationing place while sailing around New England.

When he formed Chisos Mine he still lived in Chicago and managed it mostly from his office there. He hired an overseer to do his bidding, one lasting many years and later his neighbor in Maine. He had a home built in 1906 on the hill so that he could overlook the mine, the town and all the operations and goings-on below. Since he was smitten with Spanish and Moorish architecture from a visit to Spain, the home was designed in that fashion. Years later -1911- he had another story added to it to be a nine-bedroom mansion with a 90-foot porch. But then, he was well acquainted with mansions, and it had to be the best. (which wasn't hard to do in Big Bend)

When he and his wife moved to Portland, his domain was a 23-room mansion, three smaller homes and a greenhouse that looked over Casco Bay. It was "the best between Beverly, Massachusetts, and Bar Harbor, Maine." Along with a huge yacht with a crew of six and a year-round captain, he did pretty well.

Although Perry was short -five feet- his demeanor was overbearing, gruff, a self-appointed leader and molder of men. He liked only those that did what he wanted and when. His egomania was known far and wide, from Texas, to Chicago, to Maine. Yet he also seldom bathed and washed his body with alcohol on cotton balls, who forbade any visitor to his mansion in Maine to speak any word at all to his servants, who erupted with profanity and threats of violence if things didn't go his way, and who deemed it unnecessary to attend his sister's funeral because "there's nothing I can do for her now, she's dead."

His wife shared the same political and cultural values, but apparently was not pleased with the desert in Big Bend despite the roomy mansion. She chose to remain in Portland during Perry's reign of Big Bend where he had the open opportunity for nearly total social and economic domination. And when you look around the town now, one has to really reach into the depths to imagine nearly one thousand people living and working there.

When the quicksilver market fell under in the 1930's, the Chisos Mine Company filed for bankrupcy in 1942. Perry's losses were steep and for the first time the tall box upon which he stood was shaking apart. He died in his sleep after leaving Terlingua, troubled with shaken finances.

New Life

When Bill Ivey bought the sleepy town of Terlingua, the mansion ruins and all of Perry's ghosts came with it. Now it is slowly under renovation with one room available for paying guests and a small apartment room for the caretaker, Casey.

Casey took us on a tour of the mansion; the ruins and the renovations. The two finished rooms, foyer and hallway are infused with warmth and charm.

Keeping with the traditional Southwest adobe style, crumbling walls have been replastered, painted and annotated with artwork and paint of warm desert colors. The windows are framed with long panels of soft off-white cloth hung with simple but elegant rods.

Guests should soon be able to enjoy the kitchen which is currently being renovated to reach modern, but simple utility.

It's not a motel, or a hotel, but an inviting place to relax and get intimate with some of the local history.

Much of the vast building still remains the same as the years gradually wore away many of the exterior and interior. The nails sticking out from the wall held in place the stucco that you can see partial remains in the photo below.

Yet the rooms and hallway invite living while looking at history out through the windows. And, of course, there is the magnificent view of the Chisos Mountains to sooth the soul.

And if you peek through one of those door frames, you'll see the other mystery that has me captivated, in a long hard enduring way: Reed's Plateau. And my bike likes it, too.

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posted by Macrobe
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