Smugglers and Survivors

Many visitors ask how families make a living along the Rio Grande. Candelilla wax supported a few families some years ago. Candelilla (candle EE ya) is a plant found growing in the lower desert hills on both sides of the Rio. It can be identified by its clusters of bare, 18" slim-as-a-pencil stalks of a greenish-gray color. The candelilla plants are harvested by hand—root and all—and brought by the burroload to wax camps where the wax is rendered by placing it into vats of boiling water. A little sulphuric acid is added so the paraffin-like wax will float to the surface. After it cools the crude wax is skimmed from the top and sent to market for further refinement and distribution. It is used both as a hardener and a solvent in products as varied as saddle soap, cosmetics, paint remover, and chewing gum.

Peter Koch wrote about a wax smuggling rendezvous he observed on the Rio Grande in his book, Exploring the Big Bend Country.

"There were three of us in the old black Ford when we started out just after dark. Creaking and groaning, the truck slowly bumped its way over an unimproved road to a well-known Rio Grande river crossing. . . . The moon was rising over the scrubby mesquite and willow trees when we reached a small clearing on the river bank. . . . A rendezvous had been arranged to meet a burro train loaded with candelilla wax and I was invited to watch the operation. My worries eased a bit when I learned it was not illegal to receive the wax in the United States, although it violated Mexican law. (At the time Mexico had established quotas and had placed a limited embargo on shipments out of the country.)

"Presently a rustling in the river cane and muffled voices announce the arrival of the pack train. Friendly greetings are exchanged and a brief business consultation is followed by whispered jokes about the quality of the wax, the amount of dirt and gravel included, and accusations regarding the accuracy of the scales. [At last] the weighing begins. Sacks of crude wax are transferred hastily from the burros to the scales, then loaded onto the truck. I watch as everyone works to speed up the exchange. "

. . . When the weighing is finished a bottle is passed around. Money changes hands. Then burros, smugglers, and dinero disappear back into the river cane.

"Each side believed it came out ahead, but my guess is that things were about even."


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We were talking about trappers at coffee one morning when my friend Bill Smithers told me about James McMahon. I knew that back in 1899 McMahon accompanied Major Robert T. Hill on his exploratory trip through the Big Bend Canyons. Since he'd been trapping the area between El Paso and Del Rio for years, McMahon may have been one of the first Anglos to explore the Big Bend canyons. But I 'd never heard the following story.

Smithers said one afternoon McMahon invited him to sit down at his campfire and share his evening feast. Out of the coals and ashes of his campfire "James brought a polecat which he'd skinned, cleaned and baked for hours in a thick casing of river mud. With less than enthusiastic interest, Smithers ate a bit of the skunk, and although he admitted it tasted pretty good, he suddenly discovered he no longer had an appetite and excused himself from a second helping."


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Another colorful trapper who lived in the Big Bend in the early days was Henry "Bobcat" Carter. The last years of his life Carter lived at Persimmon Gap in a tin barn on Bill Cooper's property. He enjoyed stopping cars on the old dirt road near Cooper's store and entertaining the tourists with his peculiar stories and songs. Carter was known to tell folks that during his lifetime as a trapper, he'd 'pizened everything from sugar ants to elephants.'

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On the western side of the park you will pass by the ruins of Gilberto Luna's home and farmland on the old dirt road not far from Santa Elena Canyon. Luna's jacal (hah CAL) is a cave-like structure made out of ocotillo wood and mortared rocks with roof rafters made of cottonwood limbs.

His grandson, Demencio C. Luna Jr., whose father was born in the jacal in 1920 described his grandfather in the Alpine Avalanche of Aug 19,1999.

"In a way. . . You could say that my grandfather and his family were modern day cavemen. They lived a very primitive life style, but they were very happy. My grandfather, [Gilberto Luna] was born around 1840 in Durango, Mexico where he lived for many years. . . . In 1901, at the age of sixty he crossed the Rio Grande into the United State. . . [to live and work] at Lajitas as well as Terlingua. . . . He produced and reared a total of fifty-eight children and stepchildren."

Luna lived in his Alamo Creek jacal for 25 years. He raised goats and farmed the area across the road. He hauled water for his family, and his crops, in his mule-drawn wagon from a spring several miles away. The water was collected in an old oil drum and measured out with an ancient gourd dipper to each plant individually. Corn was planted in depressions. Melons were widely spaced and planted with squash near Alamo Creek where their stout roots would reach subsurface moisture soaking the ground during runoffs. Beans were planted in rows, but tightly massed to make use of the dense shade the leaves cast in reducing the earth's temperature. No matter how hard the times, Gilberto was always the same stoic individual. If he was hungry he did not show it. If crops were wiped out by a deluge of rain or hail, he salvaged what he could, or replanted if he had the seed.

When Luna and his sons farmed the flat beside Alamo Creek the creek bed was four or five feet higher than it is now. But it is still remarkable to me that Luna with his oil drums and dipper could keep his crops alive.

Gilberto Luna was 108 when he died in Alpine, Texas in 1947.

Many people are amazed at the rugged lives led by the Luna family and other residents along the Rio Grande. I believe these self-sufficient people of the border symbolize the survivors if civilization—in the name of peace—destroys itself.


Excerpts adapted and condensed from Exploring the Big Bend Country by Peter Koch and June Price © 2007 by University of Texas Press.

Last updated: August 18, 2020

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