TOM ALEX, ARCHAEOLOGIST & CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST, BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: J. L. Sublett was a dirt farmer. He came in here and set up a farming operation in the Rio Grande floodplain in the early 20th Century. He formed a partnership with Albert Dorgan. They operated what was called Grand Canyon Farms for a couple of decades in the Rio Grande floodplain, between Santa Elena Canyon and Castolon. They provided feed crops for some of the local ranchers, as well as food products for some of the local communities, particularly the mining community of Terlingua.
Sublett’s farming operation was irrigated by water that was pulled out of the Rio Grande. Remnants of the old irrigation system are still in place. The river flooding has started to reclaim that. It’s deposited a lot of silt on top of it.
But we’ve been able to go back, using aerial photography. You can see the old farm fields. You can see the outlines of the farmland. We’re able to go back now, by digitizing over that. We can take that digital file, load it into a GPS unit, walk back on the ground, and re-trace the edge of that. We can also see how the vegetation has encroached upon it and significantly altered that whole historic scene.
One of the things we’ve been able to do using historic photographs is use some of the Sublett family photographs. We’ve got one in particular of Eunice Sublett on the front porch of their house on top of the mesa, overlooking their farmland. In the distance we can see in that photograph we can see cotton fields and the river in the background, in the distance there. That’s helped us to get an idea of what it actually looked like.
We have a wonderful photograph here taken by Nat Dodge of that floodplain scene from a different view, a different angle. But it’s a much more scenic view, the Cerro Castellan in the background. This really gives us a good visual effect of what that farmland looked like, and how the floodplain was very open during the historic period.
There were about 30 acres or so of land that was farmed during the 1920s and 30s. Vegetation now has grown up, and that includes tamarisk and mesquite. There’s a LOT of mesquite that’s come in since the 1930s and 40s. It’s completely reclaimed portions of the floodplain.
One of the things we’ve tried to do at Sublett Farm is clear that out from the original farm fields. We’ve used a combination of things. In 2006 and '07 we did a prescribed burn. That actually got in and cleared out a lot of the vegetation in the floodplain around the Sublett Farm district.
We’ve also been using a lot of manual reduction. We’ve been using mechanized equipment: a Gyro Trac, to go in and clear that vegetation. We did one treatment in 2008 with a Gyro Trac. It was preempted by a major flood on the Rio Grande. We had to halt that work.
We have a number of National Register sites in the area around the Sublett Farm. The Sublett Farm itself is a National Register District. There’s also the Castolon historic compound.
And with all those historic buildings there, over the years we’ve had vegetation grow up against them and around them. That creates issues for structural stability of the buildings. The roots of the trees impinge on the foundations and destabilize the structures. This vegetation needs to be removed periodically. We’ve tried to create a 10Õ wide buffer around all of the historic buildings.
This photograph donated by the Sublett family was taken sometime in the 1930s. This is their farmhouse on top of the mesa, overlooking the floodplain. You can see it was a fairly large adobe house. It probably had two or three rooms inside.
But we have a later photograph, taken in the 1950s, that shows how this original house was expanded and essentially doubled in size. As the family grew, the needs of the family increased. They needed more room, more space. So they just added on to their house.
This is pretty typical of the way of a lot of the historic buildings, historic ruins that we see in the park. This is very typical. They start out with a single room, or maybe two rooms, then those houses expand as the family grows.
History of Farming on the Floodplains in the Big Bend Region of West Texas