Big Bend
Administrative History
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From Good Neighbors to Armed Camps: Mexico, the United States, and Big Bend National Park, 1944-1980

The essence of national park designation is features of natural and/or cultural significance not found elsewhere in America. For Big Bend National Park, the existence of 124 miles of the Rio Grande coursing along its southern boundary meant issues of planning, operations, maintenance, interpretation, and law enforcement rarely encountered in the vast NPS system. Then the presence of an international neighbor along that river further distinguished Big Bend from other units of the park service. From the end of World War II, through the "Sunbelt boom" and Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, the violence of the drug wars of the 1970s, and the efforts of the past two decades to restore the civility first apparent in the era of the New Deal and the Good Neighbor policy, Big Bend National Park had to fashion policies and procedures about the use of the Rio Grande that had no parallel anywhere in the NPS network. Finally, the restoration of cordial relations with Mexico in the last two decades of the twentieth century, aided by the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), allowed the dream of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lazaro Cardenas to reappear in the form of discussions about collaboration where once there was only violence and war.

Upon reflection at a distance of six decades, a student of Big Bend could surmise that park management would have been a challenge, even without the presence of the Rio Grande. Big Bend's isolation, distance, aridity, the attitudes of local communities and ranchers, and the fluctuations in funding that beset all NPS units would have taxed the patience and imagination of every superintendent and staff. Yet the Rio Grande possessed its own ecology, cultural life, and policy imperatives, such that the fate of Big Bend over the years often hinged upon the success or failure of its managers to understand the river and its users (both Mexican and American). Those policies included efforts to rid the landscape of historic cultural resources, the production of candelilla wax (itself a legal product until the close of the Second World War), trespass livestock, and immigrants seeking a better life north of the Rio Grande. At century's end, the NPS finally had come to grips with the need for careful attention to the river's realities, with the hope of shared use of the Big Bend landscape more promising, and the memory of border conflict a feature left to history.

When the first superintendent at Big Bend, Ross Maxwell, assumed his duties in the summer of 1944, much had changed in the relationship of the United States and Mexico since the days when the NPS geologist had hiked with Everett Townsend along the Rio Grande and into Mexico. Lane Simonian wrote that after 1940, "Mexican policymakers did not provide conservation agencies with enough human power to enforce land use restrictions in nature reserves." First with President Manuel Avila Camacho (1940-1946), then with his successors for the next four decades, Mexico "promoted the expansion of agribusiness to provide the underpinnings for industrialization itself." World War II brought to Mexico, as it would for the United States, a bonanza of factory and farm production that had to be sustained in order to avoid relapses into the depths of depression. For Avila Camacho, said Simonian, this meant that "Mexico should industrialize to meet its domestic needs so that it could break its cycle of dependency in which it exported cheap raw materials and imported expensive manufactured goods." Given such imperatives, said Simonian, "the Mexican government was a principal agent in the country's environmental decline." [1]

This shift of emphasis at the dawn of the park's existence suggested that neither nation would address the bi-national resource in the same way as their predecessors of a decade earlier. Julio Carrera, director of the Maderas del Carmen protected area in the state of Coahuila, noted in a 1999 interview that "after 1940, the United States and Mexico turned to other issues." From his perspective of three decades of natural resource management and research at La Universidad Antonio Narro in Saltillo, Coahuila, Carrera declared that "the politicians looked for urban development," while "the structure of natural resources in Mexico placed [the bi-national park concept] under some economic agency." One example of this policy affecting the Rio Grande and Big Bend was the signing in May of 1944 of the treaty between Mexico and the United States regulating usage of the waters of the border streams. Carlos Marin, chief engineer for the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) in El Paso, recalled in a 1998 interview that the treaty allocated to Mexico one-half of the stream-flow in the Rio Grande below Fort Quitman, Texas. "Mexico's policies on irrigation can be variable," said Marin, as "water has been a sensitive issue between the U.S. and Mexico." Thus usage of water and land resources would occupy much of the thinking of both nations during and after the Second World War, leaving national park dreams on hold. [2]

What did exist on the border in 1944 was a world inhabited by people like Maggie Smith. As the wartime operator of J.O. Langford's Hot Springs resort, Maggie (a native of Uvalde, Texas) and her husband Baylor returned in 1943 at the behest of the Texas state park board. John Jameson would write that park officials "were concerned that the vacant site would fall prey to vandals during the transition from state to national park." Etta Koch, the administrative assistant at Big Bend from 1946 to 1955, had come to the river in 1944 in search of a cure for the tuberculosis that she had contracted in her native Ohio. When her photographer-husband, Peter Koch, traveled around the country in the winters showing his films of Big Bend, Etta and her three daughters moved into one of the cabins at the Hot Springs. She remembered in a 1996 interview that among the qualities that appealed to the NPS about Maggie was her ability to speak Spanish. "Mexicans came over to her store to trade," recalled Etta Koch, and they would make "clothes out of flour sacks, and were very particular about the choice of sacks" at the Hot Springs store. Etta Koch also spoke of attending a wedding in Boquillas with Maggie. "It was a 'pretty wedding,'" Koch noted, where "men and women sat on opposite sides of the dance floor." Then "someone had a baby in the middle of the dance," recalled Koch, and as "Maggie was a midwife, [she] delivered it." Maggie also was famed along the river for delivering sacks of candy to Mexican children on Christmas eve; an event in which Etta Koch once participated while staying at the resort. [3]

Perhaps the most distinctive stories of the first years of the park's relationship to the Rio Grande and Mexico came with the memories of Curtis Schaafsma, the young son of park ranger Harold Schaafsma. Curtis Schaafsma, later to become the state archaeologist for New Mexico, and whose wife Polly would write extensively about petroglyphs in the Southwest (including the NPS's Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque), visited Big Bend each summer between 1948 and 1953 to stay with his father. Through the eyes of a youth (Curtis would arrive at Big Bend at the age of ten), the Rio Grande was a place of wonder and mystery. "It is hard to explain how wild the river was," recalled Schaafsma in 1996. One day in the summer of 1948, Harold and Curtis joined NPS ranger Stan Sprecher and Bobby Cooper (son of W.A. Cooper, storeowner near Persimmon Gap), to navigate Santa Elena Canyon. They took one large automobile tire's inner tube, and "walked five hours from Lajitas to the Rio Grande without water." Curtis remembered nearly 50 years later that "none of the 1948 party had been down the river before." They entered the river above Santa Elena Canyon and floated "to the rock fall, then up Fern Canyon on the Mexican side." Schaafsma noted that "maidenhair ferns grew out of the rocks," impressing him as "an Eden." Two years later, Curtis and several other park rangers rode the river through Mariscal Canyon in war-surplus life rafts. "Mariscal Canyon was a marvelous trip," said Schaafsma, "but the River Road was very rough in those days to get to Tally [the entrance point to Marsical Canyon]." Nonetheless, Schaafsma believed that "this was the beginning of proper river trips." [4]

Beyond the experience of navigating two of Big Bend's canyons, Curtis Schaafsma made mental notes of the communities along the river that stayed with him for five decades. "People on the Mexican side," said Schaafsma, "were growing crops and running stock." He recalled "an active town life in San Vicente and Boquillas." The mines in the Sierra del Carmen "sent ore trucks through Boquillas to Marathon," he remembered, as well as his own experience in catching rides on the trucks from Marathon to park headquarters at Panther Junction. "These were huge six by six transport trucks," said Schaafsma, necessary for the carrying of silver ore. He also mentioned in 1996 that "life in Boquillas was 'real Mexico,'" as he met "river runners, cowboys, rangers, and all wore pistols." Then Schaafsma recalled that "the Mexicans were equally rowdy." He detected "much tension because of the untrustworthiness of the federales," even though the latter limited banditry. This degree of law enforcement was necessary, as "few people went south of Boquillas because of violence." Schaafsma had scant memories of the town of San Vicente, but recalled that "Castolon was really neat." He saw farms irrigated at Cottonwood Campground, and "the Castolon store was where farmers shopped." The latter establishment "had very little for tourists," even though it operated year-round. Schaafsma also spoke of the Greene brothers, Aaron and Wayne, who were "river riders" for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Husbandry. The Greenes, said Schaafsma, "kept cattle with hoof and mouth disease out of the United States." They also would "kill trespass stock, of which there were quite a few," with the animals coming through the park on trails that ran from Lajitas to Stillwell's Crossing. [5]

As the decade of the 1950s unfolded, Big Bend's reputation as a border park would attract young rangers eager to serve in a rugged wilderness setting. One of these was Joe Rumburg, whose year at the park (1950-1951) was part of a long career that included service as director of the NPS's Southwest Regional Office in Santa Fe (1974-1976). Rumburg came to Big Bend to be the district ranger at Castolon, and discovered that "the big problem on the border was candelilla [wax] harvesting." Speaking from retirement in 1996, Rumburg recalled that "Mexican forestales [forest service officials] ran candelilla harvesters across the river." The Mexican government then "bought wax from the harvesters, [and] sold it either in Mexico or the United States for profit." Local residents told Rumburg that "candelilla was used in wax records, and also cosmoline." He knew that the wax "was used by the military as packing for rifles," as it was "the equivalent of a vacuum seal." From his perspective at Castolon, Rumburg encountered "no trouble with illegal immigrants." He conducted no river patrols, but did join the animal husbandry bureau in removal of trespass stock. "There were few law enforcement problems," Rumburg concluded, with "wax running . . . the only real [challenge]." [6]

Serving with Joe Rumburg in 1950 at the Boquillas district was Bob Smith, who recalled 46 years later how he and Rumburg constituted the entire NPS presence along the river. Boquillas, Texas in 1950 offered Smith "an old ranch house" with "a white washed adobe wall between [there] and Aaron Greene's." Nearby, said Smith, "was an old structure that had been a restaurant at Boquillas station [perhaps the famed 'Chata's' frequented by NPS and Mexican officials in the 1930s]." Burros would cross the Rio Grande "to drink at the Boquillas spring," recalled Smith, and "there was a gas engine to pump water into a tank on the roof of [his] house." In the 100-plus degree heat of a Big Bend summer, "the water was very hot," allowing Smith to have hot showers in the open. His porch "was screened by ocotillo branches," and the "roof was made of carrizo cane." [7]

One of Smith's first encounters with law enforcement on the river occurred when he and Rumburg "went on big roundups of hoof-and-mouth searches, riding from Boquillas to Santa Elena." Smith recalled that he, Rumburg, and the Greene brothers "stopped at an abandoned ranch to corral stock for blood tests," and to prepare them for auction. Unfortunately, said Smith, "the stock had venereal diseases, and had to be disposed of." On another occasion, the district rangers joined with chief park ranger George Sholley on a search of Santa Elena Canyon, where they found wild burros on park land. "George shot and killed three or four burros," Smith remembered, "and asked the others to shoot the rest." Sholley also would fly in fixed-wing aircraft belonging to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in search of animals, while the "hoof-and-mouth riders covered areas of four to eleven miles each day." Yet another detail of Smith's patrols was the search for candelilla wax camps. "In May 1950," said the former Castolon ranger, "candelilla wax sold for 22 cents per pound." He noted that "Mexicans could not bring wax into the U.S., but once here it could be sold." The following year, "wax sold for 54 cents per pound," and "the forestales wanted their cut of wax production." He remembered that Maggie Smith would purchase wax from Mexican producers, and "so did Raymond Fisk of San Vicente." [8]

As did Curtis Schaafsma, Bob Smith marveled at the distinctiveness of life in the Mexican villages across the river from Big Bend. Smith once was asked to go to Boquillas to purchase liquor for a party held by NPS staff in the Chisos basin, as this was the closest place to do so. "There were lots of goats running through town," he recalled, while "children were poorly dressed and barefoot." To Smith, Boquillas "looked like a slum area." He noted that "the locals had a little garden between the Rio Grande and town." Boquillas itself consisted of "only thirteen adobe units," and "there was a tower and cable used to transport ore." Smith then recounted an incident where "a young girl had been bitten by a rattlesnake, and was brought across the river" to the ranger's office. Smith took her to Alpine (a distance of 120 miles), only to be "later told that Alpine doctors did not like indigent patients." Then when a knifing occurred at Boquillas, Smith "did nothing because of his earlier experience." Someone else transported the wounded man to Alpine, and Smith then was advised "to take people to Alpine" again. [9]

As the 1950s advanced, and the NPS invested monies in facility development under the aegis of MISSION 66, park officials had to resolve the question of their relationship to the river. Chief ranger George Sholley's demolition of the Hot Springs caused no small amount of tension on both sides of the Rio Grande, and placed the NPS in the awkward position of asking Maggie Smith to leave. Monte Fitch, chief ranger from 1957 to 1959, recalled four decades later that "Maggie Smith was in on everything happening on the river." Fitch claimed that ""she smuggled guns into Mexico," and that she "could tell stories that were unbelievable." By contrast, said Fitch, "George Sholley was not loved on the river," nor did Sholley venture across it very often. When the park service closed the Hot Springs concession, wrote John Jameson, "fifteen hundred people signed a petition to allow Maggie to stay, but to no avail." Smith and her husband then left to operate stores in the town of San Vicente (until it too was bulldozed), and then on the western edge of the park in Study Butte (where she died in 1965). Russ Dickenson, chief ranger at Big Bend in 1955-1956, would note in a 1997 interview that "Maggie Smith was still in business" when he arrived, and that she was "an independent western woman . . . [who] tolerated rangers because they were no threat." Dickenson, who in 1980 would become director of the park service, recalled that "her trade with Mexicans was the basis of her business," and that "she spoke Spanish well." For Dickenson, "the border was its own world," and Smith symbolized all that was good and bad about it. [10]

Dickenson's year at Big Bend was marked by the enthusiasm with which he and his rangers addressed the persistent candelilla wax trade. When the future NPS director arrived in the park in 1955, there had been talk of Big Bend being incorporated in plans for civil defense against foreign aggression (primarily fears of Communist invasion in the Cold War). Should a nuclear attack or conventional invasion occur, Big Bend would serve as a military training and surveillance center. Dickenson, a veteran of World War II, was told by superintendent George Miller "to carry the fight agains wax camps." The chief ranger recalled that "rangers' shirts were covered with sulphuric acid from blowing up vats." The Mexican wax producers used tubs made from "fifty-five gallon barrels . . . cut in half" that "could handle .45-caliber shot." Dickenson and his rangers would use "Primacord," an explosive that they acquired from the military, to "explode the vats." His theory was that "veterans knew how to use explosives." Keeping with the combat motif, Dickenson further stated that he and the ranger staff "used 'search-and-destroy' tactics for trespass stock." If NPS staff "saw horses on the U.S. side opposite villages like San Vicente, the rangers would warn villagers." If the Mexicans did not gather up their animals, "these would be shot" as well. Dickenson's logic was that "Big Bend had a small force." Aerial surveillance identified the camps, and two-to-three-man teams "used the element of surprise, coming in at daybreak." What Dickenson often found were "primitive" conditions, and he and his rangers burned any supplies left behind by the wax workers. [11]

In contrast to the military-style raids on the wax camps, said Dickenson, was sporadic interaction between the park and the Mexican communities. Echoing Bob Smith and other rangers of the 1950s, Dickenson recalled that "the villages were primitive." Rangers would cross the Rio Grande at Boquillas to purchase "Boca Negra whiskey," and "there was a one-day fiesta when Panther Junction and Boquillas got together for a barbecue." Dickenson recalled no "cross-river transportation," and "no visitors went to Boquillas unless they could drive." He did note that "there was individual boating and rafting," but that "Big Bend did not issue permits." There were no outfitters in the 1950s, and for those individuals who floated the Rio Grande, "World War II rubber rafts were the most common." Superintendent Miller did recognize the need for some level of visitor protection on the river, and asked his chief ranger to train the rangers in search-and-rescue techniques. [12]

Monte Fitch's tenure at Big Bend echoed the experiences of Russ Dickenson, only with a larger staff and more financial resources as a result of MISSION 66 development projects. When he came to the park, "rangers shot everything that crossed the river." Then superintendent Miller decided to halt the shooting of animals, "as this had made people destitute." In addition, the park generated "bad public relations" from the campaign to rid feral and trespass stock. Candelilla production, however, contined to face ranger attacks under Fitch. "Candelilla was harvested by permit in Mexico," he recalled in 1997, and the park service had "no authority to cross the river." Fitch and his patrol crews found piles of candelilla "as big as haystacks," with the plants "torn out by the roots." He then learned that "it was legal to bring candelilla across the river and sell to Marathon and Alpine." Fitch "orderd blocks of [the explosive] TNT, and packed it into the camps." The park service then "detonated the drums, and also confiscated the [pack] burros." Fitch would find that "mostly Santa Elena and Mariscal Canyons were isolated enough for wax camps." He also discovered that "there were a lot of arms and ammunition going to Mexico, and also lots of illegals [Mexican nationals] heading north." [13]

At decade's end, the Rio Grande seemed to new rangers like Eldon Reyer, Chuck McCurdy, and Bill Wendt to be, in the words of Reyer's wife Karen (the daughter of superintendent Lon Garrison), "wild and wooly." McCurdy, who served as the ranger for the Maverick district in the late 1950s, remembered 40 years later the work of Aaron and Wayne Greene on the hoof-and-mouth patrols. "Aaron Greene had been ten years old," said McCurdy, "when Mexican raiders had crossed the Rio Grande in 1916." Greene told him four decades after the fact that he "remembered fleeing to safety." This made the Greene brothers "very cagey about relations with Mexico;" a circumstance exacerbated by "incidents with the hoof-and-mouth disease campaign." For McCurdy, "there was very little law enforcement, except for candelilla camps and trespass stock." He knew that "tanks [for the wax] were made at Lajitas by Rex Ivey, a car dealer in Alpine." Ivey would charge $25 for his tanks, "which were floated down the Rio Grande to Santa Elena Canyon, then carried up the [Mesa de Anguila]." McCurdy also learned firsthand of the rigors of rafting the Rio Grande, as he joined photographer Peter Koch on one outing. On another occasion, the Maverick district ranger used a "two-man surplus Air Force craft . . . to go through the [Santa Elena] canyon after a flood to look for damage and bodies." He found it "hard to get through the rock slide," and heard from local Hispanos that "there was a 'bull' in the water between Lajitas and Santa Elena that rose up and ate people." [14]

McCurdy would in later years find the level of tension on the border troubling, and preferred to dwell upon his efforts at cultural interaction. After the flood of 1958, he learned from the "head of the [Santa Elena] ejido . . . that they needed medical supplies." McCurdy then approached the Red Cross to provide these necessities, while he solicited the aid of the Civil Air Patrol to bring them to the park. From there the Red Cross conveyed the medical supplies and food to Santa Elena in rubber army rafts. In like manner, McCurdy recalled the efforts of river ranger Rod Broyles and his wife, Phyllis, to bring some semblance of decency to the trespass stock removal program. Both Broyles's spoke Spanish, and Phyllis would offer evening instruction in the language for any park staff who demonstrated an interest. "They wrote brand names in Spanish on paper," remembered McCurdy, "and told the people that the NPS would round up the stock." Once impounded, "Mexicans came to the corral at Maverick [district] to pick up their stock." Local Mexicans came to view Maverick and Castolon districts as "a customs and check station," and "when locals wanted questions answered, they were put on the radio to Phyllis Broyles." [15]

McCurdy contrasted this effort at cultural accommodation with stories told to him by Wayne Greene, who recalled working with Joe Rumburg in stalking a wax camp. "Joe took out his revolver," said McCurdy, "and looked at the escaping Mexicans." Their flight had made "Joe so angry," said Wayne Greene, that "he was going to shoot the Mexican 'like a duck in a rainbarrel.'" Wayne then "hit Joe's arm as he fired," propelling the bullet harmlessly away. The second story of border tension that remained with McCurdy involved Wendell Bryce, a ranger who claimed descent from Ebenezer Bryce (owner of the land that became Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park). Bryce and McCurdy came upon a wax camp where McCurdy "found a Mexican with his ten-year-old boy." He recalled that "they did not run, and the family crossed over" the Rio Grande. At that point he "took the man in, and his family was crying." McCurdy later learned that the wax worker "was processed at La Tuna [the federal prison] in El Paso." Yet a third border incident that defined the complexity of the border for McCurdy was the campaign to stop the smuggling of cotton across the river from Santa Elena to Castolon. "The Castolon cotton ranch was suspected of receiving cotton from the Santa Elena ejido without passing through Customs," said McCurdy. Park rangers asked Wayne Greene to "cross the river one night to sprinkle fluorescent powder on the cotton, so that it could be traced." No more problems emanated from the Mexican cotton fields after Greene's espionage. [16]

Border issues by 1960 were central to the thinking of superintendent George Miller and his assistant, Hank Schmidt, who served as acting superintendent that year between Miller's departure and the arrival of his successor, Stanley Joseph. For Schmidt, the river area was as wild as any place where he had worked for the NPS (which included the Arches National Monument in southeastern Utah; a place that prompted seasonal ranger Edward Abbey in 1968 to write his book, Desert Solitaire). "The River Road had only carried ore trucks," Schmidt remembered in 1996, "and had to be improved for visitors." He also found "no motorboating on the Rio Grande," and "few rafters." It was superintendent Miller who "came up with the idea of permits for rafters." Float trips by Schmidt led him to conclude: "The Rio Grande is not a 'boating' river; it is for rafting." At first the river was used primarily by people from El Paso and Alpine. Then "tourists came unprepared," said Schmidt, requiring NPS staff to warn them of the dangers of the river, most significantly the need for plenty of drinking water. [17]

For assistant superintendent Schmidt, as with his predecessors in park management, matters of waxmaking and trespass stock absorbed much of his time. "The candelilla problem was west of the Hot Springs," he recalled, "in the lower foothills of the Chisos." He and the rangers found "regular trails to the candelilla." Compounding this, said Schmidt, was the fact that "Jim Casner was buying candelilla wax for a nickel a pound," even though he was "a big booster of the park." With trespass stock, Hank went to Boquillas to discuss the issue. There he learned that "Mexico was different, and NPS staff were welcomed." Schmidt later remembered that "the towns were very poor," and that "a Lions' Club in Marathon . . . took Christmas groceries to Boquillas." In like manner, "park staff gave their old clothes to Boquillas." He also noted that "drugs were no problem for Big Bend in the 1950s." Yet he did recall that "Mexicans would come for [the hallucinogen] peyote between Boquillas and the foothills of the Chisos." The Mexicans followed "an old road from Boquillas west to the Chisos" for peyote, which they then sold across the river. [18]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003