Big Bend
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Keeping the Faith: The Struggle to Sustain Momentum for Big Bend National Park, 1938

For the youthful National Park Service (barely two decades old in the late 1930s), delays in securing land for Big Bend National Park were distressing indeed. Yet a mixture of determination and faith carried NPS planners and their local partners in Texas through what many park service officials recognized a daunting task: acquisition of the $1 million-plus fund to purchase a tract of land in excess of 1,230 square miles. With Texas mired in the throes of the worst economic crisis in state history, and the rules of Congress clear on federal participation in matters of park land acquisition, no one would have been surprised if the NPS and west Texas interests conceded defeat in their dream to open the first national park in the Lone Star state. Yet the persistence of Everett Townsend, Horace Morelock, and their peers would join with the strategies of Herbert Maier and other NPS officials to convince Texas lawmakers that scarce tax revenues allocated to the Big Bend National Park idea were monies well-spent.

Whatever the status of negotiations with the Austin lawmakers, park sponsors in the early days of 1938 noted a gradual shift in local consciousness of the merits of the park in particular, and of the economic benefits to accrue to west Texas with the advent of publicly funded tourism. A key feature of this optimism for the future came in January when Joe M. Graham of Center, Texas, wrote to his old friend Everett Townsend in regards to the sale of his family's property to the park. Graham, his wife, and Ed Daniel of Del Rio had missed their payment on bank notes of $4,500 for their property along the Rio Grande near Boquillas Canyon. In their desperation to resolve their chronic financial woes, Joe Graham told Townsend that he and his partners "will let the [state] park board have it at that price if they will take it at once." He then asked Townsend: "Please do me the favor to take it up with the park board, [as] they need it as it is a key to the situation there on the river." He felt no compulsion "to describe it to you any further," as the Graham-Daniels ranch had the best supply of water along the river (and would become one day the location of the park's Rio Grande Village campground). [1]

A similar plea came the following month from Mrs. Margaret Buttrill of Marathon, and Mrs. Louana Leary of San Antonio. Each had mailed to Townsend their deeds to 140-acre parcels in south Brewster County, prompting the former land surveyor to ask the state parks board for a ruling on such offers. Will Mann Richardson, the board's chief clerk, cautioned Townsend that "these deeds recite that the Grantee shall assume the unpaid balance of the purchase price." The board had "no idea how much money is due on this property, and it is possible that by accepting the land we might be held bound to pay this amount that is still due." Richardson speculated that if "we do not accept the land and the parties merely allow the land to revert to the State, then we will acquire title under the Big Bend Act without any payment from this office." Yet another clause in the Buttrill/Leary deeds stipulated that "the land must be conveyed to the U.S. Government as part of the National Park, or title will revert to the Grantor." Richardson feared that "if we should assume the unpaid purchase price, and . . . something should happen and the National Government refused to accept the park as a National Park, then this provision would make the title revert to these Grantors, although we had paid the unpaid purchase price." The state parks board had been in receipt of several other unsolicited deeds with similar caveats, and hoped that Townsend could enlighten the board on the best procedure to follow. [2]

Correspondence such as this with potential land donors made the NPS and local sponsors realize that the dream of a park in the Big Bend country rested upon their unceasing efforts at promotion and lobbying of state lawmakers. Thus the Alpine chamber of commerce eagerly agreed in January to join with other west Texas communities to organize the "Highway 51 Association." In a letter from Glenn Burgess, president of the Littlefield chamber (and a future executive director of the Alpine chamber), Herbert Maier learned that this group planned a meeting at the abandoned CCC camp in the Chisos Mountains. There Burgess and representatives of some 18 Texas towns would discuss construction of a "direct north-south connection between the Big Bend and the Black Hills area of South Dakota." Burgess asked Maier to send to this meeting Walter McDougall and Charles Gould of the NPS regional office in Santa Fe, as Burgess had been quite impressed with a presentation made by McDougall at the Gonzales Palmetto State Park. Everett Townsend echoed Burgess's sentiments, informing Maier that the proposed highway would run south from "near the Canadian line" through eastern Colorado before "tapping our #3, a few miles East of Sanderson [approximately the routes of U.S. Highways 285 and 385]." Townsend noted that the Highway 51 Association had "made arrangements with Mr. [Lloyd] Wade to take care of the visitors and will provide a good barbecue and plenty of eats." As the organizers expected "a good crowd and some of them from pretty far North," Townsend asked Maier to send them "a good man," as "we consider this meeting of much importance to our program." [3]

The group of 150 highway promoters gathered in the Chisos Mountains agreed that an aggressive and bold strategy would be needed to energize the Big Bend park initiative. Thus the participants voted to change their name to the more-impressive "International Parks Highway Association," with their goal a federally funded route from the "national parks of Canada" to the Rio Grande. As proof of their earnestness, the Lions Club of Odessa gave Horace Morelock a check for $441.55 to purchase lands for the park. F.M. Gwin, highway association vice-president, carried a message from Texas highway commissioner Harry Hines conveying his support for the concept. "Between 80 and 85 percent of the route in other states," said the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "already consists of improved roads." Texas, with some 540 miles of the international corridor, "is lacking on 130 miles, although the rest is traversable, and 150 miles, between Brownfield and McCamey, is paved." The Star-Telegram reported that "the route extends north through Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, South and North Dakota." Its planners hoped "eventually to connect Acapulco, Mexico, and the Canadian national parks in the Calgary section of the Dominion." W.J. Rozary, president of the chamber in Hot Springs, South Dakota, came to speak for road sponsors in the Black Hills of his state, while severe weather prevented the Colorado and Nebraska delegations from attending. Texas civic officials at the Chisos gathering pledged "completing [of the] acquisition of rights of way in this State," said the Fort Worth paper, while all attendees "left the hills ringing with their determination to make the proposed Big Bend National Park an early reality." [4]

Simultaneous with the press coverage of the highway promotion came word in the Star Telegram that the U.S. House of Representatives had approved a measure "authorizing the Federal Government to acquire the balance of the land needed for the Great Smoky National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina and the growing success of the campaign for contributions to buy land for the Big Bend National Park in Texas." The Fort Worth daily reported that Congressman Ewing Thomason "will offer a bill for a Federal contribution for Big Bend as soon as the Texas Legislature acts again upon the state appropriation." The El Paso representative had noted that "the House showed by its vote Wednesday that it will pay for a part of the land for a national park if local interests and the States will first show their sincerity by supplying a part of the money." The precedent established by Congress in the Great Smoky land-purchase program included "expenditure of $743,265.29 for the acquisition of slightly more than 26,000 acres of land." Through a mixture of private monies and state appropriations in Tennessee and North Carolina, park promoters had acquired 410,000 acres for the future NPS unit. "The people of Texas," concluded Thomason, "are showing their good faith in the [Big Bend] project," and he believed that "the Texas legislature will appropriate a part of the money needed to acquire the land for the park when it meets again." [5]

Given that the Lone Star lawmakers would not reconvene in Austin for another ten months, Thomason's promises meant little if park promoters could not sustain the publicity campaign begun more than three years earlier. Walter Prescott Webb, whose report on the history of the Big Bend country could do so much for the promotion of the park, disappointed NPS officials in early 1938 when he admitted that he did not have a narrative ready for publication. In an uncharacteristic display of contrition to Herbert Maier, the dean of Texas historians claimed that "the job assigned to me could not, under the best conditions, be completed in a satisfactory manner in sixty days." Webb contended that "the country itself is a confused mass of geologic ruins and the historical writing about the Big Bend is more confused than the geology." Instead he offered to submit "a record of the work finished thus far, the material that I think will be of most use in promoting an interest in [Big Bend]." Webb would "continue the study on my own time until I can deliver to you a finished manuscript which will serve as an adequate guide to the proposed park." Then Webb conceded that "I have no doubt that the delay in making this report has occasioned you some embarrassment; a circumstance in which the UT professor admitted: "I assure you that I am conscious of my own guilt and wish to take all the blame." He preferred that Maier reproduce the photographs shot during the May 1937 canoe trip through Santa Elena Canyon and use them for publicity purposes. Webb further asked Maier to send a set of the pictures (which he called "a complete photographic record of the most remarkable and least known wonders of the Big Bend") to his fellow travelers: Thomas Skaggs of McCamey; James W. Metcalfe (U.S. Border Patrol); Pete Crawford (Texas Ranger); and N.M. Nelson (commander of the El Paso unit of the U.S. Coast Guard). "The part that these men played in the trip," declared Webb, "is made clear in my report and without their assistance the photographs could not be obtained." He also wished Maier to acknowledge their work as public servants, with only Skaggs not associated with state or federal agencies. [6]

The use of photographs to heighten interest in the future park extended to Maier's request to Townsend for pictures of wildlife and early ranching activities. Maier wanted to emphasize in publicity venues that the area, reiterated Townsend, "will rapidly return to a highly productive range for wild life when grazing is entirely removed." Townsend also contended that "this certainty and the climatic conditions, will make it one of the greatest wildlife preserves in our country." He then responded to Maier's inquiry about a "hay mowing photograph" from the Big Bend. "I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of acres of good grass, suitable and plenty good for cutting hay," wrote Townsend, "in those open flats south of the Chisos, and in like places near Persimmon Gap, along Santiago Draw." He noted that "close around the base of the Chisos on the East, North, and West there has always been so much shrubbery and cacti, that it would have been difficult to cut hay." Nonetheless, said Townsend, "I have seen grass growing luxuriantly among those plants." He recalled "the first time I ever rode up Green Gulch (May 1895), the grass and sotol attracted my attention to such an extent that I borrowed a companion's camera and photographed them for myself." Unfortunately, Townsend had lost the picture, but noted: "At that time I was not much interested in photography and in the weeks of riding through the Big Bend that was the only scene of which I wanted a picture, so the grass and sotol must have been very good." [7]

Maier's need for images of the Big Bend corresponded with the coverage in the January 14 issue of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, in which the editors decried the "lack of concentrated energy behind it." The Amon Carter-owned paper claimed that "daily, the subscription list is lengthened by a few names accompanied by the price of an acre or two of the proposed area." The Star Telegram contended that "Texans generally have given the idea a most enthusiastic indorsement." Yet "the drive has not been manned and engined" to the satisfaction of the Fort Worth daily. One example of its frustration was the fact that "the school children of Texas could have purchased the entire tract in their own name by simply contributing a dime each for the nine months of the 1937-1938 school term." The Star Telegram claimed that "everywhere the idea was introduced it was applauded - but no machinery has been constructed for collecting the dimes." Further, "a large sum already has been collected from volunteer subscriptions and the civic groups of the State could have supplied the impetus for sending the collections over the top." The paper's editors suggested that "there could be nothing comparable as a monument to the school children of Texas who have it easily within their power to assure the Big Bend Park." Instead, the Star Telegram argued, "the most individualistic of achievements is lagging for no other reason than collective procrastination." [8]

In the game of park politics, the signal sent by Amon Carter's editors forced the NPS to rethink its role of indirect support for the Big Bend fundraising campaign. Conrad Wirth, assistant NPS director, asked Herbert Maier "whether there is any danger that the present land acquisition program being carried out in the State is apt to dwindle down before it terminates to such a point that subscribers, especially those who were enthusiastic at the start, may become discouraged and disgruntled." He then asked Maier: "Do you think it would be wise for the Texas Park Board to use what money is now on hand, then make a fresh start in the campaign as a means of reviving interest?" This, Wirth hoped, would "serve to dispel the present lethargy mentioned in the press release." In his reply to the NPS director, Maier acknowledged that the use of funds for immediate land purchases "is what the State [of Texas] intends to do." The Texas parks board, said Maier, "had contemplated starting spending the funds obtained long before this." What the board lacked was enabling legislation from the state's lawmakers to do so. In November 1937, the legislature had consented to this practice, yet "they [the parks board] have not started spending their money," said Maier, "because they have been waiting for the Governor to name a committee of 150 outstanding men in the State to carry on the fund raising campaign." The committee would have 100 representatives from the chambers of commerce of the Lone Star state (coming from each of five sectors), and Governor Allred would name the additional 50 members. Maier confided in Wirth that James Record of the Star Telegram "is himself holding up the completion of the naming of this committee for some reason which we have not been able to learn." NPS officials in Santa Fe suspected that Record "does not want the committee rounded out unless certain individuals connected with large corporations, such as oil companies, are maneuvered on to the committee." From this body would come a "small executive committee which will work with the Texas State Parks Board in taking up the land purchased." The committee also would "buy such tracts of land first, as are offered at the cheapest price." While this meant that "the land offered at the best bargains will be bought up first, regardless of location," properties of "those who later hold out for more money can be brought in by condemnation proceedings." These conditions led Maier to counsel patience for NPS planners: "In other words, I do not think there is anything to be concerned about." [9]

While this debate over land purchases persisted within the park service and the Texas state parks board, NPS publicists sustained their optimistic tone in the promotion of a visit to the Big Bend area by members of the National Geographic Society (as part of a larger NGS journey from El Paso to Brownsville). Herbert Maier asked Ross Maxwell, now posted to the NPS's state headquarters in Austin, to accompany the society's officers on a river trip through the canyons of the Big Bend. Maxwell noted that the only boats suitable for such an excursion were the canoes of the Webb party, which the park service had stored at the Chisos camp along with a large volume of surplus Army equipment. Maier asked Maxwell, who in February was on assignment at the CCC camp at Longhorn State Park in Burnet, to meet the National Geographic entourage at Del Rio. From there Maxwell was to take the group to Lajitas, where they would float downstream to Boquillas. "Most certainly," said Maier, "the party should go up into the Chisos Mountains," even though "we cannot pay for horse hire except for a horse that you would ride." "Above everything else," Maier emphasized, "I want you to see that the party gets to the South Rim!" The Region III official claimed that "too many official parties have gone into the Chisos for a day, only to find themselves shunted off down to Hot Springs just because someone at the camp was too lazy to round up a few horses." From there Maxwell was to lead the society members "over onto the Mexican side and drive up to the Fresnos, and go up into the Fronteriza Mountains to the point where the official party went at the time Mr. [Roger] Toll was with us." Even though he had no monies to sponsor the work of Everett Townsend, Maier hoped that the latter would help guide the society members because "a good article in the National Geographic, with some good photographs will do more toward the permanent establishment of the park than could any article published in any other American publication." Townsend also could assist the party in gaining the permits necessary to travel and take photographs on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, as well as arrange for a string of horses to carry them into the mountains. [10]

Once Maxwell had orchestrated the details of the National Geographic trip, Maier then warned him: "We should not stress the geology of the region to the exclusion of everything else." Maier believed that "when withdrawn from grazing, and after a period of years when the range will have been able to rehabilitate itself, the wildlife values will be outstanding, looking toward the reintroduction of antelope and other fauna." Maxwell should point out that "the openness of the country would make wildlife observation much more practical, from the standpoint of the visitor, than is the case of some of our heavily forested parks." Maier also wanted Maxwell to stress that "the mountain ranges on the Mexican side run north and south," making it "comparatively easy later on to run a road from the Mexican side southeast to join the Laredo-Mexico City Highway, so that this great international highway might eventually become the outstanding tourist gateway between the two countries." [11]

Maier's detailed advice about the logistics of the National Geographic survey revealed the need for all the good publicity that Big Bend could get, and from the presence of Frederick Simpich, assistant editor of National Geographic Magazine. In its February 12 issue, The Texas Weekly reported that "Texas owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Simpich, for he it was who came down to the Lone Star State some ten years ago and wrote an article called ‘So Big Texas.'". In that piece (June 1928) Simpich "set forth, interestingly and accurately, highlights in the story of Texas," in the words of The Texas Weekly, "where ‘native Americans, starting only with hard hands, strong wills, and great energy, have built up a vast, rich, and powerful commonwealth.'" The weekly continued this strain of self-congratulatory prose, claiming that "the Big Bend, in a matter-of-fact world, in the streamlined twentieth century, is a romantic little empire of its own, containing the last vestiges of the primitive West." Ross Maxwell also came in for praise from The Texas Weekly once it learned that he would guide the National Geographic party. Quoting Maxwell's lush description of the sunset on the cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen, the magazine called this "an added bit of evidence that the beauty and grandeur of the Big Bend lure all visitors into using superlative adjectives." Finally, the National Geographic excursion meant that "when the world starts coming, that will mean valuable additions to Texas's tourist trade." Good business prompted the call for creation of the Big Bend National Park, and the presence of so prominent a magazine in the area reminded The Texas Weekly: "Establishment of an international park in the Big Bend area would preserve a region which is probably the last in the United States where the intangible spirit of the Western frontier still reigns." [12]

Once Simpich and his NGS colleagues arrived in the Big Bend area, the Alpine Avalanche praised their efforts to fulfill the dream of local park sponsors. "With the blue bonnets in bloom," wrote the Avalanche, "and the cacti just budding out, no better time than now could have been found for an inspection of the southern part of Brewster County and the northern part of Coahuila and Chihuahua." Yet Sul Ross's president expressed some discontent when he realized that the Local Park Committee had been ignored in the haste to accommodate the magazine's writers. Morelock reminded Maier that he had played a major role in the campaign to raise funds for the park, to the extent that he traveled to El Paso as the National Geographic Society party drifted down the Rio Grande. While in El Paso, Morelock met with Ewing Thomason about inclusion of Big Bend's land purchases under the aegis of the "Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act." Morelock also had worked to organize the statewide fundraising committee, and had discussed the park issue with citizens in every corner of the Lone Star state. Yet "no one was invited from the Governor's office or any other State department in an official capacity to play a part in the expedition." Morelock warned Maier that "if we are to work with a minimum of friction on the Big Bend National Park, I personally believe that we should invite all agencies in Texas which are interested in the Park and which will play a part in the acquisition of the land." As proof of his sincerity, Morelock enclosed in his correspondence a copy of the 1938 summer course bulletin for Sul Ross. This publication went to some 7,000 schoolteachers throughout Texas, and Morelock noted how Sul Ross had allocated three pages of "free space to the Big Bend National Park project." He also informed Maier of the creation of the "West Texas Chamber of Commerce Resource and Museum Institute." Based in Abilene, the organization included the state colleges in Canyon, Lubbock, El Paso, and Stephenville (as well as Alpine). Among the facility's first exhibits, Morelock hoped, would be original scientific specimens loaned by the NPS from the museum at the abandoned Chisos CCC camp. [13]

Promotion of the Big Bend fundraising initiative included journals of lesser circulation than National Geographic Magazine. Maier wrote in February to Elmo Johnson of the growing number of requests for news stories and features about the Big Bend area. "To date we have confined ourselves primarily to rather technical information and general descriptions," said Maier, but he recently had an inquiry about human history in the future park. Maier thought that "it would be a fine thing to describe one of the several visits which ‘Uncle Everett' Townsend and I have made to the Johnson Ranch during the past few years." Thus he asked Johnson to recount "the story you told us one evening of the visit which the bodyguard of [Pancho] Villa paid to you a year or two ago and his proposition regarding a trip over onto the Mexican side in order to excavate the bullion which he claimed Villa had buried." Johnson then recalled how "just four days after the visit of the [bodyguard] a Department of Justice man was here to see me." To the longtime Big Bend rancher, "this proved . . . that the man was being closely watched and to them the story was well known." Johnson asked Maier not to use the person's name, but instead "you could use any good Mexican name for the body guard." He then closed his letter to Maier by reminding him: "We are one hundred percent for the Park." [14]

Even more dramatic a promotional strategy than Johnson's story of Pancho Villa's gold was the attempt by Everett Townsend to enlist the aid of President Franklin Roosevelt. "Your foreign policy [the Good Neighbor Policy towards Latin America]," wrote Townsend, "meets with the approval of the greater number of thinking people in this part of the country." Townsend and his friends believed that "we should be well prepared for trouble as it appears to be brewing in all parts of the world." As to FDR's critics, said Townsend: "They live in the past, in the days of our forefathers and gained no vision from our bitter experiences in trying to evade the [first] World War." He then suggested that even nature had cast FDR in the role of peacemaker by sending the president a picture of a rock formation in the Dead Horse Mountains that Townsend claimed resembled Roosevelt. "It may not flatter you," said Townsend, "but the likeness is less remote and not so repulsive as many cartoons carried in the newspapers." The formation, when viewed carefully at an angle, "indicates its international phase as the face is found in Mexico and the body in Texas." The area that Townsend described was "one of the three canyons of the Rio Grande that are within the area of the proposed International Peace Park, the successful fruition of which, I believe, will prove a peace gesture of great importance to our hemisphere." Townsend advised the president that many Texans "do not realize the importance of this friendship park between the nations, two nations which have not always been over [solicitous] about each other's welfare, and we are not making much progress with the campaign." Townsend recalled more than 50 years of personal interaction along the border, suggesting that it was his "firm belief that the successful issue of this project will be one of the longest steps we can take towards winning the esteem of our goodly neighbor." The former customs officer called the Mexicans "truly marvelous people and to know them is to love them." He wanted all Americans to "become better acquainted with them." To that end, he told FDR: "A good word from you, Mr. President, will go far towards helping Texas put over this enterprise of incalculable value to our country." [15]

Townsend's suggestion of a presidential likeness, and the response of the park service, indicated the importance of his role in the campaign to secure private funding for Big Bend. Instead of dismissing his idea as specious, NPS director Cammerer wrote back to Townsend with the note from the FDR administration. "The special emphasis you have placed upon international aspects of the project seems especially worthwhile at this time." Cammerer further noted: "Let me say that both the White House and this Department fully appreciate the splendid contributions you continue to make toward eventual establishment of an international park." Then Cammerer bantered with Townsend about "the figure bearing some resemblance to the President which you have seen in the cliffs and ridges bordering the Rio Grande." The park service director called this "curiously interesting," and then informed Townsend: "To some of us here in Washington, the face also carries a slight suggestion of likeness to Vice-President [John Nance] Garner." Cammerer then concluded: "You may rest assured that whenever an opportunity is found to further the land acquisition program now underway in Texas, we will not hesitate to act accordingly." [16]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003