Big Bend
Administrative History
NPS Logo

Clouds of War, Pleas for Help: The Big Bend Land-Acquisition Campaign, 1939

From the invasion of Poland in September 1939 by the armed forces of Adolf Hitler's Germany, to the fall of France and the humiliation of British troops at the Battle of Dunkirk the following spring, news of war and death overshadowed all other matters in the public's mind. At home, the transition from a peacetime economy to military preparedness moved awkwardly, complicated by the election in November 1938 of a conservative Congress eager to reduce or eliminate New Deal social-welfare programs and their perceived wastefulness. All of this portended failure for Texas's first national park, especially given the Lone Star state's dislike of taxation and government regulation. Yet prospects for funding the purchase of nearly 800,000 acres of land in the Big Bend, while dismal throughout much of this period, nonetheless remained alive and received a boost oddly enough from the very forces of war that threatened the lives of millions in Europe. By the close of the decade, then, park promoters stood ready for a final assault on the Austin capitol, with the strategies of this 12-month period both a continuation of and a break from the efforts employed for nearly a decade by sponsors of Big Bend National Park. [1]

Of utmost importance to NPS officials in Santa Fe was the 1939 session of the Texas legislature. Herbert Maier assigned W.F. Ayres, a park service inspector from the regional office, to monitor events in Austin. In addition, Ayres kept close watch on the intentions of the Fort Worth Star Telegram to initiate the multi-million dollar fundraising campaign for purchase of private lands. Ayres had gained experience with the Texas situation during his frequent trips to CCC camps in the Lone Star state. While conducting an inspection tour of sites in Brownwood and Cleburne, Ayres learned from James Record that "of the $25000. which [the statewide committee] had agreed to raise, $17000. was in hand and the remaining $8000 due from the Dallas contingent would be received in a day or two." Record also confided in Ayres that "a contract had been made with a national advertising company (Wychgell) to put the campaign on for $25000. and this would be started just as soon as the money was all received." State parks board president Wendell Mayes further advised Ayres that "bills had been drawn and were ready to be introduced by Senator [H.L.] Winfield." As far as Mayes knew, "it seems that [the bills] were only for the purpose of facilitating transfer of the land to the Federal Government for national park purposes, and not appropriation bills for purchase of land." The issue of mineral rights and school lands continued to endanger the future park, as Horace Morelock had informed Ayres of the reaction he had received when he spoke to the annual meeting of the Texas State Teachers Association. "Over his protest," Ayres told Maier, "the Assn. passed a resolution favoring the creation of a National Park in the Big Bend, but reserving all mineral rights on school lands for the State of Texas." Of major concern to Morelock and Ayres was the fact that "one of the principal sponsors of the resolution was Dean Shelby, of the University of Texas." "You know," Ayres warned Maier, "the story of oil on University lands." Given the fact that the parks board director, William Lawson, "expects a fight with economy minded legislators over appropriations for the Parks Board," Ayres agreed with Record that park sponsors should "do nothing about legislation at that time." [2]

Once Ayres reached Fort Worth, he met with the Star Telegram's James Record to coordinate the work of the park service and private interests. Record indicated that fundraising had not moved as expeditiously as Ayres had thought. Dallas and Houston had not sent in their equal shares of $4,000, forcing Record "to raise this part from other towns." The statewide committee had agreed with Adrian Wychgell to pay his New York firm $10,000 as salary for the campaign, with expenses controlled by the committee. Ayres then learned that "Wychgell's original proposition was to put on the entire campaign for $82,000." While the committee would not sign Wychgell's contract until the $25,000 had been raised, Ayres reported that "Record expects this to be within a very short time, and he feels that now is an auspicious time for the campaign to go on." At the moment, Record could claim to have "about $16000 on hand in Ft. Worth, and there are sizeable sums deposited in local banks in San Angelo, El Paso, etc." Record also believed that "the $1,500,000. can be raised in four months time." Ayres then inquired about the status of park measures in the upcoming session of the Texas legislature. Senator Winfield had collaborated with Lieutenant Governor Coke Stevenson to "amplify the bill passed at the last session [1937] authorizing the Texas State Parks Board to buy land in the Big Bend with money raised by the campaign." In addition, Winfield and Stevenson wished to "establish the procedure for transferring the land to the Federal Government for National Park purposes." Record suggested that the park service join in an aggressive publicity effort to "push the campaign now and complete it while the legislature is still in session." Should "any deficiency" result, this could "be met by the legislature . . . (Or possibly by Rockefeller Foundation)." This strategy included review of the measure by NPS officials, and a personal appearance in Austin by Maier to lobby on behalf of Big Bend. [3]

While these details were under negotiation in Austin, Maier learned from Earl A. Trager, chief of the NPS's naturalist division in Washington, that the most famous scientist of the Big Bend country wished to support the park bill in the Lone Star legislature. Robert T. Hill, whose 1899 river trip and subsequent article in Century Magazine had defined the otherworldliness of the Rio Grande canyons for the state and nation, met with Trager at the annual conference of the Geological Society of America to discuss the park initiative. Not only was Hill eager to assist the NPS in its plans for a national park, Trager told Maier, but he "is a bit impatient that things are not moving faster." Trager identified Hill as "one of the earliest geologists who worked in the Southwest and has an enviable reputation in the geological profession." Hill had since retired from teaching, said Trager, "and writes a weekly article for the DALLAS NEWS on matters pertaining to geology." When Hill offered "to do anything he could in his column to promote the project," Trager responded that "we would have you [Maier] advise him of the present status of land acquisition and of the tack he should follow in presenting the project in a feature article." Hill had suggested that "someone should extend the topography from the Big Bend into Mexico because by this method the history of the area is more easily understood." Trager's office had "just completed an attempt along this line," he told Maier, and sent Hill "a set of blue prints for critical review." He then remarked that "Dr. Hill is almost 80 years old and I am sure you will find him an ardent supporter and possessed of a vitality which is not anticipated in a man of his age." Trager closed by noting the degree to which the geological profession respected the work of Hill: "He was one of the five men honored at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Geological Society of America on December 30 [1938]." [4]

As the legislative session commenced in mid-January, NPS attention shifted from publicity to lobbying in the halls of the state capitol. Horace Morelock had asked Everett Townsend to return to Austin to represent the Alpine park promoters. Townsend wasted little time in contacting Senator Winfield and Scott Gaines, whom W.F. Ayres identified as "a former [state] Assistant Attorney General, now connected with the legal department of the University of Texas handling land matters." Gaines "had a good deal to do with preparing the [land-acquisition] bill two years ago," Ayres told Maier; a critical feature since "Senator Winfield is not a lawyer (He is president of the bank at Ft. Stockton)." Winfield had corresponded with Amon Carter regarding the language of the legislation, and Ayres hoped that Maier could join the team of Winfield, Carter, Morelock, Townsend, Gaines, and himself in Austin to prepare the final draft. One reason for organizing such a work session was Ayres's recent conversation with William Lawson of the state parks board. The latter informed Ayres that his agency "would take no part in [the] present legislative effort along Big Bend lines." Ayres admitted that "it is difficult to get at the true feeling of the Board, as Lawson is very jealous of any contact with them other than through him." For his part, Lawson "is not going to do anything that might jeopardize his own Park Board bill;" a phenomenon triggered by the fact that "the Board of Control has already cut it down to [the] approximate level with [Lawson's] present budget, about $40,000." In addition, said Ayres, "the legislature is in a very economical frame of mine." He also noted that "as a rule the Park Board has a more liberal view of things than its secretary." As if these clouds on the legislative horizon were not enough, Ayres heard rumors that "there also appears to be the beginning of a feud between Gov. O'Daniel and Lieut. Gov. Coke Stevenson." Since the latter had championed the Big Bend measure two years earlier, the NPS inspector advised Maier: "It might be well to let Senator Winfield be the principal sponsor this time." [5]

Heightening the sense of urgency facing park sponsors was the inquiry of John N. Harris, Jr., a Dallas attorney representing H.A. Woodruff, a landowner in the future Big Bend National Park. Harris's client had received some 40 acres in Brewster County as a gift from his father-in-law, J.M. Smith. When Woodruff inquired of the county clerk's office about the property taxes for 1939, said Harris, "he was informed that the land was now owned by the state park board." Thus Harris wanted the board to explain "the procedure used in condemning this land, and if possible, the consideration that our client will receive." Chief clerk Will Mann Richardson wrote back to inform Harris that "several years ago when the Big Bend Park was first begun a law was passed conveying to the State Parks Board all lands in the area which were sold for taxes." While "a number of these tracts were foreclosed on and transferred to the State Parks Board," Richardson had to admit that "no accurate record can be found in this office as to what tracts were sold for taxes." Unfortunately, said the board's chief clerk, "we have had several letters from other parties claiming that they still own the land, and that they had never been delinquent in their tax payments." "To such persons," wrote Richardson, "we have replied that there is nothing that we can do at this time to remove the cloud on their title." Instead, "the land will have to be purchased if the Big Bend project goes through, and the Parks Board will probably take notice of their title when purchasing the tract." As an indication of the chaotic state of affairs awaiting NPS and Texas officials, Richardson had to ask Harris if his firm could "investigate and find out whether or not Mr. Woodruff has been delinquent in his taxes." Even if Woodruff had paid his bills, said Richardson, "the only remedy which we know of will be to settle with him at such time as funds are provided for the purchase of Big Bend Park." [6]

By late January the impetus for a new park bill had become clear. Herbert Maier corresponded with James Record to gain a sense of Amon Carter's position on the legislation, asking him to use the 1937 measure as a guide. One feature that local sponsors had suggested was "to call for an appropriation of one thousand dollars so that it may be definitely classed as an appropriation bill." This gave the measure more legitimacy among the Lone Star lawmakers. In addition, said Maier, "a contingency clause is to be included to the effect that the final amount which the State is to appropriate is to be equal to the total sum of money raised by the Big Bend National Park Committee in its forthcoming fund raising campaign." Maier then wrote to Senator Winfield to coordinate plans for introduction of this bill, saying that "it will obviously be best if Mr. Carter, as Chairman of the Committee, signifies his concurrence in the procedure in writing." Maier also commented on discussions had by Winfield and Carter in late December, in which "Mr. Carter was apparently afraid that you or some group might reintroduce last session's bill or rider which was passed by the House and Senate authorizing an appropriation of $750,000." Maier warned that "obviously, if this were to eventuate, it would upset the fund raising campaign." The acting Region III director then summarized the status of his conversations in a report to the NPS director, Arno Cammerer. "I found the matter stymied," wrote Maier, "due to the definite instructions from Amon Carter . . . to the effect that the bill should carry no appropriation." Carter's "insistence that no appropriation be requested of the Legislature is variously interpreted," said Maier. One version had it that Carter "does not wish to place himself under obligations to the new Governor." Others suspected that "he expects to get the money in one lump sum from some donor." Maier informed Cammerer that "Mr. Nelson Rockefeller was mentioned to me in this connection, but I doubt this very much." [7]

Because of the delicate nature of negotiations with state officials, Maier had come to Austin "to get some sort of bill in the hopper at once so as to insure an early number." To his chagrin the acting Region III director "found out that until yesterday, 250 bills had already been given priority." Maier reminded Cammerer that in the 1937 session, "the bill introduced Feb. 23rd could not win, place or show, and the appropriation had to be tacked on at the last minute as a rider to the regular appropriation for the State Parks Board." Hence Maier's screening of the new park bill through James Record. "Amon Carter," said Maier, "is the most powerful man in Texas, [and] must be reckoned with in every move." Maier told Cammerer that "unfortunately he is very busy and is usually inaccessible, and spends much of his time in travel." On a more hopeful note, Maier could state that "certainly this appears to be the most favorable set up we have had on Big Bend Legislation in 3 sessions." Governor O'Daniel, lieutenant governor Coke Stevenson, and Senator Winfield, now a member of the powerful Finance and Banking committees, also championed the legislation. "Rep. [Albert] Cauthorn from the same district [as Winfield] has maneuvered himself onto the House Appropriations Committee for this express purpose," said Maier, while "Chairman [Tom] Beauchamp of the State Parks Board has been named Secretary of State and told me last night he will use his influence to the fullest." Amon Carter had announced that he would invite Director Cammerer to the future park site later that spring, while Governor O'Daniel "has expressed himself likewise." The only caution that Maier had was that "there is nothing new on the fund campaign." He had learned that "there are contracts from three fund raising firms on Mr. Carter's desk, but he has not decided which one he will accept." This latter delay symbolized to Maier the problems facing the NPS in their efforts to create Big Bend National Park, and he concluded to Cammerer: "I do wish this angle of the thing were less of a mystery." [8]

The irony of Maier's remark was that "mystery" had defined the promotional literature supplied to local park promoters by NPS publicists for much of the 1930s. The most erudite voice of Big Bend's otherworldliness, Walter Prescott Webb, visited Fort Worth in January of 1939, and granted an interview to the Star Telegram. In a story syndicated statewide, Amon Carter's editors quoted Webb as saying: "The palpitating beauty and the varying effects of sunshine, rain, and passing clouds make the Big Bend a 'mysterious, wild country with a peculiar effect on those fortunate enough to visit there.'" Echoing much of his earlier writing about the future national park, Webb recalled for the Star Telegram's readers "his first visit to the Big Bend in a Model T Ford in the Summer of 1924." Webb asked rhetorically: "'I don't see why more people don't go there,'" as Big Bend offered "'something for everyone - the natural scientists, anthropologists, historians and especially the general public.'" This rendered Big Bend "'a veritable museum,'" said the dean of Texas historians, as "'the land has little economic value.'" Yet "'Mexico is ready to add an even larger parcel of land to the proposed park,'" Webb told the Star Telegram, and "'the resulting international park would be a strong factor for peace in a world where most countries feel they must maintain a strong guard around their borders.'" He recalled how he had looked at the sunset over the Sierra del Carmen, seeing in silhouette "a massive human form outstretched in perfect repose, feet 30 miles from head, hands folded over chest, good chin, straight nose and fine brow." This likeness the Texas Rangers had called "the War God of the Rio Grande." Now that global conflict loomed once more on the international horizon, Webb told readers of Texas newspapers carrying the Star Telegram interview: "'The whole effect, as we sat under a million stars, the silence broken by coyotes yip-yapping to each other from distant hills, was not that of war, but of tranquility and peace.'" The University of Texas scholar then concluded that "Texans should make every effort to acquire the land for the park." [9]

To the authors of Senate Bill 123, however, the quest for funding for Big Bend National Park was no mystery. They knew exactly the conditions of politics and economics that they faced when H.L. Winfield and Albert Cauthorn stood before their colleagues in the Austin state capitol on January 31 and asked them to endorse the plan for private purchase of the acreage needed. The NPS's W.F. Ayres and Ross Maxwell had read the bill, noting that boundary adjustments had been made to the 1937 measure. "You will notice," said Ayres in correspondence to Maier, that "the first 'call' runs straight to Sue Peaks from the monument we set two years ago." The state parks board would be "the agency to carry out the provisions of this act," while "school lands are to be withdrawn for sale, and the surface rights sold to the State for park purposes at $1.00 per acre." As for the hotly contested mineral rights, these "are to be sold to the State . . . at 50 [cents] per acre." Ayres predicted that "we will no doubt run into a battle with the Texas State Teachers Assn. on this; yet we must try to get these rights and let Legislature settle the question." Winfield and Cauthorn included a provision whereby "the Texas State Parks Board is authorized to exchange lands which they hold outside the park area for lands inside," while the board would offer "purchase limited to $2.00 per acre on voluntary sales paid from appropriated funds." Finally, the west Texas lawmakers asked their colleagues for the nominal sum of $1,000 to initiate this program, and granted to the governor the right to "convey to the United States" title to all lands purchased for the park. Perhaps the best news forwarded by Ayres to regional headquarters was that Amon Carter had read the contents of Herbert Maier's memorandum on the Winfield/Cauthorn bill, and "was in complete accord with it." Ayres concluded that Carter was "anxious to proceed as outlined," and saw hope for the champions of Big Bend as the legislature contemplated the park's destiny. [10]

Within days of the bill's introduction, park sponsors in Washington, Santa Fe, Austin and Alpine circulated press releases touting the benefits to accrue to Lone Star citizens once their elected representatives approved of the land-acquisition program. No less a personage than Elliott Roosevelt, son of the president, called in a national radio broadcast for passage of Texas Senate Bill 123. Reading from copy provided by the NPS, the younger Roosevelt claimed that Big Bend would be "commercially beneficial to every section of Texas." Reiterating the mathematical model of five days of travel within the Lone Star state by the average tourist, Elliott Roosevelt declared that "the State will profit by new, improved highways built with money derived from gasoline taxes which the tourists will pay." Texans also would gain, in the estimation of the president's son, "an advertising medium [that] alone would be worth thousands of dollars . . . in drawing new industries and permanent residents, as well as tourists, to the State." For Texans "with limited means and short vacation periods," Big Bend offered "the scenic wonders of a national park without having to journey out of state." Elliott Roosevelt also suggested that the new park "would provide a place near by for the Texas business man to enjoy weekend outings without the loss of time and money that it would take for him to go out of the State." He predicted easy passage of the legislation in the Texas senate, even with the opposition of the state's school teachers, as "the additional revenue which would go into the school fund from the sale of gasoline to state visitors who would come to see the park would more than equal the board's present income from the land." Roosevelt then concluded that "the popular subscription drive will be one of the most gigantic demonstrations of concerted effort ever seen in Texas." [11]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>
Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003