End of the Bend?

Jetports and elite resorts may do what border bandits, blistering heat and harsh desert life couldn't: rob Big Bend of its rugged beauty.

Thirteen years ago, Smith says, he never dreamed he'd end up owning his own town.

Back then, he was broke, living in a borrowed house and with no car, selling shellacked chili ristras on the side of the highway just west of Austin. He met with Excel Communications founder Kenny Troutt in 1989 and came up with the idea to sell long-distance telephone service through independent sales representatives under a network marketing system. He would receive compensation for each new sales representative signed up and a percentage of the phone revenue.

He helped build Excel, based in Dallas, into a multibillion-dollar company. In 1998 the company was acquired by Teleglobe Inc., a Canadian company, for $3.5 billion. Smith remains active in the company.

High school principal Killingsworth: Until the new school was built, students had the nation's longest bus commute (two hours each way).
High school principal Killingsworth: Until the new school was built, students had the nation's longest bus commute (two hours each way).
Smith, amid a backdrop of construction, is pumping $50 million into his Lajitas resort.
Allan C. Kimball
Smith, amid a backdrop of construction, is pumping $50 million into his Lajitas resort.

Smith then built up his own property and investment company with interests in residential and commercial property development, oil exploration, banking, consumer financing, and now resort/golf course ownership.

After the Lajitas auction, Smith says, his first thought was to fix what was broken and let life go on, but he soon discovered he wanted to be more serious.

"When I looked at the business side here, I saw that the high season was December through around March and the rest of the year was pretty much dead. So how do you pick up the rest of the year? I really don't think this heat keeps people away in the summer; it's just that there's not much to do except play golf in the morning," Smith explains.

His expansion and renovation plans are an ambitious effort to attract more visitors year-round.

The prestigious Bechtol Russell Golf company of Austin will transform the nine-hole golf course to a championship-level 18-hole course, and add a second course. A 19th hole will feature a tee on the American bank of the Rio Grande and a cup on the Mexican side, making it the only hole in the world where a golfer can hit a shot in one country and have the ball land in play in another.

Deborah Smith of Smith Club and Spa Specialists of Aspen is overseeing design and construction of a full-service "world-class" spa. A new water-treatment facility will quench the area's thirst and supply three new swimming pools.

A new 7,500-foot airstrip, replacing the current 4,800-foot one much farther east of town, will enable jets to fly in and be unobtrusive to people staying in Lajitas. At night, Smith promises, the lights will come on only when a plane is landing.

To promote Lajitas like never before, Smith has brought on Austin's GSD&M, the largest advertising firm in the Southwest.

Hudson's on the Bend, one of the premier eateries in Austin, will open a gourmet restaurant, to be called The Ocotillo, in the old Ivey House. The Austin Hudson's menu includes such delicacies as rattlesnake cakes in pistachio-nut crust with spicy chipotle sauce, black bean ravioli with goat cheese and crawfish sauce, and ruby trout with mango-habañero aioli.

Such fare will be a far cry from the Pancho Villa Special -- one beef and one cheese enchilada with a taco, rice and refried beans -- that is offered in Lajitas's current cafe.

Credit the Pancho Villa Special to Bill Ivey. He invented it when Mischer first opened the restaurant, and Ivey grew up in that small stone house beside the 1899 Lajitas Trading Post. As the oldest occupied building in Lajitas, the Trading Post has served both Villa and U.S. troops headquartered there in pursuit of him.

When visitors first see the current Lajitas Resort, they remark that the boardwalk area looks just like the Wild West, little realizing that the real Wild West existed here just a few years ago.

"When I was a kid, my mother would take my brother and I into the bathroom at odd times of the day. What she was doing was taking us to the safest place in the house because there were gunfights in the streets," Ivey says. "Everyone down here carried a gun."

In fact, right up until he left the Lajitas Trading Post to Mischer in the 1980s, Ivey would routinely check pistols at the front door, putting the weapon in a paper sack with the owner's name written on it.

Ivey was always heavily armed in the store. Law enforcement officials told him he should deal with trouble on his own, since it would take a deputy too long to arrive.

"We had a lot of shootings in Lajitas," Ivey says. "Mexicans express themselves quickly, and if they get mad they'll pull a knife or a gun. They don't really want to hurt anyone; it's just a ritual. They shoot to make a point, and most of what was going on was between the federales and the wax boys. You might get grazed but never killed. The only killings I recall were by white people. They shot to kill."

Growing up, Ivey was the only gringo around, going barefoot all the time and riding burros whenever he and his pals went off exploring. He wasn't aware of it at the time, but he always had a bodyguard behind him.

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