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.

"Someone always followed me wherever I went, usually this Cherokee who worked for my father," Ivey explains. "The candelilla business has always been full of some kind of conflict, and Dad was worried I'd get kidnapped."

At one point the Mexican government made it illegal to export candelilla plants to the States, although U.S. laws allowed them to be imported as long as they were declared.

"We'd declare every ounce brought over," Ivey says, adding that he quickly discovered he'd become a smuggler as far as Mexico was concerned.

Visitors don’t realize that what looks like the Lajitas of the Old West was just that only a few years ago.
Allan C. Kimball
Visitors don’t realize that what looks like the Lajitas of the Old West was just that only a few years ago.
Some locals fear that thirsty Lajitas landscaping will dry up area water sources.
Allan C. Kimball
Some locals fear that thirsty Lajitas landscaping will dry up area water sources.

Federales would often arrest his workers in Mexico and he would have to bail them out of jail. "At one point I realized I was paying off police in two Mexican states," Ivey chuckles.

When the Mexican officials finally devalued the peso, they stopped harassing harvesters from bringing candelilla into the States. But then U.S. Customs stopped the wax trafficking in Lajitas because the crossing isn't official so it has no customs office.

"They did this in an attempt to crack down on drugs, but when they stopped people from dealing in candelilla, some had no alternative but to turn to drugs to make a living," Ivey says. "So the policy obviously isn't working."

He sold his final load of wax last year but hopes to revive the operation at his refinery in Alpine. Along with the shifting ways of doing business, Ivey's had to wrestle with more personal changes.

After college, he was lured back to run the Trading Post as Lajitas was beginning to expand under Mischer. But the town once owned by the Iveys had become a different place.

"It was real hard for me to deal with," Ivey says. "It was the only life I ever knew, and my whole world was taken away. Lajitas had changed a lot, and it wasn't like I expected it to be anymore. It wasn't fun anymore, so I left."

In 1982 Ivey moved east a few miles and bought Terlingua Ghost Town.

"Terlingua was being broken up into half-acre tracts and sold, and I could see what was inevitable if things kept going that way," Ivey says. "I wanted to preserve the structures and the history and the culture."

He also wants to attract tourists. Smith shares that goal -- but their visions are very much apart.


Smith wants people who can fly their own private jets in and stay in vacation homes that will cost as much as any ten homes in the Terlingua/Study Butte area together.

Although Smith will remodel and upgrade several rooms in Lajitas, he's determined to keep the total number of rooms the same -- about 120 -- and to limit the number of new houses to around 550. If that number sounds small, consider that there are no more than about 30 homes in Lajitas now.

Smith's expansion is seriously upscale. However, he has approved designs that fit in with the landscape and use as many local materials as possible.

Ivey ensures historic preservation at Terlingua by simply refusing to sell any of it off. He will lease an old ruin, but only if the lessee preserves the exterior and makes no additions that wouldn't be correct to the time and place of the old mining community. They can fix up the inside as elaborately as they want, creating what Ivey calls "upscale ruins."

"We've tried to preserve that image of ruins on the outside, and in doing so we've been able to build a residency of very creative people who've put a lot back into the community. They appreciate the opportunity to be here and appreciate the ghost town for what it is," Ivey says. "It's created a community we never had before. Lajitas and Terlingua were always one-man towns, but we're entering that community phase now."

Ivey plans to make a bed-and-breakfast out of the 1906 Perry Mansion that overlooks the town. Chisos Mining Company owner Howard Perry built the Spanish-style home for his wife. But when she arrived in Terlingua, she stayed one night in the house, packed her bags and went home.

Terlingua in those days was no place for a lady, and the mansion may resist restoration as well. Two previous rehab attempts by Ivey were thwarted when high winds blew the roof off.

Although the church and school remain in ruins, Ivey did restore the town jail. It's now a pair of restrooms. And he put a roof on the old movie house, which became the Starlight Theatre restaurant, one of the best for hundreds of miles around.

The ruin gained the moniker "Starlight Theatre" after an impromptu concert there by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1986. In March, Walker came to Big Bend, like many other people, to see Haley's Comet in the pristine Big Bend sky that spring.

He sang solo for a couple of hours in front of perhaps 20 people. The old movie theater was missing most of one wall, had holes in others, and the roof was completely open to the sky -- hence the name. More concerts followed.

"Some folks were very upset with me when I put the roof on it, but I had to because the interior was deteriorating too quickly," Ivey explains.

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