Desert Blooms

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

Lajitas has boomed before, though, thanks to the prime river crossing and to mining.

In the late 1880s, prospectors discovered cinnabar in vast and relatively pure quantities in the hills ranging from Study Butte to Lajitas. The cochineal-red ore is refined into mercury, which at the turn of the century was a vital element in munitions production.

Several mining companies pounced on the area, bringing in hundreds of laborers.

Austin businessman Steve Smith wants to open up Big Bend year-round to well-heeled tourists.
Allan C. Kimball
Austin businessman Steve Smith wants to open up Big Bend year-round to well-heeled tourists.
Longtime residents of the Big Bend wonder where Steve Smith will get the water to keep his resort green.
Allan C. Kimball
Longtime residents of the Big Bend wonder where Steve Smith will get the water to keep his resort green.

H.W. McGuirk, the first prominent Anglo settler, guided Lajitas into a significant community with mining, ranching and farming. Another business sprang up from candelilla, a ubiquitous plant whose pencil-thick stems can be boiled down and its wax harvested for a variety of uses. Lajitas, with the economic growth in the early 1900s, boasted a store, saloon, customs house, church, post office and 50-student school.

The relative prosperity faced peril from the south because of escalating raids by Mexican bandits and revolutionaries in 1916. On May 5, Pancho Villa's forces attacked a wax-processing facility in the Big Bend village of Glenn Springs. They killed three U.S. soldiers and one young boy, injured four others, looted the store, burned two buildings and destroyed the factory.

To combat the border threat, Army General John J. Pershing established a major cavalry post at Lajitas that year.

It was all enough to frighten McGuirk away. He sold his Lajitas interests to Thomas Skaggs, who established Lajitas Wax Co., a business that would continue until just recently.

But the price of cinnabar fell, profits dropped from farming and ranching, and Lajitas declined. The post office closed in 1939. Ten years later, the Lajitas population was estimated at four.

When Skaggs died in 1945, he left his holdings to Everett E. Townsend of Alpine, the man considered to be the father of Big Bend National Park. Townsend transferred Lajitas to his wife, Ada, and she sold it to Rex Ivey Jr. in 1949.

Two decades later, census figures showed only six people lived in Lajitas, most of them Iveys. In 1976, while Bill Ivey was off at Texas A&M University, Rex Ivey sold Lajitas to Walter Mischer.

In addition to making a fortune as a Houston real estate developer and founding Allied Bancshares, Mischer also owned vast Big Bend ranching properties, so he knew the area well. He praised Lajitas' weather, charm and scenery but noted "there was nothing out there that was really decent for people to stay when visiting."

In 1978 Mischer built the Cavalry Post on the ruins of Black Jack Pershing's old headquarters and turned it into a motel. Soon he added the Badlands Hotel across Farm Road 170. Mischer turned the community into a facsimile of an 1880s Old West town so accurate it's been used for a number of movies. By 1990, the population was 50.

His stated goal was to turn Lajitas into a "Palm Springs of Texas," but the resort never reached that level, mostly because of its remoteness. But another wealthy entrepreneur would soon be replacing Mischer in the quest to link Lajitas with the world.

Steve Smith, an investment magnate from Austin, was leafing through a newspaper when he noticed an unusual property for sale: The Lajitas resort and about 23,000 surrounding acres would be going to the highest bidder.

"I saw an ad for the auction, and it seemed like a cool thing," he recalls. "I thought it'd be interesting to see how you auction off a whole town. And I thought in the back of my mind, if no one else showed up maybe someone could get a hell of a deal, and I wanted to be that guy."

Mischer, now 78, insists the only reason he put the town on the auction block last year was because he's getting older. He estimated he had about $7 million invested in Lajitas, and although the resort rarely made money, it was debt-free.

Smith--the same age now as Mischer was when he purchased Lajitas 23 years ago--grew up in El Paso and understood desert beauty when he saw it. In more than 20 years, his only visit to the area had been on a float trip through the canyons.

Arriving to tour the town only 45 minutes before the auction, he was enamored with Lajitas almost immediately. He had just one serious competitor: San Francisco hotelier Manou Mobedshahi, and Smith's bid of $4.25 million was a winner.

"The money never got up to what I thought was a good price," Smith says. "I wasn't in the business of running a resort, and I had no plans to get into the business of running a resort, but, you know, I've paid more for a ranch than I paid for this."

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.

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