Desert Blooms

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

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.

Smith then built up his own property and investment company with interests in residential and commercial 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 more.

Lajitas was rebuilt to resemble an Old West town, but the Old West in Big Bend may have to make way for cell phones and golf courses.
Allan C. Kimball
Lajitas was rebuilt to resemble an Old West town, but the Old West in Big Bend may have to make way for cell phones and golf courses.

"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.

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 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 restaurants 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' current café.

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 had 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, up until the 1980s, Ivey would routinely check pistols at the front door of the Lajitas Trading Post, 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.

"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.

"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.

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 says with a chuckle.

When Mexico 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.

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