Trading Upscale

Yuppie gentrification strikes the heart of old West Texas

When the century-old Lajitas Trading Post reopened late last month after six weeks of renovation, the yuppified new look included a wine and espresso bar, a gourmet food section, modern indoor bathrooms and air conditioning.

Customers can now buy crisp deli sandwiches on LaBrea sourdough bread, premium organic beef or--for the truly needy--freshly caught seafood flown in overnight from the East Coast.

The overhaul is the most radical in history of the blocky adobe trading post that sits on the brushy bank of the Rio Grande just west of Big Bend National Park.

And while few here are likely to complain about being able to get fresh groceries without driving 100 miles to Alpine, or dispute the right of Lajitas' new owner to do as he pleases with the trading post, the changes have prompted reflection and some regret.

"Just Jake would be rolling in his grave. He was a wrangler at the stables, and he looked pretty rough. Every time we'd move something, he'd say, 'Geez, you're changing everything,'" recalls Roger Gibson, who ran the Lajitas Trading Post from 1992 to 1998.

"Our dog was named Fluffy. He said, 'Oh my God, we can't have a trading post dog named Fluffy.' So he renamed her Scruffy. I can't even imagine what he'd do if he found out what was happening at the trading post," Gibson says.

Mercifully, Just Jake, who preferred life on the familiar and crusty side, died a few years back before Lajitas was bought by Austin businessman Steve Smith.

Smith, who made his millions with Excel Communications, bought Lajitas on a whim at a public auction and is now turning it into a rich man's manicured resort.

For most of its 104-year existence, the trading post, with its 15-foot ceilings and 2-foot-thick adobe walls, was relied upon by customers from both sides of the Rio Grande as a supply house and social center for the lightly populated region.

Not long ago, dollars, pesos, Mexican candelilla wax--even farm animals--could be exchanged here for a wide range of life's essentials.

"I took burros and chickens. You could get a six-pack for a chicken," says Bill Ivey, who grew up in Lajitas before there was electricity and ran the trading post during the 1980s.

"We were the auto parts supply house; we carried tires and batteries and every size fan belt and spark plug. We were the pharmacy, with everything from lice medicine to birth control pills. We had horse feed, tools and ammunition," Ivey says.

The trading post also provided many essential legal and financial services, from cashing checks to changing one's marital status, Ivey recalls.

"If anybody wanted to get married, they came to the trading post. I did the ceremonies for them. If they wanted to get divorced, they came. I was a notary public. I couldn't divorce them, but I notarized a lot of papers," he says.

And until a post-9-11 federal security clampdown shut the open and friendly border here, half the clientele came from the isolated Mexican river towns just to the south.

"This is what made Lajitas what it was then. There was a human quality. The Border Patrol knew the Mexicans had come over to buy groceries and would leave, and the Mexicans knew if they went past Lajitas, they'd get picked up. So everyone could live with the arrangement," Ivey says.

The all-night dances with Mexican bands and the barbecues that drew hundreds from both sides of the Rio Grande to the trading post remain fond memories for those who knew Lajitas back when it was still a dusty, out-of-the-way outpost.

"The most fun was the dances. They'd play all night, and some would get a little wild. It wasn't unknown for the sound of gunshots to disperse a certain crowd in the wee hours," says Mike Davidson, a former rafting guide who first visited Lajitas in the mid-1970s.

"It was a symbol of the two cultures joining, and of course the border closing kind of ended that. It brought together two communities, a place where you saw your friends from San Carlos. You could go over on a Friday and have a beer, and all the workers would be there cashing their checks," he says.

The new trading post has three times the shopping space, a new wraparound porch of rough cedar and bright tin, and a community room with a large table for customers to relax, read and visit over drinks.

"The reaction from the locals has been mixed. I think there was panic in the beginning because they thought we'd bulldoze it or paint it or something that would kill the historical character," says Daniel Hostettler, the manager of the Lajitas resort. "We wanted to preserve the original building, gunshots and all, so we just scrubbed it down and put a sealer on it."

Hostettler says most of the old general merchandise, from home appliances to hardware, has been moved out, and the new focus is to create a place for people to buy food, sip coffee and visit.

"We've tried to bring back the aspect of what it used to be, a community store without the televisions and microwaves. We're putting back in a potbellied stove. It will be more a high-end mom-and-pop grocery store," he says.

Besides the gourmet foods, the trading post shelves hold ample selections of ordinary groceries: Froot Loops, corn flakes, Ranch Style Beans and Miracle Whip.

"Twenty percent of the inventory is the fancy foo-foo stuff. The rest is for the locals," says trading post manager Charlie Jenkins.

Amid all the change, one of the few constants at the trading post is the presence of Clay Henry III, the scruffy billy goat renowned for his adept handling of icy longnecks.

Like his father before him, the beer-loving goat, which is kept in a metal pen near the trading post, is a tourist favorite for his enthusiastic ability to slug down cold beers.

But the question looms. What will happen the first time someone offers him a sip of vintage merlot? Even though the trading post has gone upscale, Jenkins doubts that Clay Henry III will follow.

"I seriously doubt he'll drink it," he says. "He won't sip it. He doesn't sip. He chugs."

The trading post overhaul is just the latest phase of Smith's expensive bid to make Lajitas into a destination resort. Since he bought it at auction for $4.25 million almost four years ago, Smith has pumped at least $60 million into the project.

The dusty old movie-set resort with its rough wood boardwalk has been augmented by a host of upscale amenities.

They include a shimmering desert golf course, a 7,500-foot jet strip and the million-dollar Ocotillo Restaurant.

So far, Hostettler says, the resort project has yet to turn a profit, much less repay Smith's deepening investment, but Smith remains committed to making Lajitas into "the ultimate hideout" for wealthy guests and corporate clients.

Some, however, wish Smith had left the trading post alone.

"It was the last connection with Lajitas' past," says Davidson, the former rafting guide. "Maybe it has a wonderful, bright future, but it seems like if they wanted to have a grocery store, they could have left this from a cultural preservation standpoint."

Ivey, whose father once owned Lajitas, likewise wishes the changes now remaking the once-isolated border stop where he passed his boyhood had spared the trading post.

"The changes in Lajitas don't bother me much because I have such wonderful memories," he says. "I still feel that way, except for the trading post. There are some things you just ought to leave alone."

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