Thursday, November 21, 2013

Traveling to Big Bend, 1940

One of our favorite books is the WPA Guide to Texas, published in 1940.  A product of the New Deal, intended to employ writers and increase spending in travel across the state, it offers a unique view of life in our area and what it took to travel across our region just 70 years ago.

One driving route began in Marathon, with a 1940 population of 750.  It is described as a

"treeless, arid, mountain-bound, has many unpainted adobe houses, and is the supply center for the vast ranching country, extending almost across the 5,935 square miles of Brewster County, covering the Texas Big Bend."
White sedimentary rock outside Marathon
 noted in the 1940 WPA Guide to Texas

The book goes on to describe the route to Big Bend, then on State 227, roughly following the route south through Persimmon Gap and the area of Big Bend National Park, known as Panther Junction.

Starting at Marathon:

"State 227 and all the side roads are unimproved dirt roads, usually passable except during the rainy season (August and September) when care should be taken at creek beds, draws and dips.  THE TEXAS BIG BEND CAN BE SAFELY BY THOSE WHO DRIVE CAUTIOUSLY AND FOLLOW THE MAIN ROADS.  MANY SIDE ROADS APPEAR, BUT ONLY WHERE RECOMMENDED, ARE SIDE TRIPS ADVISABLE.  THE ROUTE IS PASSABLE WITH TRAILERS ONLY ON THE MAIN ROUTE.

"This area is geologically called the Marathon Basin--one of the oldest sedimentary formations on the North American Continent.

South of Marathon State 227 follows the general route traversed by Spaniards in their exploration of the most forbidding part of New Spain.  Earliest expeditions were made into the Big Bend in 1583.  Many others, during the years that followed, ended in tragedy when starvation and thirst took their toll.  Penetration into this region was slow, as one writer said, "The tide of Spanish exploration split upon the rock formed by the Big Bend country and ebbed and flowed along either side."  Besides barren deserts and formidable wastes, a living reason for this existed:  the fierce mountain Indians, who were as savage as the land they had taken from earlier cave dwellers.  Hence every mile that is covered now by automobiles once was gained only by daring and ingenuity."

Heading south on State 227:

Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park
"The route traverses the southern part of Brewster county, largest in the State, with an area of almost 6,000 square miles. Yet so thinly populated is the area that rarely are more than 30 votes cast in the lower Big Bend. Neighbors travel a hundred miles or more to attend dances, barbecues, or fish frys.  (Channel catfish in the Rio Grande attain great size, and furnish a favorite basis for entertainments.)
Adobe ruin near the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park

Luna's Jacal in Big Bend National Park

Isolation is as great a barrier between the Big Bend and the outside as the jagged mountain ranges.  Only the hardiest of men and women brave the loneliest of desert ranches, which range in size from a thousand to a half-million acres; few venture close to the untenanted banks of the Rio Grande to farm irrigable lands.  Virtually all houses are made of adobe bricks; the non-Latins have store-bought furnishings, but the Mexican inhabitants have only what they have made by hand.  Cottonwoods grow along the river, pinons, firs and oaks in the mountains; timbers are transported on burros to sunbaked jacals, where crude beds, tables and chairs are whittled out."

Stay tuned...we'll be sharing more passages from this great 1940 travel book in the coming days and weeks! 

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