Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.
UNDER SLEEPING LION:
LONN TAYLOR IN FORT DAVIS
(APPROX 1 HOUR)
Right now, spring 2015 I'm wrestling with the draft, but if you're listening sometime in the future this book may have already been published. I invite you to visit my webpage, cmmayo.com to find out all about it and by the way, listen in to all the other Marfa Mondays podcasts and find out about my several other books, the most recent of which are Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and his Secret Book, Spiritist Manual and a novel based on the true story of 19th century Mexico, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.
By those titles, you probably can guess that I love history. For anyone in any way interested in the Big Bend, historian Lonn Taylor's column for The Big Bend Sentinel, "The Rambling Boy," is both delightful and essential reading. You can find "The Rambling Boy" online at BigBendnow.com and some of these columns have been collected in Texas, My Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy and Texas People, Texas Places, More Musings of the Rambling Boy. Both titles are available from TCU press.
Lonn Taylor retired to Fort Davis with his wife, Dedie, after 20 years as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. He received a BA in history and government from Texas Christian University in 1961 and did graduate work at New York University before returning to Texas to enter the museum field. He's the author or co-author of several other books including Texas Furniture: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work; The American Cowboy; New Mexican Furniture; and The Star-Spangled Banner.
C.M. Mayo: What brought you to the Big Bend and Fort Davis?
Lonn Taylor: Well, I first came out here when I was 16. We were living in Fort Worth, which is what I consider my hometown. My father was a highway engineer for the US Bureau of Public Roads. He had come out here to inspect a highway job. I think it was probably US 90. This was in 1956 and it was in the summertime and Dad liked to take me on trips with him summers and so I rode out here with him. We spent about four days here. We stayed in Alpine, we stayed here in Fort Davis. As a matter of fact, we stayed in a motel in Fort Davis that was in the officer's quarters at the fort. That was run by an old gentleman named Bish Tweedy who had been made the caretaker of the fort by the Historical Society which was leasing the fort. He had turned the first four officers' quarters into motel rooms to help pay for the upkeep of the fort. That was my first visit out here.
I'd never seen a volcanic landscape like this. It just made an enormous impression on me. I especially remember Mitre Peak, which was the only mountain I had ever seen that was actually shaped like a mountain.
C.M. Mayo: Like a big triangle.
Lonn Taylor: It went up to a peak, exactly. So, I remembered this many, many years. I never came back to the Big Bend until the mid-1960s I made the trip out here with some college friends. Then fast forward about 45 years and in 1993 I had to come to Alpine on Smithsonian business. We were talking about producing some kind of cowboy poetry program at the Smithsonian. So, I got sent around to look at cowboy poetry gatherings and there was one at Sul Ross [State University] and so I came out to that. It was real early spring, it was in February but everything was green and creeks were flowing and it was just absolutely beautiful.
So, going back to Midland to the airport on Sunday morning I stopped here at Fort Davis in the drugstore and called Dedie on the phone, my wife in Washington, and said, "Dedie, just sell the apartment, quit your job, get out here. This is the place!" At that time, we were a few years away from retirement but we were thinking about it. So, when I got back to DC, Dedie said, "I want to see this place that you like so much."
So the next year we took a three week vacation in the Big Bend. We went everywhere. We stayed at the Gage Hotel in Marathon. We stayed in the Chisos Basin. We stayed here in Fort Davis, we stayed in Marfa. We even stayed in Presidio. We just had an absolutely wonderful time.
Of all the places that we visited, we liked Fort Davis the best because of its size and its topography and this mountain right here in the middle of down. That's called a mountain.
C.M. Mayo: We're looking out the window at
Lonn Taylor: Sleeping Lion Mountain. If you look at it from the north it does look like a mountain lion with its paws out in front of it and it's head down on its paws. So, we loved it! And so we decided that if we really wanted to consider retiring here, we ought to come back the next year and just spend two weeks here in Fort Davis and kind of try to figure out the rhythm of the town and what it was like.
I had a friend named Larry Francell, who I knew through the museum world. He was the Assistant Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Dallas, and his wife came from an old Fort Davis ranching family. I mentioned to Larry what we were thinking about doing and he said, "Well, Beth and I will come out and spend a week with you and show you around." So the next year we came out and we rented a room at the Limpia Hotel for two weeks. Larry and Beth came out and they took us around and introduced us to all of Beth's family. They're the Millers and they're an old ranching family. They took us down to Beth's great-uncle, I guess, Clay Miller. He has about a 60 thousand acre ranch south of Valentine and we spent a day down there. Another uncle, Kimble Miller, is the real estate man I mentioned earlier.
I think there were two things well, there were three things really that decided us that this was the place we wanted to be. Clay Miller and his wife live on this very isolated ranch, and they had a huge library and clearly loved books and loved literature and were extremely fine conversationalists. We just had a wonderful time with them. I thought, if this is your average Big Bend rancher, they're all fine people. Of course, it turned out that Clay wasn't average at all but he is a wonderful man, and we enjoyed our visit with him immensely. I always take visitors down there when people come from the north who want to know what ranching is all about.
The second thing was the public library, which at that time was in the old jail. They had an English literature cell, and they had a southwestern literature cell, and an American literature cell. And each cell had book cases in it and a big easy chair and a reading lamp. I thought, it's nice and cool in here in the summertime. I could just see myself sitting in one of these chairs and reading all day. And they had one of my books in the southwestern collection so I figured that was all right.
Then the third thing was that Larry took us to the newspaper office to meet the editor. The newspaper office was a little kind of one-room shack just off the town square. It's a little wooden building, Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch. It's a one-person paper. It's put out by one man who does everything. So we went over there, over the period of a week, three times to see him and the door was wide open, there was nobody there. There was 300 thousand dollars worth of computer equipment lying around. In Washington, we lived in an apartment building in a very nice part of town and Dedie and I were both on the Garden Committee. If we were working in the flower beds on Connecticut Avenue and went in to get a drink of water and left a trowel lying there, it was gone when we came back. And I thought this is a throwback to the 1940s! It was wonderful!
So when we finally retired this is where we ended up, and we really never looked back. We love it.
C.M. Mayo: What year did you come here?
Lonn Taylor: We moved here in 2002. Dedie and I both retired on the same day. She was working for the Chronicle of Higher Education and I was working for the Smithsonian and we picked the same day to retire. Loaded up a moving van and got in our car and headed west. We've been here ever since.
C.M. Mayo: But you get out a lot to do your column.
Lonn Taylor: Well, I drive around the Big Bend a lot and we travel a good deal. We make a big trip nearly every year. Dedie has a sister who lives just outside of Oxford in England and we go over there every two or three years and spend some time with her. She comes here. She loves to come here.
C.M. Mayo: What do you do in Fort Davis? What is there to do besides [go to] the public library?
Lonn Taylor: Well, I actually am working harder I think than when I got paid for working. I do a certain amount of museum consulting. I help people with exhibits and with museum planning and with historic houses. I write a weekly column for the Marfa newspaper [Big Bend Sentinel] and I write a monthly column for Texas Monthly Magazine. I've been working for some time on a memoir about my childhood in the Philippine islands and I need to finish that while I can still remember everything. I volunteer at the fort. Fort Davis is a national historic site run by the National Park Service.
When I first moved here I served on the board of the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross. Dedie was on the school board for the past two years. There's an enormous amount of volunteer work that can be done here. You know, it's a small town. There are 11 hundred and sixty people here. I've never understood how they calculated that because it's an unincorporated town, there's no city limits but somehow the census people have determined that that's the number of people that live here. Since we don't have any city government nearly everything is done by volunteers.
C.M. Mayo: There's no city government? There's no mayor?
Lonn Taylor: No. No. Our public services are provided by the county. The county maintains the city streets, the sheriff maintains law and order.
C.M. Mayo: It's that small.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. It's a county seat.
C.M. Mayo: Do you go up much to the observatory?
Lonn Taylor: We go to the observatory occasionally. Neither one of us are big amateur astronomers. I mean, we like to look at the stars, but we don't particularly care what their names are. [LAUGHS]
C.M. Mayo: You'd think that would be a draw in this area for some people.
Lonn Taylor: Well, that is a big draw. There are a lot of amateur astronomers who live here. There's a subdivision between here and the observatory called Limpia Crossing. Someone told me one time that there were something like 40 amateur astronomers that maintain telescopes out there. In fact, the largest privately owned telescope in the world is at Limpia Crossing.
C.M. Mayo: The stars here are so bright.
Lonn Taylor: Oh, the stars, that was a big attraction. If you look at one of these satellite maps of the United States at night, the East Coast is a solid band of light and then there's this big, black hole out here in West Texas. It's the darkest place in North America. That's probably not true. It's the darkest place in the United States.
C.M. Mayo: How do you see this area as really different from the rest of Texas?
Lonn Taylor: Well, you know, Texas is as big as France, bigger than France, and it's an extremely diverse place geographically and ethnically and in every way. So, every place in Texas is different from someplace else in Texas. But I think what makes the Big Bend unique is that for many, many years it was the most isolated part of Texas. There were two east-west railroads that ran through here, but there were not a whole lot of people that lived out here because the land is very inhospitable. You really can't farm on it. People think they can raise cattle out here and some people do, but it takes about 100 acres of land to support one cow and her calf, which is why some of these ranches are 200 to 300 thousand acres. It was the last part of Texas to be settled. The population didn't really begin to grow out here until the 1880s when the railroads came. As I said earlier, it's volcanic and it's the only part of Texas that's volcanic.
C.M. Mayo: Culturally, Texas I was born in Texas but I'm not culturally Texan. I grew up in California, all of which is to say, I'm a native Texan but I don't really understand Texan culture.
Lonn Taylor: [LAUGHS]
C.M. Mayo: It seems a mix of western and southern, and then things that are like, when I look at Marfa, it seems Californian to me.
Lonn Taylor: It's very hard to generalize about any culture, as you know. I think that Texas is basically a southern state. That Texas was the westward extension of the cotton kingdom, it was a slave state, it was a Confederate state. Now, my bias may be that my own family came here from the Deep South to grow cotton and they were slave owners and they all fought in the Confederate Army, but that's a different part of Texas entirely. They settled out on the Gulf Coast, which is like Mississippi or Alabama.
The cattle business did not really come to Texas until after the Civil War and most of the ranchers out here came, or their ancestors came, from South Texas and drove herds out here in the 1880s. So I think they were largely southern and their attitudes. Some of those attitudes are unfortunate. There's a racist attitude towards both African-Americans and Mexicans.
C.M. Mayo: You've written about that in some of your columns.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. It's regrettable, but it also, I think, marks Texas as a southern state rather than a state like Colorado or Montana or Wyoming.
I think that one characteristic maybe of all Texans and it may be the only characteristic that unites all Texans is a fiercely independent attitude. Texans don't like people telling them what to do. [LAUGHS] As the song says, they hate correction and instruction! [LAUGHS] And the ranchers that came out here in the 1880s I think came largely to get away from civilization and people who were telling them what to do.
And I think that's one reason that the ranching culture and the art culture blend so well in places like Marfa, because the older timers here admire independents and independent thinking. The young people who are flocking to Marfa are certainly independent and independent thinkers. And there's a good deal of mutual respect, I think.
C.M. Mayo: That's an interesting point. Well, one thing I've noticed, and I don't know much about this but, if you buy a piece of land in a lot of places out here I understand it's not subject to any kind of zoning. You can just build what you want on it.
Lonn Taylor: I think there's an aspect of Texans not wanting people to tell them what to do. Texas does not have any state zoning legislation, only municipalities have the power to pass zoning laws. Counties do not have zoning authority. So there's no zoning at all in Jeff Davis County because there's only one incorporated municipality in Jeff Davis County and that's the little town of Valentine, which has a population of 200. Marfa has zoning ordinances but the rest of Presidio County is totally unzoned.
C.M. Mayo: I was asking someone out there the other day, could you build thus-and-such out here? He said, "Oh, you could put a seven story building." I thought, well! But I can't imagine anybody would.
Lonn Taylor: It's a delicate situation because we love Fort Davis just the way it is. You just kind of have to trust your neighbors to have good sense and respect for their surroundings. On the other hand, it's kind of attractive to think that if we ever had a financial crisis, we could build a Tastee-Freez right there and supplement our income by selling snow cones or something.
C.M. Mayo: You could just put whatever you want right there. That's wild! Well, that's the Wild West. [LAUGHS]
I was going through your columns trying to think how could I group them together to think of how to ask you about them, but they're all over! Every column's a surprise!
Lonn Taylor: Well, you know, I guess I think of myself as writing at least three different categories of columns.
My favorites are the ones where I talk to somebody who's really interesting and write about them. And that involves a lot of work because you've got to call somebody up, you've got to make a date with them, you've got to go see them. And occasionally there'll be a total dud. You'll start asking people questions and they answer in monosyllables. But most of my interviews have resulted in pretty good stories.
I think my favorite person-to-person column is the one about Bill Dodson.
C.M. Mayo: The candelillero. [Someone who makes wax from the candelilla plant.]
Lonn Taylor: Exactly. When you write a thousand word column you want a snappy ending. He gave me, I think, the best ending I've ever had for a column. I mean he's a 70 some-odd-year-old Anglo. He said, "You know, there are a lot of ranchers out here that will tell you that they made wax and they're not telling the truth. They watched Mexicans make wax. I am the only Anglo who ever made wax out here and I'll tell you I did not volunteer!" Because he was a child when he was doing it. He was child labor for his stepfather.
C.M. Mayo: Speaking of lines though, the opening of that piece and the opening of many of these columns the opening of that piece is, "The other day, I sat at a kitchen table in Alpine and talked with a man not much older than I am who grew up in the 19th century."
Lonn Taylor: You like that? I like that!
C.M. Mayo: I loved it.
Lonn Taylor: Thank you. [LAUGHS]
C.M. Mayo: But what brutal work. That was such a big part of the economy out here for many decades but it's horrible. The heat, boiling all that
Lonn Taylor: Tromping around and boiling sulfuric acid in a pair of sneakers was no fun.
C.M. Mayo: Just harvesting the plants and the weather out here. Just nasty. It's not easy walking around out in the Big Bend.
Lonn Taylor: No, it's not.
Then the kind of column, if I can't find anybody interesting to interview, I kind of fall back on stories about my old family or people I knew as a child. I think of that category, my favorite and the one that seems to be a favorite when I do readings is the one about my grandmother, who grew up on a cotton farm and, among other peculiarities, was convinced that electric appliances had malign characteristics. Among other things, she thought that your watch would stop if you got on an electric streetcar. She lived with us most of the time I was growing up and when we lived in Washington, right at the end of the war, she would go blocks out of her way to avoid getting on the streetcar and take a bus instead. My father would point out that he took a streetcar to work and back every day and that it didn't affect his wristwatch. She would say, "Well, my brother Will got on an electric streetcar in Austin in 1891 and as soon as he sat down his watch stopped and that is it."
Then if I get really stuck because I've got a weekly deadline, I'll write something about Texas history because I've got a big library here. And there are a lot of good Texas history stories. You know, Texas history is taught in the 7th grade in Texas. It's a required 7th grade course. And then it's taught again in high school I think in the junior year. What is taught in classrooms is really a series of sort of cardboard cutouts that were devised in the late-19th century to teach little Anglo children to be proud of being Anglos. I try to show how complex Texas was in the 19th century, a place with all kinds of people. Of course, there was a very large Spanish-speaking population. There was a large German population, Czech immigrants. There was a huge African-American population that just completely gets dropped out of standard history at least the history that people my age learned. I try to tell stories that reveal that complexity.
C.M. Mayo: The Henry O. Flipper story?
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. Henry O. Flipper is a good example. There's a lot of misinformation about Henry O. Flipper. I mean, Henry O. Flipper deserved to be dismissed from the Army. He wrote a hot check and he lied to his commanding officer. It was not racism that caused Flipper to be dismissed from the Army but the amazing thing to me about Flipper is that he then went on and built a very reputable career for himself as a mining engineer and an expert on Spanish land grant documents.
C.M. Mayo: Your column was "The Epic of Henry O. Flipper" and he was the first African-American graduate of West Point and he was posted here in Fort Davis.
Lonn Taylor: That's right.
And then he had some trouble with the money.
C.M. Mayo: He came up short...
Lonn Taylor: Well, the Army had a peculiar system. They didn't have any finance corps in the Army back then as they do now, and so, officers were assigned financial responsibilities that they were not necessarily qualified for. Flipper was assigned to be the quartermaster officer, which meant that he was in charge of purchasing supplies for the fort, and he handled a lot of money. The thing that has never been explained is that there was a quartermaster's safe in the quartermaster office but Flipper chose to keep all the cash in his own quarters in a trunk. He was a very popular young officer not only with the other officers but with the townspeople here in Fort Davis. He had people in and out of his quarters all the time. People would come over there and visit. They'd sit up and drink until all hours. So he came up short about I think two thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in the 1880s.
He had to file a monthly financial report with the commanding officer. Rather than just going to the commanding officer and say he was short, he falsified those reports for two or three months, thinking, I'm sure, that he would find some way to get the money and make everything even. But his commanding officer, who was Colonel Benjamin Grierson, asked him point-blank if he had sent the money to the bank in San Antonio. He said yes, he'd sent it all to the bank which he hadn't. I'm misspeaking a little bit, it wasn't a bank; it was the Army headquarters at Fort San Houston that he had to send the money to. And the headquarters at Fort San Houston reported to Grierson that the money had not arrived. Grierson had first thought that there'd been a stage robbery, which were frequent out here then, but he found out that wasn't the case. So the jaws of the military justice system began to close around Flipper.
He then wrote a check on a bank that he did not have an account in. You know, at that time, you could get what were called counter checks and you wrote out the amount and then you wrote the name of the bank in and [he] tried to make up the money that way, and of course, the check bounced because he didn't have an account in that bank. So he was court-martialed and charged with both conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman and embezzlement. He was acquitted on the embezzlement charge because it could not be proved that he had taken the money and used it himself. But he was convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman because he'd lied to his commanding officer and written a hot check.
C.M. Mayo: But then President Clinton pardoned him in 1999, many years after his death.
Lonn Taylor: He did, and that was due largely to pressure brought by Flipper descendants and various black activists.
C.M. Mayo: Why did they feel that Henry O. Flipper had misrepresented [the situation to] his commanding officer?
Lonn Taylor: I think he was afraid. He was very young.
C.M. Mayo: How old was he?
Lonn Taylor: He was in 20s. He was just out of West Point.
C.M. Mayo: It seems to have an epic quality to it, as you said in your column.
Lonn Taylor: There was absolutely no racism involved and most of the people who have written about Flipper, it turns out, have never read the court-martial documents. I do think it's an epic because of his redemption. The odd thing is that he himself, when he got to be an old man, he wrote a memoir and claimed that racism had forced him out of the Army. He began to think that way himself. He actually became kind of obsessed with his Army problem and he applied for a pardon, I think seven or eight times, and they were all rejected.
C.M. Mayo: What did he say had happened to the money?
Lonn Taylor: He never said. The general theory among historians who looked into it is that somebody who was visiting in his quarters took the money out of the trunk.
C.M. Mayo: But he never had any idea who it would have been.
Lonn Taylor: No.
C.M. Mayo: I wonder if he wasn't protecting somebody.
Lonn Taylor: Could be. Who knows? He had a servant of course, as all officers did and it may have been some enlisted man who took the money.
C.M. Mayo: Some of the other columns you've done are really interesting in the regard of bringing up some of the the secret historians for example. There's a couple of really interesting columns about the secret historians, which is to say the people writing about the Hispanics who came to the region because this region wasn't really populated until people started moving in at the same time, both Anglos and Mexicans.
Lonn Taylor: Well, there was a very mysterious man named Victoriano Hernández who had a ranch down on Alamito Creek, about halfway between Marfa and the Rio Grande. He was evidently there in the late 1850s or early '60s. I can't remember if it was 1870 or 1880 census, he is among the five wealthiest men in Presidio County. His occupation is given as "ranchero." He evidently had a lot of vaqueros [Mexican cowboys] working for him, and a lot of cattle.
C.M. Mayo: But he wasn't recognized with a marker.
Lonn Taylor: No. [LAUGHS] I'm actually going down to interview his great-great-grandson sometime in the next couple of weeks.
C.M. Mayo: Who still lives there?
Lonn Taylor: Well, he lives in Casa Piedra but the Hernández house is still standing. Oddly enough, it belongs now to a family named Russell, who are Hispanics. They're descendants of Victoriano Hernández but there was a very early Anglo settler here named Russell who married a Mexican woman, as did all the early Anglo settlers here. I always tell people the oldest Hispanic families in Fort Davis are named Heartnett, Webster, and Dutchover.
C.M. Mayo: [Laughing] I'm laughing because that reminds me so much of Baja California, where some of the old families are named Davis. Smith.
Lonn Taylor: All descended from English settlers.
C.M. Mayo: From sailors but the family is Mexican and they've been there forever.
Armando Vasquez, whose book is I Well Remember. I love that book.
Lonn Taylor: Oh yeah, oh, Armando is just wonderful.
C.M. Mayo: I tried to interview him the last time I was here and he had the flu. I hope to get him the next time I'm here. I loved his book. I wasn't able to go in because of course it was closed but the museum he keeps on Casa Piedra Road, I saw that from the highway. La Plata.
Lonn Taylor: Armando is related to the Russells.
C.M. Mayo: Another one was Juan Manuel Casas who wrote
Lonn Taylor: Federico Villalba's Texas. He traces the family ancestry back to Romans who lived in a place called Villa Alba. White Villa, in other words, in Latin.
C.M. Mayo: The other one I thought was really interesting that you wrote about in your column was "Tony Cano's Marfa." He wrote the biography of his great-grandfather, Chico Cano, who was a famous bandit.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. I've never been able to get a copy of that.
C.M. Mayo: Oh, I have a copy.
Lonn Taylor: Have you got a copy?
C.M. Mayo: Yeah.
Lonn Taylor: It's interesting to compare Armando's autobiography and Tony Cano's novel.
C.M. Mayo: The Other Side of the Tracks?
Lonn Taylor: It's a fictionalized account of his own growing up.
C.M. Mayo: In Marfa in the '50s, when it was segregated.
Lonn Taylor: I've talked to him on the phone but I never met him. But he is still very bitter about the racism that he encountered. He is a little bit younger than Armando, but Armando does not have a bad word to say about anybody. And I'm inclined to think that a lot of perceived racism has to do with your own personality, you know? Admittedly, Armando grew up out in the country where he really did not have any childhood experiences with racism. I think he told me that he came to Marfa after the war, after he got out of the Army and he was refused service in a barbershop in Marfa, but the guy said, "Oh, no, you need to go to the Mexican barber." So Armando said, "Oh, okay, I'll go to the Mexican barber," and he didn't make a big deal out of it. You know, that was it.
C.M. Mayo: You know, a lot of people younger than myself don't even know about segregation and when they first hear about it, they're shocked. But it ended in 1964, isn't that right?
Lonn Taylor: There was never legal segregation in Marfa, meaning segregation of Mexican Americans. So there's no real ending date. There was customary segregation. There were two grade schools, a Mexican school and an Anglo school. There was only one high school because it was never assumed that a Mexican would go to high school in Marfa. Tony Cano's book is about being among the first Mexicans who went to the Anglo high school. But the movie theaters were segregated in that Anglos sat in the center and Mexicans sat on each side.
C.M. Mayo: When did that end?
Lonn Taylor: Well, it's hard to say. I actually could not give you a date. Sometime in the 1960s. Now, segregation between whites and blacks in Texas, of course, ended theoretically in 1954 with Brown v. Board [of Education] in schools and then in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But I went to a segregated high school in Texas in 1957. I went to a segregated Christian college and graduated in 1961 so there was a lot of foot dragging.
C.M. Mayo: Albert Alvarez, secret historian.
Lonn Taylor: Oh, Albert is just you need to go talk to him.
C.M. Mayo: That's my favorite column.
Lonn Taylor: He is a wonderful man.
C.M. Mayo: He's in Pecos.
Lonn Taylor: He's in Pecos.
C.M. Mayo: He writes "Recuerdos de mi pueblo" [Memories of My Town] for the local
Lonn Taylor: Well he did, yeah. I don't think he's doing it anymore. I'm not sure there is a local Pecos paper anymore.
C.M. Mayo: And he's got them all gathered together and they haven't been published as a book?
Lonn Taylor: No. They're all on yellow legal pads.
C.M. Mayo: Oh my God. I hope those are saved.
Lonn Taylor: He told me that some big eastern university library that was trying to build up a Chicano history collection called him and said, "Can you send me your discs?" He said, "What do you mean discs?" He'd never heard of computer discs. He said, it's all on yellow legal pads! And he showed me. He's got two or three footlockers in his study. He opened them up and they were just full of legal pads with pencil writing on them.
C.M. Mayo: This is the kind of thing that just makes me feel like I can't breathe. It's like when you look at history I mean, from my own projects I have stories like this and I'm sure you've seen many more than I have where you realize, it's like this little bottleneck, and if that is lost, this whole world is lost.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah, yeah. Well, Albert's images were so vivid when I talked to him. He talked about these trucks going through the Mexican section of Pecos to pick up the cotton pickers early in the morning and people calling to each other from the back of the truck saying, "Get up you lazy bastards!" A voice would come out of the house saying, "No, I'm not working today!"
C.M. Mayo: You also wrote about the two Garcías. Dr. Hector P. García of Corpus Christi, who founded the GI Forum, and then Gustavo García
Lonn Taylor: I never met either one of them but I certainly heard a lot of stories about Gus García. I knew people in San Antonio who had known him.
C.M. Mayo: Huge figures in Mexican American history.
Lonn Taylor: Oh, yeah.
C.M. Mayo: They ended up very differently. Gosh, there are so many I could comment on. I love the one you did on Colonel [Martin] Crimmins, the rattlesnake venom man.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah! [LAUGHS] He became a volunteer curator at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. I think he lived to be nearly 90.
C.M. Mayo: He came up with the venom for rattlesnakes from his own blood. But when he did his rattlesnake venom that was out in El Paso, right?
Lonn Taylor: I think he was at Fort Bliss.
You also wrote
I'm still coming back to the secret historians
here... You wrote about the Ronquillo grant.
C.M. Mayo: That's a telenovela. That's a soap opera!
Lonn Taylor: You know, the one thing that I never was able to find out is if the Chicago speculator actually paid the several million dollars for the grant.
C.M. Mayo: It was this wild thing cooked up by a Mexican army captain back when it was just the Apachería, nobody could actually use the land.
Lonn Taylor: There was so much land fraud here in the early days and that fellow, Leaton, was a master at it. He was a very sleazy character.
C.M. Mayo: This is Ben Leaton of Fort Leaton. He was a trader right on the Rio Grande.
Lonn Taylor: He built that fort where the Chihuahua Trail crossed the Rio Grande. You know, like everything, there's conflicting evidence about him. The Army hated him. The Army records say that that place was a nest of thieves and all sorts of stuff went on there that was illegal. The Mexican governor of Coahuila said the same thing. But various travelers who stopped there and knew him only as a very genial and hospitable host, they wrote good things about him.
C.M. Mayo: That was the time when the Comanches and Apaches were robbing cattle in Mexico and then bringing it back to sell.
And Victor Ochoa got involved in the Ronquillo Grant. He's another character from the time of the Revolution.
Lonn Taylor: He's an interesting guy, isn't he?
C.M. Mayo: And his papers are at the Smithsonian.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. He had a granddaughter who placed them at the Museum of American History.
C.M. Mayo: Well, coming back to your columns, you have a lot of columns about Marfa. And I love that you went and interviewed, say, Adam Bork and Krista Steinhauer of the Food Shark which is really good by the way!
Lonn Taylor: It is! [LAUGHS]
C.M. Mayo: That's a Marfa institution.
Lonn Taylor: I always think of it as a regimental mess because you can see anybody you want to see in Marfa if you just go to the Food Shark at noon. [LAUGHS] Do you know about the Filipino restaurant in Marfa?
C.M. Mayo: No.
Lonn Taylor: You know where The Capri is? The Capri is that big kind of event space that's catty-corner from The Thunderbird. It's usually empty. It's a place for dances and wedding receptions but in the past few months, Jenny Leberman and her new husband, they have started a restaurant in the building behind the Capri, which is part of the Capri complex. They've leased it two days a week to a Filipina chef who has assembled a whole kitchen full of Filipinos from Presidio and they're preparing the food of my childhood. It's absolutely wonderful! You can go in there, "pansit" is a rice noodle that's served with vegetables and little cubes of pork and it's absolutely delicious. You can get pansit in there on Sundays and Mondays. Then they take Tuesdays off, and then from Wednesday through Saturday it's leased to another chef who serves fried chicken and kind of southern comfort food.
C.M. Mayo: I had heard about the Filipinos in Presidio a while ago
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. I've got to get down there and do a column on that.
C.M. Mayo: I would love to read that column. Well, I had understood that they had come as school teachers.
Lonn Taylor: They did. The school district began recruiting Filipinos.
C.M. Mayo: And they won a prize...
Lonn Taylor: Science teaching a national science teaching prize and then they were trying to deport her. There was some irregularity in her papers. Pete Gallego got it fixed.
C.M. Mayo: He was the congressman.
Lonn Taylor: He was the congressman from here.
C.M. Mayo: In writing all these columns that you've done, surely you've got a different impression now than you had before you came here?
Lonn Taylor: Oh, yeah.
C.M. Mayo: What did you learn? What surprised you?
Lonn Taylor: That's a very good question. Well, I learned that it was more complicated and more complex than I thought it was.
C.M. Mayo: I get that from your columns. How you'll go into these stories like everything from the Food Shark to Rube Evans and polothat surprised me!
Lonn Taylor: Who would have ever thought that they played polo in the Big Bend? That was something I knew nothing about.
C.M. Mayo: Polo came to the US through the military in Far West Texas. I never would have imagined that.
Lonn Taylor: Well, I knew they played polo in San Antonio. They played it there because the Army was there but it just never occurred to me that they would also be playing polo at Fort Davis and Fort Bliss and Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa.
C.M. Mayo: You talked about how they went down to play in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park back in the '50s...
Lonn Taylor: It was when Miguel Alemán was president, that was in the '50s. The Mexican army used to come up to Fort D.A. Russell and play polo in the 1930s.
C.M. Mayo: Who'd have thought?!
Coming back to your column, some of the ones that really surprised me are where you interview some really unexpected and unusual people. One was Rube Evans and polo, and the other was the Propeller Man, Ray Hegy. "The Propeller Man of Marfa."
Lonn Taylor: I learned about him from Georgia Lee Cole. If you haven't met Georgia Lee, you need to. Georgia Lee comes from an old ranching family here. Her grandfather was a man named Jones who owned five or six big ranches here. Georgia Lee married a man named Fritz Kahl who came here with the Army during World War II and was a pilot trainer and met Georgia Lee during the war, and stayed here the rest of his life, and ran a charter airplane service. So, Georgia Lee started telling me one night about this man who made propellers. I said, I never heard of anybody making propellers. I didn't know that's the way they were made.
C.M. Mayo: Yeah. He made them by hand?
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. He made them by hand. So I said, "Can I go interview this guy?" Georgia Lee said, "Well, he died about four years ago, but his house is still vacant. He made the propellers in a shop behind his house and I can take you over there." So we got in my car and it was only a couple of blocks from her house. Here's this little frame house with the yard all grown up, you know, and clearly vacant. I started to park by the curb and Georgia Lee says, "I think if you pull into the driveway nobody can see our car." I said, "Oh, okay." [LAUGHS] So, we pull into the driveway and she said, "Keep going back." We got back behind the house and here was this little frame shop where he did his work. Georgia Lee said, "Let's go see what we can see through the window." So we got out of the car and went and peered through the window. Georgia Lee went over to the door and she says, "I think if you just push on this door it'll open," to me you know, she wasn't going to do it herself! So I pushed on the door and sure enough we walked into the shop. All his tools were still there. There were propellers leaning up against the wall and his workbench. There was a huge metal clip that had all his work orders on it. Georgia Lee said, "I think these belong in the museum," and she reached up and pulled them out of the clip and put them in her purse! She's 80-something. I didn't want to touch anything, you know. So, I made a bunch of notes and we left. And ever after that, every time I see Georgia Lee she says, "You got any more houses we can go break into?!"
C.M. Mayo: That's a wonderful piece. At the end you really explain why this is really important history for aviation and for the town.
Lonn Taylor: I guess I like discovering and writing about the unexpected. Everybody kind of has a stereotype of Marfa either as the cattle town where they filmed "Giant" or a contemporary art center. I like discovering things that don't fit into that stereotype.
C.M. Mayo: There are two others that when we were talking about the secret history I should have brought up that I thought were so extraordinary. You wrote a piece called "Lee Bennett and Marfa's History." She was a high school teacher and she organized the Junior Historian Chapter in Marfa in 1966 and got the kids to do oral history with their parents and grandparents. And so these are really the only records of the history of Hispanic Marfa.
Lonn Taylor: That is where most of it is. I think that also the Catholic Church has records that I haven't been able to get into. One of the things I've learned from that, Marfa did not have a large Hispanic population until the Mexican Revolution. Of course there is no 1880 census of Marfa because the town wasn't organized. There's no 1890 census because the 1890 census records were all burned. But the 1900 census shows about a 10 percent Hispanic population, if you just count everybody that's got a Spanish last name. But [in] the 1920 census it shoots up to like 60 percent, and this was the result of refugees coming across the border. You know about the Battle of Ojinaga where there were five thousand civilian refugees?
C.M. Mayo: Yeah, they walked from Presidio to Marfa. And they had to figure out how to feed them and take care of them.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. A lot of those people just kind of melted into Marfa. But there were others that just came on their own. There were a lot of stories in those Junior Historian papers about people's grandfathers loading up a buggy and a wagon in Ojinaga or Monterrey or Chihuahua City or someplace, and just heading north.
C.M. Mayo: You must have a lot of columns ready to go, or do you come up with them at the last minute?
Lonn Taylor: Well, I try to stay a couple of weeks ahead but sometimes I'm right down to the wire. I've never missed a deadline! And I've now written I think I'm on about number 680-something.
C.M. Mayo: No all-nighters to finish?
Lonn Taylor: [LAUGHS] I can't write at night. I start about 4:00 a.m. and I'm pooped out by noon.
C.M. Mayo: You're always up that early?
Lonn Taylor: I've gotten up that early all my life. You know, I grew up in the Philippines and the sun comes up there at 5:00 a.m. And as I said, my grandmother lived with us and she was an old farm girl and she got up about 4:00. She didn't believe our cook could make coffee, and so she would go back in the kitchen and make herself a pot of coffee, and she would wake me up going past my bedroom door and I would get up and join her. I've just done that all the rest of my life.
C.M. Mayo: So you were born in the Philippines?
Lonn Taylor: No. I was born in South Carolina.
C.M. Mayo: And then you went to the Philippines?
Lonn Taylor: We went to the Philippines when I was six.
C.M. Mayo: And you were there until?
Lonn Taylor: Until I was 15.
C.M. Mayo: That's a really formative time to be there. Where were you in the Philippines?
Lonn Taylor: In Manila.
C.M. Mayo: Have you been back since?
Lonn Taylor: I've never been back. I don't really want to go back.
C.M. Mayo: I'll bet it's really different now.
Lonn Taylor: Oh, I've kept up with a lot of my classmates and they say that Manila is just awful. The air pollution is horrible. Traffic is horrible. The peace and order situation is so bad you're liable to get kidnapped if you get in a taxi cab.
C.M. Mayo: When you were there it was more like a small town?
Lonn Taylor: It was a big city but it wasn't as big as it is now. There weren't as many automobiles. They still had horse-drawn-they call them kalesas, little two-wheeled gigs. There were some streets that were so narrow you couldn't get an automobile into them.
C.M. Mayo: Wow. Do you have a title for your memoir about growing up there?
Lonn Taylor: Well, the first line of the Philippine National Anthem is "child of the morning."
C.M. Mayo: That's a good title.
Lonn Taylor: Yeah. I thought that was a good title.
C.M. Mayo: What years were you there then?
Lonn Taylor: From 1946 to 1955.
C.M. Mayo: 1946, is right after the war!
Lonn Taylor: The whole city was in ruins. Most of my classmates were kids who'd been interned and sent to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp by the Japanese.
There was a woman named Mary Bright who was a year behind me actually, but her father was a Viennese Jew who was a chemist. He had gotten out [of Nazi Germany] right after Anschluss [Germany's union with Austria in 1938], he and his wife. His wife was a college graduate of some kind, and they came to Manila and he was employed by an American chemical company. So when the war started that company evacuated all their American citizen employees, but left him and his wife behind. The company closed down, so they didn't have any income. Mary said, "My father was a very smart man and he figured out that even if there was a war on, people had to take baths. He set up a soap factory in their home and made soap out of copra," which is the shell of a coconut, which was plentiful in the Philippines. But then he had the problem of, how am I going to market my soap? And his wife, who was this high-born Viennese woman, walked to the market every day and sold soap on the sidewalk. This was a woman who'd had servants all of her life.
C.M. Mayo: Extraordinary.
Lonn Taylor: One thing that growing up that way taught me was that people are infinitely resilient. People can adapt to almost anything. It was a good lesson to learn as a young person. The downside was that until I was in my 30s, I thought it was perfectly all right to hate all Japanese. Because people in the Philippines were very, very bitter about the Japanese occupation not just Americans who lived through it, but Filipinos themselves. That's something that I've struggled and struggled to overcome. At one time, I thought when I was in my 20s, I thought I would take a trip to Japan and visit national parks because Japan had a fabulous national park system. I thought, any country that could produce beautiful national parks can't be all bad. But I never did.
C.M. Mayo: I just can't imagine coming to the Philippines in 1946.
Lonn Taylor: What I remember most vividly was that the whole city was in ruins. I have a photograph that was made the first night that we were in Manila. I was six years old. My father's office had arranged a big bienvenido [welcome] banquet at the Manila Hotel. My parents didn't know that they were going to do this so there was nobody to look after me and I got taken along to the banquet. So there's a photograph of all these people in jackets and ties sitting at a long table and me at the end of the table although the photographer put me there. I'm wearing a coat and open-throated shirt and little white suit, I think. And the wall behind the table is obviously canvas, army shelter halves that are buttoned together. When Dedie first saw that picture she said, well, that's an elegant looking banquet but why is that wall canvas? I said, because there was no wall there. It had been blasted away during the liberation and it hadn't been repaired and they just had canvas hanging there.
C.M. Mayo: Well that's what strikes me as so interesting about history and that comes out for me in your columns and what you said in answer to my question about what surprised you is that is seems like we get these ideas from school. These are the French people, these are the German people, this is Latin America, this is this, that's that and it all seems very orderly. But when you put a microscope on it
Lonn Taylor: It's a lot more complicated!
C.M. Mayo: It's sometimes extremely surreal.
Lonn Taylor: And I delight in that! [LAUGHS]
C.M. Mayo: Yeah, I do too!
That might be a good place to end our interview. I look forward to continuing to read your columns.
Lonn Taylor: Well great. Great. I've enjoyed this immensely.
C.M. Mayo: Well, thank you.
C.M. Mayo: Thanks for listening. This has been podcast number 17 of a projected 24 podcasts. Listen in to all of the podcasts any time at cmmayo.com/marfa. Until next time.