We discovered Stillwell Ranch when, as we often do, we stopped on a whim. This time, we were on our way to Big Bend National Park in south Texas, when we decided on a detour to visit the Black Gap Wilderness area. Along the road we came across this sign:
At this point we were as far away from any sign of civilization as you can get in Texas. We had driven past hundreds of miles of "ranch" country and we had just been commenting to each other how ranching out here must be pretty tough.
We had no idea who Hallie was, but decided to find out. The sign on the door read: "Ask for the key at the store."
The Stillwell Ranch Store, just adjacent to the Hall Of Fame, was equally intriguing, with a great front porch where real people sat visiting in rocking chairs in the morning sun. It seemed like a page from a bygone era.
We were told the Hall of Fame/Museum was free to tour, but the key wasn't
necessary, as the door was already open. Inside a couple about our age were
dusting and vacuuming and introduced themselves to us as Anne and Eldon
Whitford; the "cleaning crew."
After only a few minutes talking with this delightful couple we realized that actually they were just doing the cleaning as a favor. In fact they were guests at the RV campground here at Stillwell Ranch, and also musicians. They would be putting on a free performance this evening here in the museum, and we'd be more than welcome if we wanted to stick around.
The museum itself seemed well-suited for a concert with comfortable seating for perhaps 30 or more people.
Meanwhile we were invited to tour the museum and watch a video. From this we learned all about Hallie Stillwell and Still Ranch and we were quickly hooked.
Raised a proper southern belle, Hallie was not prepared for the difficulties she encountered when she met her husband and moved to ranch in this tough west Texas landscape. Widowed early and raising her children on her own, she refused to give up on ranching and soon became a legend all across Texas. Her story confirmed our earlier thoughts about just how tough ranching was, and still is, in this remote part of the country.
The museum is full of treasures from the past that recognize Hallie as the most famous Texas ranch wife of the century.
The incredible story of Hallie and the still family-operated Stillwell Ranch was just featured in an article by Dale Weisman in the January 2008 edition of Texas Highways magazine.
We asked Anne and Eldon further questions about the ranch, the store, and RV campground as they are now. The Whitfords are from Michigan, and like many of the RVers here in the modest Stillwell Ranch campground, they come back year after year to stay for several weeks or even months. It soon became apparent these campers all come back not so much for the scenery or the sunshine, but because they met and fell in love with Hallie Stillwell.
Until she died just a few years ago, at nearly 100 years of age, Hallie was here everyday to entertain and play hostess to all guests of this still operating ranch.
Today, Hallie's son-in-law, W.T. Potter and her granddaughter, Nan (Nanette) Patton continue to run the ranch, store, campgrounds, and museum in the same tradition. According to Anne and Eldon, many of the RVing patrons who return year after year to Stillwell Ranch contribute by lending a helping hand around the store and museum in whatever way they can. Why would people do this on top of paying for their campsite?
Once we met Nan, who apparently is a lot like her grandmother, we realized the answer. It's because people share a love for this place; for Hallie; and for Nan and her father.
Although we were scheduled to meet up with friends at Big Bend National Park, we booked a $10.00 campsite (it included hot showers) and stuck around to experience the comradery for ourselves. The day ended with a wonderful evening of music by Anne and Eldon, who turned out to be very talented musicians. They play some folk and country, but mostly cowboy music.
Eldon is actually somewhat of a Gibson guitar aficionado; so much so that
Gibson has named a very expensive guitar after him...The Eldon Whitford
Guitar...but maybe we're just easily impressed.
Stillwell Ranch is just one example of the places we discover on our travels that somehow hook us. If we had not been committed to meeting up with our friends, who knows how long we would have stayed?
The morning we left we were drawn into the workshop area by the sounds of John Finlay from Alpine picking up his guitar. He was playing "Waltz Across Texas," a song for which Randy has been wanting to learn the words. Other people were going for their guitars to join in. What could be more appealing than an impromptu jam session in an (outdoor) workshop full of tools?
This seemed like the sort of thing that happens often here.
Another example of what happens in this RV community: As we were saying our goodbyes, someone was heading into Alpine, the nearest town of any size, which is an 80 mile round trip. All the other campers were gathering around to add their items to the shopping list.
After hugs from Nan, Anne, and Eldon, we did leave but promised to return 4 days later to attend a Monday night barbeque and dance under the stars. This is part of the annual Big Bend Area Stillwell Ranch Trail Ride and Wagon Train which takes place every February. You don't have to be part of the trail ride to join the fun.
The invitation sounded so good! We hoped to convince our friends to come back to this event with us. Little did we know that by Monday night I'd be in El Paso, to catch an early morning flight to Manitoba for my brother's funeral.
Since the trail ride barbecue is an annual event, we've already decided we'll time our next trip to take in this party and also enjoy a longer stay at Stillwell Ranch! The 2009 Trail Ride dates are Feb. 7th to 13th, with the barbecue and dance on Mon. Feb 9th.
No matter what time of year, no one visiting the Big Bend area should pass by the opportunity to visit the museum, meet Nan, and experience the ranch.
Thanks Nan! Meeting people like you is what makes our trips! You're definitely Hallie's granddaughter and when it comes to meeting good people on our travels, you are the real thing!