Jack Skiles: Keeper of the Legends

Weather front coming into Langtry, April, 2014. Skiles home is under the trees in background.

Weather front coming into Langtry, April, 2014. Skiles home is under the trees in background.

My guests today are Jack and Wilmuth Skiles of Langtry, Texas, located right on the Rio Grande with a view towards the mountains of Mexico. Their house overlooks legendary Eagle Nest Canyon, home to the famous bison jump at Bonfire Shelter (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/index.html), as well as several archaeologically important dry rock shelters, which were occupied by people 4000 years ago or more.  This spring archaeological research is being conducted in the canyon by Texas State University. The Skiles family has preserved the canyon and the historic legend of Judge Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos, for almost a century. Jack has been a steward for the Texas Historic Commission for many years.

Thanks for being with us today, Jack.  Tell us how you learned about Eagle Nest Canyon.   I grew up here.

Jack and Wilmuth Skiles

Jack and Wilmuth Skiles

Dad came out here as a kid, and mother came out to teach school. All the mothers used to let us kids run through the canyons, play cowboys and indians in this old rough canyon, and go swimming. There used to be a good swimming hole with a spring right in front of Eagle Cave. When I was about 10, everybody was doing down for a swimming party. I slipped on a mossy slick spot and cut my chin. Still have the scar. I grew up prowling around and hunting arrowheads in this canyon. Our parents didn’t worry about us falling off the bluff. One of my first clear memories when I was three or four is going down on daddy’s back on the ladder the Witte Museum in San Antonio had set up in the mid-1930s for an archaeological project. Dad had been working with the Witte people and ate lunch with them. Dad said, “Git on my back and we’ll go down.” Mama cried, “No,no, no! Hold tight! Hold tight!”

Jack Skiles talks to visitors in his museum.

Jack Skiles talks to visitors in his museum.

You have a small private museum of pre-historic materials and historic artifacts. How did that come about?  Well, mom and dad had collected some Indian things, and he built an addition on the back of his store to display them. After college at Sul Ross in Alpine, I moved to Monahans and took a part-time job at Sand Hills State Park museum. I got to know Bill Newcome, director of the Texas Museum at the University of Texas in Austin, and took a problems course with him when I was there in 1959-60 on an National Science Foundation grant for teachers. He was working on his pictograph book at that time (The Rock Art of Texas Indians, 1967), and Forrest Kirkland’s paintings were all around the walls of his office. I was real interested in that. So, I’ve also had an interest in museums, archaeology, and rock art, cause I grew up around it.

Storm clouds over the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center and Botanical Garden in Langtry, Texas.

Storm clouds over the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center and Botanical Garden in Langtry, Texas.

How did you start the museum and botanical garden in Langtry? In the early 1970s I went into the Texas highway department in Austin one day, and by the time I left they had offered me a job to start the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Bean) and Botanical Garden here in Langtry. The old saloon was still there, and I had a master’s degree in botany, so I knew the plants.The garden trails were already laid out. They had hauled in a load of giant daggers from Big Bend. I leased about 7000 acres, plus our own ranch, so I went out and gathered the plants. I knew which ones we’d want. I spent a lot of time with locals and old timers learning what those plants were used for. Later they brought in some plants that are not native, but they’re not in the cactus garden.

You also wrote a book about Judge Roy Bean. That’s right. I’ve got another one I want to

Judge Roy Bean Country, by Jack Skiles.

Judge Roy Bean Country, by Jack Skiles.

publish too. We’ve had some famous visitors to the house because of Roy Bean, too. The actor Robert Redford spend a weekend with us one time for a movie they were making. It was hot, so he went swimming in the pool, and when he left, he forgot his swimsuit! So Wilmuth has Robert Redford’s Speedos!  Edgar Buchcanon from the 1950s Judge Roy Bean TV series was here at the dedication of the Pecos Bridge in 1957. Also actor Slim Pickens, he was a funny old guy!  One time dad was swimming naked in his original swimming pool when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas showed up at the door.  He was with Francis X. Tolbert, the writer from Ft. Worth. Dad jumped up and ran to the barn and wrapped himself in a tow sack tied around his waist with rope. And that’s how he met William O. Douglas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_O._Douglas).

What are some of the changes you’ve seen in this area?  Well, when I was born the population of Langtry was

Large catfish head at Skiles Ranch.

Large catfish head at Skiles Ranch.

about 400. Today it’s 14. We used to have a lot of picnics and community suppers, but now we don’t.  There’s hardly any ranching here any more. People can’t make a living. Good for the land. It will replenish without the livestock. Poor for the economy of this area. We still have good well water, but damming up the Rio Grande to build Lake Amistad ruined our fishing. Used to be a beautiful water hole with perch down there. The river used to be 40 feet deep down at Twin Caves. I caught at 48 pound catfish one time. Dad caught one that was 64. Fishing used to be so good, we’d invite people for a fish fry before we even caught ’em! There’s no deep water between here and the Pecos River anymore because Lake Amistad filled it all up full of mud. I could tell you all about that.

You’re right here on the border. How have practical relations with Mexico changed? Untill 9-11 we kept in close communication with people across the river. They kept a boat down there. They’d come and honk, and I’d go down and get ’em and bring ’em up here. For a while there were no deer over here, but there were plenty across the river. We always went over there to go hunting. 9-11 stopped everything. We used to have dope and illegals coming up this canyon. Several came to the door wanting food, and Wilmuth gave ’em food. One day guys were walking down the canyon and I yelled that it’s private property, y’all get out! Made me mad. I got my .30-06 when they acted like they couldn’t hear me. I put a bullet in the gravel bar ahead of ’em and they got out. It was foolish. I shouldn’t a done that.

What are some of the challenges of living here, Wilmuth? The biggest is that we have to go 60 miles to the grocery store and medical care.  And with less population here, it can get lonely.  We had the devil of a time getting TV. We had to go to Del Rio and rent a motel room to watch John Glenn’s first flight, and the same thing in 1969 when NASA went to the moon. Around 1980 we got a great big old dish antenna that finally worked. Jack: I was lucky to have a wife who was willing to move to Langtry.

Claret cup cactus in Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center botanical garden.

Claret cup cactus in Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center Botanical Garden.

What about snakes and varmints? Are they a problem? We’ve had  three mountain lions come up in our yard over the years. I’ve got a picture of one. Now we have a trapper that’s paid by the ranchers for how many mountain lions he kills. Last year that guy caught nine. I haven’t seen a rattler in three or four years. That’s because we have so many road runners that kill ’em. Hawks and owls get ’em too. Little rock rattlers in the canyon are most common, but not in the open uplands. They like it where there’s more cover. Rock rattlers seem rather docile to me. [As we speak there is a line of road runners looking at their reflection in the glass patio doors.]

What would you like to see happen to this canyon in the future? I’ve wanted so badly to get this canyon studied more, so I’m glad the archaeologists are here now.The very best thing would be to have a museum here where the artifacts wold be shown to the public and have tours of the canyon and make sure everything was taken care of archaeologically speaking. I’d like to see my museum stay here. That’s a worry for me. I want to see the stuff protected. I’ve had the canyon rim surveyed for a road so that people could drive around it. But who would take care of it, who would pay for it? That’s a worry for me.



3 thoughts on “Jack Skiles: Keeper of the Legends

  1. OMG!!! My father (who is in a nursing home now) was just last week talking about his early years and he talked quite a bit about Jack Skiles. I got the impression that JS grew up in Del Rio with my dad. I’m going to read this to him next time I go visit (tomorrow or Wednesday)! What a small world.

    • Mr. Skiles went to high school in Del Rio, so perhaps that is how he knew your dad. What a wonderful coincidence!

  2. Thanks for the memories. I’ve visited the Roy Bean museum on numerous occasions and the botanical garden compares favorably with many I’ve seen including the expansive gardens at Sul Ross University.

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