Book Review– Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company

Terlingua is a Texas ghost town, situated between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, known for its eclectic roadside attractions and chili cookoffs. Many of the century-old buildings that comprised the town are still standing. Some as undisturbed ruins, and some, like the Perry Mansion, have been restored as hotels, businesses, and residences.

Howard E. Perry House, Library of Congress.

As an economic historian, ghost towns like Terlingua spark my curiosity about the people who built them and the businesses that once thrived there. To satisfy that curiosity, I ordered Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company. The book was published by historian Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale in 1976, nine years after the town saw its first chili cookoff in 1967, before its subsequent restoration and “gentrification,” and a mere three and a half decades after the company that created the town filed for bankruptcy in 1942.

Ragsdale, having first visited the Big Bend region in 1928, was in the area when the Chisos Mining Company was still operating and thriving. While his interest in the company may have been sparked and his perspective may have been informed by his own experiences and memories, Ragsdale’s well-researched book is underpinned by an extensive survey of secondary works about the company and the region along with dozens of primary sources which include correspondence, government documents, court transcripts, financial records, and interviews.

Ragsdale never interviewed Howard Perry, the principal owner of the Chisos Mining Company, who for the most part controlled it remotely from Chicago and Maine and had passed in 1944. Nonetheless, Ragsdale’s extensive research into his correspondence and years of ongoing interviews with Robert Cartledge, who managed the company in Terlingua, paint a vivid picture of the eternally optimistic and egomaniacal Perry. The book quotes a 1939 letter to Cartledge from the man who ruled Terlingua like a feudal lord from afar, “… no other man in the world could have created Chisos like I had done. And scarcely any man in the world but that would have lost it many years ago.”

Perry, the son of a prosperous Cleveland lumber merchant, built his own fortune and married into another prior to founding the Chisos Mining Company on the Brewster County land that he most likely came into possession of as seized collateral from a bad debt (p. 23). Chisos mined cinnabar, an ore that, when heated in a furnace, yields the liquid-metal mercury. The fortunes of the mining company, as with many such enterprises, eventually declined as the last of the high-yielding cinnabar ore was extracted from its claims a few years prior to Perry’s death.

Ragsdale depicts, in detail, the rise and fall of the company and the town it built. In many ways, the experience of Terlingua was similar to that of many “company towns” where workers “owed their souls to the company store.” Many such enterprises were helmed by men like Perry, largely unregulated, often characterized as “robber barons.” Interestingly, Ragsdale’s history of the Chisos Mining Company gives a glimpse of the inner workings of such an enterprise as the government began to rein in abusive labor practices. For example, in 1934 company was cited for working employees “six days per week, nine hours per day” and flouting a 20 cent minimum wage law paying the majority of staffers approximately 11.1 cents per hour (p. 234).

Along with changes in business regulations and labor practices, Ragsdale’s narrative depicts the changes that technology brought to business and society as a whole. Wagon trains were replaced by trucks, which threatened the livelihoods of independent locals who made their living transporting goods. The advent of mail-order catalogs compromised the market power of the company store, giving “once captive” customers options. For economic historians, details like the markups charged at the Chisos store, which Cartledge reported to Perry were in line with those charged by the Alpine, Texas stores 100 miles north, are fascinating: “groceries, 15 percent; dry goods, 50 percent; hardware, 50 percent; shoes, 60 percent; and jewelry, 100 percent (p. 184).” Ragsdale frequently quotes directly from invoices and ledgers throughout his history of Perry’s enterprises in Terlingua.

The book’s tales of life and times in Terlingua likely mirror those of similar towns, ran by similar men, across the country. However, there is one key point of difference that permeates the book: the mine’s proximity to the Mexican border and its employment of a labor force comprised mostly of people from Mexico or of Mexican descent. Long before historians began to focus on exposing systemic racism in the United States, Ragsdale’s work does just that.

“Perry dictated a labor policy based on an ever-abundant supply of workers from south of the Rio Grande,” the author concludes. “A hungry Mexican,” he quotes Perry from a 1937 letter to Cartledge, “is a good Mexican.” A 1934 letter Perry’s lawyers drafted to seek an exception to federal labor regulations reveals that Perry’s firm was not alone in the disparate treatment and perception of Mexicans, “The needs and tastes of the laborers employed are simple and their wants are inexpensively satisfied. … The prevailing wages in other activities among Mexicans, such as ranching, is room and board only. … The efficiency and productiveness of the labor is not such as to permit the payment of this minimum wage, and specifically in the case of Mexicans performing unskilled labor… (p. 231).”

The Terlingua Jail, a small stone facility which still stands today as an offbeat spot to snap a photo, was reported to only incarcerate Mexicans. According to a caption below a photo of the “Mexican section” of Terlingua, the community was “segregated both sociallly and geographically: Mexicans lived north and east of the company store, Anglos to the west (p. 11, photo section).”

From the personalities of the founders and management to the lives of the laborers to the larger economic and social forces prevailing on the community and the nations it straddled, Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company takes the reader back to the time before Terlingua was a ghost town, starting before it was a town at all. Ragsdale’s book offers detailed glimpses of what the Texas ghost town and our nation once were.

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