- Associated Press - Sunday, December 7, 2014

LANGTRY, Texas (AP) — When a town has more historical markers than families, the handwriting is on the wall. For the dozen hardy souls who remain in this remote settlement made famous by a certain Old West judge, there are few illusions about the future.

“If it hadn’t been for that old reprobate Roy Bean, there wouldn’t be a town of Langtry,” Jack Skiles told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1vloxLL). The 83-year-old Langtry man was born and raised here but soon may be moving on.

More than a century after his death, Bean remains enigmatic, a meld of fact and Wild West fiction, a figure who still draws 40,000 tourists a year to the museum at the Langtry visitors’ center.

Many decades ago, Skiles, author of “Judge Roy Bean Country,” interviewed elderly people who had been Bean’s contemporaries during his reign as the self-declared “Law West of the Pecos.”

“I asked an old lady who had known him well, and she said, “He might have been a murderer, a robber and a thief, but he was good at heart,” Skiles said with a shrug. “He had his son Sam shoot (George) Upshaw in the back and kill him, but he’d see to it that the widows in town had firewood in the winter.”

Once a bustling railroad and ranching hub an hour west of Del Rio, Langtry now is little more than a collection of empty homes and crumbling ruins, reduced to five families, a highway gas station and the state visitors center.

Twice a month, a preacher comes 30 miles from Comstock for nondenominational services at what used to be the Langtry Baptist Church.

The hilltop cemetery, with its old stone and rough wooden crosses amid the prickly pear, has parts straight out of a Spaghetti Western.

“It’s virtually a ghost town now. It’s going to end up like Pandale, Pumpville and Juno,” Skiles said, naming other dead West Texas towns.

These days, Langtry comes to life only in April when up to 100 former residents and their descendants return for the “Old Settlers Reunion,” to eat chicken-fried goat and share memories.

The rest of the time, only tourists streaming into the Judge Roy Bean Museum give it a pulse. The only other visitors are archaeologists who come to study artifacts of the native people who lived in caves in Eagle Nest Canyon.

But the surreal quietude that now envelopes Langtry belies its wild and wooly past. For the intellectually curious, there are rich troves of colorful history in the town.

In the late 1800s, famous Indian fighters like John Bullis and the Seminole Scouts passed through Langtry on raids into Mexico.

Later, when the transcontinental railroad was being built, thousands of Chinese workers camped out there, leaving opium pipes and coins for modern scavengers.

“The Chinese are treated more like slaves than anything else, they are drove round and sometimes used severely if they don’t work to suit their bosses,” wrote a reporter in a dispatch for the San Antonio Daily Express in 1882.

In 1896, boxing enthusiasts from around the country came to witness a heavyweight championship fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Pete Maher. But because it was illegal to hold the fight it Texas, it was staged by Judge Bean on a sandbar across the Rio Grande.

During the Mexican Revolution, armed followers of Venustiano Carranza, one of the leaders of the uprising, camped on the bluffs south of town. Later, during Prohibition, runners with loads of Mexican hooch matched wits with federal agents on the river.

In that early era, construction accidents, train robbers and terrible wrecks were part of frontier life. Men were shot down in the street in Langtry over minor disputes and their killers rarely saw justice.

Even the fearless Texas Rangers were sobered by the lawless atmosphere.

“There is the worst collection of roughs, gamblers, robbers and pickpockets collected here that I ever saw, and without the immediate presence of the state troops this class would prove a great detriment towards the completion of the road,” wrote a Ranger captain from Langtry, then called Eagle’s Nest, in 1882.

The call for law and order led to the appointment of a self-promoting saloon keeper named Bean, who, for most of the next two decades, delivered his own brand of frontier jurisprudence.

Motorists passing on U.S. 90 stop in daily to inspect the Jersey Lilly Saloon, a small wood structure that’s still standing, where Bean “dispensed hard liquor and harsh justice,” according to the signage, from behind a 10-foot plank bar.

On the hill behind the saloon is Bean’s so-called “Opera House,” which upon inspection turns out to be merely a one-room residence. The judge’s long-distance infatuation with English actress Lillie Langtry added an odd wrinkle to his rough-hewn personality.

As fate would have it, Bean died in March 1903, less than a year before Langtry made her only visit to the town he claimed to have named in her honor.

After climbing off a westbound train to inspect the town in January 1904, Langtry was impressed first with the town’s heartfelt if rustic welcome, and then more so with a runaway pet bear.

“I saw the strange sight of a huge cinnamon bear careening across the line, dragging a cowboy at the end of a long chain,” she later wrote, recalling her instant dread that the animal was intended as a gift.

“Happily, before I had time to rid myself of this unwelcome addition, without seeming discourteous, he broke away, scattering the crowd and causing some of the vaqueros to start shooting wildly at all angles,” Langtry wrote.

But such raucous scenes are part of a very distant past. On a recent leisurely drive among the crumbling buildings, only some wild turkeys and a skittish roadrunner broke the stillness.

On the tour, Skiles sketched in the long gone Langtry of his youth.

“This used to be the city park, and when I was a kid it had a croquet court, a dance slab and a water fountain with goldfish,” he remarked, indicating a now empty downtown lot.

“Dodd’s Mercantile sat right there and it was the center of activity. Graham Barnett killed Will Babb right there,” he said, noting a notorious local killing.

And while the visitor’s center, which is run by the Texas Department of Transportation, appears to be secure, a law passed last year gave the state the option of privatizing or commercializing it.

Over the decades, visits have steadily declined from more than 100,000 a year in the 1970s to less than half that now. But a TxDOT spokesman said no changes are planned.

Founded as a railroad stop in 1882, Langtry probably reached its peak population of between 200 to 300 residents in the 1930s. Skiles, who was born there in 1931, recalls three full classrooms at the schoolhouse and a busy downtown when he was growing up.

The reasons for Langtry’s decline are no secret, and have led to the broad depopulation of parts of West Texas over the past half-century, giving it the name, “The Big Empty.”

As diesel replaced steam, the need for rail crews and water stops along the railroad declined. Eventually, the Southern Pacific line, which had run through Langtry, was moved a mile to the north.

Drought and over-grazing made ranching less profitable, and the end of price supports for wool and mohair further reduced the herds. In recent years, many ranchers moved away after selling out to wealthy city folks who use the land for deer hunting.

Eventually the U.S. Border Patrol left town, as did the river riders who patrolled for Mexican cattle. The completion of Interstate 10 in the 1970s, many miles to the north, sharply reduced traffic on U.S. 90.

But as recently as three decades ago, about 30 people still lived there, some by choice, and it was a functioning community.

Neal Wellman, 66, the postmaster, moved here in 1994, long after reading a magazine article about Langtry in 1982.

“It made an impression on me. The history played a large part in piquing my interest,” he said of the article.

“I finally decided to move out here. The rest of my family didn’t want to come out here in the middle of nowhere, so we went our separate ways,” he added.

Back then, Wellman said, a few more families lived in Langtry, and when he became postmaster about 15 years ago, about 50 people from area ranches came to Langtry for their mail. That has since dropped to about 30.

The town’s other elderly couple, Jo and Jesse Gavlik, have no plans to leave, unless they’re forced to by health problems.

“I feel great living here. You either hate it or you love it. There is no middle ground. I like to look out and see the mountains. I like the fact that I don’t hear sirens,” said Jo Gavlik, who is in her 80s.

Years ago, she ran the souvenir shop and husband Jesse ran the restaurant, both closed now. She says the town’s continued decline is quite likely. Only one remaining family has children.

“In 10 years, of course, Jess and I will be gone, as will the Skiles. There will probably be about four people left here,” Gavlik said.

Skiles and his wife Wilmuth, are already preparing to leave, perhaps to San Angelo, where basic medical care and grocery shopping do not require a 60-mile drive, and where company is not such a luxury.

“I’d kind of like to have people around. It’s time to go. It will be easier on me than for him,” said Wilmuth, 83, of her husband.

For Jack Skiles, who has spent all but 20 years of his life here, leaving the town he knows so well and has worked so hard to sustain, will be painful.

“I’m sentimental about it. I hate to see people moving away. I hate to see it go,” he said.

“Of course, it’s home and when I leave here, I won’t have ranch property to prowl around on. Every time someone leaves, we’re just one closer to having no town at all,” he said.

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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