Thursday, January 13, 2011

Woody Guthrie, Big Bend, and making it all up


Woody Guthrie's Seeds of Man was inspired by a 1931 trip the author remembered.... or mis-remembered... in 1947-8. The novel wasn't published until 1976.
By evidence of this rambling tome, Woody Guthrie wrote more about his 1931 trip to Big Bend, than about any other single topic. Although, that may be unfairly comparing songs to prose.
A visitor to the mysterious border wilderness known as Big Bend, where Seeds of Man is set, will not quickly grasp how formative was Guthrie's own visit. He was an impressionable young man in 1931 whose travels thus far had been limited to Oklahoma and Texas. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie took his family gift of music and optimism farther than any Guthrie had before. It some ways, it could be said this magical trip started it all.
In 1941 he was part of the propaganda effort for the Coulee and Bonneville dams on the Columbia River. 26 ballads in 30 days, he had so much creativity coming out of him. His autobiographical novel Bound for Glory came in 1943. As he began to feel the curse of Huntington's Disease in the late 1940's, he typed like a madman on a novel he originally titled Study Butte,calling it "An Experience Lived and Dreamed," the chronicle of a search to look for his family's lost silver claim in the Christmas Mountains.
According to family legend, Guthrie patriarch Jeremiah Pearsall Guthrie, "Jerry P.," had a brother Gid who owned much of what became the Sam Nail ranch. The remains of Sam Nail's ranch buildings, including a still-pumping water well which feeds a desert oasis, were at my last visit (20+ years ago),located a mere five minute walk from Ross Maxwell Drive in the park, clearly marked for tourists.
Jerry P. helped out intermittently on Gid's ranch, chasing cows and guarding his property against Mexican raids. On one of these forays, he discovered ore while stopping to take a drink from a mineral spring. It was assayed as $100 of silver per ton, $10 of gold, plus copper, zinc, mercury and other minerals. Jerry P. left his name on a piece of paper wired to a pile of flat rocks to mark his claim.
Instead of returning to work the claim, he was distracted by news of free Oklahoma land being given to native Americans whose names appeared on tribal rolls. Jerry P.'s second wife had been one eighth Creek, so he figured he had a shot. He moved back to Oklahoma, didn't get the land, and died before he could return to Big Bend.
When I talked with Guthrie biographer Joe Klein about this story, he said, "the idea that Jerry P. Guthrie had discovered a rich vein of silver in the mountains near Uncle Gid's ranch was one of the least likely and most persistent of family legends."
So persistent in fact, that Woody, his father Charley, brother Roy, and uncle Jeff Davis Guthrie, went on a "strange, joyous, memorable debacle" in search of the wealth.
As Seeds of Man describes, they drove from Pampa, Texas to the desert in 2 days in a broken down old Model T. As they drove into Terlingua they saw the mansion of the owner of the quicksilver mine, on the right up on a hill, where it stood when last seen. At my decades-ago visit, the building was occupied by Pam Weir, proprietor of the Desert Deli & Diner in the Terlingua ghost town.
Down below, he saw the adobe shacks of the mine workers, an image that would stick with Woody Guthrie.
Over to the east from Terlingua were the Chisos Mountains, which he would describe from memory 16 years later in his 842-page manuscript.
As the story goes, they came into Terlingua, wended their way to Study Butte, and found their way to Sam Nail's ranch. The tattered maps treasured in the Guthrie family outlined the location of the mine from Nail Ranch. Sam and his brother had found a small pocket of native quicksilver while walking to Alpine through the Christmas Mountains. Although the Nail entourage had been unable to locate the quicksilver pocket on their return trip, word of their discovery eventually led to the Wright mine and

the development of the Terlingua mining district, which extended 16 miles from Study Butte west to Lajitas, and was 5 miles north to south. When the Guthries met up with Sam Nail, they agreed to share the wealth.
Even though traces of cinnabar, or quicksilver ore, had been reported early as 1889, large scale production began around 1903 with founding of the Chisos Mining Company, and was a linchpin of the local economy until 1946 (and then again for a short time in the 1960s).
Of the novel, Joe Klein told me, "he made it all up.... it was maybe that one trip when he was really close to his dad and his uncle, and it was the kind of thing that was mostly bereft in his childhood."

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