15: West Of The Pecos
Hightower From San Antonio U.S. Route 90 heads due west through the small towns of Hondo, Uvalde and Brackettville before it meets the Rio Grande River in Del Rio. Whenever I head out that way I make sure to fill up in Del Rio because there won’t be another gas station for a hundred and twenty miles.
That isn’t to say there isn’t anything past Del Rio. On the contrary, I find it to be one of the more compelling parts of the state. The landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert is breathtakingly rugged, and when you cross the Pecos River, you do so on one of the tallest highway bridges in the state. The Pecos River Bridge spans a canyon 850 feet wide and 270 feet deep.
It makes you realize that the term “west of the Pecos” actually means something.
What does it mean? Well that’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the fifteenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.
I’m Brantley Hightower.
The first place you come to after crossing the Pecos River is the town of Langtry, Texas. Langtry was established as a camp in the 1880s to support the construction of a new transcontinental railroad. Never a particularly large or prosperous community, only about a dozen or so people actually live in Langtry today. Many of the homes and buildings that line its now-deserted streets are in a state of ruin. It would be easy to assume Langtry is a ghost town - were it not for the surprisingly large visitor center that dominates the north side of town.
In addition to its spacious, air-conditioned lobby and its sparkling clean restrooms, the modern facility also features a series of dioramas that tell the history of the region. Behind the Visitor’s Center there’s an interpretive trail that takes you though an expansive cactus garden that features the native flora of the Tran-Pecos region.
The center is run by the Texas Department of Transportation. It’s one of the twelve Travel Information Centers it operates. Most of these are located on major interstate highways near the borders of the state, but that’s not the case in Langtry. Here the Visitor Center is located half-a-mile off a highway through the middle of nowhere.
So what’s going on? Was there some crooked elected official of dubious morals who succeeded in putting Langtry on the map?
It turns out there was. You can visit his house right outside the Visitor’s Center. You can also visit his saloon, courtroom and billiard hall. If you press a big red button you can learn all about it.
Prerecorded Voice Welcome to the law west of the Pecos! This little ol’ building, saloon, courtroom and billiard hall was Roy Bean’s headquarters when he was the law west of the Pecos…
Hightower The official name of the Visitor Center in Langtry is the Judge Roy Bean Visitor’s Center.
Roy Bean was a colorful - if relatively minor - character in Texas history. Born in Kentucky in 1825, in his early years Bean made his way to California as he sought to outrun the trouble he seemed to always find himself in. He had shot a man in Mexico, for example, and later found himself imprisoned in San Diego for shooting a different man. He managed to escape from prison and while making his way back east to Texas he shot and killed a third man and almost got himself hanged as a result.
Once back in Texas Bean worked as a blockade-runner during the Civil War and later moved to San Antonio where he operated a saloon in a pretty nasty part of town. After his marriage fell apart Bean, decided to light out for the territory and head out west.
West of the Pecos to be exact.
Although he may have been a shady character, Roy Bean was a savvy businessman. He had a good sense of what people wanted. And so when he decided to set up shop in a camp built to support the railroad that was being built through southern Texas, Bean made sure to bring along ten barrels of whiskey.
Railroad camps were pretty rough places – especially when they were located in remote locations. Where Bean ended up was 200 miles away from the nearest court so even if a Texas Ranger captured some lawless ruffian, there was no place to take him to be tried.
And so in 1882 when it was decided that a local Justice of the Peace was needed, Roy Bean volunteered. This was in spite the fact he had no training or background in law – other than the times he himself had found himself on the wrong side of it.
This is the point in the story where the line between fact and fiction becomes a little blurry. Bean started calling himself “The Law West of the Pecos” and used his saloon as a courtroom. It was a simple wood cabin with a broad porch on its south side. He called it the Jersey Lilly after Lilly Langtry, a famous British actress at the time. The town of Langtry wasn’t named for her. It’s name came from a completely unrelated railroad engineer, but that didn’t matter to Bean. Next to his courthouse and saloon he built a house for himself that he called an “opera house”, presumably in hopes of luring the actress to Langtry.
What Bean never built was a jail to incarcerate the criminals he convicted. As a result he would simply levy fines - and most of those fines he pocketed himself.
That aside, Bean was by most accounts a reasonably fair judge. He was reelected to his post several times and if his judicial approach was more intuitive than is generally accepted today, that approach was exactly what was needed on the frontier of Texas in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Despite his somewhat dubious beginnings, he did in the end help stabilize the frontier. And even though he was only a judge for fourteen years - that was plenty of time for a legend to be born.
When Judge Roy Bean died in 1903 there was some question as to what would happen to his saloon and courthouse.
Lee … there were attempts by some of the locals to keep the saloon open but they all failed.
Hightower That’s Lee Hoy. He’s the current Supervisor of the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center in Langtry, Texas.
Lee …the building just kind of sat in a state of disuse for a period of years until 1936 when the building was given to the state Department of Transportation. In ‘39 they restored the building and basically you could drive right up to it… It just functioned basically as a roadside rest area...
Hightower Even if Judge Roy Bean’s saloon and courthouse had been reduced to a roadside attraction, Bean’s celebrity was on the rise.
In 1940 the film The Westerner was released. It featured Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean and in this particular telling of the story, he was the villain…
Cooper Don’t Make a move judge. I’m coming down to get ya’.
Brennana Come a shootin’…
Hightower I don’t want to give away the ending but it involves a shoot-out with Gary Cooper.
In the 1950s Bean’s reputation was revisited in a TV show called, simply, Judge Roy Bean. The exposition that opened every episode seemed to imply that Bean was singlehandedly responsible for taming the Wild West:
Narrator During the 1870s, the wildest spot in the United States was the desolate region west of the Pecos River. Virtually beyond the reach of the authorities, the railroads, then pushing their way west, attracted the most vicious characters in the country. It was said that all civilization and law stopped at the east bank of the Pecos. It took one man, a lone storekeeper who was sick of the lawlessness, to change all this. His name was Judge Roy Bean.
Hightower The show was canceled after just one season but things worked out OK for the actor who played Bean. Edgar Buchanan went on to play Uncle Joe Carson on the CBS sitcom, Petticoat Junction.
The fictional Judge Roy Bean went on to appear in a number of other TV shows and movies. One even starred Paul Newman:
Perkins My Bible, please. Mister, uh...
Newman Roy Bean. Judge Roy Bean. I am the law in this area.
Perkins What has qualified you as such?
Newman I know the law. And I have spent my entire life in its flagrant disregard.
Hightower Every time some fictionalized version of Judge Roy Bean appeared on screen, the legend of the real Judge Roy Bean grew larger and larger. More and more tourists would make the pilgrimage out to sleepy Langtry, Texas to visit the place where the real man had lived. And so in the late 1960s the Texas Department of Transportation built their first visitors center.
Here again is Lee Hoy.
Lee The original building was built in '68 and it was staffed with travel counselors who provided literature and travel counseling, state maps, and people...in '96, '97 the visitor center was updated and they built the restrooms, the wall. They did a lot of improvements and then over time, our walkways, our stone, that was added. The judge's house for many years was a frontier museum, an oddities-type store that was eventually acquired and added to the grounds…
Hightower Many people today first learn about the museum and visitor center from the signs out on US Route 90.
Lee They usually come off the highway and our signs up the highway say "Museum," so most people expect to pay some kind of an entry fee. They're very surprised and often shocked to find that we are free. Everything at the facility is free; the travel literature, the museum, the buildings, the park. So it's a wonderful stop and we also have restrooms and they're the only restrooms for 60 miles to the west and 30 miles back to the east.
Hightower Lee Hoy became the Supervisor of the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center in 2015.
Lee As supervisor, I'm responsibly for day-to-day management of the staff. I am responsible for the facilities and grounds, making sure that they're well kept, that they're kept in good shape.
Hightower Lee was not born in west Texas. He was actually born in Oklahoma, but he was familiar with the story of Judge Roy Bean. He learned about him like most people do – from reruns on TV.
Lee I was very aware of Roy Bean from an early age. My dad was fascinated with old west history and wartime history. So watching westerns were on frequently at my house, and I've always had an interest, read a lot. As a kid, of course, separating the myth from reality sometimes is harder. And I knew of the Jersey Lily. I knew of Langtry.
I would look at maps, and think how bad I want to go down there. My family, we never made a trip down. But my first time here, I was just kind of taken aback by the place, by the specialness, by the peace, by the quiet, by the remoteness.
Hightower Lee would often visit Big Bend National Park and when he would, he would always make a point to stop at the visitor’s center on his way out west.
Lee Before I ever got the job here, I would often sit at the picnic table out here with my wife, and say, "Wouldn't it be cool if…I mean, wouldn't it be great if…to live out here, and work out here?"
One day I was looking through the Texas Department of Transportation job listings. I have a Masters in regional state planning. So I was a transportation planner. I saw Langtry, I could not believe my eyes, had to do a double take. Saw it was a supervisor for the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center… I was just like, “Wow. This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
Hightower And so Lee moved from north Austin to the rugged land out west of the Pecos. I asked him if he missed anything about his former suburban life.
Lee I have to admit, I don't miss anything about it other than people. I tell everybody, "I think I'll live 5 to 10 years longer just because of the peace." I can sit on my front porch and watch the Milky Way at night. I don't have to lock my residence, my vehicle. Crime is just basically non-existent.
Hightower It perhaps sounds like Judge Roy Bean succeeded in taming the land west of the Pecos after all.
Lee I rarely go in my house. Because soon as I get home, I want to go walk around and enjoy the wildlife and the scenery, and the beauty of where I live in Sanderson. And for me, I think it gives us a chance to really take in a lot of what west Texas has to offer. People who've never been out here don't understand that we're surrounded by mountains, by topography, by elevation change, by canyons. I mean, some of the most beautiful vistas are just a mile from here.
Hightower When Roy Bean headed out west he did so to escape a marriage and other trouble he had encountered in the more civilized world. When he built his courthouse and saloon and became a judge, he was actively reinventing himself. It was something the west offered to people back then. It’s something the west still offers to people today. It’s something it offered Lee Hoy at a challenging time in his life.
Lee I too had gone through a divorce. I had been a pastor and chose to step down. I lost a lot financially, emotionally, relationally and whatnot, going through it.
Hightower Moving out west offered Lee an opportunity to hit the “reset” button on his life and start anew in a place where he could be more connected to himself and the land.
Lee I think the downside about typical suburban life is you really don't have a connection to the land. You may have connection to certain stores, or certain activities, or festivals, maybe a park if you're really into it. But when you live out here, you do have a connection to the land, because the land is so dominant. So in that standpoint, I suppose in some respects I started anew.
Hightower Most people who visit the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center don’t ultimately move out to the land west of the Pecos. But they are trying - at least for a weekend - to get away from something. That is, after all, what a vacation is all about.
Lee 99% of the people who stop here are trying to get away from “it.” Whatever “it” is. It might be a job. It might be a relationship. It might be debt. It might be difficult children. We don't know.
Hightower But what we do know is that there are some places where you can still get away from it all. West Texas is one of those places.
The term “West of the Pecos” may have become a trope in western movies and TV shows, but as is the case with most clichés, it exists because it contains a fundamental truth. There is a wildness to the landscape west of the Pecos that transcends the history and the legend. A hundred and fifty years ago it was a place where you could go to completely reinvent yourself.
And to hear Lee Hoy talk, it’s still a place where you can still do that today.
Thanks today to The Texas Department of Transportation and Lee Hoy at the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center in Langtry, Texas. The music today was by Chris Zabriskie with clips from The Westerner, Judge Roy Bean. And The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
This episode has had a lot more gunplay than usual for this podcast. Still, before we go I think we should have a little more.
The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today – including historic and contemporary photos of Judge Roy Bean place in Langtry - at Hi dot Works.
Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.