Ramble on, Rambling Boy

THE RAMBLING BOY

You should be reading Lonn Taylor’s Rambling Boy column in this space where it’s been for 15 years, but one of the Lone Star State’s greatest storytellers and historians unexpectedly passed away the evening of June 26 at the Fort Davis home he shared and enjoyed with his wonderful wife Dedie, where they lived life to its fullest and took us all in at one time or another to enjoy life with them. I say unexpectedly because while we could see some decline in his recent health, he was out and about in Marfa a couple times a week, still filing his newspaper column and reading it live on Marfa Public Radio, still planning to attend a historical marker dedication in Fort Davis on the 4th of July that he helped secure, still planning another book project or two. We saw Dedie and Lonn as recently as Saturday, June 22 when they rambled over from Fort Davis to wish me and Rosario, my wife and business partner, farewell in publishing this gem of a weekly newspaper for 30 years and to welcome new owners Maisie Crow and Max Kabat. Only God knew that our last issue publishing the Sentinel would also be Lonn’s final column.

Lonn came on our radar after he and Dedie “retired” in Fort Davis in 2002 and we read his column in a start-up weekly newspaper in Alpine that turned out to be short-lived. After it folded, he called me up and said he’d decided the Sentinel could publish his column from now on. Rosario and I were tickled pink.

I may have been his editor, but Lonn was a mentor, because historians and journalists are a lot alike, in search of the truth no matter where it takes you and presenting the idea to readers in an engaging way, serious when it needs to be serious, and entertaining when it needs to be light. Those were good lessons learned.

We got off to a rocky start.

I began my journalism career in 1980 at the Odessa American and continued at the El Paso Times from 1985 to 1988, before Rosario and I took a leap of faith and landed in Marfa. Reporters at both papers were required to craft a suggested headline on their articles before submitting to the editors. That’s the drill I learned in the pre-internet days of newspapering and that was the editing policy established when we came to run the Sentinel. When Lonn’s first column came without a headline, I was upset. Rather than reply to his email in which the column was attached, I called him up. “Lonn, I got your column but where’s the headline?”

“That’s your job,” he shot back, his falsetto-like voice piercing the speaker and gently putting me in my place, an instructive moment as some say today, that this practice was just editorial laziness. He reminded me that publishing is a collaborative effort, and it was my responsibility to read his column, understand the topic, correct any typos, give him a call or email in fact-checking, and then slap on the best headline I could come up with. His often-quirky stories lent all sorts of possibilities for wordsmithing over the years. It became a highlight of Wednesday production, and I’d share this fun task with our reporters, to spread the joy, as Lonn wanted.

Beneath his genteel demeanor and his impeccable credentials as a historian, Lonn was a political activist, informed when he moved to Austin in the 1960s and fell in with the musicians, artists, writers, and creatives who were flocking there at the time. That permanently sidelined his academic career, creating his path of advocacy history, righting past wrongs if he could. His actions and his columns reflected his crusades.

“The most shameful event in the history of the Big Bend occurred at Porvenir, Texas on the night of January 27, 1918,” Lonn wrote in a 2004 column. “At about midnight that night a group of Texas Rangers belonging to Company B, stationed at Marfa, rode into Porvenir. They were escorted by 12 soldiers from Troop G, 8th United States Cavalry. They had told the troop’s commander, Captain Henry Anderson, that they were looking for evidence that people from Porvenir had been involved in the recent bandit raid on the Brite Ranch.” Three people were killed at the nearby ranch on Christmas Day, 1917.

Despite no evidence that Porvenir residents had taken part in the raid, “the Rangers separated 15 male villagers from the woman and children and, marched them into a dry creek bed just north of town, and executed them with pistol shots,” the column continues.

Then Lonn makes a call to action. “History is a record of what happened. People do not always act admirably or honorably, and so all history is not uplifting. But it is important to remember that human beings can be stupid and brutal as well as wise and heroic. The Texas Historical Commission has erected 12,000 historic markers at sites across the state. I think one should be erected at Porvenir, telling what happened there. And I think it should include those 15 names,” Lonn’s 2004 column concludes.

It took 14 years, but a Porvenir Massacre historical marker was installed along the U.S. 90 roadside at the Presidio and Jeff Davis county line last year.

On this Fourth of July, the Jeff Davis County Historical Commission – of which Lonn was a driving force – will dedicate a roadside marker in Fort Davis describing the history of the neighborhood of Chihuahuita, which had its origins in the 1890s when migrants from Chihuahua, Mexico settled there. It was the Fort Davis barrio, like the south sides of Alpine and Marfa.

The story of these early Hispanic settlers is now told.

Lonn’s final crusade was to oppose this grandiose plan by an Austin music and events promoter to stage a large outdoor music, art and cultural festival on ranch land just north of Marfa in the coming year, said to bring up to 5,000 or 6,000 festival goers the first year and growing in size the following years. That’s more than twice the population of Marfa in year one, and in addition to the impact thousands of visitors descending on the area would have on the public and private infrastructures of Marfa, Fort Davis, and Alpine, opponents were first to remind promoters that a spark from one careless smoker can start a wildfire in Far West Texas. The 2011 Rock House Fire was ignited by an electrical spark on a windy day and the rest is history. It charred everything in its path, including homes, livestock and wildlife as it burned 300,000 or more acres in a fiery swath from Marfa to Fort Davis.

“Marfa is facing a David-and-Goliath battle of unprecedented importance to the entire Big Bend,” Lonn began his March 28 column of this year under the headline, “Not a C3 Presents Marfa festival fan.” He went on to list all the reasons this festival is a bad idea. The column went viral.

But he’d visited this scenario before, in the early years of Marfa’s reinvention as an art, music, theater and literary town––in addition to being a ranching community. There was concern that Marfa would become another Santa Fe, and that meant losing its soul to nothing but the commercialization of art.

“Marfa the next Santa Fe?” he wrote in a 2004 column. “I sure hope not. Marfa right now is what Santa Fe was about in 1920, a small western town full of individualists, some of whom are artists. Somewhere along the way, Santa Fe lost its innocence and sold its soul. Folks in Marfa have too much of a good sense to let that happen here.”

Let’s keep Lonn’s final crusade alive.

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Robert Halpern is the publisher emeritis of The Big Bend Sentinel. He can be reached at[email protected]


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