Historic restoration project at Big Bend National Park spotlights Marfans’ adobe expertise

Staff photo by Sam Karas. Individual adobe bricks dry in the sun outside the Alvino House. Keller and Benton’s team have been making 250 bricks a week, and estimate the project will require 1,000 bricks to complete.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — It was barely 10 a.m. and everyone was sweating through their shirts. Temperatures were creeping into the low 90s, but the team was in good spirits, lobbing jokes and laughing to the percussion of metal on plaster. David Keller, an archaeologist at Sul Ross University, was up on the roof, trying to wrangle mud bricks and wet mortar into a straight line — not without a few profanities. 

Silla Marfa’s Joey Benton looked up from his spot in the shade of the scaffolding, a big wet glob of earth plaster balanced on his trowel. “A little crooked, huh?” 

“I’m making it look authentic,” Keller said. 

For most visitors to Big Bend National Park, the Alvino House — downhill from the seasonal ranger station in the Castolon Historic District — is not a destination. Despite its location just a few yards away from one of the busiest roads in the park, only a simple wooden sign marks the rocky path down to the site. Hundreds of people drive by it every day on their way to nearby Santa Elena Canyon without a second thought. 

To Keller, Benton and the crew, it’s a landmark. The Alvino House is the oldest standing adobe structure in the park, dating back to 1903. While it was spared from a wildfire that devastated the area in 2019, little had been done to protect and stabilize the structure in over a hundred years.

The house’s story begins with Cipriano Hernandez, who left his home in Camargo in the late 19th century for the silver mines at Shafter. After striking out there, he decided to try his luck farming and selling produce in the floodplain below what’s now called Castolon. Hernandez started construction on the house in 1901, which doubled in size as it changed hands over the years. Around 1918, Alvino Ybarra — a mason and mechanic after whom the house is named — moved in. 

While the area has always been remote, it hasn’t always been unpopulated. At the turn of the century, there were a handful of villages between Castolon and Santa Elena — “the homes of the area were always well kept, and flowers could be found blooming in the yards in all seasons of the year,” Ybarra remembered in a 1967 interview.

Castolon is now home to a seasonal ranger station and a general store that offers snacks, beer and frozen dinners to passers-by. But there’s much more to its history than a pit stop on the way to Santa Elena Canyon. Military interest in the site was sparked in 1860, when Lieutenant William Echols departed from a camp on the Devil’s River with his men — on camelback.

The soldiers rode camels all the way to Presidio and followed the river to the present-day site of Castolon. The mission was two-fold: to decide if the U.S. military should adopt camels as a form of transport on the southwestern frontier, and to find a suitable camp halfway between the two branches of the Comanche Trail. 

Just before the Civil War, fighting the Comanche was the military’s top priority, and seasonal bands of hunters were known to cross at Lajitas and at Woodson’s, about 20 miles downstream from the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. The camels’ feet were worse for the wear on the rocky, spiny terrain of the Big Bend, but that spot on a hill over the floodplain with spectacular canyon views was exactly what the military was looking for. 

The Civil War diverted attention away from the Southwest, but when the military returned to Castolon during the Mexican Revolution anticipating gunfire and border trouble — the nearby post at Glenn Springs had been ransacked by Villistas in 1916 — they returned to a peaceful pastoral scene. Beans, squash, watermelon, wheat and other crops were being sold out of the Alvino House. The produce served the local community all the way to Terlingua, where workers at the bustling mercury mines were in need of fresh food. 

Barracks were constructed a few hundred yards away, just in time for troops to be withdrawn in 1919. The residents of these remote frontier outposts were accustomed to recycling. An enterprising businessman named Wayne Cartledge bought the abandoned military buildings up the hill from Alvino Ybarra and his family, and opened La Harmonia — a general mercantile whose name reflected the owner’s wishes for the binational, bilingual community he served. 

Ybarra worked as a mason and as a mechanic for Cartledge’s cotton gin for much of the time he lived in the house. In 1957, the house was sold to the National Park Service and fell into disrepair. 

“The park is a natural history park, not a cultural history park,” Keller said. “It’s not any one person’s fault, but there’s been a real neglect of historic structures over the years.” 

He hopes the completed structure will be an opportunity for the park to grow its historic preservation and cultural interpretation programs. “I hope this project inspires them to step up their game,” he said. “I don’t want to do all this work and have no one come down here. I hope it’ll be a destination cultural site when we’re done.”

Despite their reputation for being simple and straightforward, adobe buildings require routine maintenance. “The main thing about adobes is they’re like sponges, and they breathe like sponges,” Benton explained. “Ideally you’d have a yearly maintenance program that takes care of the plaster.” 

Benton, who started out in metalwork and carpentry, has grown his business to include adobe restoration, and has been trusted with a number of historic structures in Marfa, including a series of private homes on Officer’s Row and work with the Chinati Foundation on the Chamberlain building downtown. 

“Every project is its own vernacular. It’s tied to the place that you are. That’s not true of any other kind of construction, but it’s really true with adobe,” he said. “Materials are free, basically — the only real cost in adobe construction is labor. And it’s quiet. It’s really pleasant work. You’re basically playing with mud.”

Luis Madrid, who worked at the post office in Marfa for over thirty years, came out of retirement to work with Benton on adobe restoration projects. “These buildings have been here for a hundred years, and maybe we can keep them going for another 30.”

Keller’s interest in adobe was sparked by his home in Alpine. He spent much of COVID lockdown testing different clays around the region with the hopes of being able to advise Big Bend locals from across the region on adobe projects. “It’ll just melt back into the earth, and that’s how it should be. Not a big pile of toxic crap, which is most of our houses.”

While Keller spends as much time as he can making bricks and plaster, a lot of his work is fundraising behind the scenes. Originally billed as a five-year project funded by the park and Sul Ross, high turnover in park service administration has made applying for funding a turbulent process. Three years in, the project is now funded by the Big Bend Conservancy, a friends organization that supports the park. 

Whenever he applies for funding, he makes it clear that he and Benton’s team are a package deal. “He’s a mud freak, I’m a mud freak, and we work well together.”