Roy A. Jones II reviews Bill Wright’s latest book
If you’ve ever been to the Big Bend National Park, chances are good you heard tales about Maggie Smith.
And chances are better than most of them are true — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Described by many as “The Godmother of the Desert,” Maggie Smith spent her whole life in the Big Bend area of West Texas and was equally respected on both sides of the Rio Grande. When she died in 1965, at the age of 69, her funeral was attended by prominent ranch owners and cowboys, state and federal dignitaries and officials of Big Bend National Park.
Maggie would have been more impressed by the dozens of dirt-poor Mexicans who came to pay their respects, many of them walking for days — more than 50 miles from the interior of Mexico. They picked wildflowers along the way, then pooled all of their money, a whole $6, to buy some “store-bought” flowers to lay on her casket. Generations of Mexicans had looked to her as their doctor, midwife, herbalist, lawyer, banker, self-appointed justice of the peace, and coroner.
“The Whole Damn Cheese,” subtitled “Maggie Smith, Border Legend,” is the most recent book by Abilene author and photographer extraordinaire Bill Wright. His painstaking research over a period of several years included countless interviews of relatives and friends, as well as poring over taped interviews from the Big Bend National Park Oral History Project and from the Special Collections of Sul Ross State University. The 140-page paperback is the first book devoted entirely to the woman whose life in the Big Bend Country is legendary.
That eye-catching title? It comes from the wry humor of the twice-widowed entrepreneur while she was running the trading post at Hot Springs under contract with the National Parks Service. A visitor from Louisiana rankled her by complaining about the hot weather and dirt roads when he had expected to find a cool, beautiful place. When he asked Maggie, “And what part do you play in this?” she shot back, “I’m the whole damn cheese here at Hot Springs if you want to know!”
That settled the man down and Maggie later received a nice letter from him, addressed to “The Whole Damn Cheese.”
Maggie learned her benevolent ways from her father. A poignant example from her childhood showed how kindness may have saved their lives. When she was 10, a group of about 18 Mexican revolutionaries rode up to their adobe ranch house near Sierra Blanca. Before the menacing group could make demands, the child asked if they would like some food and water for themselves and their horses. After the group had enjoyed the strangers’ hospitality, the leader said he was sorry he had no money to pay for the food and water, but reached down, removed his spurs and gave them to young Maggie.
“Who is giving me these spurs?” Maggie asked.
“Pancho Villa,” the man answered. Maggie subsequently saw that the spurs were given to a grandson.
Maggie’s family history is one of the Texas frontier. Her story outlines the beginnings and development of Big Bend National Park, which opened in 1944. By capturing Maggie Smith’s rough individualism and warm nature, Wright demonstrates in a compelling way why Maggie Smith has become an indelible figure in the history of Texas. — ROY A. JONES II
Roy A. Jones II is a retired newspaper reporter/editor and Army officer. He lives in Abilene.
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