Hallie's Hall of Fame Museum sits on a lonely road near the entrance to the Big Bend National Park -- an oasis in the harsh landscape of the Chihuahua Desert. The white walls of the old general store sparkle in the bright sunlight of the tiny settlement of mobile homes, RV parking spots, and adobe brick buildings that have been welcoming visitors for several decades.
W.T. Potter has run the store and campground since Hallie Stillwell died, just shy of her 100th birthday, in 1997. A big, friendly man of few words, Potter was Hallie's son-in-law. Most of the Stillwell grandchildren and great-grandchildren are following their own dreams in faraway places, but a few still help manage the 120-year-old Stillwell Ranch that covers close to 20,000 acres.
"She was a remarkable woman, all right," Potter says of Hallie in his slow West Texas drawl as he pushes the key to the museum across the counter to a visitor. "The museum tells the story better than I can. Don't forget to lock the door when you're through." With the finality of his statement the conversation was over and W.T. Potter goes back to what he was doing before the guests arrived.
Opened on October 24, 1991, Hallie's 94th birthday, the museum is more than a tribute to one woman or one pioneer ranching family. The small, adobe building honors the brave men and women who carved a living out of the rugged country. Entering the museum is like entering someone's home. The rooms are full of treasures and mementos, but there is a comfort in the homey feel that makes the visitor want to linger.
A big room off the entrance is part living room and part auditorium. Hallie's old piano sits along one wall surrounded by rows of chairs. She had prayer meetings, socials, and entertained celebrity guests here. Hallie used to hold court in this room mesmerizing campers and neighbors with her stories of living in Big Bend.
After graduation from high school in Alpine, Hallie moved to the border town of Presidio to teach school. When she left home her father gave her the .38-caliber Colt revolver that now sits in a glass case. Below it is the 30-06 rifle that Hallie used to nail a mountain lion between the eyes.
More than anyone else, Hallie put a face on the Big Bend region and gave it a voice. The sweet grandmother lived a hard life, and had lived to laugh about it. When the first chili cook-off was held in Terlingua, she was there as a judge. After that she was the unanimous choice for the cook-off, and a case in the museum holds several of the Stetsons that were decorated as her crowns.
Hallie married Roy Stillwell and moved to the ranch in 1917 when she was 20 and he was 40. "I'd rather be an old man's darlin' than a young man's slave," she told her father. One of the rooms is reminiscent of the sparse cowboy cabin she moved into after her wedding day.
When she wasn't helping the cowboys work the herds, one of Hallie's favorite pastimes was to wander the ranch and look for Indian artifacts. The Stillwells found the remains of ancient ceremonial grounds on the ranch. In the museum are arrowheads found around the ranch.
Times were often tough as the Stillwells fought sandstorms, drought, and rattlesnakes to build their cattle operation into a successful business. In her delightful autobiography, I'll Gather My Geese, Hallie talks about the excitement of getting little things like a kitchen sink, an outhouse, and a gas-powered refrigerator. Many of the items in the museum are reminders of the Stillwells' efforts to make a living by running a beauty parlor in Marathon and making wax from the candelilla plant.
Roy died in 1948 when his truck loaded with hay turned over on the rough road. Hallie and her three children, Son, Dadie, and Guy, managed to hold onto the ranch through the ups and downs of the cattle business. Linda Perron, Dadie's daughter, said her uncles died within a couple of years of her grandmother and her mother passed away in May 2000.
Besides running the ranch, Hallie went on to be a justice of the peace and a newspaper columnist in Alpine. For a while she traveled around the country giving entertaining lectures on her life in West Texas. She would do almost anything to preserve the ranch that she and Roy built.
The Stillwell Store and RV Park is about 45 miles south of Marathon off U.S. 385 on RR 2627 six miles from the entrance to Big Bend National Park. Along with camping, the ranch offers jeep tours to Maravillas Canyon. Besides groceries, the store also has a small gift shop and video rental. Admission to the museum is free. For more information, call 915/376-2244 or go to www.our-town.com/stillwell.
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