David Witts arrived at Terlingua 50 years too early
Texas monthly today published a beautiful story titled “Farewell the last frontierabout the ongoing land rush in little Terlingua. It’s hard to imagine. I have only been to Terlingua once, about a decade ago. If someone had told me then to buy some land because soon the popularity of the place would inspire “Don’t marfa my terlingua” bumper stickers, I would have assumed the heat had risen to him. head. Here we are.
In May, Magazine D published a story, “The house with the roses”, which has a connection with Terlingua. This is a house in Preston Hollow that was recently demolished and the family that once lived there. The family man was a man named David Witts who led a busy life: he flew 50 missions in the Pacific theater, busted gambling rings with the FBI and bought 150,000 acres of land in the area of Big Bend with his pal Carroll Shelby, him from Ford versus Ferrari celebrity. The story only spends a few paragraphs on this land and how Witts’ ownership led to the Terlingua Chili Cookoff. But then, after the story was published, a reader who knew Witts wrote in with some additional details. Like he said, it’s really a Dallas story.
The reader was Andy Stern, whose name will be familiar to many FrontBurnervians. Andy is a longtime PR guy who wears red pants around town. He founded Sunwest Communications. Here’s what Andy had to say:
“Before the big article about the Witts family, I didn’t know about their home in Preston Hollow and had spent very little time with Jean, the mother. But I know a bit about the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, which her husband, David, helped create. I think every one of the players is now dead, but as a very young, new Dallas resident, I heard the stories and flew to Terlingua with them several times. They even made this Yankee a judge, which allowed me to cross the door to immortality, since Larry Levine decorated his Chili’s restaurants with Terlingua posters. It really is a Dallas story.
“David, using money from Jean’s family, bought the ranch in the ghost town of Terlingua with the thought that the mining business could be revived. When it wasn’t, David was stuck with this dusty, hot, empty land. No one wanted to buy something like this since no one had ever heard of Terlingua. The topic of David’s failed sales effort was an occasional talking point at the infamous Dallas bar called Joe Miller’s. Regularly around the table were Bill Neale, president of Point Communications, part of TracyLocke; Tom Tierney, the public relations manager of Ford Motors whom Lee Iacocca entrusted with the mission of promoting the Mustang and the Shelby Mustang; race car driver Carroll Shelby, a friend of both Witts and Tierney; and sometimes the Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert and others of this newspaper and the herald of time.
“Tierney, clearly the best PR guy in Dallas after he and Luanne moved here, thought he had the solution to Terlingua’s invisibility. Tolbert often complained about the ‘damn Yankee’ who knew nothing about chili : H. Allen Smith Smith, possibly the grumpy world number 1, boasted of Holiday magazine that he knew more about chili (with beans) than anyone. Tierney proposed a confrontation between Smith and their friend Wick Fowler, from Austin. By doing it in Terlingua, Tierney would publicize this wacky competition and the city. Tolbert issued the challenge, Neale designed the poster, and Fowler and Smith accepted.
“It went on for 55 years, and he actually achieved real stature, which, along the way, baffled Witts, Shelby, Tierney, Neale, and even Tolbert (who later ran a chili restaurant). It wasn’t really a joke, but a fun way to help David get rid of the property, all fueled by extensive rounds at Joe Miller.
“My last story: as we flew a year, we stuffed the plane with adult drinks as usual. We must have ingested too much since we had to land (somewhere I can’t remember) and buy more drinks Back in the air, we circled the contest site enough times that I remember leaning out the side window and raining my stomach contents down below.
“Those were great days in Dallas.”
Tim is the editor of Magazine Dwhere he has worked since 2001. He won a National Magazine Award in…