September 1, 2023
J.O. Langford’s Hot Springs
J.O. Langford was sickly and despairing when he made his way from Midland to Alpine in 1909. He had forsaken his native Mississippi for Texas because he suffered frequent bouts of malaria in his home state and he thought the arid West Texas air might be good for what ailed him.
In Alpine, he heard talk of some hot springs south of there, where Tornillos Creek emptied into the Rio Grande in the Big Bend country. An old man held forth in an Alpine hotel lobby, describing a place where people had bathed in the water for centuries and were cured of whatever ailed them— stomach trouble, rheumatism skin diseases and the like. Maybe even malaria.
Langford asked the old man why no one had ever tried to develop the springs, like they had at Hot Springs, Arkansas. “Nothing down there but rattlesnakes and bandit Mexicans,” the old man told him. “And it’s too far away— that damned country promises more and gives less than any place I ever saw.”
The only part of the conversation that mattered to Langford was the part about the springs. Without even seeing it, Langford filed a claim on the land under the Homestead Act. Two weeks later, the land was his. He got it for $1.50 an acre and an understanding that he would live there continuously for three years and make $300 in improvements. Langford, his wife Bessie, and their 18-month-old daughter piled everything they had into a wagon and traveled 11 days to their new home.
“This was a fantastic country, like none I’d ever seen, like no other I’ve seen since,” Langford wrote in Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story, which he co-authored with Old Yeller author Fred Gipson. “And, looking back on it now, I can see that ourswas a fantastic situation. A chronically ill man of 31, a traveling salesman out of Mississippi, using up his last few dollars to take his wife and baby to a homestead in the wild, unknown country of the Texas Big Bend.”
One of the unknowns was the fact that a man named Cleofas Natividad, his wife, and their 10 children were already living at the hot springs and had been for quite some time. Langford’s sympathies were with Natividad and his family. He decided the deed he held was “a trifling thing” when compared to the fact that Natividad’s family had been living there for generations.
At some point during the 21 days he bathed in the hot springs and drank the water, his malaria went away. Langford and Natividad constructed a bathhouse and charged visitors 10 cents per day or $2 for a 21-day treatment. But, like the naysayer in Alpine had warned, the country was hard to get to. Langford supplemented his income by working as a schoolteacher, a self-taught doctor and mail carrier.
Still, the hot springs became a popular gathering spot for people in the area and a comfortable stop for travelers on the road from St. Vincente to Boquillas. Natividad and the men Langford hired to help him build the bathhouses shared in the profits and were good friends. Life was good for Langford and his friends and then it wasn’t. Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s heyday had arrived.
In 1916, revolutionary bandits attacked the tiny, isolated communities of Glenn Springs and Boquillas on the Rio Grande River, resulting in several deaths and a sense that the worst was yet to come. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ordered more than 100,000 National Guard troops to the Big Bend where the army established more than a dozen “permanent” cavalry camps. The government suggested that Langford and the others find somewhere else to live until hostilities eased.
Langford moved his family to El Paso and stayed there for 14 years. He returned to a land that had changed but not for the better. Meadows with grass “as high as a horse’s belly” were gone, grazed down to nubbins as ranchers tried to exploit high beef prices during World War I.
Langford built a new store, post office and cabins to serve overnight visitors and others who came to “take the waters.” He eventually sold the land and today the hot springs are part of Big Bend National Park. The ruins of the post office, the original homestead, a motel and other buildings are still there.
The spring water is still there too, still heated by geothermal processes to 105 degrees. The dissolved mineral salts that made it attractive to people for centuries are still present, and people continue to bathe in it for health and recreation. J.O. Langford knew a good thing even before he saw it.