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The Idle American
The Ultimate Fixer-Upper?...
Wednesday, June 26, 2013 • Posted June 27, 2013

Many folks wind up in tears upon realizing they really aren’t up to challenges posed by “fixer-upper” houses. Whimpering, they move on, spirits dampened and dreams shattered.

Sometimes, though, there are unique individuals who march to different drums—rare souls who see life differently. They dream big, committed to baby-step beginnings, even if decades in the taking.

It’s one thing when “dad and lad” are in conventional businesses together. But owners of a ghost town? That’s the ultimate “fixer-upper”—and for a time, the late Rex Ivey and son Bill bid against each other to purchase “ghost town”—Terlingua, TX….


Growing numbers of tourists now visit the West Texas town, as well as Study Butte and Lajitas. The three communities are on the Rio Grande about 100 miles south of Alpine, county seat of Brewster, the state’s largest county. (One visitor claims if the earth were square, Terlingua would be one of the corners.)

The world had little use for Terlingua after World War II. Its Chisos Mining Company was the world’s foremost producer of mercury for some 30 years. With diminished need for mercury in bombs, when they no longer dropped, the market did. And the vertical mines—already Texas’ deepest—became hot water steam pits.

Sadly, a majority of the community’s 2,000 residents vanished to work in other locales, almost overnight….


A 1979 graduate of Texas A&M University, Bill learned that “ghost town” was for sale—again. And Rex, who folks say bought and sold half the land in Brewster County—some of it twice—hated the prospect of the land cut up in postage stamp parcels. So, he also was a prospective buyer—for the second time.

Not knowing his dad’s plans, Bill rallied some Houston Aggie alums to bankroll his bid.

Luckily, father and son learned they were bidding against each other. So Rex worked out the deal, scratching out details with a pencil on the hood of his car. Leaning on a fender, a lawyer drew up the papers from the hood scratches, and Dad instructed his son to “get after it” in what would be a long restoration process….


As a Terlingua youth, Bill loved the majestic mountains, flowing river, abundant wildlife and most of all, the people. He still does.

First-time visitors can hardly believe they still are in Texas. Though “ghost town” has only about 50 permanent citizens, others come in to work during tourist season.

It now has a store in a building once the largest between Del Rio and El Paso. In the old theater next door is the Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon. There’s also the Holiday Hotel and community church, plus scads of ruins located “a few miles beyond the end of the world.” Now about 90% restored, the church is back in use for worship, weddings and funerals….


Admittedly, there are no Starbucks, Walmarts, McDonald’s, doctors or undertakers; they’re 100 miles away. The road has been paved a few decades, but no longer are high school students bussed to Alpine—200-plus roundtrip miles. Terlingua, nestled in the middle of 120 acres, now has a high school.

They get satellite TV, and radio signals reach them at night; most residents have Internet.

Though bona fide owner of Terlingua, Bill doesn’t flaunt it. In fact, he works shoulder to shoulder with others as needed, including at his gift shop in Alpine….


Big Bend National Park is a sight for wide eyes. Sunsets are big there, as are chili cook-offs, music and art. And visitors are “gaga” over Marfa, with its famous lights and artsy scenes.

Movies are being made in the area. One day, Bill was asked by an Englander if “ghost town” has a mayor. Ivey admitted to ownership, but joked that politicians aren’t really welcome in Terlingua. Too late, he asked the visitor, “What do you do in England?” Turns out he is mayor of London….


Closing in on 30 years of restoration, Bill, with wife Lisa, is “living his dream.” They have four sons, one a Terlinguan adopted at age 11, is preparing for his Texas bar exam. Maybe some of the sons will want to extend the dream.

The geography, history and people are unique. The work ethic remains strong.

The website,, says “Come on down.” And we intend to….


Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Speaking inquiries/comments to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Twitter: @donnewbury. Website:

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