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Dallas History

David Witts Got to Terlingua 50 Years Too Early

The Dallas businessman invested in the area long before its current boom.
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Witts helped start the Terlingua Chili Cookoff. Photo courtesy Elane Witts Hansen

Texas Monthly today published a great story titled “Farewell to the Last Frontier,” about the land rush underway in tiny Terlingua. It’s hard to imagine. I’ve been to Terlingua just once, about a decade ago. If someone had told me then to buy land because soon enough the place’s popularity would inspire “Don’t Marfa My Terlingua” bumperstickers, I’d have assumed the heat had gone to his head. Lo, here we are.

In May, D Magazine published a story, “The House With the Roses,” that has a Terlingua connection. It’s about a Preston Hollow house that was recently torn down and the family that once lived in it. The paterfamilias was a man named David Witts who led a full life: flew 50 missions in the Pacific theater, busted gambling rings with the FBI, and bought 150,000 acres of land in the Big Bend area with his buddy Carroll Shelby, he of Ford v Ferrari fame. The story spends just a couple paragraphs on that land and how Witts’ ownership of it led to the Terlingua Chili Cookoff. But then, after the story published, a reader who knew Witts wrote in with some more details. As he said, this is really a Dallas story.

The reader was Andy Stern, whose name will be familiar to many FrontBurnervians. Andy is a red pants-wearing longtime PR guy in town. He founded Sunwest Communications. Here’s what Andy had to say:

“Before the great article on the Witts family, I didn’t know about their house 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, had a hand in creating. I think every one of the players is now dead, but as a very young and new resident of Dallas, I heard the stories and flew to Terlingua with them several times. They even made this Yankee a judge, which allowed me to pass through the door to immortality, since Larry Levine decorated his Chili’s restaurants with the Terlingua posters. This is really a Dallas story.

“David, using Jean’s family money [ed: see below note on money], bought the ranch in the ghost town of Terlingua with the thought that the mining business might be resurrected. When it wasn’t, David was stuck with this dusty, hot, empty land. No one wanted to buy something like that since no one had ever heard of Terlingua. The subject of David’s failed effort to sell was an occasional topic of discussion at the infamous Dallas bar called Joe Miller’s. Regularly around the table were Bill Neale, the president of Point Communications, a part of TracyLocke; Tom Tierney, the Ford Motors PR guy who was given the assignment by Lee Iacocca of promoting the Mustang and the Shelby Mustang; race car driver Carroll Shelby, a friend of both Witts’ and Tierney’s; and occasionally the Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert and others from that paper and the Times Herald.

“Tierney, clearly the top PR person in Dallas after he and Luanne moved here, thought he had the solution to the invisibility of Terlingua. Tolbert often complained about the ‘damn Yankee’ who knew nothing about chili: H. Allen Smith. Smith, maybe the world’s No. 1 curmudgeon, boasted in Holiday magazine that he knew more about chili (with beans) than anyone. Tierney proposed a showdown between Smith and their friend Wick Fowler, of Austin. By doing it in Terlingua, Tierney would publicize this wacko contest and the town. Tolbert issued the challenge, Neale designed the poster, and Fowler and Smith agreed.

“It has lasted 55 years, and it has actually achieved real stature, which, along the way, befuddled Witts, Shelby, Tierney, Neale, and even Tolbert (who later fronted a chili restaurant). It wasn’t actually a joke but a fun way to help David dump the property—all of it fueled by many rounds at Joe Miller’s.

“My last story: as we flew down one year, we stuffed the plane with adult beverages, as usual. We must have ingested too much since we had to land (somewhere I don’t remember) and purchase more beverages. Back in the air, we circled the contest site enough times that I do remember leaning out the side window and raining the contents of my stomach down below. 

“Those were great days in Dallas.”

UPDATE (6/21/22) David Witts’ son-in-law, John Hansen, wrote in after reading the above. Say Hansen in a note also signed by his wife, Elane:

“Really enjoyed and appreciate your story about my father-in-law and Terlingua. All was correct with exception to his purchase of the Chiricahua  Ranch. David was very much a self-made man. He never once comingled or borrowed money from Jean’s parents or Jean. He financed the ranch on his own. Carroll Shelby wanted in on the ranch early on. While going through his files, I discovered a promissory note for his first installment to David.

“Our family is very grateful for the fine tribute regarding ‘the house with the roses.’ I know the Travis and Witts families are smiling down upon us!!!”

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Tim Rogers

Tim Rogers

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Tim is the editor of D Magazine, where he has worked since 2001. He won a National Magazine Award in…

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