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The Rambling BoyMaking candelilla wax in south Brewster CountyBy LONN TAYLORThe other day I sat at a kitchen table in Alpine and talked with a man not much older than I am who grew up in the nineteenth century. By this I don’t mean that he was born before 1900 – in fact, he was born in 1936 – but that he grew up in the same conditions that prevailed in the Big Bend in the 1880s. His name is William Dodson, and he is the father of Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson. Shortly after we started talking he showed me a photograph of his parents’ first home below the Chisos Rim, on his grandfather’s ranch near Dodson Spring. It consisted of a rock-walled dugout with a sotol roof and a tent pitched beside it. Even though the picture was taken in 1930, the only 20th-century object in it is a Model-T Ford in the background.Dodson’s father, Dell Dewey Dodson, died when Dodson was 2, and his mother, who was 23, married a 16-year old vaquero from across the river named Sotero Morin. “He had green eyes,” Dodson told me, “a guero.” The re-marriage so traumatized Dodson that he couldn’t talk until he was 10 years old, and he still speaks with a slight lilt. His stepfather had a hard time getting work on ranches during the Depression, and so when Dodson was 7 the family started making candelilla wax for a living. Candelilla wax, Dodson explained, is the substance that coats the tube-like leaves of the candelilla plant, and after it is refined it has a number of industrial uses ranging from cosmetics to waterproofing. During World War II, he said, it was used to coat the hulls of ships.For seven years Dodson and his three siblings lived with their parents in a tent in a series of candelilla camps in southern Brewster County. They had a wagon and twelve burros, and every day they would go out to pull candelilla plants up. They pulled the plants up with both hands, roots and all, all day long. “We worked like dogs,” Dodson told me. They tied the plants into bundles with rope and loaded them on the burros, four bundles per burro, and at the end of the day drove the burros back to the camp and stacked the bundles. After two or three weeks of pulling, they would have a stack “as high as a house,” as Dodson put it, and he showed me a photograph to prove it. Then they would spend four or five days cooking the wax off the plants.This was done in a metal vat that was buried in the ground at the camp. The one the Dodsons used was about eight feet long, four feet wide, and four feet deep, and was made in Alpine by a man named King. “It had his name stamped on it,” Dodson said. It had a hole scooped out under it for a fire, which was started with wood and then fed with the remnants of the cooked plants. Dodson’s mother and sisters hauled buckets of water from a spring to fill the vat, and then the plants were tossed in and stomped down. When the water started to boil a little sulphuric acid was added to the vat, and the wax started to float up to the surface. “It looks just like oatmeal swelling up,” Dodson said. It was skimmed off with a perforated dipper and tossed into a 55-gallon drum, where it hardened into chunks that could be taken to the refinery in gunny sacks. The refinery was in Alpine, at the Casner Motor Company, a sort of sideline to the automobile business.The Dodsons moved camp seven times while the children were growing up, loading their vat into their wagon, hitching two of the burros to it and driving the rest along behind. The wax business worked on a sort of sharecropping system, with the ranchers who owned the land the Dodsons were pulling the plants from providing them with the sulphuric acid and a few basic groceries like beans, rice, flour, vermicelli, and canned tomatoes and taking a share of the wax sales. I asked Dodson what they did for meat and he grinned and said, “we had deer meat year round.” Once in a while, he added, a rancher would give them a goat. They bought sugar and coffee in Mexico, he said, because it was cheaper. His older sister Mildred did the cooking and washing.Dodson told me that when he was 12 years old he had been pulling up candelilla and making wax for five years and that he could outwork any man on the river. He has taken good care of himself. Today, at 70, he looks like a man of 45. In fact, when I pulled up to his house and saw him standing in the carport I thought I was at the wrong house, expecting to see a much older man. He is tall, lean, and wiry, with a bushy head of black hair tinged with gray, a narrow face, and very blue eyes. He told me that last month he had hiked twelve miles in the Dead Horse Mountains with one of the rangers from Big Bend National Park. “I know that park like the back of my hand,” he said.Dodson’s family quit making wax when he was 14 and settled down in a house at Double Mills, and Dodson finally started on his path into the 20th century. At 16 he started school at Panther Junction and learned to read and write (he had started in the first grade at Marathon when he was 7 but the teacher sent him back home because he couldn’t talk) and also to have fun. “I never had fun until I went to school,” he says. When he was 18 he joined the Air Force, and then went on to a 30-year career with the Texas Highway Department.Looking back on his life, Dodson says, “There’s lots of ranchers that’ll tell you that they made wax, but the fact is that it was the Mexicans that did it while they watched. I’m the only Anglo that ever made wax down here, and I’ll tell you, I didn’t volunteer.”Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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