Earning Her Spurs
Tough-as-nails cowgirl Hallie Stillwell tackled the wilds of West Texas.
By E. Dan Klepper
Hallie Crawford Stillwell fashioned a life of distinction out of willpower, grit and the rugged environs of the West, earning her place in Texas history by working vast sections of the Big Bend ranch country alongside her husband, Roy.
Never one to shy away from jobs considered distinctly “unladylike” in the early 1900s, Stillwell learned to cowpunch her way through a herd of yearlings as skillfully as any cowboy. In fact, she considered few tasks insurmountable.
Got cattle ready to brand? She’d fire up the irons. Need to drive the herd 50 miles to the shipping pens? She’d be saddled and ready to go. Fence required mending? Show her the gap. Table could use some meat? She’d get her gun. Fix a flat? Bale some hay? Raise a few kids? Hallie Stillwell was your woman.
Born in Waco in 1897, Hallie moved around West Texas with her parents in a covered wagon until they settled in Alpine in 1910. Six years later, with a high school degree and a teaching certificate in hand, she secured a job in the Big Bend border town of Presidio while Pancho Villa’s rebellion unraveled just across the Rio Grande. Despite her parents’ protestations, she spent the year navigating the challenges of being a young, single woman at work in a tumultuous environment.
“The times were rough,” Stillwell recalls in I’ll Gather My Geese, a memoir she wrote in her 90s. “To get to my school, I had to walk half a mile in deep sand in heat that often soared above a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. I also had to wear my father’s gun to school every day.”
Stillwell survived the experience, learning what she could from the circumstances along the way. “I learned much during that one year, and the experiences prepared me for many hardships I later faced in life.”
She would need the preparation. Stillwell quickly ran headlong into a catalog of hardships plaguing Texas in the early 1900s, including rugged conditions, rudimentary medical care, drought, war, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and disease. But she wouldn’t have to face them alone. After a year in Presidio she took a job teaching in Marathon, where she met her future husband and the love of her life, Roy Stillwell.
“Roy, being old-fashioned, believed that the way to a woman’s heart was through a serenade and candy,” Stillwell remembered. “Roy could not sing or play the guitar, but he found Ira Shely, a fiddler, and a blind Mexican who accompanied Ira with a guitar, to sing to me outside my window. I began to find myself awakening in the middle of the night to melodious love songs.”
Roy Stillwell was 20 years older than Hallie, but she didn’t care. Determined to spend her life with the man she loved, she kept the engagement short — four months.
“I chose to marry Roy Stillwell against Mama’s and Papa’s words of advice,” she confessed. Hallie and Roy drove to the Brewster County Courthouse in his Hudson Super-6.
After a brief ceremony, she and Roy boarded a train for San Antonio and spent their honeymoon at the Gunter Hotel.
The luxuries afforded by the Gunter would be the last she’d see for years. The conditions at Roy Stillwell’s ranch, just east of the yet-to-be-established Big Bend National Park, were basic. The ranch house, a wooden room about 12 feet by 16 feet, was furnished with a wood cookstove, a small cabinet, a water bucket and dipper, one table, one chair and two benches.
The room also had one bedroll, “a mass of rolled-up quilts wrapped in a tarp in a corner,” Hallie Stillwell recalled. “I then realized that I would have to share that cowboy bedroll with Roy, and that would be our bed.”
Stillwell would also share in the ranch work, a responsibility that required her to learn how to do things she had never done before.
“I felt that I had indeed come to the jumping-off place at the end of the world,” she recalled of her introduction to ranch life. “I somehow knew that I would never be the same again. I found out quickly that I was to live like a man, work like a man and act like a man, and I was not so sure I was not a man when it was all over. The good Lord did give me a mind that could not be governed by a man, and I remained a woman. I feel sure at times now that this one fact caused me lots of grief, but also lots of happiness.”
The Stillwells worked the ranch together for the next 30 years, augmenting their simple living conditions with a house in Marathon, and they raised three children. But life in the 1900s was rarely without its difficulties. An outbreak of the Spanish flu took friends and family members, the draft took the Stillwells’ first-born son from the ranch to war, and the Depression and drought of the 1930s devastated the ranch’s grasslands and cattle herd.
It would be drought, in fact, that presented the most difficult challenge.
“The wind howled all that day but finally died down in the night,” Hallie Stillwell recalled as the first of many dust storms sent the ranch, as well as the nation, into a tailspin. “When I awoke the next morning, I noticed that I could see where my head had been on the pillow, as dust had settled all over our bed and everything else in the house.”
The drought and dust took such a toll on the Stillwell cattle that the Drought Relief Service, a federal assistance program set up to pay ranchers for ailing livestock, became their only option.
“As a last resort and with tears in our eyes, we gathered the cows that were too weak to live and accepted the government offer … we herded them up against a bluff in the Maravillas Creek and let the government men mow them down with thirty-thirty rifles. They called it a mercy killing.”
Despite the circumstances, Roy and Hallie continued working together until 1948, when disaster of a different sort struck. Another period of drought and dust had begun when Roy Stillwell, returning to the ranch with a load of hay, was thrown from his vehicle in a rollover. He died hours later from his internal injuries.
As Hallie sat by his bedside in the Alpine hospital, she tried to accept that her life with Roy was over.
“I was so used to Roy and his silent spells that I felt that I should have been able to handle that one. Yet I knew in my heart that that silent spell was different. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but that silent spell was to last a long time,” she recalled.
The ranch work continued under Hallie Stillwell’s guidance until she turned over the reins to her two sons in 1964. For the next 30 years, Stillwell engaged in a variety of occupations, from justice of the peace to newspaper columnist, until her death two months and two days short of her 100th birthday. The Stillwell Ranch, now a Big Bend legacy, endures.
(Excerpts are from I’ll Gather My Geese, by Hallie Crawford Stillwell, published by Texas A&M University Press.)