If you’ve ever lived in west Texas, especially in the Big Bend area, you know the name Hallie Stillwell. She’s a legend and a person respected and admired by people across the nation as well as Texas.
Hallie Crawford was born in Waco, Texas, in 1897. In 1900 her parents moved the family to Ozona, and in 1905 to the San Angelo area. Searching for a better life and education for their children, the Crawfords moved their family five times in twelve years. Their last move was in 1910 to Alpine. Hallie and her sister shared driving duties of the family's Conestoga wagon.
In 1916 Hallie graduated from Alpine High School, spent six weeks at the Normal School for Teachers and earned her teaching certificate by passing the state exams. The same year she took an elementary teaching job in Presidio. Her father, concerned about her safety said, “You’re going on a wild goose chase.” She flippantly answered, “Then, I’ll gather my geese.” He insisted she carry his pistol with her as she walked the half-mile to and from school. This was a time of turmoil in Texas. Pancho Villa had captured Ojinaga, the town directly across the border from Presidio and often raided over on the Texas side.
A year later, much to her parent’s relief, she took a job teaching elementary school in Marathon, a small town thirty-one miles east of Alpine. The couple she boarded with introduced her to Roy Stillwell, a friend of theirs, “a tall, handsome cowboy who drove a Hudson Super-6.” The couple invited Roy to attend a dance with them and Roy and Hallie danced until sunrise. Roy took her for drives in his car, a real luxury in those days, to picnics and all the social function in the community. He was old-fashioned and believed proper courting included gifts of candy and night serenades. However, Roy couldn’t sing or play the guitar, but he found a fiddler and a blind man who could play the guitar. The two serenaded her below her window, often waking her to the music of “Listen to the Mockingbird” and “The Reagan Waltz.” Though he was twenty years Hallie's senior, the blue-eyed cowboy made her heart flutter. She was in love with Roy Stillwell.
Her father felt Roy was too old for her and didn’t approve of their engagement, but after four months, they drove to Alpine and eloped. When they returned to tell her family the news, both Roy and Hallie were nervous. Hallie’s family sat at the dinner table eating when they arrived. She announced they were married. Her father took the news better than they’d expected. He suggested they might as well sit down and eat.
Though Roy owned a house in Marathon, he and Hallie would live on the ranch and come to town on occasion. Roy hadn’t told Hallie much about the ranch, so she didn’t know what to expect. The house was one room, about twelve by sixteen feet. The only furniture was a table, one chair and two benches, a cabinet like a pie safe, a wood stove, a large kettle and a blackened coffee pot. In the corner was a bedroll consisting of several rolled up quilts wrapped in a tarp.
Hallie was determined Roy would not see her disappointment, especially after the three men who worked for him with muttered “That woman school teacher won’t last six months down here.” After a rough night in the bedroll on a dirt floor, her new life began. She was determined she would learn and become an integral part of the ranch.
And she did. Hallie worked along side her husband and the cowboys but it wasn’t always easy. She’d been raised to wear a split skirt while riding and her bonnet. Her attire didn’t suit Roy and he insisted she wear one of his hats and pants while out riding with him and the cowboys. He couldn’t leave her at home alone because of the danger of Pancho Villa’s raids. The Mexican Border was just twenty-five miles away. She didn't own any pants, so they drove to Alpine to get Hallie's mother to make her some. Her mother was horrified her daughter would be dressed like one of the men, but gave in and got to sewing. She made Hallie's pants full through the hips and gathered at the waist. Just below the knee they tapered to fit and were buttoned up each side of the leg. You'll have to read the book to discover the mishap she had wearing those. Not only were they dangerous, but they weren't durable for riding on the rugged land.
The first morning she rode out with them, Roy grew impatient as she put on her lipstick. She’d been taught to protect her skin and not go out without her her makeup. Frustrated, Roy said, “You think those cows are going to notice if you have on lipstick or not?”
In 1930, Hallie began work as a correspondent at the Alpine Avalanche.
In 1948 while hauling hay, Roy had a wreck and he didn’t survive. Hallie and Son took over the running of the ranch. In the 1950s drought ruined many farmers and ranchers. It was a struggle to survive. To avoid bankruptcy, Hallie began giving lectures across the state. In 1956, for additional funds to run the ranch, she began her Ranch News Column. In 1957 and 1960 she became a stringer for the four well-known newspapers—The Fort Worth Star Telegram, the El Paso Times and the San Angelo Standard Times and San Antonio Express. She also became a reporter for United Press International and the Associated Press. She co-authored, with Virginia Madison, a book titled How Come It’s Called That? In 1964 she is elected Justice of the Peace for Brewster County. One of the largest counties in Texas, it covered 6,193 square miles. In addition to the above, Hallie had several other jobs. She was a hard worker and determined the Stillwell Ranch would survive.
If you’ve ever been to Terlingua you know about the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off. It’s a big to-do in the Big Bend area and folks come from all over the country to vie for the championship. Hallie judged the contest in 1967 and in 1968 was made the permanent queen of the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off.
Having lived in Brewster County for around six years, I have a deep respect for the people who live on the ranches and have built a life amid the dry, barren landscape. Many people thing it’s ugly country, but nothing is more beautiful than a west Texas sunset, or a field of blooming ocotillo, sage and other indigenous plants. I taught school in Presidio for a year and a half and know how Hallie must have suffered when walking home from school in the hot months. The temperature could easily reach 108 and on occasion reached 115.
Texas Monthly dubbed Hallie the “Grande Dame” of Texas in 1991 as she traveled the state to promote her book, I’ll Gather My Geese, which she began in 1988 as a memoir. Hallie was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1988, a year after her death. She passed away in April of 1997 just two months and two days before her 100th birthday.
In 1994, Hallie was inducted into the Texas Woman’s Hall of Fame and after her death was inducted into the Texas Heritage Hall of Honor.
For being a woman school teacher, Hallie spent seventy-nine years on her beloved ranch. When she was away, it was never far from her heart, mind and spirit. The Stillwell Ranch is still in operation and is run by Roy and Hallie's descendants. I wish I had pictures to share with you but all I found on the internet were copyrighted. If you're interested, google her name and a multitude of photos pop up. Walk through Hallie's life with her as she became the "Grande Dame of Texas."
Before her death, Hallie was able to write ten chapters of the second volume of her memoirs, My Goose is Cooked, which chronicles her life after Roy’s death. Hallie’s daughter Dadie Stillwell Potter asked Betty Heath, whose grandfather was Hallie’s first cousin, to complete the work.
I’ll leave you these powerful words written by Betty Heath.
“In the final analysis, Roy Stillwell chose well when he picked the unlikely school teacher to be his life’s companion in that remote and difficult land.”
Stillwell, Hallie Crawford. I’ll Gather My Geese, Memorial Printing. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991.
Stillwell, Hallie Crawford. My Goose is Cooked, Assembled by Betty Heath. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2004.
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Thank you for stopping by and reading Hallie and Roy's love story.