Wagstaff a great Texan
If any mountain or some other notable geologic feature in the Big Bend remains unnamed, by all rights it should honor one Robert M. Wagstaff.
The reason that now little-known West Texan deserves to be remembered with a distinctive landmark goes back to a winter day in West Texas during the Great Depression. Scanning the colorful array of magazine covers competing for attention on the shelves of an Abilene newsstand, the attorney reached for one publication that caught his eye. Its cover featured a yellow map of Texas over a blue background that stood out, well, as big as Texas.
Wagstaff gave the December 1930 Nature Magazine a quick glance, seeing that the whole issue focused on the Lone Star State. Newly elected to the House of Representatives, he figured he’d better see what the publication had to say about Texas, particularly his corner of it. He paid 35 cents for the issue and read it cover-to-cover when he got back to his downtown law office.
The article he found the most interesting was by J. Frank Dobie, a University of Texas faculty member from South Texas beginning to get a name for himself as a writer of history and folklore.
The piece, “The Texan Part of Texas,” is what Wagstaff read first. Next he turned to an article by Claude S. Young about the Big Bend: “The Last Frontier -- The Big Bend Country of Texas Still Sleeps, Untamed.”
In his article, Dobie -- who never lacked for an opinion -- he expressed his dismay that Texas had squandered most of its once vast public land holdings. And then, he wrote: “Texans of cultivated minds are lamenting with increasing regret that none of the beautiful ‘hill country,’ none of the deep forest land, none of the coastal marshes, none of the wild Big Bend Country, none of the cool Davis Mountains, none of the deep and mighty gorges of the plains -- not one acre of the multiplied millions was set aside for parks and public enjoyment as so much federal land has been set aside [nationally].”
In fairness to Texas lawmakers holding office during the first two decades of the 20th century, the state had already begun to acquire land for state parks. But Dobie wrote correctly that despite its rich geographic diversity and many striking natural features, no land in Texas had been designated for use as a national park.
When Wagstaff had finished reading the articles by Dobie and Young, along with the other stories in the national conservation-minded monthly (founded in 1923 by the American Nature Association in Washington, D.C. and published until 1959), he decided to look into whether the state held any unsold lands in the Big Bend that could be cobbled together for a state park. And when the 42nd Legislature met in Austin the following January, that’s what he did.
The freshman Abilene lawmaker asked the commissioner of the General Land Office to look into the matter. Commissioner J.H. Walker found some 150,000 acres and withdrew it from for sale. He suggested, however, that Wagstaff wait until the following session to proceed with a bill to create the park. In the meantime, the commissioner said, he might be able to find more vacant tracts in the Big Bend.
Wagstaff agreed, and proceeded to get the wholehearted support of Rep. E.E. Townsend of Alpine, whose district included most of the potential park land, and Rep. Frank Haag of Midland, who had a small portion of the land in question in his district.
When lawmakers returned to Austin in January 1933, the Abilene lawmaker introduced a bill to create the park and Townsend and Haag signed on a co-sponsors. The measure passed and Gov. Miriam A. Ferguson signed it into law later that year.
“The creation of this park,” Wagstaff modestly recalled in 1968, “met with general approval by the press and public of the state.”
Beyond that, he continued, the West Texas Chamber of Commerce, assorted other statewide organizations and folks of influence began campaigning for conveyance of the state land to the federal government to create a national park in the Big Bend.
“This movement was eventually successful, and [with] wide additional lands added to the original park, it became in 1943 the Big Bend National Park, one of the great parks of the national system,” Wagstaff wrote.
Other Texans, of course, had a hand in making all this happen, but it’s hard to argue that it was not Wagstaff who led the way.
After serving two terms in the legislature, Wagstaff concentrated on his family’s legal practice in his home town. He also taught at Hardin-Simmons for a time and ranched. He died at 80 on April 9, 1973 and is buried in Elmwood Memorial Park in his home town. His flat red granite grave marker says only, “Robert M. Wagstaff 1892-1973.”