In a landscape filled with prominent landmarks and signature geological formations, Mitre Peak rises like a beacon. A term used for a bishop’s hat or a carving tool bearing the same distinctive shape, Mitre presides over the landscape between Alpine and Fort Davis, its precipitous and symmetrical walls rising to meet at one distinctive point. Like a sentinel it draws one’s eye and curiosity while passing through the broad landscape of North Brewster and South Jeff Davis Counties, its story and history as profound as its presence. Known by geologists as a monadnock or inselberg, Mitre Peak formed as a volcanic intrusion that never reached the earth’s surface. Millions of years ago, what is now the highest point of Mitre Peak sat beneath layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rock, which after years of exposure to wind and rain eroded away to expose the harder and more stable igneous rock of Mitre Mountain. These exposed forms are often conical or dome-shaped, another example being Hen Egg Mountain in South Brewster County.
Circa 1940, a year-round spring fed natural pool, currently part of Camp Mitre Girl Scout Ranch. Archives of the Big Bend – Sul Ross State University.
The isolated rock formation rising from a level plain makes Mitre Peak a natural landmark. As long as human beings have traveled through this desert landscape, for thousands of years before recorded history, Mitre Peak would have been a focal point. Its distinctive shape not only served as a familiar point in orienting through a vast country, but also as an indicator for prehistoric man’s most precious resource, water.
Several springs exist in the small canyons adjacent to Mitre Peak. The abundance of water in an environment where water is scarce would have made the area around Mitre a natural camp or settlement for early man. In the 1927 Brand, the Sul Ross yearbook written by students, a chapter on Mitre Peak and nearby Fern Canyon describes the area adjacent to the peak as having been one of the largest “Indian villages in West Texas.” The short chapter also claims that “neatly laid-off streets have been ploughed up, and fragments of rock terraces stand in a semi-circle facing a big spring.” The 1927 Brand also claims the existence of a “Chief’s grave, which yielded valuable relics—beads and finely wrought arrowheads.” The area was a popular picnic spot for Sul Ross students during that time, and students likely spent many days exploring the area and sharing stories.
Photo by W.D. Smithers- currently part of Camp Mitre. Archives of the Big Bend – Sul Ross State University.
Another pre-historic grave site was claimed to have been found in the cliffs of what is now a part of the Girl Scout Camp. One member of summer camp staff remembers inspecting these bones as a camper when she was a young scout. In a 1960 article in the Odessa American, Barry Scobee describes a hidden spring found in the area, known as “ojo escondido de agua.” Scobee writes, “It had been hidden by Indians with a sort of cement composed of caliche earth, animal blood and ashes, and trash, as it was the redman’s practice to conceal water from pursuing calvarymen and their horses.”
In spite of efforts like these, the Frontier Battalion, in conjunction with the Federal Indian Campaign of 1874-75, were successful in the removal of native peoples from the area. Around 1880 the newly-formed Texas Rangers erected a camp across from Mitre peak where the Girl Scout Ranch is now established. Ranger camps such as these, combined with U.S. Military posts, were the boundary of the frontier. As native people were no longer a threat to emigration, the Rangers’ main concern at this time and in the years to come were “bandits, cattle thieves, stage and train robbers which emerged from the wave of settlers, drifters, and speculators in Texas at the end of Reconstruction.”(The Texas Rangers, 1935)
At the turn of the 19th century, Mitre peak and its adjacent canyons were part of the Walbridge Ranch, famous for its hospitality and abundance of homegrown food. According to Voices of the Mexican Border (1933), “Each Sunday, weather permitting, strings of buggies, hacks and wagons filled with happy crowds could be seen driving from Fort Davis, Marfa, and Alpine to the Walbridge ranch. It is safe to say they served more free meals during the ‘Nineties’ than any other family.” When the ranch sold in 1911, the new owners, Jack and Molly Tippits, continued dispensing this famous hospitality.
In 1913, when the Tippits received the first guest at their boarding house for adventurers and nature lovers, parks and recreation was as nascent a concept as the recently established railroad carrying the first tourists to the Big Bend region. The National Park Service wasn’t established until 1916, and Big Bend National Park not until 1944. Jack Tippits lead hikes up Mitre Peak and introduced folks from around the country to the flora, fauna, watering holes, canyons, hot springs, archeological sites, and the remote cultures of the Big Bend, as a visionary and founding father of the outdoor recreation industry.
What Jack and Molly Tippits pioneered in building their boarding house and the business they later named Mitre Peak Park, is only one piece of a herculean accomplishment, that to this day may be unparalleled in the Big Bend and elsewhere. Not only were they innkeepers, tour guides, cooks and musicians; they also produced a vast majority of the food they, their visitors, and guests consumed—as well as supplying meat, vegetables, and a multitude of fruit for sale at market.
The legacy and contribution of Jack Tippits goes deeper. An educated man, who met and married his wife while she was his teaching assistant in Fort McKavatt, Tippits kept a detailed journal almost every day of his life from 1913 to a few weeks before his death in 1939. A detailed interpretation of his journals can be found in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, titled “The J.A. Tippits Journals and Tourism at Mitre Peak 1913- 1939,” written by Shirley Caldwell. Ms. Caldwell is the wife of Jack and Molly Tippits’ grandson Clifton, a historian and, as was her late husband, active in the Texas State Historical Association and the Texas Historical Commission.
According to Caldwell’s article and the Tippits’ journal, “Working the land without a tractor until 1939 meant hours of hard labor—plowing by mule, planting, hoeing, watering, killing bugs, and gathering. Canning took place on a near-commercial scale, as few groceries were purchased. The Tippits took pride in having a good garden—at times planting 2,500 sweet potato plants, 1,200 onions, 600 cabbages. They slaughtered pigs, cattle, goats, and deer. They cured, pickled, or canned meat, made sausages, and rendered lard. People came by the carload to see the orchard in bloom or laden with ripened fruit: apples, pears, peaches, plums, grapes, various berries, nectarines, apricots, cherries, figs, quince, pecans, walnuts, and almonds. Jack also grew vegetables and crops such as rhubarb, sugarcane, cotton, and peanuts.”
The Tippits’ ranch not only provided for tourists, but regular large gatherings occurred in the shadow of Mitre Peak for Sul Ross students, the Odd Fellows, Bloys and the Baptist encampments, complete with dancing, band concerts, and games. Tippits often enlisted members of these groups to assist at the farm or with harvesting in the orchard.
Tippits appears to have had an energy and work ethic which far surpasses the average person, and he continued to summit Mitre Peak into his sixties, though through his later years he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. With a vision greater than any building of Mitre Peak Park, which is now the camp owned and operated by the Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest. Known historically as Fern Canyon, with a year- round spring and natural swimming pool, Mitre Park consisted of several cottages, a two-story lodge, commissary, and restaurant.
Though the automobile was still in its early years, and travel was limited to rough dirt roads without bridges, Jack Tippits managed to explore and guide his guests to the farthest reaches of the Big Bend and Northern Mexico. His journals include descriptions of his travels to places such as “McDonald Observatory and Limpia Canyon, Chisos Mountains, Persimmon Gap; the Boquillas Hot Springs, Kingston Hotsprings; Terlingua, Presidio, and Ojinaga; Santa Elena Canyon; Fort Stockton; fishing trips to Balmorhea and the Pecos river.”
Though they continued to oversee park operations, the Tippits family leased out Mitre Park in 1937, which continued to be run by a third party until the property was sold to the Girls Scouts in 1946. According to Scobee’s 1960 article, the Scouts held their first camp in 1947 with 56 girls in attendance, the number growing to 648 in 1960, including three two-week sessions and two one-week sessions. The Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest continue to operate Camp Mitre. For more information on current programs or to arrange a visit go to www.gsdsw.org.
In 2018 Big Bend National Park recorded almost a half-million visitors. Tourism and outdoor recreation comprise a growing and profitable industry in the Big Bend. Jack and Mollie Tippits were some of the first to recognize the value of this landscape and the draw it would have, attracting visitors from around the world.
The Tippits’ hospitality and stewardship of the land near Mitre Peak are part of a lively tradition, reaching back to the first indigenous societies drawn by this awe- inspiring peak and its promise of water, sustenance, and beauty.