“When I think back on the Study Butte Store, I remember lots of little things, but what I remember most is a feeling. The Study Butte Store felt like a cool beer on a really hot day. It felt like a sunny afternoon with nowhere to be. It felt like people who never hurried slowing down even more to just sit and be together. It felt like three-day-old news from an abandoned San Angelo paper and a hot wind that made the desert feel like a convection oven. We just sat there in the shade and felt our whole lives stretching out in front of us with nothing to do and nowhere to be but right where we were. It felt like an outpost on the last frontier. It felt like home.”Ceil Drucker
Eventually earning the name of The Study Butte Mall, it evolved over the years with a conglomerate of businesses.
In an area of great expanse and few services, the tiny tight community of Terlingua came to the Study Butte Mall for food, water, gas and community. The original Study Butte Store in the 1950s was located near the smelter of the mercury mine in Study Butte. It moved to its ultimate location near the entrance to Big Bend National Park in the early 1960s.
The parking lot became a dance hall two or three times a year, when several bands would play and the community gathered. Christmas and Thanksgiving feeds were organized which were open and free to the public. For many years it was the only grocery store in town. Some proprietors instated a charge account system, allowing regular shoppers to pay their tab monthly.
In 2012 the Study Butte Store shut down, the property was sold and gutted, and the gas pumps were removed. Lately the talk around town is of new owners putting in a wine bar and food stop of some variety.
Though there is hardly a trace of what once occurred there, the Study Butte Mall is a lively part of the community and history of Terlingua and Study Butte. Following are some reflections on “The Mall” from long-time Terlingua locals.
“The porch at the Study Butte store was always a gathering place for the sharing of information, the answering of questions, the measuring of social life, the exchange of all things human. The area residents at the time of the porch was a complete spectrum of life. From nuclear scientists to totally desert-educated goatherders, from bullies and ballerinas, to preachers of all walks, millionaires and weary paupers, all with a perspective on the mystery of life and a measurement of tolerance. Musicians gathered like blackbirds to share and spread their magic to the hearts of the folk and occasional dancers.
“Also came tourists and travelers who all needed supplies. They were subjected to and blessed by this phenomenon of life, as generally it was something never experienced before or since. It would be a challenge in the post 9-11, post COVID pandemic world to find such a daily gathering of social creativity with no norm. Each person did it their way.
“This freedom to be without the social pressure to perform and conform hides deep in the desert. Sometimes you catch a glint of it in a sunset or in the smell of a night blooming cactus, reminding you to dream your sweet dream knowing you are loved.”
-Charles Maxwell first settled in the Terlingua area in 1975 and is part of a Big Bend area desert-dwelling family. He is a builder, yogi, and musician.
They stare, red eyes bloodshot and menacing, slicing like lasers through their sodden senses.
I falter, my mind scrambling, trying to find a scrap of a reason to abandon this errand and leave without the water I’ve come for.
Maybe I can get by without drinking water today.
Maybe I can drink from the seep that coats the ground in a dazzling white crust, crystals crunching underfoot like snow.
Maybe I can come back later and they’ll be gone.
But the afternoon temperature is heading into the hundreds and I can see by the slouch of their bodies that they are settled in and won’t be moving until long after nightfall.
I gather my courage and tell myself it’s not like they can actually harm me.
A swift coil of anger replaces my wariness.
Where does it come from? This ancestral memory of some dark lawless era in time that would sooner have me walk five miles out of my way than pass within the predatory beam of those glaring eyes.
I look straight ahead as I step into their realm, trying to ignore the pressure of their presence, but as I pass them by I cast a quick shifty look from the corner of my eye to make sure that none of them are moving.
When I leave, the water cradled in my arms like some hard won pot of gold, I run this gauntlet again, the sudden silence falling, the thick unsubtle scrutiny of the drunks sitting on the porch of the Study Butte Store.”
-Pat Walker arrived in Terlingua and bought her first fixer-upper adobe in 1987. She owned and operated an organics market next to Terlingua Creek from 1997-2012. She now lives near La Luz, NM.
“When I rolled into Terlingua back in 1991, it felt like I had traveled to a distant planet. There was so much space in the Big Bend; there was wild open space everywhere I looked, with nothing but desert and sky and mountains and clouds reaching out to the horizon. Rarely, I saw the outline of some distant homestead, but mostly there was just space. I drank it all in and my heart expanded with the landscape. I say I rolled into Terlingua, and that’s the groovy place that everyone wants to be, but the reality is that you can’t get to Terlingua without first rolling into Study Butte (Stew-Dee Byoot), a name that doesn’t have the groove of Terlingua. How could it, when most folks pronounce it like it’s a “schoolish body part?” But there it is, the first dot of civilization you see on a map heading south from Alpine. By the time you’ve done the 80 miles between Alpine and Study Butte you’re thirsty. Your car is thirsty. If you have a dog, I’m pretty sure that adventurous hound is thirsty too. So you look for a place to stop, and that’s what I did. I drove past the turn-off to Terlingua and a few minutes later arrived at a rustic outpost with a sign up front that read “Study Butte Mall” and what I would later learn was the only three-color stoplight in Brewster County.
“Much of my misspent South Carolina youth was passed working and recreating at the local mall, so I greeted that sign with surprise and curiosity. I pulled up to a gas pump. It seemed a little vintage compared to the ones I’d been using out on the interstate, but unlike those pumps, someone turned this one on as soon as I got out of the car. Pump, then pay… I knew I had arrived at a special place. I didn’t know it yet, but that that gas station was also the grocery store, beer joint, music venue, clothing and home goods shopping center, liquor store, library, video rental store and propane station for South Brewster County—the mall! There was a porch out front with a long wooden bench and a couple of tables and there were people laughing and singing and strumming guitars and someone looking through one of a few cardboard boxes on the bench that were filled with clothes and shoes and a toaster and some picture frames. The porch walls were painted with small advertisements and artistic expressions from local businesses and individuals. I don’t think I’d ever seen a business with so much personality. I don’t think I’d ever seen a business so “unimproved.’ It was love at first sight.
“Over the course of the next few years, I would spend enough time at that ‘mall’ to rival my teenage years, wasted on a mall with absolutely no personality. I would wander the aisles, gathering pinto beans and tortillas and leche nido, a powdered milk that let me luxuriate with breakfast cereal, even though I lived in a tent without a refrigerator. I would buy avocados and garlic and celery that always seemed in need of Viagra. The coolers were poorly named because cool was something they just barely seemed to accomplish. In spite of only being “coolish,” when it was 100 degrees in the shade of the porch out front, a Shiner Bock out of the store’s beer cooler went down like Rocky Mountain spring water. They sold a lot of beer, and not just to employees. Someone would settle in with a beer and a guitar and people would start gathering. dogs would gather too. Terlingua was the doggiest place I’d ever been. Dogs and metal folding chairs would keep appearing and magic would be made.
“Sometimes people would drive up and park not to socialize but just to “shop” the cardboard boxes on the wooden bench. That area was known as the “free box,” and it provided an informal and free place for folks to leave what they didn’t need and find what they did. Often, the porch people would don costumes from the free box just to shake things up. The free box has changed locations over the years, but it’s never been abandoned. To this day, it’s there if you know where to look and like all of South County, it often has just the magic you need in it.”
“If beer wasn’t your thing, you could pick up a bottle of the hard stuff at the liquor store next door. It was never open, but if you wanted to shop, they would call Ringo to come over and let you in. If you weren’t feeling social and just wanted to curl up at home with a movie, you could rent one from the spinning rack with the same 20 movies it had last time you looked. We are talking VCR tapes, people. Be kind and rewind. The people of Terlingua love to read and I discovered the “library” was in an old gutted RV parked in back of the store. It was basically a free box for books. It was a tradition so wonderful that it too lives on and is located now inside the Terlingua Post Office, a climate controlled, wind and dust free perfect place for books.”
“When I reminisce about the Study Butte store, which like all of South County is in the midst of radical transformation, I remember lots of little things. The cashiers smoking and swatting flies… the glass case near the register that had those awesome rope sandals they make in Mexico… the pickle buckets scattered around the store to catch the rain that poured in during a good storm. I remember where things were located in the store, the color of the wood, the sound of the credit card machine making an imprint of my card. I remember music and laughter; so much music and laughter. There were so many wonderful folks making music in those days on that porch, but the one that WAS the Study Butte store for me was Randy. He was usually there with his dog and usually playing his accordion and sometimes even singing my favorite of his songs, “my dog has fleas, but she don’t screw my buddies and she ain’t never taken no money from me… my dog has fleas, but she don’t screw my buddies and she’s a damn sight easier than you to deflea…” Randy is gone, the porch itself is gone, the days when half an hour could go by before a car drove through Study Butte are gone. The memories of being in a wild place, with wild people at a wild time in my life, remain.”
“When I think back on the Study Butte Store, I remember lots of little things, but what I remember most is a feeling. The Study Butte Store felt like a cool beer on a really hot day. It felt like a sunny afternoon with nowhere to be. It felt like people who never hurried slowing down even more to just sit and be together. It felt like three-day-old news from an abandoned San Angelo paper and a hot wind that made the desert feel like a convection oven. We just sat there in the shade and felt our whole lives stretching out in front of us with nothing to do and nowhere to be but right where we were. It felt like an outpost on the last frontier. It felt like home.”
–Ceil Drucker first landed in Terlingua in 1991, in a borrowed pickup truck with flashlights taped on the back for taillights. She is a massage therapist and lives in Terlingua and Alpine with her massage partner and husband Bob, son Leo, a couple of porch-worthy dogs, way too many houseplants and a really nice porch.
Compiled by Kleo Belay