University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home

History of Wax Making and Marketing

photo of a wax maker and his family
A wax maker and his family prepare for a meal at the Glenn Springs factory camp in about 1917. Note that the house is thatched with candelilla. Photo courtesy Texas Historical Commission.

Historic Settlements

Early Spanish activity in this section of the Chihuahuan Desert was centered around El Paso del Norte and La Junta de los Ríos (junction of the Rio Conchos and Rio Grande), with enduring settlements established at both locations. Isolated outposts were established at San Carlos and San Vicente, and modern villages in those areas probably have been continuously occupied. Two hundred years of Spanish rule made many contributions to the modern culture of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Throughout much of the 19th century, this area served as a corridor for Plains Indian raids on settlements in Mexico, and the "Great Comanche War Trail" is firmly implanted in the folklore and physiography. A few remaining Jumano Indians in villages along the river probably were assimilated into the larger Mexican population. (For more information on the early history of the region, see the Texas Beyond History exhibit: Trails of the Trans Pecos.)

Anglo-American settlement in this area lagged behind that in other areas of Texas, in part because of its isolation from the more densely populated eastern half of the state with its easier access to supplies, in part because of the Indian raids in the area, and in part because of the aridity of the land itself. However, by the mid-19th century, interest was evident. After the Mexican War in 1845-1848, this region was examined by various topographical engineers. Perhaps the most important appraisal was that made by William H. Emory and associates during their survey of the United States and Mexican boundary in 1852, although the Emory party failed to traverse the rugged canyons.

Early Anglo settlement along this segment of the Rio Grande began in earnest after the Civil War, with men like Ben Leaton, John Spencer, Milton Faver, and John Burgess establishing ranches, and in some cases fortifications, at choice locations. The last of the Apaches, under their great chief Victorio, were driven from this area by 1880, and soon thereafter most of the free and easy land had been incorporated into large ranches. Some successful ranches remain in the same families today. The State of Texas wisely retained ownership of many scattered and isolated tracts of land for benefit of the public school system. Around the turn of the century, entrepreneurs and small businessmen were moving into frontier towns like Marfa and Alpine, looking for opportunities in the undeveloped desert vastness.

Commercial Beginnings

When or how candelilla wax first began to be utilized by historic inhabitants of the area is not recorded. Use of the wax for candles, religious statues, artificial flowers, and as waterproofing for leather, cloth, and matches may go back many generations in the Chihuahuan Desert. Mass production for commercial purposes seems to have begun in Mexico in the first decade of the twentieth century.

One of the early wax entrepreneurs, Ralph Ogden, was a Texan who established a factory in Mexico because, as he said, "that's where the candelilla grows." Ruth Ogden Goddard, in recounting her husband's business activities, says he had a producing wax factory in Santa Elena, interior Mexico, when she met him in 1910, and he planned to install another closer to the border. Ogden said he had learned about the wax from a padre at a "Spanish Mission" who used it for making candles. While use of the wax for candle making in Mexico has been reported elsewhere, an informant on the Texas border claimed he had never seen the wax used for candles, because it was too valuable to burn. It seems probable that use of the wax as an ingredient in commercial products, with its consequent increase in value of the wax, brought about a decline in local use of items, such as candles, that were made entirely of candelilla wax.

Oscar Pacius, a chemist in Monterrey, Mexico, is said to have developed the first economical process for commercial production of wax from candelilla. Pacius was associated with the Continental Wax Company of Little Rock, Arkansas, which reportedly had wax factories operating in Mexico by about 1910, and he later became involved in a wax company stock scheme in Alpine, Texas, which fizzled without ever producing wax.

By 1919, several factories were reported to be making candelilla wax in the Monterrey consular district, with the largest of these producing a daily output of about 662 pounds, which would involve processing 30,000 pounds of plants. The largest stands of candelilla plants in this area were in the Montemorelos, Galeana, Bustamante, and Villadama regions.

The beginnings of commercial exploitation of candelilla in Texas also date from the early 20th century. In 1907 the Thirtieth Texas Legislature passed S.B. No. 118, which controlled the harvesting of guayule, lechuguilla, and other plants on the extensive state school lands in west Texas. Based on this statute, the General Land Office on July 20, 1907, adopted rules governing harvesting of the plants. The almost immediate issuance of leases for the gathering of candelilla indicates that commercial interest in the plant was already in existence along the border.

The Great Wax Rush

From 1908 until the end of World War I, the issuance of leases by the state reflects a continuous increase in wax-making operations in west Texas. And in addition to the profits to be made from gathering and processing candelilla, there was apparently money to be made in selling the rights for harvesting.

In May 1908, W.W. Willett petitioned the state for the rights to gather "Candalilla" in Terrell and Brewster counties, and the first contract for candelilla was issued to Willett and G.E. Brashear of Uvalde for a period of five years for a payment of $1,000. Willett sold his share of the 1908 contract to M.B. Mayer of San Antonio for $10, but there is a 1909 cash receipt in the General Land Office archives from the Willett Candelilla Wax Company, indicating that Willett was still involved in wax production during that year. Willett also requested a lease extension in March 1911. G.B. Fenley of Uvalde purchased from Mayer the share that had earlier belonged to Willett, and then Fenley and Brashear renewed the lease for Brewster and Terrell counties in 1911 for a period of five years and a payment of $1,000. They then sold the new lease to E.D. Lowe of Brewster County for $7,000 in cash and $13,000 in capital stock of the American Wax Company.

The second candelilla contract granted by the state was issued to J.H. Smith of El Paso in December 1908 for harvesting the plant in El Paso, Presidio, and Jeff Davis counties, for a period of five years for a payment of $300 per year. (Since Hudspeth County was excluded from this contract, it may have been under contract to other parties.) In 1912 J.H. Taff tried to renew the original Smith contract on El Paso, Presidio, and Jeff Davis counties, but it was transferred in 1913 to G.W. Wooley and the Candelilla Wax Company of Marfa.

Edgar D. Lowe is reported to have secured a contract from the state in 1911 and installed the first wax factory in west Texas at Double Mills on Maravillas Creek in October of that year. W.K. Ellis and C.D. Wood established successful wax factories at McKinney Springs in 1912 and at Glenn Springs in 1914. The complexity of the dealings among these early wax entrepreneurs is reflected in a letter to the land commissioner from Ellis in November 1915. Other early schemes for making fortunes from wax abounded, and newspapers from 1911 to 1915 contain many articles concerning the promise and disappointments of the candelilla business.

Feverish activity in the wax business was stimulated by the high price of wax immediately preceding and during World War I, when wax was used extensively for waterproofing tents and ammunition. The increase in business, of course, did nothing to lessen the complexity of the entrepreneurs' dealings. Edward M. Ellis of Memphis, Tennessee (American Wax Company), secured the candelilla lease for Brewster and Terrell counties in 1916 for five years for a cash payment of $1,000. This is the lease that had originally been granted to Willett and Brashear in 1908, then was owned by Mayer and Brashear, Fenley and Brashear, and E.D. Lowe in succession. E.M. Green of San Antonio secured a five-year candelilla lease on Hudspeth County in 1918 for $250 and sold it the same year to Salvador Madero of San Antonio for $1,000. The last lease to be issued by the state during the "great wax rush" was granted in 1922.

In This Section:

Historic Settlements
Commercial Beginnings
The Great Wax Rush
Early Factories
Transient Camps
Fluctuating Prices
Smuggling Wax
The Buyers
Wax Dealers

Map showing where the Chihuahan Desert spans the southwestern United States
The Chihuahan desert spans the Trans Pecos area of far west Texas, parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and in central Mexico (not shown on map). Map adapted from Bureau of Land Management graphic.
map of Chihuahuan deser
The harsh and arid Trans Pecos area was a corridor for Comanche raiding from the northern Plains into Mexico throughout the 19th century,a factor which served as a deterrent to settlers. Map adapted from Weber, 1982. Click to enlarge.
photo of Apache leader Victorio
After Apache leader Victorio was driven from the region in the 1880s, much of the free land was incorporated into large ranches, and small businessmen began moving into small towns.
photo of candles
Candles in Spanish missions and churches reportedly were made from candelilla wax, although some people in later years felt the product was too valuable to burn or use for local products.

By 1919, several factories were reported to be making candelilla wax in the Monterrey (Mexico) consular district. The largest of these produced a daily output of about 662 pounds, which would involve processing 30,000 pounds of plants.

photo of 1908 contract
Frontpiece of 1908 contract of J.H. Smith with the Texas General Land Office to purchase for $1500 the rights to harvest all candelilla plant growing on free public school lands in El Paso, Presido, and Jeff Davis counties for a term of five years. Click to enlarge.
photo of Camp MacArthur
World War I brought high demand for candelilla wax, which was used to waterproof tents and other military equipment and fed the "great wax rush." This scene is from Camp MacArthur, Texas, circa 1918. Click to enlarge.
photo of Glenn Springs wax factory
Glenn Springs wax factory in operation about 1917. Note the boiler building in the background and sophisticated equipment including hoists and wheeled carts. Little is known about the day-to-day operations of the factories. Photo courtesy Texas Historical Commission.

The Early Factories

The wax factory at Glenn Springs was one of the earliest and largest in the Big Bend region. Established in 1914 by W.K. Ellis and C.D. Wood, it soon boasted a water storage system, a boiler room with tall smoke stacks, six large extracting vats, a well-stocked general store, a large house for the Anglo foreman, and several dozen huts for families of the Mexican workers. In May 1916 the factory was thriving in spite of troubled times and a tense political situation along the border. General Pershing was with his troops in Mexico pursuing Pancho Villa, and the two governments were negotiating in El Paso to try and ease tensions. Several soldiers were stationed at Glenn Springs to help protect the wax factory and its little settlement. On the night of May 5, a group of about 75 Mexican raiders crossed the river and attacked Glenn Springs, killing several people, including troopers, and looting the store. Colonel George Langhorne and two troops of U.S. Cavalry crossed the border on May 11 and pursued the raiders over 60 miles into Mexico.

The cavalry killed and captured several of the raiders and recovered some of the Glenn Springs loot, and the border dispute between the two countries became even more critical. By July 1916 the United States had over 100,000 troops along the Mexican border and 250 men were assigned to protect the wax factory at Glenn Springs. Although there were sporadic attacks on ranches in 1918 and 1919, Glenn Springs had no further visits from Mexican raiders, and the troops were withdrawn by 1920.

In addition to the Ellis and Wood operation at Glenn Springs, their earlier location at McKinney Springs, and the Lowe factory established in 1911 at Double Mills, several other attempts were made along the border to mass produce candelilla wax in factories. The Fisher factory was in operation near Lajitas in 1916 and during the boom years of World War I, H.H. Harris and J.L. Crawford operated a large candelilla factory in Fresno Canyon. However, at the end of the war, wax prices dropped sharply, and all of the factories closed, including the Ellis and Wood plant at Glenn Springs. Throughout the 1920s production waxed and waned along with market prices, but some of the factories re-opened and prospered. W.D. Burcham purchased the Glenn Springs factory and produced wax there from about 1920 to 1929. Captain Wood continued to produce some wax at other locations after he sold the Glenn Springs operation. The Fresno Canyon plant also was back in production during the 20s and reportedly shipped $100,000 worth of wax in 1923.

Although there are some good photographs of the early factories and some information on owners and volume of wax produced, little is known about the actual daily operation of the factories. Generally, a factory consisted of a building containing a large boiler fired with creosote brush and spent candelilla and vented by tall smoke stacks. Water was pumped from springs or windmill tanks, and pipes carried steam to a series of six or eight boiling vats that were charged with candelilla plants by means of carts and platforms suspended by ropes and pulleys.

As many as 50 men worked at one of these factories, stoking the firebox, charging the vats, skimming wax, drying spent weed, and gathering the tons of candelilla processed daily. Trucks, wagons, and burros transported the masses of weed in from the gathering fields. The largest and most accessible virgin stands of candelilla went into the early factories, and big profits went to Anglo investors. For example, it is estimated that $500,000 worth of wax was marketed from Brewster County in 1928. The work was done by Mexican laborers who earned about $1.50 per ton for harvesting the weed by hand.

None of the wax factories along the border lasted very long, and now only traces of them remain. The McKinney Springs and Glenn Springs sites were visited and recorded in 1980. Much of the metal from the sites was scavenged during World War II metal drives, and additional damage was done when the sites were "cleaned up" during the early years of Big Bend National Park. The Glenn Springs site revealed evidence of both the early operation and a later one dating from the late 1930s, including water transport and storage systems, structure foundations, ruins of wax vat pits, numerous artifacts, and ruins of the wax makers' houses. This site is a major cultural resource in the park.

Some small factories can still be found operating in interior Mexico, particularly around Quatro Cienegas and Saltillo. A few factories were established in west Texas after the 1920s, but the only persistent production system along the Rio Grande is the one observed in transient camps.

The Transient Camps

Much wax has been produced along the river in temporary camps, where a few men with their burros go to good stands of candelilla and set up one or more small vats above fire pits dug in the ground. The men camp under primitive conditions for a few weeks or a few months and then quickly pull up stakes and move the operation to a more productive location. By the late 1930s these small and transient camps along the river had begun to replace factory operations, and the days of the speculators and stock promoters and quick profit seekers were largely over. Wax making had simply become hard, hot, dirty, dreary work. Nevertheless, at least one flamboyant entrepreneur was to emerge during this period.

Alton Hutson became involved in the candelilla wax business in the years just before World War II. He helped finance widespread wax production in northern Mexico and paid top price for truckloads of wax delivered to the American side of the international bridge in Laredo. Mexican officials eventually closed down this operation and accused Hutson of smuggling 400,000 pounds of wax across the border in Laredo, but he had declared it all with United States Customs and therefore had done nothing illegal in this country. Hutson also leased land in the Big Bend area and established a refining operation at the old Glenn Springs location, which was in production in 1939 utilizing Mexican laborers. He claimed that during his absence Mexican officials arranged to have his building and candelilla stock burned and the equipment carried off to Mexico. If true, this constituted the "second" Glenn Springs raid.

Sharply increased demand for fine wax in World War II caused prices to rise, and a flurry of wax making persisted into the 1950s. A factory was started by J.E. Casner in Presidio in about 1942 and operated successfully during the war years, processing as many as 25 tons of candelilla per day. More typical of the period than the Hutson and Casner operations were the small but productive camps of Asa Jones. Located in the rugged Lower Canyons and Bullis Gap areas, these were in full operation during the 1940s. J. Harrison, interviewed in 1977 by Mavis Bryant, recalls:

Mr. Asa did good at that wax business for a long time. He put in one [wax camp] on the river down here below me. He got the candelilla in Mexico—wasn't much on this side. He got a bulldozer in there and scraped out an airstrip on top of the hill. Never did anybody think enough of it to land on it.

Another informant reported that he went into the candelilla wax business in 1940 and was able to pay off about $500,000 in debts in three years, using profits from his wax operations alone. He had as many as 400 people working with wax during the war years.

With the passing of the early factories, the formality of leasing state lands seems to have been ignored, and none had been issued since 1922. However, in the late 1940s increased demand for the wax evidently reactivated the state's interest.

One informant said he found some good "weed" areas between Shafter and Presidio and secured a lease for gathering candelilla on the state lands. He set up a camp and began producing cerote (rough wax) but soon had to quit because of serious arguments with ranchers who had grazing leases on the same state lands and did not believe he had a legal right to harvest candelilla on "their" land.

One of the most successful stories of the later period of the candelilla wax industry is that of the Adams family. Eulice and Elba Adams began making wax on their west Texas ranch in the late 1930s, and Eulice continued intermittent production until his death in 1962. At times they had as many as 150 men making wax on the ranch and produced as much as 25,000 pounds of rough wax per month. Their cerote was sold to Casner until Eulice's son, David, took over the business in 1962 and expanded from wax production into refining and marketing as well.

Wax making in small camps along the river has continued to the present time, but relatively small quantities have been marketed in Texas in recent years. Wax production in Texas and along the Rio Grande has always been a small part of the industry, with perhaps 80 to 90 percent of the total output coming from the interior Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Durango, and Zacatecas. Records are not available on candelilla wax importation prior to 1936, but during the years from 1936 to 1952 official importation of candelilla wax from Mexico ranged from about two million pounds annually in the late 1930s to as much as ten million pounds during the World War II years. All of this production was from wild plants.

Fluctuating Prices

In the 1920s wax usually sold for between 12 and 20 cents per pound. Prices per pound during the 1930s and 1940s varied from 12 to 70 cents and usually averaged about one-half the price of carnauba wax. David Adams said in a 1977 interview with this author that the highest price his father received for rough wax until 1962 was 59 cents per pound and that the price of wax remained relatively stable between 1962 and 1976, fluctuating only between 48 and 52 cents per pound. In the mid-1970s Casner reported that he usually paid 40 cents for raw wax and had been forced to sell some refined wax for 63 cents, but he hoped to get 80 cents per pound in the future. In 1980 candelilla wax reached an all-time high price of $1.50 per pound because of increased demand and decreasing competitiveness of petroleum-based waxes.

Most of it [wax] comes out of Mexico; however, there is some produced over here [Texas]. When the price is good on it, there'll be a lot of wax campers—you know, up and down the river cooking wax. And when the price goes down, why then you kinda abandon it and go do something else. Price gets good again, and they go back and fire up the boilers and go get some more wax. (Clem Earwood, interviewed in 1977 by Mavis Bryant.)

An organization known as the Union de Credito de Productores de la Cera de Candelilla was formed in Mexico in 1936 to help improve conditions for the wax makers and to control prices and exports. In 1937 the Banco Nacional de Comercio Exterior imposed an export tax on wax and granted subsidies to producers. From that time to the present, the Banco and related organizations have controlled wax making in Mexico and sought to curtail illegal exportation along the Texas border. Having an alternative outlet in Mexico has improved the lot of the cereros, or candelilleros (wax makers). The marketing of candelilla wax produced along the border was complex and involved many diverse individuals and organizations.

photo of General Pershing and Pancho Villa
General John J. Pershing with Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in 1914. Political tensions brought U.S. troops to the border area, and soldiers were stationed at some wax factories to guard against raids by Mexicans. Photo by Robert Runyon, Library of Congress.

By July 1916 the United States had over 100,000 troops along the Mexican border and 250 men were assigned to protect the wax factory at Glenn Springs from Mexican raiders

photo of Fisher wax factory
The Fisher wax factory near Lajitas, as photographed by W. D. Smithers in about 1916. None of the commercial wax factories along the border lasted for long, and by the 1930s, they had been largely replaced by small transient camps. Click to enlarge.
photo of creosote
Creosote, the dark-leafed shrubs shown in this Chihuahuan desert scene, were used to fire the boilers in many candelilla factories. Like the candelilla plant, creosote is drought and heat tolerant. Click to enlarge. Photo by Susan Dial.

It is estimated that $500,000 worth of wax was marketed from Brewster County in 1928. The work was done by Mexican laborers, who earned about $1.50 per ton for harvesting the weed by hand.

photo of cererros
Cererros, also known as "candelilleros," in front of their shelter thatched with candelilla in Asa Jones wax camp. Photo by Curtis Tunnell, courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission. Click to enlarge.

By the late 1930s, small, transient camps along the river had begun to replace factory operations, and the days of the speculators and stock promoters and quick profit seekers were largely over. Wax making had simply become hard, hot, dirty, dreary work.

photo of burros
A prize burro and her colt in a wax camp on the Adams ranch. Note rope hobbles on the feet of the adult. Photo by Curtis Tunnell, courtesy Texas Historical Commission.
photo of relay pumphouses on a cliff
Relay pumphouses at the Asa Jones water works and wax camp, Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. Perched high on a cliff, the site could be reached from the river only with great difficulty when this photo was made in the 1970s. Photo from Mallouf and Tunnell, 1977, courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission. Click to enlarge.
photo of wax crew
Wax crew at the commissary on the Adams ranch in the 1950s. At times there were as many as 150 men making wax on the ranch, producing as much as 25,000 pounds of rough wax per month. Photo courtesy of Texas Historical Commission. Click to enlarge.
photo of Boquillas
The small town of Boquillas, situated in the foothills along the Rio Grande, was once an important crossing for wax peddlers bringing their product into Texas. The crossing there and at other small border towns was closed due to NAFTA regulations and increased border security. The head of Boquillas canyon is in the background escarpment; the U.S. side is on the left, Mexico on the right. Photo by Raymond Skiles, 1990.

Smuggling Wax

"For the Mexicans it's smuggling, but for us it's importing." Wax has always flowed across the Rio Grande either because buyers on this side would pay more than the Banco or because cash was more quickly accessible from Texas buyers. It is illegal under Mexican law to smuggle wax out of Mexico, but not illegal under United States statutes to bring it into this country for marketing if it is declared with customs. Heavily laden burros have brought wax into Texas at various places, including Stillwell's Crossing, Reagan Canyon, La Linda, Boquillas, San Vicente, Solis, Santa Elena, Lajitas, El Mulato, Presidio, and Candelária. It is estimated that as many as 1700 tons of wax have been smuggled across the Texas border in some years.

One informant described participating in a nocturnal wax-purchasing session near Big Bend National Park. He and the purchaser went to a prearranged place and camped. Long after dark a dry sotol plant flamed up on a hillside about a mile away, and he was told that the pack train would arrive soon. Some time later a single individual came warily into their camp. Upon determining that everything was in order, the "scout" went out and, accompanied by several other men, brought in the pack train of burros loaded with wax. The gunnysacks of wax were unloaded from the burros and the bargaining began. Various sacks were opened and the quality of the wax (the amount of trash and sand content) was examined. The purchaser would occasionally find a rock in a bag and discard it, but occasionally a rock was added by the seller before a bag was retied. Eventually a price was agreed upon and the bags were weighed. The wax makers were paid in cash and got on their burros and left. The wax was loaded on a truck and hauled to a refining place some miles away, where it probably was mixed with wax produced on this side of the border. Some buyers, however, do declare clandestine wax shipments to U.S. Customs before refining.

One refiner described making a "big wax deal" in the park many years ago. The Mexican producer demanded cash in pesos for the load. The buyer was afraid to carry the cash with him to the rendezvous, so he had about $20,000 in pesos sewn into a burlap bag and flown to the site in a light plane. After the large burro pack train was unloaded and the price agreed on, the plane was signaled to drop the cash bag. The plane circled twice and the bag was thrown out a window. Sailing on a brisk wind, the bag landed in a rugged rocky area, and the buyer spent several uneasy hours helping some very unhappy wax makers search for the bag of pesos.

Of course, the Banco has long sought to curtail wax smuggling across the river. It subsidizes cooperatives and provides acid (a necessary ingredient in wax making) to the wax makers on a quota system, expecting to get a specified quantity of wax in return. Wax makers who want to sell in the United States usually have to get acid from their American buyers. The Banco also tries to pay higher prices than U.S. buyers, but it may take one or two months for payment, and few wax makers want to wait that long for their money.

During the mid-1960s, there was a quota of 100 to 150 kilograms (220 to 330 pounds) per year for each family that made wax, and it was estimated that 20,000 Mexicans subsisted on wax production. More recently an ejido, or cooperative, near Ojinaga was reported as having a quota of 800 kilograms (1764 pounds) per month and as selling the wax for about a dollar per kilo to the Banco. The cooperative got considerably less for any wax that was smuggled across the border. One buyer said at times there were from dozens to hundreds of Mexican federal officers along the border trying to curtail the flow of wax. This was especially true from July 1947 to August 1948 and again between December 1952 and September 1953 when the Mexican government banned all manufacture of wax from candelilla because the plant had become endangered from overexploitation. During these years wax shipments reportedly came from as far as 150 miles to be smuggled across the river.

One dealer, who prefers to remain anonymous, said he has traveled to Mexico many times to locate people who live by smuggling wax into Texas. He has often bought as much as 30,000 pounds of Mexican wax at one time, and the people who transport it make about 10 cents per pound profit for smuggling the wax across the river. He described the transactions as follows:

They always insist on coming in the middle of the night, and I've worked all night inspecting shipments many times. In the bags of cerote you often find what are called "highballs," which are balls of wet ashes covered in wax, and also rocks coated with wax.

In earlier days smugglers would bring as many as 100 burros across the river laden with $10,000 to $20,000 worth of wax. One crossing was on the "old Boquillas trail" below the park. In more recent years wax was brought to the border in trucks and taken across the river at fords. The informant said most of his wax originates in a big production area around Quatro Cienegas, but some is made along the Rio Grande.

In the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for buyers to keep $10,000 to $20,000 in cash handy to pay for wax arriving from Mexico, and, even though the buyers had guns, they didn't feel the wax smugglers were dangerous because "they are not bad people." However, the informant had heard of shoot-outs between the smugglers and Mexican officers in which men on both sides were killed. More often, bribes were paid to appropriate officials in advance. One buyer is supposed to have made infamous wax deals in the 1950s that included payment of new gas refrigerators for Mexican officials.

Several times I sold her gas refrigerators that you couldn't get in Mexico. One time I delivered a box to her at a place called San Vicente, right on the river…soon here came a team and a wagon and we unloaded the refrigerator on that wagon and I asked her, "Where does this go?" She says, "It goes to a Mexican army captain about 200 miles in the interior of Mexico." (Interview with D. D. Thomas by Mavis Bryant, Alpine, 1977.)

During a visit to the San Vicente area in 1980, we observed a pickup fording the river with two used refrigerators in the back. Apparently the system still works.

The Buyers

In the past, a bag of wax might be brought across the river at any time, so buyers had to be in convenient locations with a pocketful of cash. For years buyers were situated at all the river towns and crossings between Candelária and Stillwell's Crossing. One of the famous buyers was Maggie Smith, a Big Bend legend who ran a store near Langford's hot springs for many years. In Farewell to Texas, W.O. Douglas presents a colorful account of her business practices:

Maggie Smith's main profit was in the wax that she bought from Mexicans and resold to American processors... she bought large quantities, selling them to refiners in Alpine and Marfa. Occasionally, the Mexican authorities obtained the help of our customs people in policing the border. There would be raids, and Maggie, hearing the sound of approaching officials from the sensitive acoustical position of her store, would hide any wax in the ladies' restroom—a place that the border officials, being gentlemen, never entered.

Two wax buyers for the J.E. Casner operation were interviewed in 1976. Tom Ornelas had been buying wax for about 25 years in the Presidio area. He had just delivered a big load of cerote (unrefined wax) to the refinery a few weeks before the interview and had a little more wax on hand at the time. He said the Mexican wax makers "declared" their wax and delivered it to him in Presidio. They dumped the wax out of the bags on a floor for the buyer to inspect its quality. He said, "You must pour it out of the bags and inspect it in order to not pay 40 cents per pound for rocks." The wax makers kept their own burlap bags and took them back to Mexico for reuse. Ornelas had on hand a good supply of sulphuric acid to dispense to the wax makers who needed it for rough wax refining, and he paid cash for the cerote and rebagged it for shipment to the refinery in Alpine. When the wax business was doing better he was on the refinery payroll, but at the time of this report he worked on a commission.

Mrs. Walker, manager of the old General Store at Candelária, bought all the wax she could get and was paying 35 cents per pound in cash at the time of her interview in 1976. In better days she paid as much as 60 cents per pound. She usually paid for cerote in U.S. currency and tried to avoid using pesos, although almost all the wax she bought came from Mexico. She used to get big loads—as much as 500 or 1,000 pounds per shipment—but by the 1970s she usually got only 30, 40, or 50 pounds at a time. "I can always tell when there is going to be a wedding or a funeral across the river, because people start bringing in a half bag of wax to get some cash." A half bag of wax, about 50 pounds, would have been worth $17.50 at the 1976 price of 35 cents per pound, and might have brought twice that amount at 1980 prices.

Walker said most of the wax made in Mexico at the time of her interview (late 1970s) went to "the bank." The Banco paid more per kilo than she could pay per pound, but people had to wait 30 to 60 days to get their money, so they brought some to her for quick cash. Most of the wax makers that she knew worked at other jobs like planting and harvesting crops and made wax between those other jobs. Wax making is considered to be good money, and men can make more at it than at "ranching or working for wages."

In the old days, Walker said, all her wax was delivered by burro, but now most comes over in pick-ups. She provides the wax makers with bottles of acid in return for the wax. She had delivered about 1,000 pounds of cerote to the refinery a few weeks before the interview, but at the time of our visit she had on hand only about 100 pounds.

An informant in Presidio said that Guillermo Galindo, the mayor of Ojinaga, was an active wax buyer in the San Carlos area for years and became rich in the wax business. Another well-known buyer was Gustavo Garcia, who lived near Ruidosa. The informant, who prefers to remain anonymous, also related a story about a Mr. Kalmore, who owned a store in downtown Presidio, which indicates that wax buying may at times be a hazardous occupation:

One night, real late, he bought a shipment of wax and paid cash, but apparently the smugglers wanted more money from his safe. They cut up his ears but he refused to open the safe, so they hit him on the head with a pipe and killed him.

Ironically, with the high market price in the late 1970s, some wax was beginning to be carried across the Rio Grande to Mexico for the first time. A rancher who was producing a considerable volume of wax reported that some of the men filched cerote and took it over to Mexico to sell. He said he would have to be in the wax camp every day to prevent this type of chicanery.

Wax Dealers

One of the principal figures of the modern wax industry in Texas is J.E. Casner of Alpine, Texas, who became involved with wax in about 1940 and was still refining and marketing it, at age 88, when he agreed to an extensive interview in May 1976. Through the years Casner has aggressively pursued the manufacturing, buying, refining, and marketing of wax and the attempted massive cultivation and harvesting of candelilla. His accomplishments gained him the popular title of "Candelilla Wax King" of west Texas. Casner purchased wax shipments in Big Bend National Park in the early days and maintained purchasing agents for years in Lajitas, Presidio, and Candelaria.

In 1976 Casner said he shipped a large load of refined wax to a company in London. In earlier years he shipped wax to the northeast by rail, but it became too expensive, so he began using trucks to haul the wax (40,000 pounds per load) to Houston. From there it went by barge to New York and New Jersey. Following that he sold mostly to a New Jersey broker and understood that most of his wax is used by Wrigleys and American Chicle as a principal ingredient in chewing gum.

In our 1976 interview, Casner talked freely about candelilla, graciously introduced me to some of his buyers, gave a tour of his refining plant in Alpine, and reluctantly sold ten pounds of raw and refined wax, at the current market price, for research purposes. He said he usually pays 40 cents per pound for cerote in 100-pound burlap bags. He then refines the wax by boiling it in dilute acid; during the refining process there is a loss of about 10 to 12 percent of volume because of moisture and sand removal. He has sold up to one million pounds of wax in good years, but now (1976) he can get only small quantities along the border. He blames this on the Banco in Mexico, a competitor in Marathon, food stamps, and the minimum wage law. In better times, his wax profits paid for a new refining plant, building and all, in only three months.

The only other big wax dealer in Texas during the late 1970s was David Adams of Marathon and Stillwell Crossing. After taking over the family wax business in 1962, he was doing fairly well just making wax on his ranch and selling it to Casner. Then the "markets got sticky" in the east, Casner stopped buying, and Adams went to New York and met the wax brokers himself. After returning to the ranch, he experimented until he learned how to refine cerote into pure wax.

Adams' profits on wax tripled when he started marketing it himself. In good years he refined as much as 60,000 pounds of wax per month, some of which was coming in from Mexico, and sold it directly to wax brokers in New York who handle all types of wax. He also sold wax directly to the "Beech-nut" chewing gum company for a while. At the time of his interview in 1977, the wax business was very slow, with little being produced or "imported" from Mexico. He blamed this situation on the Mexican government for controlling the price of wax by manipulating supplies and dumping expensive wax at cheap prices. He felt that this was done, at least in part, to crowd him and Casner out of the business and that it seemed to be working.

During a second interview in 1980, Adams was much more optimistic, and the wax industry was again booming with the price at $1.50 per pound. He said he could profitably ship the wax to the northeast by truck in reduced loads of about 20,000 (rather than 40,000) pounds per load because of the increased value. The shipping cost was about $2,000 per load. He had produced and bought as much as 80,000 pounds of wax per month and had probably averaged 60,000 pounds per month over a three-year period. Although much of this wax had come out of Mexico, he had been unable to buy as much imported wax because of the higher prices being paid there. At the time of the interview, he had about 22 men working on his ranch cooking candelilla. He said he and Casner have been the only refiners and marketers of candelilla wax along the Texas border in the past two decades (1960s and 1970s). In recent years they have sold from 120,000 to 150,000 pounds per month, with most of it going to five companies on the east coast. When asked if a load of wax has ever been hijacked, he responded, "You can't get rid of a load of candelilla wax very easily." However, he added that everyone is careful to buy, only from people they know, to be sure they don't purchase hijacked wax.


marketing diagram
Marketing diagram for candelilla wax, based on late 1970s economy and regulations. Although the picture has changed, due to recent trade agreements between the U.S. and Mexico, it is still as complex as when Tunnell compiled this chart. Graphic courtesy Texas Historical Commission. Click to enlarge.

"They always insist on coming in the middle of the night, and I've worked all night inspecting shipments many times. In the bags of cerote you often find what are called "highballs," which are balls of wet ashes covered in wax, and also rocks coated with wax."
-Anonymous wax dealer in the 1970s.

photo of Sierra del Carmens
The rugged canyons of the Sierra del Carmens support large stands of candelilla and were the site of many wax camps. This photo at Boquillas Canyon on the Rio Grande was taken by W.D. Smithers from a small plane in 1936. Click to enlarge.
photo of a mule
Sturdy burros saw heavy service as pack animals during the era of the wax factories, as they still do today. The animals hauled masses of carefully packed candelilla from the canyon slopes to the factories for processing. Photo by Glenn Evans, courtesy of the Texas Memorial Museum.

"I can always tell when there is going to be a wedding or a funeral across the river, because people start bringing in a half bag of wax to get some cash."
-Candelária General Store operator Mrs. Walker, 1976.

photo of workers trading
Workers brought furs, candelilla wax, chino grass, and firewood to trade for necessities such as sugar, flour, beans, and cloth at stores in Glenn Springs and Castalon. Photo courtesy of Big Bend National Park, NPS. Click to enlarge.
photo of ocotillo plant
A red-blooming ocotillo plant adds a touch of color to the grayish rocky slope. A stand of candelilla is in forefront. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.

"There would be raids; and Maggie, hearing the sound of approaching officials from the sensitive acoustical position of her store, would hide any wax in the ladies' restroom-a place that the border officials, being gentlemen, never entered.."
-William O. Douglas in "A Farewell to Texas," 1967.

photo of bags of cerote
Bags of cerote, or raw wax. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil.
photo of Casner
"Candelilla Wax King" J.E. Casner in Candelária, Texas, 1976. The west Texas businessman was still refining and marketing wax at the age of 88. Photo by Curtis Tunnell, courtesy Texas Historical Commission.

When the "markets got sticky" in the east in the 1960s, wax entrepreneur David Adams of Marathon went to New York and met the wax brokers himself. His profits on wax tripled when he started marketing it himself.

photo of Sierra del Carmen
Foothills and escarpment of Sierra del Carmen, Mexico. Photo by Raymond Skiles. Click to enlarge.
photo of candelilla plant
A candelilla plant in bloom. Photo by JoAnn Pospisil. Click to enlarge.