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Cibolo Creek Ranch owner wants to turn Shafter into a history museum, but says he needs the local silver mine too

A non-profit funded by John Poindexter, the wealthy Texas businessman who owns a sprawling ranch resort in the Big Bend region, has offered to buy a silver mine as part of its broader plan for a historic preservation project and tourist attraction in Shafter.

By Travis Bubenik

Just off a winding two-lane highway in the rugged, mountainous heart of Presidio County, the tiny town of Shafter can seem like a place stuck in time.

Though steeped in a history of booms and fortunes wrought from the mineral deposits under the area’s rocky ground, Shafter is these days home to a relatively small silver mine, a few locals and a serene trickling creek that makes the town a true desert oasis.

John Poindexter, the owner of the nearby Cibolo Creek Ranch luxury resort, is now pitching a plan to turn at least part of the town into a historical preservation project and museum akin to the popular Colonial Williamsburg tourist attraction in Virginia.

“It’ll be a full-scale operating museum, open five or six days a week, that’s kind of what we’re anticipating right now,” said Hank Thompson, a representative with the Tidewater and Big Bend Foundation, a non-profit formed and funded by Poindexter to carry out historical preservation projects in West Texas and Tidewater, Virginia, where the businessman also owns property.

The non-profit has described its efforts in Texas and Virginia as seeking to “create an educational tableau of rural life in former times.”

In announcing its plan for Shafter earlier this month, the non-profit said it wanted to document and restore various historic structures in the town, including a local schoolhouse, a general store, some homes and structures associated with the area’s historic mining operations.

“It’s something that can add to the region, tell the history of everything from the native peoples that were there before, to the mine, to the ranchers,” Thompson said.

As part of its plan, the foundation said it also wants to purchase a nearby silver mine, largely because the mine’s holdings include some of the historic structures and ruins the foundation wants to protect.

“In addition, the Foundation wishes to protect this important historical site from further development,” the group wrote in a press release announcing the effort. “If able to purchase the operating mine, and the surrounding raw land, the Foundation would mitigate threats to the region's aquifer, air quality, and scenic beauty.”

Thompson said the foundation would cease all mining operations if it successfully acquired the property. He would not say exactly how much the foundation was willing to pay for the mine, but said that Poindexter has pumped nearly $50 million into the organization’s efforts since its creation in late 2020.

The non-profit said it had reached out to the mine’s owner, Canadian company Aurcana Corporation, but that it had “not received a substantive response.”

The proposal comes at a time when the future of the Shafter silver mine is a topic of much discussion - and just as much uncertainty - across the county.

Late last month, the county’s top official informed Shafter residents that she had received information about the mine potentially being sold, a concern for the community because the mine currently owns and operates the town’s water supply.

At a community meeting in Shafter, County Judge Cinderela Guevara told residents she had reached out to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about the matter since the mine’s current owners provide free drinking water to the town.

“They’re the ones that came back to me and said ‘yes, judge, the sale of the mine is imminent,’” Guevara said.

Meanwhile, a man with an El Paso-based company called Presidio Silver has publicly suggested that he has reached a deal to purchase the mine.

In a statement to Marfa Public Radio, Aurcana’s CEO Kevin Drover dismissed talk of the mine being sold as “rumors.”

“Normally Aurcana would not comment on these rumors,” Drover said, “but in light of the number of rumors going around I will tell you that we have not received any formal offers to purchase the Shafter Mine assets that Aurcana is considering.”

In a statement, TCEQ said it is “monitoring this ongoing situation closely” and had recently communicated with the mining company’s staff about the matter.

“TCEQ understands that the details of a potential sale of the system are currently being determined,” agency spokesperson Gary Rasp said. “There is no lapse in water supply to the Town of Shafter expected at this time.”

Guevara, the top county official, said in an interview that she had not been in contact with either Aurcana or Mark Isaacs, the El Paso man purporting to have reached a deal to buy the mine.

“It seems like it’s all a mystery now,” she said.

Poindexter’s foundation said it was making a public push for its plan now in part because of all the open questions about the mine’s future.

“The problem is, what happens when the new mine owner decides they want to develop an open-pit mine there?” Thompson said. “It really throws a wrench in our long-term goals for what we could do at the town of Shafter.”

It’s unclear how the proposal will go over among locals, but Shafter resident and former Presidio County Judge Monroe Elms said he’s somewhat skeptical about the effort.

“If Poindexter wants to purchase everything, be a good steward, work with the people, and not try to control everything, it could have benefits, yes,” Elms said.

Still, Elms said he worries about the project leading to historic preservation-related land use limits that could impact homeowners. 

For Elms, the amount of speculation swirling about Shafter’s future is just the latest in a long history of ups and downs, starry-eyed dreams and less-rosey realities he’s seen in the town.

“There’s been speculation basically all my life about who’s going to buy the mine, who’s going to control the mine,” he said. “In all mining towns, everybody hopes for the best.”

The best he could hope for, Elms said, is that Shafter remains a place where the creek runs clear and the birds and butterflies that migrate through the region continue to stop off for a drink.

“Keep Shafter so that it doesn’t disappear from the way it is now,” he said. “That would be my hope.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.