By Dale Weisman
A down-to-earth “rock star” of the Big Bend has passed away.
John Frank “Trey” Woodward III died on March 5, 2011, at the young age of 54. While cancer claimed his body, Trey’s gentle spirit lives on at the Woodward Ranch, a rugged mecca for rock collectors and outdoors enthusiasts.
For decades, the Woodward Ranch has promoted itself as the world’s only known source of red plume agate, coveted by agate aficionados and lapidarists. A 3,000-acre spread 16 miles south of Alpine, the Woodward is indeed one of the nation’s premier agate-collecting spots. More than 60 kinds of other colorful agates and gemstones, from opal to labradorite, occur naturally in the ranch’s rugged volcanic outcroppings.
“The real treasure found at Woodward Ranch was Trey. The agates and gems were just a bonus,” said Trey’s wife, Jan Woodward, when I contacted her after Trey’s passing.
Jan added, “Trey had a magic way of making people feel so welcome, and he was bent on sharing the beauty of this part of the world with others. A lot of people haven’t ever been off of a sidewalk, and Trey just wanted them to see the land, the sky, the cows and rocks. He was so humble and quiet. And yet he was responsible for getting many people interested in rock collecting and geology and all the facets of what you can do with rocks. The Woodward Ranch has such a long heritage of rock collecting and lapidary, and Trey carried on the tradition that his father and grandfather started there.”
I met Trey for the first time 11 years ago while researching a Texas Highways article on the mountains of West Texas. Clad in worn jeans, a khaki shirt, scuffed boots and a battered cowboy hat, Trey looked like the quintessential Big Bend cattleman. He had cookie-duster mustache, a gravelly voice, a firm handshake and a welcoming smile that instantly won me over.
Trey was the third-generation Woodward to operate the ranch. Originally homesteaded in 1884, the Woodward is one of the few working ranches in Texas open to the public, a place where visitors can roam the hinterlands freely gathering rocks and fond memories alike.
“We want visitors to go away with a deeper understanding of wildlife, a deeper appreciation for rocks,” said Trey during our first interview in March 2000. “Rock hunting is like Easter egg hunting. You can bring your family out here and have a wonderful time.”
“Sometimes people coming out to the ranch from Dallas or Houston seem like refugees from the cities,” added Trey. “I’ve also lived in some of those places, and I know what it’s like to be confined and never look out and see open spaces. This is also a working cattle ranch and has been for a hundred years. For people whose children have never seen cattle, it’s a treat.”
I returned to the Woodward in 2002 while researching a Texas Highways article on Alpine and spent more time with Trey, learning about the ranch’s and rock-hounding heritage.
“Even in the 1930s my granddad wondered what was in those rocks he was kicking around, and he got a rock saw and started working with them,” recalled Trey. “My dad John Frank Woodward Junior got interested in the rocks and the geology here. He was a geology major at Sul Ross [originally Sul Ross State Normal College, later renamed Sul Ross State University] and found out that this was the only place in the world where you can find red plume agates. They have to be cut in a certain way. My father and Ross Maxwell mapped more than 10,000 square miles of West Texas, from El Paso to Wink to Del Rio. That experience gave him an idea of the geology, how to work with rocks and where the agate is.
“My granddad started the agate ranch. When I was young we were building all the stuff at the house. We would cut, grind and polish rocks, and then college kids came down and helped us. I ran the ranch when I was 11-12 years old until age 25. My dad did the paperwork, but I ran the ranch. Then I moved away for 20 years, and my brother and sister ran the ranch for a while. I moved back in 1996, and my wife and I have made a go out of it.”
Trey showed me the ranch’s best agate-hunting beds, coaxing his old pick-up truck up and down steep ranch roads with panoramic views of Eagle Peak, the ranch’s signature promontory, dwarfed by the Cienega, Cathedral and Elephant mountains on the horizon. We stopped along spring-fed Calamity Creek, a lush oasis with oak-shaded campsites and a hunter’s cabin within a stone’s throw of the purling creek, which according to Trey never runs dry.
The last time I saw Trey was in May 2009 while researching an article on rock hounding for Texas Highways. My traveling companion Susi Bachman and I meet with Trey and Jan for a Tex-Mex dinner at La Casita in Alpine. We chatted about agates while devouring heaping plates of nachos and enchiladas. Between bites, Trey described how agates form over tens of millions of years in water-filled cavities inside volcanic rocks through a crystallization process. The nondescript agate nodules, called “biscuits,” dot the ranch’s hillsides. Slice one open with a rock saw, and you’ll find more colors than a Big Bend rainbow and an infinite variety of patterns.
Susi and I spent the night at the ranch in a lovely new guest cabin near Calamity Creek. We rose before dawn to meet Trey and hit the road at first light. Our destination: Trey’s Needle Peak acreage in south Brewster County. Bordering Big Bend National Park, Needle Peak abounds with green moss and pom-pom agates, pseudomorphs, petrified wood and fossils.
“Everyone I bring to Needle Peak says they love the ride down there the most,” said Trey, trailering an ‘86 Jeep behind his pickup for our four-wheeling sojourn. We left the pavement behind between Terlingua and Lajitas, offloaded the Jeep and took off down a muddy creek leading to Trey’s remote property. “Hold on!” Trey yelled over the roar of the revving V-8 engine. The Jeep’s fat tires spun in the slippery creek bed, splattering us with clumps of mud while Trey laughed like an overgrown kid, clearly in his element: mud and more mud.
We parked at the base of Needle Peak and hiked uphill through cacti, thorny brush and scree. “The best agate I’ve found is just below the peak,” said Trey. “It’s rough going up there.”
We stopped for a breather while ascending a steep ridge and savored expansive views of the desert badlands and nearby Santa Elena Canyon. “This is like home to me,” said Trey resting on a boulder. “It’s beautiful down here. Everything is quiet. It’s just you and the Lord.”
After several hours of rock hunting, we headed down the mountain, traversing a treacherous, talus-choked ravine. Trey spotted two basketball-size chunks of petrified wood. With my daypack already bulging with agates, I photographed the rocks and left them behind.
That afternoon, Susi and I joined Trey and Jan at their Woodward Ranch home and rock shop, admiring their enormous collection of agates and gemstones, many still in a raw uncut state, some sliced and polished, many for sale and some only for show. A must-see: a conglomeration of rare and beautiful rock specimens surrounds the Woodward’s fireplace.
We sat outside at a picnic table, sipped tall glasses of sweetened ice tea and reflected on the Needle Peak adventure and life at the ranch. Trey said something that evening that resonated and stayed with me over the years: “We are keepers of the stuff. You don’t really own the rocks. You’re a temporary keeper because they outlast you.”
While the rocks indeed have outlasted Trey, his legacy endures at the Woodward Ranch. “Trey cared about the land,” said Jan. “He was such a steward of the land and a kind soul.”
Trey’s family and friends will celebrate his life at the Woodward Ranch around noon on April 30, and the public is welcome to join the gathering. Visit www.woodwardranch.com to view an eloquent video tribute to Trey Woodward.