History. For some, the word conjures up memories of boring high school classes. But talk to Jackson Polk, and it’s hard not to catch his enthusiasm for the topic – and in particular, the history of El Paso.
El Paso’s history, as Polk tells it, is remarkable and has important implications for El Paso’s future. It’s just that not enough people outside El Paso know about it.
If more did, he says the area’s history could help turn El Paso into a destination city. The best part about it, he says, is El Paso’s history is authentic, so there’s no need to invent anything to give tourists a reason to visit.
El Paso’s historical attractions include everything from prehistoric dinosaur tracks to the Mission Trail, one of the nation’s oldest.
There are the remnants of ancient settlements that predate the pyramids. El Paso is home to many sites important in the Mexican Revolution. The city was also, Polk says, the “wildest of the Wild West.”
“But, you see, El Paso didn’t get the movie. Tucson and Tombstone got the movies,” he says.
Polk’s personal history began in El Paso, where he was born and raised. As a teenager, he had a dream job, working as a disc jockey. His father, Hibbard Polk, was an educator, and Polk Elementary School is named after him.
When Jackson was 18, he left home to work for Congressman Richard C. White in Washington, D.C. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from American University in 1973.
For seven years, he worked as a TV news cameraman for the CBS affiliate in D.C., a job that gave him a front row seat to some of that era’s biggest historical moments.
A highlight, he says, was being the live cameraman as Gerald Ford made his acceptance speech following the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Earlier that same day, Polk had been operating a live camera at the Supreme Court following the release of the Pentagon Papers. In 1997, Polk returned to El Paso to escape the D.C. rat race.
Now he hosts “The El Paso History Radio Show,” which airs 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on News Talk 690 KTSM. He is also an independent filmmaker who’s produced a long list of documentaries about El Paso’s history and heritage, listed on his website, www.EPHistory.com. The most recent: “Last Tour of the El Paso Smelter.”
Last year, he helped put on El Paso’s first history summit, aimed at promoting the region’s history and culture. The free event, sponsored by the El Paso County Historical Commission and other local history groups, attracted more than 400 visitors.
This year, the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, now called Destination El Paso, is working with the groups to co-sponsor another free summit, scheduled for Saturday, March 22 at the El Paso Convention Center.
Polk is married to Wendy White Polk, editor of El Paso Inc. Their son, Andrew, is a reporter for KVIA Channel 7.
Polk sat down with El Paso Inc. in his edit room and talked about heritage tourism, hidden treasure, gunfighters and the upcoming history summit.
Q: We only have a couple of thousand words to work with here, so detailing 5,000 years of El Paso history is going to be a challenge. What is remarkable about the region’s history?
To put things in perspective, they were still building pyramids in Egypt when people were living in pit houses at Keystone Heritage Park here in El Paso. There are drawings on the walls at Hueco Tanks State Park that might even predate that.
The ancient history of El Paso has been well established and understood by a lot of people. The catch is we’re about the only ones who know it, not necessarily the outside world.
But back to the history. From ancient times until Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate came, you had indigenous people roaming the valley. El Paso was Apache territory – big time. They came to El Paso, as I put it, to do their shopping. They raided the local natives and then the “white men” when they showed up.
But when Oñate came, that totally changed the equation. These guys had guns, and you were going to do what they told you to do. They came in to colonize: The priests wanted the locals as saved souls, and the soldiers wanted them as taxpayers for the king. They also were looking for precious metals.
When Oñate and his crowd passed through here on their way to northern New Mexico, one of the main things they did for El Paso was name the place. They also brought the Catholic Church with them. It came through here first. As an aside, El Paso can be looked at as a place of firsts.
The native peoples to the north finally got fed up with it all and ran the Spaniards out of New Mexico in 1680. That was the Pueblo Revolt. Where did the Spanish go? They came to El Paso, and they began to establish the missions.
The Spaniards pretty much controlled the area up until the 1800s. They lost Mexico during the Mexican War of Independence, ending in 1821.
When the Gold Rush started in California, all of a sudden you had all kinds of people wanting to get there from the East, and El Paso was an important stop on the way. Then everything changed again when the railroads came through in the 1880s.
Q: You’ve said El Paso was the wildest of the Wild West.
It was! Wyatt Earp left here saying it was too wild. But, you see, El Paso didn’t get the movie. Tucson and Tombstone got the movies.
Q: When I think of Tombstone, I think of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. When I think of San Antonio, I think of the Alamo and River Walk. What does El Paso have?
The River Walk was fabricated – it started out as a ditch, but what it turned into was huge. You’ve got a chapel named the Alamo that’s famous because there was an important battle there.
Well, El Paso has its authentic history. We had the Mexican Revolution right next to Downtown – a huge world event. It was planned and equipped in Downtown El Paso buildings. Pancho Villa came through here buying supplies all the time.
The gunfighter history was huge here. John Wesley Hardin, one of the most famous gunfighters of the Old West, was killed here in the Acme Saloon. We’ve had people come from Germany to see his gravesite.
Q: It’s at Concordia Cemetery, right?
Yes. Another thing we have here are the buildings designed by famed architect Henry Trost. In January, we had 50 plus people from Tucson come here who were just thrilled that we have so many Trost buildings, and that they are still standing.
World-class architecture, world-class Mexican Revolution, world-class military history, world-class Old West.
Q: Even dinosaur tracks.
Yeah. This area has been a crossing forever.
Q: You argue that the area’s history can help turn El Paso into a destination city. How?
If you tell people what our history is, they’re going to want to come see it and experience it. They’ll want to stand where these things happened.
I’ve done that in other places myself. I’d heard of Washington, D.C. all my life and when I got there, I was thrilled to go stand where Lincoln stood, I was thrilled to go to the U.S. Capitol and say: “Oh, this is where Andrew Jackson gave his speech.” That kind of thing is available here in El Paso.
Q: Now we’re talking about heritage tourism. What is it, why should we care about it?
They are a group of people that spend more money than your average tourist – a lot more. They’re interested in experiencing the history and culture of a place. You’re often talking about retired people who have expendable income and time. They spend $623 per day, compared to the $457 per day spent by other tourists.
At the upcoming summit, we are going to have people from the Texas Historical Commission come tell us all about it. So one reason for heritage tourism is the economic impact.
But you’ve got to understand that the people of El Paso would like to have their heritage promoted. We’re prideful about who we are and where we come from. We think this is cool stuff and want to share it.
We don’t need a gimmick. We’ve got authentic history, and people will travel to see it. That’s what’s been missing from the promotion of El Paso. Tell our story. We’re proud of it.
Q: Frankly, though, some of the historical sites you have mentioned are not easy to find and navigate, especially for out-of-towners.
I produced a DVD with a booklet insert that has 250 El Paso historic sites and markers listed with their GPS coordinates. The El Paso County Historical Commission co-produced that.
On a smaller scale, I’ve asked the Downtown Management District if we could put QR codes on their kiosks in Downtown. People could scan them and be directed to videos I’ve offered to produce online that would say what happened on that spot. We could do that.
You have the Digital Wall going up at the El Paso Museum of History. What’s going to be on it? There’s a lot of opportunity there.
For the Digital Wall, we are looking at a series of TV shows. Each would be about 25 minutes long that could slip right into a classroom. For example, we could do three on the military history of this valley, because you start with bows and arrows and you go to nuclear weapons.
Q: You’ve been using the medium of TV since you returned to promote El Paso’s history.
I produce TV programs. You put something on TV or video and all of a sudden people get it. Keystone Heritage Park was a fledgling project when I returned to El Paso, and they had just found out the developer was going to put warehouses near an ancient archeological site…
Q: That’s the site you mentioned dating back to the pyramids.
Right. I thought the organizers would say they were planning to chain themselves to the bulldozer. If so, I wanted nothing to do with it. But they didn’t. They said they were going to raise money to buy the land from the developer. But they couldn’t figure out a way to get people interested and raise the money.
So we made a TV show. I shot around the site for six months. I did interviews about Keystone with experts at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., I went to National Geographic, I talked with Congressman Silvestre Reyes, and I put that on TV in El Paso.
Q: And they raised the millions needed to save the archeological site?
Yeah. It helped.
Q: What’s your favorite piece of El Paso history – perhaps a character, event, story, mystery?
The Lost Padre Mine. Supposedly during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, when the Spaniards were on their way here, they passed 80 haciendas, churches and other establishments. They gathered anything of value. In the churches, they’d possibly had gold items on their altars. So we think they gathered their most valuable possessions and brought them to El Paso.
They were paranoid that the Indians were still behind them, so the legend is this: They gathered all that treasure and buried it somewhere in the Franklin Mountains.
Q: And nobody has found it?
If they have, they didn’t tell anyone.
Q: Why did you help organize the first history summit?
The first summit came about because a group of us realized the history and heritage of El Paso was not in the forefront of the promotion of the city. Events like Chalk the Block and Neon Desert get a lot of people. They are working; those are great.
But there is no heritage festival – no place to celebrate who we are and what we’ve done. That’s what we created.
We did the first one and then the Convention and Visitors Bureau asked to partner with us. Now we are combing forces with them and state Sen. Jose Rodriguez for our second summit on March 22.
The CVB, now called Destination El Paso, wanted to train people in the hospitality industry on our history because here come 100,000 bowlers in 2015. So Destination El Paso has contributed the use of the convention center among other things.
Q: The first summit was a grass roots, private affair?
Yeah, we all made it up – the radio show, the Mission Trail Association, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro and the El Paso County Historical Commission.
Q: About 400 people came?
It was a huge success. We asked people walking in to vote on what they thought was important in El Paso history. The topic that got the most votes was the first topic of the town hall meeting. The whole idea was to energize people about our history, and show everybody we have this history.
Q: What got the most votes?
The Old West and gunfighters.
Q: What’s new this year?
This year is going to be much bigger. We have more people coming. We’ve invited County Judge Veronica Escobar and Sen. Rodriguez. The executive director of the Texas Historical Commission is a keynote speaker.
Q: Earlier you said something interesting. You said there was interest in educating the hospitality industry on El Paso history before next year’s bowling tournament.
They’re often the first people to greet a guest – and the taxi drivers and the people at the airport. The idea is to train them all on how to talk about El Paso’s history, generally. So we are holding educational sessions for anyone who is interested. But the Hotel-Motel Association is not participating
Q: All of this – the summit, the history videos, the radio show – what do you hope comes of it all?
I think we will have a thriving heritage tourist industry; that’s what I think is going to happen. El Paso is located on a crossroads. Let’s take advantage of it.
Q: This week, where might I go to experience El Paso’s history?
Start with the Wyler Aerial Tramway and get an overview, literally, of the city. The history museum often has good lectures on the weekends. There is a lot to see at the Tigua Indian Cultural Center in the Mission Valley. I highly recommend it. Go down the Mission Trail. Go to the tourist information center run by Destination El Paso and take one of their Downtown walking tours.
There needs to be better packaging of history tours for tourists, to answer your question, because that’s the question a tourist has: “I have an extra day in El Paso. What do I do?”
Q: Are you working on any new documentaries?
I am creating a short video for the Frontera Land Alliance on conserving Castner Range on the eastside of the Franklin Mountains. Its first public showing will be at the Poppies Festival March 29.
Q: The range has been preserved because it is potentially covered in unexploded ordnance, right?
It’s been “not used,” but it’s not preserved; that’s the point. It’s still possible there could be development on areas where it could be cleared easily, like along U.S. Hwy. 54.
Q: I’ve heard you were involved in the long search for the U.S. Capitol cornerstone in Washington, D.C.
Yeah. That was chronicled in Brad Meltzer’s program “Decoded” on the History Channel. I’m in the show for four or five minutes explaining the missing cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol – why it is missing and where it might be.
Q: Nobody’s found it?
Well, if they have, like with the Lost Padre Mine, they ain’t telling.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.