Terlingua Ghost Town is a Mecca for Chili Heads Every Fall

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The tiny town of Terlingua in Brewster County, Texas, is affectionately known as Terlingua Ghost Town. And most of the year, a ghost town is exactly what it is—an uninhabited former quicksilver mining town in remote west Texas. But from October 30 through November 4, 2019, don’t try to book lodging anywhere in the area—not unless you bring your own tent or camper. Terlingua is a mecca for Chili Heads, there to compete in the legendary Original Terlingua Chili Cook Offs. Make that two Original Terlingua Chili Cook Offs!

My husband was invited to help judge CASI Terlingua International Chili Championships (TICC) in 2016 and 2017, and I went along for the ride. One of the first things we learned was there are actually two world-famous Terlingua Chili Cook Offs. Members of both groups defend their title as the “real original” Terlingua International competition.

Terlingua Ghost Town is a Mecca for Chili Heads Every Fall

Photo: Visit Big Bend

The larger CASI chili cook-off is held at Rancho CASI de los Chisos. A few miles down the road, the “behind the store” group holds their contest in Terlingua. The event was started by renowned journalist and chili head Frank X. Tolbert in 1967. His partner was another iconic Texan, Carroll Shelby, race car designer turned entrepreneur.

Shelby hoped to develop property in the area, and he thought a chili competition between Tolbert and New Yorker Wick Fowler would promote his venture. Fowler and Tolbert were the only contestants in that first cook-off, which ended in a tie. Rumors floated that the judges may have been too drunk to decide a winner. The group split into two competing chili cook-offs in 1983, after a dispute.

But the split hasn’t hurt either of them. Both competitions continue to thrive, drawing huge crowds and devoted followers. Folks flock to these events from all walks of life, some in expensive RVs while others camp out under the stars. Everyone we met in both camps was extremely friendly, welcoming visitors to join for a beer, a bite to eat, or just a chat. Under the expansive skies in this sparsely populated part of Texas, near the Rio Grande and Big Bend National Park, it seems there’s still plenty of room for competing campsites.

Waxahachie Banker Becky Daniels Wins 2018 Cook-off

Terlingua Ghost Town is a Mecca for Chili Heads Every Fall
Photo: Becky Daniels

Tolbert’s daughter Kathleen Ryan and her husband, Paul Ryan, are the owners of Tolbert’s Chili Parlor in Grapevine, and they run the Terlingua cook-off. Their 2018 winner was Waxahachie bank executive and Midlothian resident Becky Daniels. Her husband, Joe Daniels, won the one-man showmanship award for his Skidmark Chili.

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