Pastures of Plenty
(Originally "Eastern Plain")
Oil and cattle ranching mix it up in southeastern New Mexico.
Giles Lee has lived at the Swamp Angel Ranch in Lea County, New Mexico, since he was two. That was 1925. His father, Dick Lee, was an open range cattleman out of Midland and Seminole, Texas, who first cowboyed across the New Mexico Territory line in 1898 when he came to the Hat Ranch at nearby Monument Springs. By the time Dick Lee died in 1940, his outfit, the Scharbauer Cattle Company, had deeded over the Swamp Angel Ranch to Lee’s family.
At 90, Giles Lee goes out threes times a week in his 2006 Chevy 2500 HD four-wheel-drive pickup to feed his 200 cows spread across 23 square miles – 23 sections – of the Swamp Angel Ranch. Asked what will happen to the ranch when he’s no longer tending it, he seems caught by surprise. “I haven’t started looking that far ahead yet.” After a pause he adds, “I’m thinking I’ll make 100.”
Southbound from my Raton home at the northern edge of New Mexico’s eastern plain, the land unwinds in panoramas of grasslands extending to the horizons. The color and height of the grasses vary with the amount of rain they’ve had, or not had. With the failure of homesteaders a century ago, the land returned to supporting animals that graze across vast expanses for precious little grass. Ranches are measured not in acres but in sections.
Reaching Lea County’s southeast corner of the state, the land changes. Grass is sparse and punctuated by yucca and ocotillo. Encroaching mesquite crosses the state line from West Texas. For nearly a century, since the discovery of oil at Maljamar in 1926, Lea County’s most prolific crop has been oil and gas wells. The sign at the county line boasts, “Welcome to Lea County – The EnergyPlex.”
And yet Lea County has produced more rodeo world champions – 11 – than any other place in the U.S. I asked novelist Max Evans about the juxtaposition of oil wells and rodeo champions. The author of The Rounders and The Hi Lo Country grew up in Lea County. He replied, “Isolated, strange country sometimes breeds unusual people.” Max meant it as a compliment, to both the land and the people.
Attracted by contradiction, I drive south.
Lea County has not one but two fine museums devoted to its history – this in a county with a population density of 15 people per square mile; 90% of the county’s 65,000 people live in Hobbs and Lovington, the sites of the museums. The Western Heritage Museum and Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame share an imposing modern building constructed of white rock on the Lovington Highway in Hobbs. Its exhibits are as polished and professionally designed as any you’ll find in Denver or Fort Worth. Half the museum is devoted to the history of Lea County with its boom-and-bust agricultural cycles and its boom-and-boom energy production.
Three times larger than Rhode Island, it should be called Causey County. Joseph Lea was the mayor of Roswell in Chaves County farther west. George Causey came to present-day Lea County after working himself out of a wildly successful career as a buffalo hunter on the West Texas plains. He and his crew killed the last of the buffalo on the Southern Plains. Until then, hunting buffalo was the only reason humans spent any time in the southeast corner of New Mexico. In 1878, Causey’s team had killed 400 buffalo at Four Lakes, northwest of present-day Tatum.
Four years later and 31 years old, Causey returned to the area to find a new line of work, which turned out to be raising horses and ranches. His own horse helped him find water just under the surface where Indians had covered it. He correctly guessed that water could be found all over the high plains by simply digging down a few feet. Without knowing it, he tapped into the Ogallala Aquifer. He brought a windmill up from Midland, then many more. Before long he was raising horses and helping settlers to establish their own ranches. His own ranch house is still occupied under a tall stand of lush trees southwest of Lovington.
Nothing in Lea County is named for Causey, but farther north there’s a small village called Causey. It’s in Roosevelt County, midway between Arch and Lingo.
Jim Harris runs the Lea County Museum in Lovington. In one of the thousand weekly columns the former English professor has contributed to the Hobbs and Lovington newspapers over the past twenty years, he characterized Lea County as “a land whose residents learn to love it, once they have reconciled themselves to its toughness and once they have adjusted to its flatness, its mesquite and caliche fields.” Harris has been in Lea County since 1974. The museum he runs couldn’t be more different than the one in Hobbs.
Occupying eleven buildings on Lovington’s downtown courthouse square, including the entire 1918 Commercial Hotel building, the Lea County Museum’s doors open on living history: you’re in the past. Many of the hotel’s rooms are devoted to individual pioneering families, each filled with one family’s iconic objects – a saddle, a bassinet, a desk – and generously illustrated with big enlargements of family photographs. The old dark wood floors and high ceilings are redolent of the building’s days as a bustling hotel, the downtown pride of Lovington. Visiting in the hotel’s lobby, it becomes clear that the living history of the museum reflects both its building and its director. Jim Harris likes nothing better than to explore the reaches of Lea County and put himself back in time. He has a gift for imagining himself on a ranch or in a fledgling community during its heyday.
A hundred years ago, Lea County filled with ambitious new communities. McDonald had two weekly newspapers, a cotton gin, and a half-dozen other businesses. Antelope had a real estate office, dance hall, barbershop, and three general stores. Plainview had a hotel, skating rink, dance hall, and newspaper. Knowles had a tennis club, theater, and two banks. Each had a school and post office, as did other communities – Prairieview, Enterprise, Gladiola, Hillburn, Midway, Mitchell, Ranger Lake, Scott, Soldier Hill, King, Caprock and Warren.
They’re all gone. What’s left outside of Lovington and Hobbs are Eunice, Jal, Monument, and Maljamar in the oil fields and Tatum and Crossroads farther north in the farm and ranch lands. Only Eunice, Jal, and Tatum have more than a single store.
The communities were established to serve farmers and settlers. When the railroads reached a West that had been cleared of buffalo, an insatiable market for beef was created. Big Texas cattle outfits proliferated. It’s hard to imagine running out of room in Texas, but the ranches expanded right into the neighboring New Mexico Territory. By the mid-1880s, when George Causey was importing the area’s first windmill, much of the nearly three million acres that would become Lea County was claimed by five big outfits – the Jal, the Hat Ranch, the Mallet-High Lonesome, the Four Lakes Ranch, and the San Simon.
The open range provided free grazing that was also free of much water. Lea County has 4393 square miles of land but only 1.1 square mile of surface water. Cattle walked twelve miles or more between small watering holes. To contain the cattle, the ranches constructed drift fences up to 40 miles long. After homesteaders applied political pressure that resulted in the removal of the drift fences in 1902, a big norther in February 1903 drove the cattle back to Texas. It was legal to fence along a road so the ranchers convinced the county to build roads. Then a wet year in 1905 brought a gold rush of new homesteaders filing claims on small tracts. The open range was over.
But drought cycles are forever. The wet year didn’t last. Homesteaders, smaller ranches, and whole communities were driven off by historic droughts – from 1918 to 1923, the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1960s, now.
Center-pivot irrigation has transformed ranching for those that can afford it. I remember flying from Austin to Los Angeles in the 1970s, looking down over this land and wondering what in the world are all those green circles. One product of those big grass circles has been dairy farming. Although Lea County range cattle outnumber its dairy cows 4 to 1, milk production tops livestock receipts.
But the transformative crop has been energy – oil and gas. Without it, it’s hard to imagine there being much of anything in Lea County today. Our appetite for oil exceeds even our appetite for beef. The entire region stretching far into Texas – the Permian Basin – once sat beneath a sea that left unimaginably vast oil and gas deposits. Since the mid-1930s when the nation began to recover from the worst effects of the Great Depression, Lea County oil and gas wells have spread relentlessly and now outnumber the range cattle that wander among them.
The cattle are still there. They always have been, since the five big outfits spread out over New Mexico’s open range in the 1880s. Jim Harris takes me fifteen miles southwest from Lovington to visit Giles Lee, whose father first rode horseback tending cattle here in 1898. The first taxes were collected on “Swamp” in 1889 when it was part of the Hat Ranch. A Swamp post office opened in 1894 and closed in 1895. Early morning mist over a waterhole apparently led to the name Swamp Angel Ranch. The adobe ranch house was built in 1906.
Giles leads us into an immaculate and attractive air-conditioned living room where 1960s oil paintings by Hank Marshall bookend the large space: over the fireplace Giles kneels beside his roping horse Rueben; at the far end the three Lee daughters are dramatically framed before a windmill looming under a stormy sky. Giles and his wife Joie married 66 years ago; for 65 of those years they’ve lived right here in what’s been Giles’s home since 1925.
Giles’s deep resonant voice masks his 90 years but his walk gives it away. He’s stooped and apologetic about it. “My doctor gave me three choices for my back pain. He could operate, but he wouldn’t. I could find someone who would. Or I could buy a recliner.” He smiles and says, “I like the recliner real well.”
I ask the nature of his injury. “Oh, all my wrecks have been from horses,” he says. He catalogs the injuries – neck, wrists, ribs, back. A framed photo shows his horse crashing, four legs thrashing at the sky, a calf tautly roped to him and Giles’s white shirt barely visible pinned under the saddle. It’s marked “Cheyenne Wyoming 1990.”
“Cheyenne’s my favorite rodeo,” he allows, “but I haven’t entered any team ropings since I was 80.”
His roping arena is out back and it’s famous in these parts. Built in the 1950s complete with night lighting, for more than two decades it hosted the Lea County Team Roping Championship, now commemorated by a simple monument that lists “the 13 original ropers,” Giles’s neighboring Lea County cowboys and ranchers, some of them national rodeo legends: G.H. “Towhead” Bingham, Dale “Tuffy” Cooper, Bob Eidson, Red E.M. Finger, Clyde Fort, R.F. Fort, R.P. Fort, Troy Fort, Bob James, Buck Jones, Tom Pearson, Tom Price. Giles Lee made 13.
He was a founder, in 1942, of the rodeo club at what is now New Mexico State University at Las Cruces. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, returned to college, and then became a PRCA professional rodeo cowboy in 1947. College, the Army, and rodeoing account for the only time he’s spent away from Swamp Angel. In the 1980s, he began an innovative, ongoing program of crossbreeding Hereford cattle.
He’s proud of his cattle and insists on driving us out to see them. “We’ll take my truck,” he says. “I’ve got these steel-belted truck tires. You couldn’t get them for a long time but they’re the only thing that’ll hold up against these caliche roads. They’ll tear up your tires.”
Winding down the two-track toward a distant windmill, I see what he means. The rough path consists of white rocks with knife-like edges. It’s June and there’s been no rain. “When we get rain, it’s late July through August,” Giles says. “August rain makes winter grass. I’m making it last. I’m running ten cows per section.”
At the windmill he blasts a siren and calves come from near and far, expecting Giles to activate the feeder on the back of the truck. Jim’s been out with Giles before and remarks, “These cows have a close relationship with this truck.” These are Red Angus, looking fat, healthy, and happy; Black Angus graze on the other side of the ranch. Blue grama grass is interspersed with some tobosa grass, but most of the interspersing is now done by mesquite that threatens to take over. “When I was young,” Giles says, “I don’t remember mesquite. It’s all come in over the last fifty years.”
The oil pump jacks have been here since he was a boy. Although his and Joie’s home is an oasis, I’ve seen no sign of wealth. Don’t they get royalties for the oil and gas pumped from the ranch? “Oh no,” he answers, “the State of New Mexico owns all of the mineral rights. It’s mostly that way throughout the county. Of the original 170 sections that came with this ranch in 1925, only one section had mineral rights.” It’s comforting to know that New Mexico’s oil and gas royalties support its schools, but ranching in the oil fields is so hardscrabble that it’d be nice to peel off a little for the ranch families that own the land. Of course, that’s not going to happen.
Driving later down the Buckeye road, I come to the Swamp Angel Ranch boundary and find big warning signs posted by ConocoPhillips. “Notice: Potentially hazardous concentrations of hydrogen sulfide or carbon dioxide may be present for the next four miles.” Before driving through, I remind myself that Giles Lee has lived among these wells all his life and he’s a strapping 90 years old. I drive on through.
That evening I sit on a hillside twenty miles west of the Swamp Angel Ranch, above Maljamar where Lea County oil was first discovered. President Obama’s helicopter brought him to Maljamar last year for a speech promoting domestic energy production. As night falls I count the gas flares burning over wells every minute of every day. They stretch so far to the horizon that I can’t be sure what’s flame and what’s electric, but I think three-dozen are gas flares, tall enough to be seen from ten miles away.
Outside of Eunice the next morning, I gawk at the three-year-old URENCO nuclear enrichment facility, bigger than anything in Lea County except Hobbs or maybe Lovington. With the potential to produce sufficient fuel at Eunice to supply ten percent of U.S. electrical needs, the British company is the newest big employer in Lea County. Jim Harris tells me that the county unemployment rate is three percent. “That’s the percentage that don’t want to work,” he says. “Anybody that wants a job here can get one.”
I meet 28-year-old Jonathan White at a Pennzoil quick lube station in Hobbs where I’m in line for an oil change before the drive home to Raton. He’s driving a newer model of the same truck Giles Lee drives. The patch on his shirt indicates that Jonathan works for Pason, a Calgary-based company that runs the computer systems that run the oil fields.
“I tried college three times,” Jonathan says, “but everybody kept telling me to go to work in the oil fields. I worked for an oil company for six years. Every time the Pason guys would come around, they saw that I’d kept the computers going without them.” Pason recruited him two years ago. The oil fields run two twelve-hour shifts nonstop. Jonathan’s on call 24/7, servicing 19 wells between Hobbs and Artesia. He carries 15,000 pounds of computer equipment in the unmarked company truck. The suspension on the big truck has been replaced twice in his two years.
“They said, ‘You can’t wear out that suspension.’ I said, ‘Come with me for a day or two, I’ll show you.’ They said, ‘Don’t go down those roads.’ I said, “Those roads are where the oil rigs are. My orders are down those roads.’”
I stick to the paved roads headed north through the county toward home at the other end of the state. With Lea County’s average annual precipitation less than 16 inches, I’ve been amused to see so many yellow highway signs that say “Watch for Water.” I’ve taken them as excessive optimism, or perhaps Christian faith. Imagine my surprise when I find the bar ditches and many fields flooded from a thunderstorm that went through last night.
It’s like that all the way from Lovington north to Roy, 250 miles and a lot of happy faces along the way. But Hobbs and the rest of southern Lea County missed it. No one there is surprised. Giles Lee went out to feed his cows the next day. He’s not expecting rain until August. It’ll carry him through the winter.
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Lea County’s eleven rodeo world champions have been Clay McGonagil, George Weir, Jake McClure, Richard Merchant, Troy Fort, Sonny Davis, Olin Young, Roy Cooper, Jimmie B. Cooper, Betty Gayle Cooper Ratliff, and Guy Allen. (In chronological order from 1901 to 2003; most have world championships in multiple events and/or multiple years, so I haven’t listed the extensive details. Visit the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame for fabulous photos and details.)
All content ©2014 Tim Keller