Lessons learned on the Llano Estacado

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By Sherry Robinson

If you live in the mountains or a river valley, you’re probably a scenery snob. Admit it. You speed across the High Plains until you reach a place with more varied topography.

Next time, slow down and take a better look. Once you marvel at the vast, level distances, you’re inclined to look up, and the great bowl of sky out here never disappoints, with its cloudscapes and palette of pastels. Ranchers here say they like to see the weather coming.

The Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains, is a land mass that, in historical, geographical and economic terms, should rank as high as mountains or the Rio Grande.

“Grasslands are very special places on the planet,” said John Miller Morris, author of El Llano Estacado, during the Historical Society of New Mexico’s recent annual meeting in Hobbs. “Eastern New Mexico has a lot of what geographers really like — space.”

Geography and geology allowed three Roberts — Goddard, Oppenheimer and Anderson — to do their work. And that’s just a start. You want history? Lea County and southeastern New Mexico have as rich a heritage as anywhere in the state: Coronado, Apache and Comanche buffalo hunters, John Chisum, Buffalo Soldiers, cattle drives, homesteaders, cowboys, and pioneer oilmen.

The scatter of abandoned dwellings were once somebody’s home on the range. The Llano Estacado had a few brave souls trying to wrench a living from the land in the late 1800s, but after 1900, settlement picked up momentum; for anyone with a yearning to own some land, it offered some of the nation’s last big parcels.

Of course, there were promoters who stoked this land rush with photographs of bountiful harvests. Some would-be farmers expected to pay off their debts and make a living raising corn. They learned the hard way that you can’t grow corn, or much of anything else, on the llano. Many homesteaders weren’t farmers at all — they were poor, urban young people with dreams of a little house on the prairie. Drought and the risky economics of agriculture destroyed a lot of those dreams.

“We are just as vulnerable to economic schemes as our ancestors,” said Morris. “We counted our chickens before they hatched, without even understanding what a subprime chicken was.” And yet, he reminds us, “Dreams and illusions are what make history.”

The key to survival here was a different economic combination — cattle and land on a grand scale.

Giles Lee operates the Swamp Angel Ranch, named for the steam rising off water in a riparian area next to the original cow camp. In 1925 his family bought the eastern portion of the famous Hat Ranch. His is a medium-sized ranch in a region where ranches, measured in sections and not acres, could be eastern states or Texas counties.

Lee, who’s been called “the cowboy’s cowboy and the rancher’s rancher,” operates the Swamp Angel alone but hires some occasional help, and neighbors pitch in. “’Neighbor’ is a verb out here,” says Jim Harris, director of the Lea County Museum in Lovington and tour guide to a passel of city slickers.

Lee is rightfully proud of his elaborate corral, which he welded from pipe donated by the oil company that owns mineral rights under the land. The oil company is also a good neighbor, he says.

Asked about horses, he gestures to an all-terrain vehicle.

“For 75 years I rode horseback,” he says. “Three years ago a horse threw me against a shed and hurt me pretty bad. My wife said, that’s it. For a while, I felt ashamed for not riding a horse, but when you get to be 87 years old, you have to slow down a little.”

But not too much. “Rodeo was my hobby,” he says. “This is my business and my hobby. I love it.”

© New Mexico News Services 2010