The western expression “Hard Twist” refers to the old-time Manila hemp, tightly-twisted lariat rope—hard twisted. The term also refers to a small, compact, physically strong person with resilience, rather like rawhide, which expands and stretches when wet or shrinks and tightens up when dry but almost never breaks.
The role of women in the settlement of the West has been generally ignored until the last few years. Women were a necessary and powerful element in the migration to and settling of the West—in the “civilizing” of the frontier. Pioneering, like ranching, is usually viewed as the province of men, but the westward migration was definitely a family affair, as is ranching today. The women were absolutely essential, for not only did they perform their traditional tasks, which on the trail required a great deal of heavy work, but they also took over the men’s work when necessary.
Most of the women did not want to make the journey west. The trip was marked by a lack of security and comfort as well as an uncertain future at best. Pioneers endured all kinds of weather with little or no shelter; the days were long and arduous; the women had to cook over open fires regardless of the weather; they had to care for the children who came with them as well as those they bore on the trail. On foot the road was long and dusty. Riding in a wagon (with no springs), perhaps a less comfortable option for a woman with child, was cold and jarring.
But these women were survivors. As a matter of fact, more men died on the trail than women, even with the difficulties and dangers of childbirth. For those of us born in the West, these pioneering women and men are our forebears, whose genes, passed down through the generations, collectively have resulted in a western spirit celebrated for its resourcefulness, toughness, and tenacity.
Gretchen Sammis and Ruby Gobble
Along the banks of Ponil Creek, in northeastern New Mexico, in a rugged piñon-studded canyon running out to meet the sprawling high plains, a former schoolteacher is ramrodding a ranch that has been in her family for four generations. Her great-grandfather, Manly Chase, founded this ranch 120 years ago when he traded a herd of wild horses for a thousand-acre piece of land. When he came west by oxcart over the Santa Fe Trail in 1867, he brought the mahogany bedroom suite that Gretchen still uses. “I was born in it, I sleep in it, and I expect I’ll die in it,” she says. In 1872, he built the old adobe house where Gretchen and her ranch foreman of thirty years, Ruby Gobble, live and heat each room with wood-burning stoves. Gretchen Sammis, a tall, handsome, white-haired woman, speaks quietly:
My grandparents raised me. They sent me off to the University of Colorado where I got an M.A. Then I came back here, ran my grandmother’s dairy farm for five years, which was a disaster, then went to teach at the University of Wisconsin.
She gave that up after a year, moved back to Cimarron, and taught high school until 1973.
My grandfather had set the ranch up in trust before he died in 1964, but no one but me really wanted it. I had a good teaching job which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I loved every one of my kids. But, when the opportunity arose to take over the ranch, I took early retirement and here I am. I believe that very early in life an individual sets priorities that he or she is hardly aware of. Deep down, I always knew I would someday be running the ranch and taking care of it.
She, Ruby, and Bill Doerr, their hired hand, run 250 head of mother cows on 11,000 acres. “Bill’s a good hand,” says Gretchen. “He doesn’t have any problem taking orders from a woman. A lotta guys do. Bill’s different—he came from New Jersey.”
“Sometimes when it is 20 degrees below, snow on the ground and calves coming, I know I had rocks in my head to give up teaching,” Gretchen admits. “Or when the hay is ready to bale and it rains two inches, I wish I was somewhere else. But not for long. It is a challenging and rewarding life. One just rolls with the punches and hopes to go on forever.”
Sixty-four-year-old Linda Mitchell Davis and her six children, five of whom are married, own and run the historic CS Ranch outside Cimarron, New Mexico’s largest family-operated ranch. There along the Cimarron River, which cuts through the green and grassy plain that stretches out from the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, lies the ranch headquarters. There is a lot of history about this ranch and where it is situated, straddling the Cimarron cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. It is good grass country, with good water and enough wind to move the winter’s snows from the flatlands so the cattle have fairly easy grazing. The peaceful look of the well-kept ranch buildings shaded by lovely old cottonwoods can be deceiving, for no one at this ranch sits around on the front porch and “takes the view.”
Les Davis’s grandfather, the famous Territorial lawyer and paleontologist Frank Springer, went to New Mexico in 1873 and began to accumulate the land that would eventually make up this 250,000-acre family-owned and -operated ranch. Springer’s brother Charles was one of the early managers. His initials, CS, were first recorded back in the 1880 as the ranch brand.
Linda was raised not far from Cimarron on the Tecosquite Ranch at Albert, New Mexico, established by her great-grandfather in 1878. Her father, Albert K. Mitchell, at one time managed the renowned Bell Ranch near Albert, in addition to running the family ranch of some 200,000 acres. He was, among many other things, one of the founders of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.
It was at the Mitchell ranch that pre-med student Les Davis met his future father-in-law, Albert Mitchell. In 1941 his uncle, Ed Springer, who wanted Les to stay on the ranch, brought the recent Dartmouth graduate to meet Mitchell and “see how a real outfit is run.” There he met the young Linda Davis. “I never forgot him,” she says with a smile, “even though I was only eleven and he was a debonair twenty-two.” That day, Linda recalls, “Dad [who was by then a widower] told me to gather certain cattle and take them to the ranch headquarters, and he said, ‘I want a good dinner, too.’ So I gathered the cattle, cooked dinner, and did everything else too. Les doesn’t even remember!” They eventually married in 1953 and lived on the CS Ranch ever since. Les died in 2001.
Linda, a warm, bright, and attractive woman, is constantly on the move and involved in all areas of ranch life. At 4 a.m. she is organizing for one of the days of spring branding. An avid hostess, she plans and prepares banquets for such social affairs as the New Mexico Cattle Growers annual meeting. Vaccinating calves every day for two weeks of each spring is another activity in her busy life. She has been named “Cattleman of the Year” in New Mexico and the Progressive Farmer’s “Woman of the Year in Service to Southwest Agriculture,” and has received numerous other well-deserved awards in the beef industry.
Dad was a widower from 1934 to 1957 so he was great about taking me along all the time. As the oldest I reaped the benefit not only of being his friend but also his confidante. And I had the advantage of being a girl. I was very close to my dad. Les is the businessman. I’m the cattlewoman. I was raised in the saddle so I have no excuse not to be a good cowboy. And I think that the fact that I was raised around the Spanish people and their old-time families who had worked and lived on the ranch for generations made me work harder at being a real go-getter and top-notch hand. But it was sad to see how those old Spanish families would react when the oldest child was a girl. They would shake their heads and say, “Too bad, because she likes it.” But I was a girl, the oldest, and I had a natural aptitude.
About the Author / Photographer
Barbara Van Cleve’s heritage is rich with family history and firsthand experience. Her family’s ranch, the Lazy K Bar, was founded in 1880 on the east slopes of the Crazy Mountains near Melville, Montana. Her Montana is a lifetime of knowing the hard work of ranching beneath the spectacular slopes of the Crazy Mountains. Although she photographs landscapes, portraits, and documentary subjects, it is her photography of the ranching West that has earned her a national reputation. She is collected internationally as well.
Barbara Van Cleve is also the author, with cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski, of Roughstock Sonnets. In 1995 she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. In 1996 a major traveling exhibition, “Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women,” opened in Oklahoma City at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. More information about the life and work of Barbara Van Cleve can be found on her website, www.barbaravancleve.com. (Text and photos reprinted here are from the book Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women, ©1995 Barbara Van Cleve.)
Story and all photographs ©1995 | byBarbara Van Cleve
This article appeared on page 22 of HighCountry Magazine 2005.