Ranger Lake, New Mexico – Times and Seasons of My Life
From the front porch of our homestead ranch house near Ranger Lake we looked east across the high plains grasslands of Lea County, New Mexico. Just out of sight to the south, over the natural roll of the earth, Bill Anderson's north pasture windmills marked the halfway point between our place and Tatum, 12 miles away. Tatum was our nearest supply point, lying at a crossroad. South from there took us to Lovington, and west led to Roswell 80 miles distant. Lubbock, Texas lay some 20 miles east across hard, level grasslands. To the north from our ranch Shin-oak covered sand hills rose up from grassy plains in wind stacked dunes. Dry farmers worked to eke their daily bread out of that stubborn untamed land stretching across the miles to Elida and Portales.
The house my father built, with lumber hauled from Roswell on his freight wagons, had two bedrooms, a living room, a front porch and a lean-to kitchen. Our orchard of pear, apple, cherry, peach, apricot and plum trees, sitting on a five acre plot edged with spreading Locust trees that branched across our kitchen door and front porch, was well cared for. Behind the kitchen, between the house and corrals, a vegetable garden with a strawberry barrel at the corner nearest the kitchen provided an abundance of good food in season.
Outside the garden gate a Dempster windmill turned day and night, blades spinning fast and then slow depending on wind speed and direction. Lifting cold sweet water from underground and spilling it into a wooden trough in the milk house, the windmill kept the crocks and buckets of milk and butter, eggs, new hominy, and fresh cottage cheese stored there cool and fresh. Flat stones, heavy enough to overcome the buoyancy of each storage vessel, were put in place to keep them from floating and spilling their contents.
Water flowed from the milk house cold storage trough through a long pipe to spill its steady stream into an earthen pond. From there it was diverted to irrigate orchard and garden, and pipes led to stock watering tanks in nearby corrals keeping them full. Our pond served as skating rink in the winter when the ice was thick, and yielded fresh fish by the tub full during the summer when neighbors, invited to a fish fry, helped pull a seine through it.
The main working corrals and barn were constructed of lumber and hand cut poles. Stalls in the barn provided cattle and horses a place of refuge from wind whipped winter storms that swept across the land. Behind the barn in the "stack lot," rows of binder tied sheaves of fodder together with mounded stacks of summer cut grass hay were stored for use as winter livestock feed. The north walls of the corrals and barn were made of solid adobe to break the force of bitter winter winds.
Farm lands lay close by on the north and east. Grazing lands stretched away into the sand hills where Shin-oak grew in abundance and hogs and turkeys fattened themselves on rich acorns. Smaller animals included chickens, pigs, dogs, cats, rabbits and ducks. We also had burros, colts, calves and a Jersey cow that was gentle enough to catch in the pasture, hop up on her back and ride home trailing along behind the other cows as they came in of an evening to be milked.
Across the orchard from our kitchen door was grandfather Octavus Hodge's house. As the Postmaster at Ranger Lake, grandfather's house served as Post Office for the community.
Three miles northeast of our place lay a sometimes wet, usually dry lake bed. According to local legend it had been named Ranger Lake by early explorers and settlers. A battle between Indians and Texas Rangers is said to have taken place there, and the name Ranger Lake stuck. Cliffs rose abruptly at the edge of the lake bed with sloping sand dunes near their base. Even the youngest adventurer was tempted to jump from those cliffs onto the soft drifted slopes of sand at their base, from there to roll and slide all the way to the bottom - however only the bravest dared.
The Chidister family was our nearest neighbor, 2 miles to the northwest. The Pittman's, a large neighboring family, lived 6 miles southwest. A community building three miles southeast served as both school and church.
I was born in Dallas, Texas, the 15th of September, 1911, and went with my parents to live at the Ranger Lake homestead when I was just a year old. I was about 4 and my brother Charles 2 when our baby brother Hodge was born. My first enduring memories of family life are from this time. Grandmother Hooper, the community midwife, came to stay with mother, who was awaiting the baby's birth. I refused to go with Mrs. Pittman, even though she offered to care for me at her house, but stayed instead with grandfather Hodge at his house so I could remain close to home.
The evening my mother gave birth my father sought to quiet Charles' crying by telling us we had a new baby brother in the family. Dad led me into the room to see my mother and new baby brother, and I did not understand why I had to go back outside so soon. In the early darkness that evening father carried Charles and held my hand as we walked under a brilliant canopy of stars, listening to the coyotes yip and howl.
Horses played an important part in our lives. Among these Buck and Bug, a pair of buckskins that worked in span and stepped proudly in their shiny black bell and brass buttoned harness, were highly prized. Bess and Pet were big black brood mares who worked together in harness pulling wagons and farm equipment. Pete and Repete were mules, large and strong, that worked long and hard whenever and wherever they were put to a task. Midget, Bess's long-legged bay colt, was the first I ever called my own and broke to ride.
Midget and I grew up together and learned to work together. Three of the other mares also had colts, plus we had a cow pony we called Fleetwing. He could single-foot, rack, pace, and lope in a long ground covering gait for an hour or more at a time. The smell of an approaching summer thunder storm, the feel of Fleetwing's muscles rippling beneath his slick hide against my bare legs, his black streaming mane salty in my mouth as I lay low on his neck and he ran full stride belly low to beat a rainstorm to the barn, was real and exciting sport to me.
A good rope is a critical part of a working saddleman's gear, and using it a skill to be mastered by long hours of practice. I began by roping chickens from a stick horse with a grass string rope, and moved on to rocks, dogs, posts, buckets, brothers, and baby calves. When I had the courage and confidence to try roping a running calf from horseback, Fleetwing was my mount. He held tight just behind the calf's heels and made the catch surprisingly easy. It was a lot easier to get loose from a bawling calf and out of the way of a angry mother cow if I caught it by the heels, so I became good at heeling.
I was a raw boned 11 year old, Charles was 9, and our friend Glendon Hooper was 12 when we were tasked with rounding up, branding, earmarking, and castrating the Hooper calf herd. We later discovered that we had branded two of another man's calves that day. They had become mixed in with the Hooper cattle, and Mrs. Hooper ended up having to buy them.
The children in our family were put to work as soon as they could help in any way. We were taught that we were contributing to our family's welfare with our efforts, and we willingly worked hard to please our parents. As we helped mother we learned to appreciate her ambitions and the dreams she had for her family. In the kitchen, on the oilcloth covered kitchen table by the yellowish light of coal oil lamps, we were taught our ABC's and numbers, and listened with rapt attention as she read to us.
Mother was strict and demanding, often switching our bare legs with a green willow switch when we were perceived as having disobeyed her. While I'm not at all sure of the value of such leg burning switchings in respect to our ultimate development, I loved my mother dearly in spite of such punishments, even when I considered her unduly severe and unfair in her judgments of supposed misdeeds. I did not question her right to punish, only her reasons, and I suppose it is so with every child similarly punished. Nevertheless the fun and laughter times, the learning and study times, the warm and tender times when we shared dreams and confidences, make less happy moments more easily set aside.
I continue to marvel at my beautiful young mother as she lived the life of a pioneer rancher's wife in primitive surroundings with limited social contact. I admire her great faith, her courage, and the physical stamina she displayed as she helped father earn a living from our ranch. I do not recall ever a moment of despair at our place when mother was well.
Once however mother was desperately ill, confined to bed and unable to care for her family. Tears filled her eyes as father related the sad news of a close neighbor and friend who had died of influenza. All our family was ill with the disease except for my father and myself. It was 1917 and a plague of influenza and pneumonia was sweeping the land.
Many died from lack of medical care. There were no readily available doctors and little medicine to be had in remote areas such as ours. Snow outside lay deep, with a "blue northern" stacking high drifts against our bedroom windows, however fervent prayer, hot soup, Mentholatum chest rubs, Calomel tablets, hot towels, loving attention and gentle tenderness proved to be enough - in reality all the medicine we had. Our family got well, and mother became herself once again.
Mother was happiest when her first baby girl Juanita was born. Named for a popular song our parents often sang together, Juanita was a strong, healthy baby, and her sweet spirit brought a renewed sense of love and gentleness to our family.
Farming and ranching at Ranger Lake was not productive of much in the way of cash income. We had good food in abundance and a comfortable small home, but little cash money from crop or cattle sales was left over after debts had been paid. To earn cash and credit for supplies father drove his eight horse team, pulling two high sided, wide boxed, iron tired freight wagons, one behind the other, eighty miles west to Roswell where he picked up supplies for J. C. Tatum's General Store in Tatum. The 160 mile round trip took five full days to complete and was filled with excitement and adventure for the two of us older boys whenever we accompanied him.
Evening camp, the first day out on a freight run, was at Coyote Lake on the Caprock. The next evening we camped near the Bottomless Lakes on the Pecos River. The smell of the river and the irrigated crops in the bottom lands made sleeping difficult for us boys. Excitedly we talked of what we might discover the following day in Roswell.
As morning neared, before the new sun began to make long streaky shadows overhead, we harnessed the team and started rolling those final miles to the Roswell Wagon Yard where we encountered other freighters and traveling families. The last few miles were on heavily traveled wagon roads with great trees at the sides, their long branches stretching across the roadway to form a continuous canopied arch overhead. Other children were always at the wagon yard, and a long rope swing hung from a high tree limb. We would swing high enough to see over the wagon tops and view some of the buildings in downtown Roswell.
In the evening, after father purchased the supplies we came for, we would walk the paved sidewalks of Roswell "window wishing," marveling at the beautiful and exciting things we saw in store windows. The next morning was spent loading the wagons, then we headed out to an early camp along the Pecos. Two long days and more of slow travel with fully loaded wagons, us boys often walking and running along side to explore and work off energy, and we reached Tatum. Once the cargo had been unloaded at the General Store we headed back to the ranch, our freighting trip complete.