Homesteaders were a sturdy bunch

By Karl Terry, Local Columnist

It amazes me what folks who homesteaded this part of the country were willing to endure just to get title to 160 acres of sand and rattlesnakes.

For a long time now I’ve intended to read the book “Six Miles to the Windmill” by J.G. Greaves, former editor of the Portales News-Tribune and his wife Annie King Greaves. I had read at least parts of it back in 1976 when Gordon King Greaves, also a former PNT editor, published the recollections of his parents. I was in high school then and it didn’t stick with me then like it did when I read it this past week.

J.G. Greaves landed in Kenna in 1908 while searching for a place to practice his trade of newspapering. Instead, he wound up filing on a claim southeast of Kenna figuring he would be better off with his own land than working in town.

The couple started with more than many settlers around them but still it was hardscrabble from the start. They bought a team of mismatched, half-blind and aged horses along with a $6 wagon when they moved to New Mexico. The rookie sodbuster used the team to break ground for a dry farm and had to constantly haul water with the team and wagon from a windmill 6 miles distant.

With hard work and more than a little luck, the first year’s crops were outstanding. Subsequent years weren’t as bountiful. Drought, wandering cattle, insects and inexperience doomed their labors more frequently than not.

They got by eating jackrabbit sausage, prairie chickens, dried beans and corn in the winter. They heated the half-dugout structure with the cow chips they picked up on the plains. A wagonload of chips would get the family through a bad three-day storm, according to the book.

One of my grandmothers grew up in a dugout near Arch and the other on a homestead north of Fort Sumner. My dad’s mother’s family came to the Arch (Eiland) community later than the Greaves family landed in Kenna and actually bought their quarter-section (for the reported price of $8 an acre).

Because they had a well and a Model-T when they moved there, they were much better off than most. Still, just the idea of living in the dirt like a prairie dog or rattlesnake seems like a hard existence.

Among the hazards back then was the cold hard fact that the nearest doctor could be hours away by horseback or wagon. The Greaves family relates a close call with their daughter as well as with Mr. Greaves himself when each could have died without a desperate trip across the plains for medical care.

My great-grandmother didn’t fare as well. She went into a troubled labor on the homestead between Fort Sumner and Santa Rosa one night. My grandmother, probably about 9 at the time, was her only hope. She saddled a horse and rode to town for a doctor but help didn’t arrive in time to save her mother or sister.

What a cold and unforgiving a place that must have seemed to her after their death. It meant the end of life on the homestead for my grandmother who moved back to Texas for a time. She eventually came back to New Mexico for good, however.

The old saying about this area goes: “If you stay long enough to get sand in your shoes, you’ll never leave.”

After being away from the eastern New Mexico plains for a good portion of my adult life. I’ve learned after being back for three years now there’s still lots of sand in my shoes.

Karl Terry writes for Freedom New Mexico. Contact him at:
karlterry@yucca.net