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Voice of a Ranch Woman
First in a Series

Becoming a Legend

From wrangling rattlesnakes to wringer washing machines, learning to be a ranch woman on Grant County's oldest continuously working ranch.

By Linda McDonald, as told to Victoria Tester

 

This first-person reminiscence is the first in a series excerpted from recordings of Linda Nielson McDonald at her home on the McDonald Ranch. Established in 1903, the McDonald Ranch is one of the oldest continuously working ranches in Grant County. Linda McDonald, born in Moab, Utah in 1942, is the wife of Jerry McDonald, the son of Jonnie McDonald and Evelyn McCauley. These recordings are a collaboration between McDonald and author Victoria Tester, whose book Miracles of Sainted Earth (University of New Mexico Press) won the nationally recognized Willa Cather Literary Award. Their efforts mark the beginning of a project by the two women to record and publish a book of oral histories of ranch women in southern New Mexico.

 

Isn't it funny that every person, from the time they're born, they're becoming a legend? Every person. I thought I was just not important. But now as I think back on it, there wasn't anybody else that experienced these things like I did. I'm the only one that experienced them. And it's that way with every single person. They're their own people. And I think that's the beauty of what Heavenly Father has done. He's let us each be our own person.

I never thought my life was going to be anything worthy of anybody remembering. Except that you have these little grandkids who say, "Would you tell us that story?"

And so yes, I guess it is worth remembering.

 

There were two years there that my Mom lived on a ranch. She wasn't a ranch woman the way I think about being a ranch woman, but she was living on a ranch, and she did the things ranch women did.

She lived without running water, and she washed on a gasoline washing machine she had to start with her foot.

My Dad had to haul the water for her and she grew a big garden, and we got a couple of pigs and she even built the pigpen for those pigs.

She was just game to live out like that and she was really my idol at that point.

We all lived on this ranch, my Granddad Nielson's ranch, together. There were several of the brothers who lived up and down the Dolores River there in Colorado, and so Grandad Nielson and my Grandma Dee lived just a mile away from us.

 

One day in 1920, long before I was born, Granddad Nielson was going to be gone all day. He left Grandma Dee there, and he'd just bought her a used washing machine. It was a handcrank tub and a handcrank wringer. And she'd never had such a fine thing. She'd had to wash those clothes on a rub board, and she was so excited to use her new washing machine that day. And so he left, and she went and tended to the chickens and came back in.

Linda Nielson McDonald's grandparents, GJ and Adelia (Dee) Nielson — "Granddad Nielson" and "Grandma Dee" — circa 1917-18.

And then, there was an Indian, who was the chief of a renegade Ute tribe, and they were called Paiutes. His name was Old Posey, and he came in the door of her home and it scared her because he had a gun. He had a six-shooter, and he was drunk.

And he says, "I hungry. Want eggs."

And she said, "How many eggs do you want?"

He held up his hand three times. Fifteen eggs.

She said, "I don't have 15 eggs." But she cooked what she had. All the time she was cooking those eggs, he was playing with that gun, pulling the hammer back and lettin' it down, and pulling it back and lettin' it down.

She was just scared to death.

He was sitting there at the table, sitting right by that washing machine. He had long braids, real long braids. His hair was braided clear down to his waist.

Anyway, when she got the eggs fixed, he started eating them, and while he was eating, she slipped over there, got those braids and put them in that wringer. Then she wound it up. She wound those braids into that wringer until his head was looking up at the ceiling.

He had a rope around his waist he had a holster on, that was holding that gun. She had the butcher knife there she'd been using to shave the soap that she was going to do her washing with.

First of all, she knocked that gun away where he couldn't get ahold of it, and then she got that butcher knife and held it up to his throat. I think it did cut his throat just a little bit.

But anyway, he goes, "No kill, no kill!"

And she said, "You take that rope off around your waist and give it to me." So he did that, and then she tied his hands up. But she was holding onto that wringer the whole time, to hold those braids in that wringer.

In the meantime her babies were just running around there, needing their pants changed and everything, but I guess she got him secured enough that if she stayed and watched him, he couldn't get loose.

He kinda dozed off, I guess. He was there all day long.

She was able to get the babies' pants changed, but she couldn't go get a diaper. She couldn't leave the room, so she had to use a dish towel for their diapers.

Granddad was gone way into the night, so she kept Old Posey there way late. When Granddad came in, she told him what happened, and he went over there and unwound Old Posey's braids.

Grandma told him to get out.

But as he was walking out the door, he called Granddad a bad name, and told him, "You have a bad, bad woman!"

So that's the story of the Bad, Bad Woman. That was my Grandma Dee.

 

And there's this other story my Dad told on her. What this Indian was drinking was moonshine. Everybody used to make their own. And her sons, they shouldn't have been doin' this, but they made some moonshine and put it in quart canning jars. That's all they had to put it in, and of course she always canned a lot of stuff. Anyway, they made this moonshine out of something.

But they lived in a canyon and it had big rock bluffs and that was probably a warm place where they could put this moonshine so that it could work and become alcohol.

So they put these quart jars up on top of these rocks up on this hill, and it was sitting up there.

She could see it sitting up there. She was a real good shot with a rifle. And so she got her rifle out and she shot every one of those jars and broke them.

And those boys were sure disappointed because they didn't have their moonshine. But they were proud of their Mom for being such a good shot.

She did live way out West. You had to be equal to it to survive, I guess, but some women did better at it than others.

 

Jerry McDonald had a friend on the rodeo team, who told him, "I think that freckle-faced old hide would make a pretty good wife."

That was me.

So Jerry started thinking.

Anyway, that was the compliment that got me my husband.

He called me up and said, "Why don't you come and live down here instead of going out to California with all those prune-pickers?"

So I decided I'd marry him. And at that time I started developing a relationship with his Mom, Granny McDonald, and she'd write me these long, long letters.

In one of the letters, she said, "The ladies in Silver City say you're certainly welcome to join their clubs if you would like to. I don't, but you can if you want to." And I thought, I'm gonna be moving to that ranch with her, and if she doesn't belong to these clubs, then I guess I won't belong to these clubs. So I didn't accept that offer.

Jerry and I got married, and we moved into the Cienega, which, at the time was on the lower end of the ranch. We don't even own that part anymore. It was 16 miles from the highway, on dirt road, and it was pretty remote, really, because there was no telephone, no electricity.

But I thought, if this is where I am going to live, this is where I am going to live. I decided I'd just do the best I could with it.

The first thing Jerry bought me when I moved down there was a wringer washing machine, a brand new Maytag. Now, his mother didn't wash on a wringer washing machine, because she'd gotten electricity the year before we got married. But this was the way I was going to wash. We did have a light plant that provided electricity, but it wasn't strong enough to support an automatic washing machine or a dryer.

Anyway, there was a nice clothesline there.

Jerry's mother had lived at the Cienega. I believe she'd lived down there for 40 years. Jerry had grown up down there. I was moving back to where my mother-in-law had lived for all these years.

She wasn't real ornery about it, but she really kind of wanted to teach me the way she'd done, when she lived down there. And so she'd get all excited when the windmill would start turning. She'd run out and water the lawn and say, "You got to do this when the windmill's turning because you can't waste any water." And she showed me how to start dumping my dishwater out on the plants so they'd have that water.

You didn't waste any water.

Then she started teaching me a lot of things about the ranch, and how to be a good ranch girl.

She used to tell the grandkids, when she thought they weren't doing what they should, "You'll never make it on a ranch!"

But she never did tell me that.

I wanted to do my part on the ranch. And I wanted to do what they wanted me to do. I wanted to fit in, and I wanted to be a part of what I had moved into.

 

I remember one time I went with her out to feed the cowboys, and we were riding in this old white Jeep, old white Jeep, and going over this bumpy, bumpy road, and she had on this funny-lookin' hat. It was a garden hat and it was floppin' around. She'd taken the food and wrapped it in her old dresses, and she'd put it into boxes to try to keep it all warm.

Because no, we didn't do sandwiches. That was against the rules on the McDonald ranch. You had a hot meal. It was a roast, frijole beans, hot bread. Granny was just a wonderful bread cook. And dessert. There'd be a nice pie or cake. Granny liked cakes, so she'd make a lot of cakes.

But anyway, you had this wonderful meal. You'd go out there, and she'd build this fire, and she had this great big old black coffeepot and she'd get that water boiling and put that ground coffee into that boiling water. Then she'd let that boil a while and she'd put in some cold water to settle the coffee grounds so that when the men poured the coffee out they wouldn't be getting grounds.

And she had her old chuck outfit. I've got it, those old tin plates and tin cups, and an assortment of knives and forks and spoons and everything.

Then she'd put this out on the tailgate of this old Jeep truck, and get it all opened up when the cowboys came and they were ready. They'd serve themselves from the end of the truck.

I guess that's where they got tailgate parties from. Maybe that was an old western thing.

Anyway, she taught me how to do that.

But the paradox of it was, she didn't really want me to do it. She wanted to keep doing it all herself.

But I thought, no, now I'm living out here and I'm gonna do my part. So I'd tell her, "Okay, I'm bringin' a pie," or "I'm gonna bring something. You can bring whatever you want, but I'm bringin' that."

And one time, my gosh, this was embarrassing, I made pumpkin pies. And I forgot to put the sugar in 'em. I thought, well, if I just sprinkle some sugar on top. . . . Well, it didn't work.

That was one of my big catastrophes. They didn't go for that too much.

But I've learned so much from Granny. And she learned from her mother, Grandma Nancy McCauley.

 

Jerry told me about the rattlesnakes down on the ranch at the Cienega. I was deathly afraid of snakes. But it didn't deter me from marrying him. I'd just go, well, I'll have to deal with it.

I remember one time my daughter Michelle was just a little girl. It was in the summer and I was on the treadle sewing machine. For some reason, and it was the Lord protecting her, she hadn't gone out in the yard to play that day. It was about 10 o'clock in the morning, and I heard this rattlesnake rattling.

And Jerry was gone.

What else was I going to do? I had children there to protect.

So I went and got the mixing hoe. That was what I killed them with. I killed that rattlesnake. It was inside the yard. When Jerry came home, he was just proud of me for doing that, but what else was I going to do?

Jerry made me come up to the standard. He didn't pamper me and he expected me to do what I needed to do.

And he didn't tell me that. You just knew. You have to do it.

When we first got married, I put a shotgun in the backseat of my car and so when I'd drive back and forth I'd go, if I see a snake, I'm gonna shoot it.

Well, I tried that a time or two and I totally missed them. I was so nervous and scared I missed those snakes with the shotgun. So I go, well, I'm not gonna do that.

Grandpa used to laugh. He'd say, "Here's this young bride and she's driving to town with this big ol' shotgun in the back of her car."

As time went on, they knew I was going to have to deal with rattlesnakes. Grandpa's the one that told me this. He said, "When you go to kill a rattlesnake, don't aim for their head. Because they're gonna dodge. That snake will dodge that, and then the next lick's theirs." He says you always hit first at the middle of their body, because you try to break their back so they can't crawl away and they can't strike.

So that's one thing that I do and that I've done ever since then, because I've had to kill quite a few snakes.

We used to keep a lot of cats around the house. Thirty cats. I never saw a cat kill a rattlesnake, but cats are curious about things. They'd see something moving, and they'd go to see what it is, and get them stirred up and rattlin' and we'd know they were there and we could go kill them.

When we first got married, Aunt Pauline gave me six chickens. There was a chicken house there, so we had a place to put them. It was up outside the yard, and I was still so scared of those rattlesnakes. I hate to admit I wouldn't go feed those chickens because I was scared I was going to find a rattlesnake up there.

And indeed, I did find a snake up there. This rattlesnake had crawled into the pen, and started crawling out, but he got bigger than the chicken wire and he got stuck up there.

Anyway, I let those poor chickens starve because I wouldn't go feed them. They had water, or they probably wouldn't have lived so long. The water was piped up there.

So I didn't feed them and they all died. We didn't get any more chickens after that.

 

Michelle, our only daughter, was taught, as I was taught, you never walk off and leave a rattlesnake. Because it's going to crawl away, and you won't know where it is. And so you stay there, and you watch it. And you see if you can get some help. Or you kill it, or whatever.

But when she was a little girl, Michelle and our son JL got over to the windmill, to get a drink, because there was a hydrant at the windmill and that's where these here cowboy cups in my kitchen come from. They hang this corn can or whatever they've got, baling wire around it, and it has a handle. And that's the best drink there is, is to get a drink out of that windmill.

So they'd gone over there to get a drink. And when they got over there, there was a rattlesnake coiled up right under that faucet.

And so I think Michelle stayed and watched it to be sure it didn't crawl away, and JL came and got me and I got the hoe and we killed it.

 

Michelle's always been really proud that she grew up on a ranch, and she did go out. I mean she didn't build fence, but she did go out.

She rode and she branded and the boys think yet once again, she got the best end of the deal, that Grandpa took care of her and he was always watching over her, and was just lettin' them cope with life, I guess.

But Michelle's moved away from the ranch. She's been very involved in the church, and other organizations, and she's referred back to her experiences. Almost every time she gives a talk, she uses things she learned here at the ranch to teach a principle.

So she's really used the ranch a lot in her life.

She used it with her kids, too. They say, "You wouldn't do this on the ranch, would you, Mom?" Because if the grandkids weren't doing just what Granny thought they should do, she'd put her hands on her hips and she'd say, "Well, you'll never make it on a ranch!"

So that's the big joke in the family now: Well, I guess we won't make it on the ranch!

 

Michelle, bless her heart. When she was little, I was such a cranky mother. And she always would want me to be so happy. She'd try everything she could to make me happy. But I still would stay pretty cranky.

As she grew up, she liked to take pictures. She'd come and she'd say, "Mom, come out here. Let's take a picture out in the garden of ya'." And she'd take a picture of me out here.

She took a picture of me building rock walls. She took pictures of me doing things, that well, I couldn't have taken of myself.

And then she would take pictures of the family doing different things.

She really captured a lot of what was here because she was thinkin' ahead, for such a young girl.

I didn't think all this was that important, but now I just go, oh, I am so glad she took that picture. Because it helped to put into a picture something you'd experienced that you might not even remember.

I think she didn't marry a rancher — and I think it's this way with a lot of ranchers — because they have their way of doing it, and there's only one way. If somebody does it different than that, that's the wrong way. I think she didn't marry a rancher because they wouldn't have done it Jerry's way. They would have done it their own way. And that wouldn't have been right.

Because you only do it the McDonald way. "Or the McCauley way."

But she's still a good ranch gal. She doesn't think she could run this ranch right now, but she could come closer to runnin' it than I could. Because she knows.

And then I've got to tell this little story on her, too: She went out ridin' with Grandpa, when she was small. He says, "Let's go out in this pasture and see if we can find this bull." They went out in the pasture and they rode. And they rode and they rode and they rode.

Pretty soon Grandpa said, "Well, I don't think that bull was in this pasture."

And Michelle said, "Grandpa, I think you should know what's in the pasture before you go looking for it!"

 

The truth of the matter is, I found out only a few years ago Jerry's rodeo buddies had bets on how long I was gonna last down here in what they called this "pile of rocks."

They didn't think I was going to last very long.

I guess they thought I liked the city or something. I don't know what the deal was.

Anyway, I won.

 

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