|Voice of a Ranch Woman
Second in a Series
The Greatest Work You Will Ever Do
A ranch woman remembers learning to make do with what you have — even at Christmas.
By Linda McDonald, as told to Victoria Tester
This first-person reminiscence is excerpted from recordings of Linda Nielson McDonald at her home on the McDonald Ranch. Established in 1903, the McDonald Ranch is among the five 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.
I was going to school at BYU in Provo, Utah, and I met Jerry. Then I met his sister, Annalee, and found out he was from a ranch. She said, "Our ranch is worth a quarter of a million dollars."
And I thought, "Ooooh, a rich rancher." Boy, that looked interesting.
I did come down and I saw the ranch and thought, "Well, there's not much here that reeks of money."
Jerry asked me what I thought about it and I said, "Oh, it's okay, except for the snakes."
I went back home and continued my plans to go to California to teach school. I was excited to make some money. I was tired of doing without.
Then I got a telephone call from Jerry and he said, "Why don't you come down here instead of going out to California with all those prunepickers?" That's what he called Californians.
Come to find out, that was his marriage proposal.
I decided to accept the invitation to be his wife. I've never regretted it.
The place on the ranch where we were going to live was called the Cienega. It was on the Cienega Canyon, down from the Burro Mountains between White Signal and Separ on I-10. There was no electricity or telephone and it was 35 miles from Silver City.
When we moved in, Jerry bought me a brand-new Maytag wringer washer. Because the only source of electricity was a light plant, and it wasn't strong enough to run an automatic washing machine. Or a dryer. There was a nice clothesline. I was happy.
My mom washed on a wringer washer, so it wasn't foreign to me. I'd do my wash in the washhouse. In the winter it was cold, but there was hot water piped to it. At least I didn't have to heat the water on a fire.
When we moved into the Cienega, we moved into the home Jerry was raised in. His folks were at the upper ranch. It was a ready-made situation. There was bedding on the beds, food in the storeroom, dishes in the cupboard.
I was using part of the housekeeping set Jerry's grandparents, Jerry and Mitchel McDonald, had in 1898. Jerry's grandfather was a foreman for the Lyons and Campbell Cattle Company.
The washstand in our living room today is one of the pieces of that furniture. I also have Grandma Mitchel's treadle sewing machine. Granny eventually gave it to me.
The things I used at the Cienega weren't mine. My mother-in-law, Evelyn McCauley McDonald, had only left them there for me to use.
The ranch's current debt was my next surprise. Yes, Annalee said the ranch was worth a quarter of a million dollars, but she didn't tell me it was all in debt. Then I found out that this ranch we were living on belonged to Jerry's dad, Jonnie McDonald, and his uncle and aunt. Jerry didn't own anything.
But we were there to help his dad and we were going to make do the best we could.
I began gradually to learn that there were some things you did and didn't do financially. I wanted to fit in, and do what Jerry wanted me to do, and so we did it his way, and it's a good thing because I was raised to spend money.
So I began to learn about Jerry's family. He told me about his Grandma and Grandpa J. L. and Nancy McCauley, how they'd moved here from Arkansas, and even though they had money to buy the A Bar ranch, they were very, very frugal.
They got married the day New Mexico became a state on Jan. 6, 1912. They went through World War I, the Depression and World War II. She made sheets, clothes, dishtowels and many more things from feed sacks and did not waste anything.
Grandma Mitchel McDonald had paid this ranch out of debt after 1922 when Grandpa Jerry died. She and her sons milked cows and sold the cream and butter, which she put on the train at Whitewater. She always paid her tithing on the money she made.
In the fall of 1922, Grandpa Jerry McDonald had some near neighbors by the name of Morril. The mother had a baby and she was sick. Grandpa McDonald rode his horse hard to the Tyrone Hospital to get medicine for this mother several times. Her husband was throwing the medicine behind the bed.
The mother and baby died.
The trips to get that medicine had been so hard on Grandpa's horse, that horse just hung his head in a tree and died.
Then in November of 1922, Grandpa Jerry McDonald was helping Mr. Morril gather his cattle in the rain and Grandpa got wet and cold and got pneumonia.
In the meantime, Jerry and Mitchel McDonald had paid the ranch off, but the bank claimed they had no record of it.
When Grandpa got pneumonia he just gave up and died. That was Dec.16, 1922.
But the Lord blessed his wife. In February it started raining and they had a wonderful spring. The McDonald Durham cows were giving more milk than their calves could take so they were milking the cows out to keep their bags from spoiling.
She didn't want to waste the milk, so she got the idea to take the cream to Whitewater and put it on the train and send it to a creamery in Phoenix, and it turned out real profitable. They would take over 10 or 15 gallons of cream twice a week. She was able to hold the expenses of the ranch down and apply the cattle sales on the notes she owed the bank.
In the meantime, the bank had gone broke and she'd lost what money she had in the bank. She eventually got it back in a year or so, but it was a hardship.
There were from 12 to 20 head of cows that had to be brought in every evening out of a two-and-a-half section pasture and tied to a post. The cows would buck and beller and you had to tie their hind feet together and milk them.
They eventually gentled down. Some of their names were Wildie, Tillie-Take-Your-Time, Elephant-of-Hell and Circus.
Grandma Mitchel McDonald always paid her tithing to the church on her profits.
I need to explain the first place I ever saw the word "frugal." First, let me explain Patriarchal Blessing. In the (Mormon) church, we can receive a Patriarchal Blessing. It's given by a man in our church who is called and set apart to give these blessings. These blessings can come in our lives if we keep the commandments. It's inspiration from our Heavenly Father.
Jerry's Patriarchal Blessing said if he lived frugally, he'd have the money to educate his children and send his sons on missions.
I didn't know this until shortly after we were married. But, being Jerry's wife, it then became my responsibility to help him live frugally.
We just went on faith. Our ranch wage was $150 a month, and we didn't have any idea how we'd be able to do it.
Because later, when our five sons went on missions, it cost about $10,000 apiece. And we pay for that. The church doesn't. It teaches us about sacrifice for the things that are important — helping people come to Christ.
We worked together as a family to come up with the money. I don't think we would have been able to do this if we hadn't lived frugally.
Granny used to say, and I think this is a great statement, that a woman can throw more out the backdoor with a spoon than a man can bring in the front door with a shovel. I didn't want to do that.
I wasn't a great seamstress, but I seemed to be able to do western shirts fairly well. My mother-in-law Evelyn, bless her heart, who I would later come to call Granny, ordered me a western shirt pattern from a lady in Texas. I've used it ever since. It just fits nice and has a long tail like Jerry likes. I started sewing them on that treadle sewing machine.
It wasn't too long into our marriage, Jerry and I discovered we were going to have to live pretty tight. We had one conversation about it. I said, "Okay, Jerry, I'll sew the shirts if you'll wear them." He agreed, and we decided we wouldn't eat out.
I found out that patches were a status symbol in Jerry's family. They meant you were being economical, and making do with what you had. I could hardly wait for my Levi's to wear out so I could patch them. I've patched hundreds of knees since.
I'd always give Jerry and his dad, Jonnie, shirts for their birthdays and Christmas. I'd cut out two shirts at a time. I'd make the kids shirts and dresses out of flour sacks.
Now I make the grandchildren quilts out of Grandma Nancy McCauley's chick-feed sacks.
Eating was a real important thing to the McDonalds and McCauleys. Jerry's mother, Granny, grew a garden so I thought I should grow a garden. My mom and Grandma Dee had grown a garden. So I'd grow one, too.
Granny would share what she had left from her garden. She was a great gardener and I canned whatever anyone would give me.
I found out Jerry loved tomato juice. There was a farm down on I-10 called the Pelayo Farm. We could pick tomatoes for five cents a pound. We'd go pick them and I'd make tomato juice. Another thing Jerry loved was his Grandma Nancy McCauley's catsup. So I started making catsup. Jerry was in heaven. He had homemade bread and his grandma's catsup.
One time, when I was expecting our third child, Jerry, bless his heart, meant well. He went to the Pelayo Farm and brought home 700 pounds of ripe tomatoes that had to be done up right then. I thought I was going to miscarry that baby. I'd go out on the bed on the front porch and lay down, and then go back to those tomatoes.
I didn't lose that baby, and I got all those tomatoes done and canned and in the storeroom.
You make do with what you have. That became the theme of my life. I hadn't put it into words until Jerry's Aunt Mary Edith came up one time and quoted one of the Prophets of our church: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."
I cooked our food from scratch because it was cheaper to buy flour, baking powder and all the ingredients and make it.
I never did count my time. One of our church Prophets has said, "The greatest work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own home."
I didn't waste food — waste not, want not.
Granny used to talk about her home economics teacher who taught them, "Now, honey, you don't ever throw anything away. You can combine it with something else." So she taught me to make stews and soups. My mother-in-law Evelyn was a great teacher for me about how to be frugal.
There weren't too many wild foods on the Cienega. Jerry had some workers gather some wild grapes that grew up the creek. They picked and stemmed a five-gallon bucket full. The grapes are tiny — about the size of end of my little finger. I made jelly with them.
Now, poor Grandma Nancy McCauley. Jerry tells about Uncle Frank just going out and bringing the whole vine in. She'd have to pick them off.
Actually, Jerry brought me a limb full of cherries in his stock trailer. I had to pick them off.
He also brought me some algerita berries. The leaves were in with them. I wasn't ambitious enough to pick the leaves out. I cooked them together. It was bitter. But our daughter Michele remembered it fondly as "the best jelly Mom ever made."
We used to work a lot of migrant workers from Mexico. I'd cook for them, or else Jerry would have them in camps working on the fence lines.
Migrant workers would walk in all the time. They were always hungry. I'd feed them beans, chili, bread, jam. Jerry called my kitchen, "Linda's Cocina."
They came with only water and the clothes they had on.
You get a reputation in Mexico. They called Jerry "Jerro." They knew he would be good to them and feed them. Jerry would come in and say, "There's four out there," or, "There's seven," or however many there were.
I wish we could work them now. They cleaned our yards and repaired our the fences, which are falling down everywhere.
The ranch was in debt, almost to the point of losing it. Uncle Bartley wanted his half. The fence was put up and we moved out of the Cienega. Uncle Bartley took the Cienega and Jerry's folks got the upper part of the ranch. It was all in debt, and Grandpa and Granny, Jonnie and Evelyn McDonald, got half the debt.
Granny had received an inheritance from her mom and dad. She hadn't spent a dime of it. She put it on interest so it could earn more money.
So when they divided the ranch in 1976, she wanted to put that money on the ranch to help pay it off. Jonnie, Grandpa McDonald, didn't want to take it. He said, "No. That's your money." But she insisted. It put Grandpa into a depression, but finally he came out of it and said he'd take the money.
Then we all worked together to finish paying the debt off. That was a big day, when the ranch was paid off. And it's been debt-free ever since.
But Grandpa still regretted taking Granny's money. When he started getting Social Security, he saved every dime to pay Granny back what she'd put into the ranch. By the time he died he'd just about done it.
I'm crying about it now, because there's a lot of emotion that goes into these kinds of things. There's a lot of sacrifice for this type of life. It doesn't come without a price.
That Christmas the ranch was divided, there was literally no money. Granny went to Salvation Army and got a coat for my son Bo. I was worried about what I was going to give the children for Christmas. I had some fabric, so I decided to make Raggedy Andys for the boys and a Raggedy Ann for Michele. It was a job, making five of those dolls and all the clothes.
On Christmas morning when they got up to see what Santa had left, that was what was there. Those boys were so disappointed. That was the worst Christmas they'd ever had.
Michele was the oldest and could sense what was going on and said, "But Mom made them!" I don't know what happened to Santa Claus. She just knew I had made them.
Taylor said the only thing that saved him that Christmas is that in his sock he had a tiny motorcycle. I don't know what the other boys felt about it, but it was a disappointing Christmas to them.
But now they don't talk about the Christmases Granny bought little trucks and trailers and other things Santa brought. No, they don't remember those Christmases. That was the Christmas they remembered.
The next year Jerry went to work for Phelps Dodge and they got a stereo. That stereo is long gone, but they still have their Raggedy Ann and Andys.
It reminds me of how Granny remembered the long-ago Christmas she'd gotten two or three dolls. There was a neighboring family who'd lost their father and they had nothing for Christmas. Nothing. So when her father, Grandpa J.L. McCauley, found out about it, he said, "You kids look at your presents. The very thing you like the best, you are giving to them."
That's the Christmas they remembered.
It's sacrifice. Just "Give, and you are given" doesn't cut it. We must teach our children to sacrifice.
I make gifts for my grandchildren, and other people, that I can afford. I have been there for my grandchildren's birthdays and when they open up their presents, I realize my present is not their favorite.
Maybe it will be someday, but what little kids want to see are things that glitter, and are bright-colored.
But I know my gift is still important to them, and as time goes on, it will become more important to them. Because they are being raised by good parents and they are fine children.
They are going to realize where the value of things lies. And it doesn't lie at Wal-Mart. It lays in a grandmother who, out of necessity, has to make all this stuff.
I decided awhile back, I am not going to Wal-Mart and buying stuff to give to them. Because, number one, maybe they've already got it. Number two, someday it's just going to get thrown in a box and taken to Goodwill.
I said, "If I can't make it, I'm not going to give it." So I don't shop at the toy aisles anymore. I'm too busy at home making stuff with what I have!
The list goes on and on and on about the different things that Heavenly Father inspires me with to make for people.
You know, I never did really worry too much, and I still don't, about what they would like. I give them what I have.
Nowadays a lot of people have money, but not a lot of people take their time to make things that mean more. But Jerry, bless his heart, he puts things so much in perspective. He doesn't care if we fit into what's going on in this world. He doesn't care and he never has. He's been a great teacher to me.
But I can remember going to a shower with my package wrapped in newspaper, and setting it in the back so that nobody would see it, and I hoped nobody saw me bring it in. I remember feeling that way.
But now I don't.
In living this kind of life, I've gotten a reputation for this frugality, and people love it.
So now, if I get any fancy gift bags, I have to give them away or sell them at a yard sale because I can't use them. It would ruin my reputation!
People get so much joy and wonder what I am going to do next. And indeed, there will be something next, because there's no end to it.