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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008

Voice of a Ranch Woman
Tenth in a Series

When Chalk Was Precious

Memories of one-room schoolhouses, lard-bucket lunchpails and walking home, yes, in a snowstorm.

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.

There was an old prospector that would go to town, and he'd get drunk. When he came back home, driving his mules, he'd forget where his turnoff was. That's one story about how White Signal got its name — the prospector would pile white rocks up there as a signal where he was supposed to turn to go home.

ranch school
The McDonald School operated 1913-1925.

Grandpa McDonald said what brought the people into the White Signal area was the Homestead Acts. He said families would take up homesteads of — first it was 160 acres, next it was 320 acres they could get, and then it was 440 acres. Then about 1922, the homesteads were 640 acres.

Between 1905 and 1920, they were having a series of wet spells here and families could farm and make a living. But when the weather became normal again, they starved out and sold their homesteads to the local ranchers.

During those good times, because there were so many people in the community, there were schools around in different areas.

The very first school we had here in the White Signal area was the White House School. There were eight children who attended that school. It started in 1907, and it didn't last but about a year.

The first actual school building they had was up at White Signal in 1909. It was real close to where the White Signal store was. Grandpa wasn't born yet, but his two older brothers and his sisters were. Their parents, Mitchel and Jeremiah (Jerry) McDonald, knew they needed an education.

Back in those days, people would ship their cattle together and a buyer would come in and buy them all. So they'd taken these cattle to Silver City to ship, and Mr. J. L. (Fate) McCauley was kind of a new man in the community. Grandpa Jonnie said his father Jerry had taken a liking to Mr. McCauley, and they were down at the Murray Hotel, and there was a bar there called the Clubhouse Bar. It had a hammock out under some trees, and his father and Mr. McCauley were out in this hammock. I guess they'd been imbibing a little.

Jeremiah said to Mr. McCauley, "We need a school, and you're a young man. You're not married yet and you don't have any children. But you will have, and you've got some stepbrothers that need to go to school. But we can never get people to donate to build a school building! But I'll tell you what, you've got a lot of energy and you've got a lot of friends. You start out and you sell the people that we need a dance hall. Then you get the contributions."

Well, he sold Mr. McCauley on this idea, and he started soliciting funds — he was just getting two and five and 10 dollars — from the cowpunchers and a few people that had families. The families couldn't contribute that much because they needed to feed their children. But within two months he had enough money for the building.

Grandpa McDonald said that kind of put 'em in the chips, and they began to give dances, to make more money for this school.

The reason they solicited money for a dancehall was because there were a lot of single cowboys who weren't interested in a school, but would donate for a dancehall. There probably was around a dance a month held there.

When they got the money from the contributions and the dances all together, they propositioned Alvin White, who was the county superintendent from 1901 to 1907. That was before New Mexico became a state, and at that time, Grant County took in Hidalgo County. Anyway, Alvin White was quite sympathetic with them, so he furnished enough money to pay a schoolteacher for seven months, and everything else the people furnished. They had to provide the firewood and the water.

Grandpa's two brothers, Uncle Bartley and Uncle Taylor, went to that school and then his sister started. Back then in these country schools, they all started when they were five, because they had to have so many students to keep the school open. Grandpa's two brothers and sister had to ride four miles horseback on their own to go to school. Then Grandpa McDonald finally got a one-horse buggy for them to go in.

They had to take their own lunches, and Grandpa said the schools eventually got up to where they lasted nine months. So they went there until 1915, and then the school ran out of kids, and so then they built a school closer to here, to the ranch, and that was the McDonald School.

These were one-room schools. They tried to build a teacherage for the teacher to live in, but a lot of time these teachers lived with families there, too. The schools were just one room and they'd usually have eight grades.

I myself went to a one-room school up in McFee, Colo., when my dad was working on the ranch for his own dad. My mother was my first-grade teacher, and we lived in the school. I had to call her "Mrs. Nielsen" instead of Mom. That was really awkward. I was sure I was her least-favorite student.

The children took their lunches. They didn't have lunch pails — what they took their lunch in was a lard bucket. I've got some of those buckets over at the Chicken Bunkhouse. They'd take biscuits left over from breakfast. Or a piece of cornbread. Or whatever they had. Fruit, or a piece of ham, because everybody butchered their own pigs. Maybe they'd have some jam on a biscuit, too, for dessert. For a while they didn't have water at these schools and the kids would have to bring their own water.

The McDonald School ran from 1913 to 1925, and there were 24 children that attended through those years. Then we had the Cherry Creek School from 1917 to 1919, and then there was a one-room school over at Walnut Creek, which was the second White Signal School, which ran from 1919 to 1925, and that school burned down. Granny said at the Walnut Creek School they had this great big cottonwood tree and it had this big old limb that went out and she and the other children would get out on that and pretend they were in a ship. That tree has since been struck by lightning and burned up.

Then there was a Harvey Gulch (Cienega) School over here on the C-Bar Ranch, and that school, which was on the C-Bar Canyon, went from 1919 to 1924. Willie Glaze told our White Signal 4-H Club that Otto Prevost was the teacher at the Harvey Gulch School and on Fridays the children would climb to the top of a hill and he would read a story to them.

Actually, our 4-H Club, one of our projects was we put historical markers at all these different schools, to say when they were in operation. The Harvey Gulch School is all washed out now. The draw has changed its channel and it runs right through where that school was.

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