The following is part of a series of guest posts by Carl Fleischhauer of the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. Carl is a former staff member of the American Folklife Center and participated in many of the Center’s field collecting projects. All the photos embedded in this post were shot by Carl in August 2014. The first post in Carl’s series can be found here. The second can be found here. The third can be found here. The fourth can be found here.
From 1978 to 1982, the American Folklife Center carried out a field research project in the cattle ranching community of Paradise Valley, Nevada. I was one of the fieldworkers on that project. I’m the only one still “at work” at the Library thirty-odd years later, although I no longer hang my hat in the Folklife Center. The research team was led by Howard W. “Rusty” Marshall and included two professionals from the Smithsonian Institution as well as a group of university-based scholars and other specialists. A useful cross-section of the documentation from the period (as well as more detail about the project) has been presented online as Buckaroos in Paradise.
Although the field research covered an array of topics, two elements stood out: cattle ranching practices and the valley’s vernacular architecture, much of which supported ranching: bunkhouses, stables, barns, line camps, and dwellings. We visited about two dozen ranches, but spent a lot of time at one of them: the Ninety-Six, named for its brand. The ranch was founded by the German immigrant Bill Stock in 1864 and just celebrated its 150th birthday. Today’s operating managers are husband and wife Fred and Kris Stewart. Fred’s father was Leslie J. “Les” Stewart, the rancher when we carried out our field project, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 85. Les’s mother was Bill Stock’s daughter Edith, who married an earlier Fred Stewart before the First World War.
I have kept in touch with the Stewarts over the years, and they extended an invitation to me to attend their sesquicentennial celebration during the first week of August. I said “yes” in the flash of an eye, and the photos that illustrate this blog resulted from the visit. Watch for a couple of additional blogs in the coming days that will add a bit more to my report.
Thirty years later, what changed and what remained the same? I was struck by how little change was evident in the landscape and buildings. The landscape on the valley floor–at an elevation of about 4,400 feet and where there is water–was still given over to hayfields (most sustained by irrigation) punctuated here and there by tree-lined home ranch compounds.
As you move to higher elevations, the dryer terrain–often called high desert–is still sagebrush habitat (and thus wonderfully aromatic) until somewhere around 6,000 feet, where you encounter copses of aspen. Meanwhile, in the cultural landscape, I could still appreciate the handsome textures of the century-old adobe, granite, and sandstone buildings, many the work Italian-American stonemasons who settled in the valley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Ranch work? What I could see firsthand represented the summer season, the time when most cattle are “turned out” onto the open range while hay is cut, baled, and stacked in the meadows on the valley floor. I saw that these activities continued, although new balers have been introduced since the 1980s. Today, some big rectangular bales weigh as much as a ton.
Meanwhile, in conversations, residents of the valley conveyed a clear picture of continuity beyond a single season. This theme was central to the Ninety-Six Ranch sesquicentennial, where the Stewarts were looking back at a century and half and not just the last thirty years. When I asked Fred about his motivation for the event, he emphasized sustainability. The public, Fred said, “finds it hard to believe sometimes that you can sustain something for 150 years, that — a lot of the image that is out there is, you come in and use something up and then it is gone.” He added that the Stewart family wanted to use the anniversary events “to prove that we can sustain what we do for a 150 years and then hopefully on another 150 years, ’cause there is no reason that this ranch can’t continue on that long.”
One aspect of the event was public communication and, in this, it represented a family tradition on its own. Fred’s father Les often played the role of teacher and advocate for the ranching way of life. He was active in trade groups like the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, frequently spoke to visitors and school groups, and produced and number of motion pictures, several of which describe ranch activities in a positive and affirming way. (A representative sample are included in the Buckaroos online collection.) Kris reinforced the importance of reaching the public, saying, “What Fred and I talked a lot about was visibility, telling our story.”
Alas, there was one striking change since my last visit: the passing of most of the older generation we had interviewed thirty years ago. I did get reacquainted with folks like Emily Miller and Liz Chabot (I hope they forgive me for referring to them as hale and hearty nonagenarians), and I enjoyed the chance to talk again to Marie Stewart (a bit younger than Emily and Liz), Les’s wife and the mistress of the Ninety-Six thirty years ago. I also saw and chatted with a few folks the team had met years ago: members of the Boggio, Miller, Recanzone, Kern, Ferraro, and Gavica families. It was terrific to see them again.
I gave a lunchtime talk about the project and about its results: two exhibitions (at the Smithsonian and at the Library), two books and some coverage in a third, helping a university student launch her dissertation project, and a laser videodisk (remember those?) that morphed in the buckaroos Web site fifteen years later. Community members were genuinely interested in all of this and seemed pleased at the impact of the project. For my part, it felt good to be back.
I’ll have more to report in another blog next week.