Tom Ross: Drought folklore |

Tom Ross: Drought folklore

Routt County cowboys Perly Green and Matt Tredway doctor calves west of Steamboat Springs in Twentymile Park, circa the 1980s. (Photo by Tom Ross)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The folklore of the American West is rich with native culture and mythology, outlandish characters, misguided explorers and bold emigrants who left comfort and family behind to pursue a new life in a “new” land.

One of my favorite tales is about an “Eastern dude,” who inherited a fortune and resolved to head west to the Great Plains and establish a farm. After plowing, fencing a field and sowing a crop, he watched as drought foiled his plans. Undaunted, he tried again the following summer to raise a crop and was met with the same outcome.

As first described by author Dale Morgan and collected by the great American folklorist B. A. Botkin in “A Treasury of American Folklore,” the dude was not prepared to give up easily.

Recommended reading

• “A Treasury of Western Folklore” edited by B.A. Botkin for Crown Publishers, 1951. Almost 800 pages of concise and incredible adventures in the pioneer West including, “the Lost Train of the Moffat Road.”
• “The Prairie Travelers, a Handbook for Overland Expeditions” written by U.S. Army officer Randolph B. Marcy for emigrants in covered wagons. Practical information on how to ford rivers, pitch camp and find safe water.
• “The Last Best Place, a Montana Anthology” edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith, 1988 Montana Historical Society. More than 1,000 pages, with particular strength in the cultures of multiple Native American tribes.
• “Wallace Stegner’s West,” a collection of both fiction and non-fiction set in the 20th century West, published by Santa Clara University and Heyday Books, 2008.

He went out and purchased the biggest wagon he could find and a team of big, fast horses. Using imported soil, he planted a vegetable garden in the bed of the wagon and retained a hired man.

His instructions to his “hired man” were to keep watch day and night, and as soon as he spied a cloud, even if it was on the far horizon, to hitch up the team and “drive like hell ‘til yuh get under the cloud,” with the expectation that at the very least he would track down enough rain to have one hell of a garden by summer’s end.

The only problem was the farmer spent more on horse feed and axel grease than his crop was worth.

Steamboat Pilot & Today reported in detail Oct. 21 that the summer-long drought of 2018 established new records for low flows on the Yampa River. Not since 2012, when the Yampa peaked in mid-April, had the valley seen a dry spell that even compared.

Even as that news story was being reported, a team of local government officials assembled at Library Hall in downtown Steamboat Springs to discuss ramifications of a record dry year in Northwest Colorado.

Helen Horn of the USDA Farm Service Agency, Clinton Whitten of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Todd Hagenbuch of the Colorado State University Extension Office talked about their roles in helping agriculture get through the drought.

At the same time, they were taking part in the library’s “One Book Steamboat” events surrounding the classic John Steinbeck novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” which chronicles one family of sharecroppers’ journey through the Dust Bowl.

Drought in Northwest Colorado in 2018 certainly wasn’t on the scale of the Dust Bowl, but a repeat performance in 2019 could cause some hardship, according to the experts.

Horn told her audience that she is processing 60 applications from agricultural operators for a livestock forage assistance program to help them cope with this year’s dearth of moisture. Others have taken advantage of her office’s ability to subsidize some of the cost of hauling water to depleted stock tanks on pastureland.

Greater numbers of ranchers are adjusting their business models to make up for a disappointing hay harvest. With scarce moisture this summer, much of the pastureland didn’t offer sufficient nutrition for livestock, causing some ranchers to let their cattle out to graze on hay meadows, foregoing a harvest.

“I’ve got a lot more people who will cull more cows than they usually do,” Horn said.

Typically, she explained, cattle ranchers annually ship cows that are troublemakers — the fence jumpers. However, the measures taken by some ranchers in 2018 amount to a herd reduction. It’s a step that could prove difficult to reverse.

“It’s always easier to get out (of the cow/calf business) than it is to get back in,” Hagenbuch observed.

That could especially be the case after successive years of drought.

“It’s when they happen consecutively that it will become a problem,” he cautioned.

Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in June after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.

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