Oral History: H.B. Birmingham’s life as rancher and sheep man in Catron County

2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862, and the Socorro Bureau of Land Management’s Cultural Resource Program is increasing emphasis on oral history collection, particularly as it relates to homesteading.
Over the last two years, the Mountain Mail has printed oral history interviews with Dave Farr and Evelyn Fite.
H. B. Birmingham was interviewed by BLM archaeologist Brenda Wilkinson in Reserve on March 17, 2010, at the home of his friend and neighbor, Judy Griffin. At 96 years old, he has witnessed much of the history of Catron County since his birth in 1915 in Reserve.
Birmingham raised both sheep and cattle, used the Magdalena Trail (Stock Driveway) and has extensive knowledge of his family history and the history of Reserve. H. B. is a stickler for accuracy, so these excerpts from the interview are in his own words.
Brenda Wilkinson’s questions are italicized.
We were very saddened to hear of his wife, Peggy, passing in November, 2011. Peggy and H.B. were married for 61 years.


When I was a kid, you walked a mile to school. You carried your lunch. You was there at eight o’clock, and you got out at four. When you got back home you had wood to cut, cows to milk.
And now then, kids don’t have a thing to do. Even right here in Reserve. Parents have got butane stoves and heaters, and they don’t have to cut any wood.
And, I don’t know, the kids don’t have a chance like they used to.

We raised some dogie lambs that our neighbors gave us, and we kept this ram until he was two years old. And he’d fight ya. Well, I let him run into a pitchfork, and by golly…
So this family came in there, a Mexican family, they camped right beside the house. She was short, and the boy was sittin’ up the doubletree to the front of the wagon, and was pokin’ that old ram. And the old ram couldn’t get to the kid. And finally the ram turned and started off. And the little boy got down to go to the house.
Well, this old ram hit him in the butt and just flipped him over. His mother was in the house there. She heard all the commotion and came out. And she kicked the ram in the nose, and he started off. But when she bent over to pick up that little kid, that ram hit her in the butt.
She was facing north, and by god she turned a complete flip, landed on her back, her head was facing south. It knocked the breath out of her.


Henry Bela Birmingham was my dad. My father and his brothers–they’re from England. And one of them was Bela, and he was a doctor. And Birmingham, Alabama was named after him. He was a hell of a good doctor, what they claim.

See, there was six sets of half brothers and sisters. There was Mr. Birmingham’s six pair, Mr. Hicks’s six kids, Mr. Birmingham passed away, and she married Mr. Hicks ‘cause his wife had passed away. So there they had eighteen half brothers and sisters. The story goes he’d say, your kids and my kids are beating up our kids.

My dad, he was raised in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But he went to Canadian, Texas and went to school. And when he come to this country – we got a picture there where they come huntin’…1910. Well, he was just like all these others. On the San Agustin Plains they were drillin’ anywhere like 80 feet to 350 feet to hit water. And over here you had springs and warmer water.
Well, he homesteaded there on the Agustín Plains. But he quit and come and got this place up here.

My great, great grandfather is R.C. Patterson. And Mayberry is my grandfather. He helped build the railroad from Socorro into Magdalena. ‘Course he worked on that fire guard plum to El Paso and back.
Well, he liked this cattle country. His partner liked that country down there at Anthony. All that running water, level country.
So my grandfather had worked on the railroad using scrapers and teams. And he sold all of his equipment and came back to Magdalena. Granny said when he done it he and his partner had a fire guard six feet wide on each side of that railroad, from Magdalena to El Paso, Texas. A fire guard — turning the sod over. So the trains wouldn’t set the grass afire.
Well, now this is his story. He got down there at Anthony; he told his partner, says, “I’m gonna’’ go back to Magdalena. I like that cow country.” So my grandfather got on the train and come back to Magdalena.
My mother’s father–he was from Tennessee. And they built a railroad from back in Socorro to Magdalena, and that was built in 1885.

Homesteads and Ranches

How did your family acquire the ranch?

Well, my dad acquired the ranch in 1918 by homesteading. A fella, Graham, filed on a section. And there’s another boy livin’ in Reserve here, filed on a section. Mains filed on a section. Millers filed on a section. And, I’d bought some of Rael’s outfit. When Graham Mains father bought the Y Ranch, why we traded four-forty [acres] for what I had at Collins Park.

How big was the ranch?

Well I had–I think it was twenty-one sections in the forest. But on that hundred and sixty acres [that H. B. owned], Forest Service kept at me…aw, lets pool all that together. Be so much simpler. No, I said, if I have to bring in an extra horse to work cattle, I got a place to run him. So they finally backed off. You see, I had the mineral rights, the water rights, the grazing rights, and the timber rights. Now when you went to homestead, they took all that out. Well of course if you hold a spring, you could get that.
Dark Canyon, that’s where my grandfather–it’s south of that divide. Oh, about three or four miles. But see, you go up there now, by damn, that’s all growed up in timber.

My grandfather, he married one of Patterson’s daughters…then he bought his father-in-law out. That’s where they got the Dark Canyon.
Well, he went to drink. Then he was in town and Hubbell offered him fifty thousand for his holdings. Well they talked there a little bit, and Hubbell laid a silver dollar on the bar. And my grandfather picked that up; he was pretty drunk.
Hubbell said, “Mr. Mayberry, that’s a down payment on your ranch.”
There was three fellas with him, and they just got up and left.
Well, when he sobered up, the bartender said, “by God, you sold that ranch.”
And he said no, I couldn’t…no.
Says, “you picked up that silver dollar and that was a down payment.”
So, he stood by what he had agreed. So he sold the Patterson, Dark Canyon, and the John’s Well over east of Horse Springs, went to Hubbell. He sold to Hubbell.
Now I can tell you this. If he’da’ kept on with what he owned, I’d’ve fell heir to it. And I’d be like these other sorry kids… got a lot of money and don’t know what the hell to do…
But those old cowboys…

And so, when did your family first come to New Mexico?

My dad came in 1910 on a hunt. They come in a wagon and team from Canadian, Texas. They crossed the Rio Grande down there close to Las Cruces or somewhere. Then they rented pack animals to a come out in the woods. So he liked the country, then he moved back.

And do you know when he came back?

Well, and right after that, he come back to work.

And what did he do when he got here?

Well, he homestead over in the plains, but he left that and came over here and bought this fella out. Then after he lost that…see he worked for the Game Department, trappin’ wild turkey. Well, he worked for them all the way back in 1910. Done a little trappin’.

Were there any buildings already on the ranch, or any of the land that you had?

My grandfather had a house there. One of his daughters…. scripted forty acres.
Now I don’t know what that scrip means, but you got – back there in Collin Park, they put in a sawmill there later, but I had the mineral rights, the water rights, grazing rights, and the timber rights.
So that’s, my father was the one with August Saiz, Gila Luna, Jim Hubbell, and Hunter Long, they’re the ones that decided who was gonna’ get what, when they divided up the…
One old boy says, “let’s just give that timber land to the state.”
I says, “well, that’s all right.” You see, I’d rather buy it. Then I’ve got it.
I says, “you be paying taxes to the county,” and I says, “well a lot ’em,” Moore from Roswell, he disagreed with him. A big shot.
He says if I buy this land, I’ll decide who’s gonna’ graze it.
Well, the Game Department put that in there and we fought there for two days over what to do with it. And I thought we had it settled, but our president, name of Montana, he had been the Sheep Association president for years and years. So he thought that our chairman of the Sheep Association had taken that clause out, that if you bought it you had the hunting rights.
He said, “if I buy any of that land, I’ll decide who’s gonna’ hunt on it.”
And our president: “withdraw that statement.” So that’s when I quit the wool growers. ‘Cause what would have happened if the state would have got it, the state wouldn’t get that money, and if you want it, you’d pay taxes on it. And then after they graze it a year or two, hell there was grass to burn.

And I seen, my lifetime, oh I forget what they call it. They just take a post, set it in the ground in plaster.
I’ve seen one at Raels’ outfit, old man Rael’s homestead. They’d plastered these poles. How they made that cement stay on them things…
Later on he built a rock house there. And hell, that – maybe he’d have a sheep herder workin’ for him, maybe his family would be in that little room there.

Did you often wear a sidearm?

Well, I always carried a damn pistol. I have killed as many as sixty-five rattlesnakes by myself, one summer.
My land on the Agustín Plains, in the middle of it is sawgrass. Sawgrass grows up straight, and the edge of it is grama grass.
You don’t find any snakes down in that sawgrass; they’re all back in the grama grass. And a lot of time you couldn’t find a rock to kill one of ’em. So I carried a twenty-two pistol, just to shoot rattlesnakes.

Now I had met two guys, before the Driveway [improvements] was finished. And what they’d do, different people would put their steers together. And my uncle and I, Bob Hicks, he was my dad’s half -brother…
Anyway, I guess the first time that I drove cattle was about 1932.
It was my uncle, and we’d take other people’s cattle, you know, put them together. And it was through this old cowboy that worked for my dad–learned me a hell of a lot about cattle.

See, when they started fixin’ that Driveway, the CC boys done that, and as you come this side of Horse Springs – that well and the steel tank – and they made a trail on your right. That’s the Continental Divide. Now you come from the east, all the water flows to the east. You come over that divide, all the water flows to the west.

See, I was more of a sheep man than I was a cattle man. I’ve helped drive, I know, two bunches of cattle to Magdalena. The ranchers would all put their cattle together.
And we had a chuck wagon the first time. ‘Bout 1932 we had a pickup.
Those steer calves that weighed four hundred pounds in Magdalena in 1932 brought $4. They brought $16 for a big old steer. Now that was the first steer calves sold in Magdalena. ‘Cause you couldn’t cut the calves off from their mother and drive ’em.
Well after they created the Driveway, the truckers went there, truckin’ ’em off. And we were afraid that the truckers would get a franchise, and then you’d just pay whatever they…
But it didn’t turn out that a way ‘cause there’s so many different ones had trucks that they kept the price down.

When we hit the Driveway back in the ’60’s, oh that was a long, tough journey. But after a year or two, then you had grass to burn. Lot of the cattle never touched it. Up here on the Continental Divide, it’s half a mile wide there a while, then over Horse Springs it’s a mile wide.
You go east, south of Datil, that’s where it hooks on.
Well, they were developing water. But I was more interested in sheep than I was cattle. There’s more money in sheep than there is in cattle.

So the first cattle that I helped trail in was 1932. And I was lucky; had a damn good cow man.
My dad hired him to help drive them cattle. Well, if you got a road you got steers that’ll take the lead, if you know which one to pick. If it’s a road, you stay just back of that steer just a short distance.
Now if there is no road, you get the same steer ‘cause they’ve got leaders, which I didn’t know, but this old cowboy told me. Says if you want that steer to move over a little bit, just crowd him–not much–he’ll move over. If you want him to move back, you move away from him–he’ll move right back to his position.
After about three days, why we had the steer that the other steers were ridin’. And the old cowboy said that’s a damn bullin’ steer. I said, “what do ya’ mean?”
Said, well, all the steers are ridin’ him. And he says, they’re gonna’ kill him. It got where he’d come follow the chuck wagon, and the chuck wagon would drive him, this steer that they was all ridin’. And they had a big fat steer replace him. But if you want that steer to move over on that trail, you don’t crowd him, but move over towards him and about a half a length behind him–he’ll move over. If there’s not a road, you just move away from him at that distance, and he’ll keep that distance, ‘cause he’s used to leading those steers.
There was Shorty Lyons and Bud Nixon were trappers, government trappers, August Saiz. Trappers and cattle men. And my father when he liked this country, he went to work for the Montgomery there at Dark Canyon. And that’s just south of where you seen that big REA line, crossin’ the road, at that divide.

But you see, what they was ‘fraid of, way back there, when you could file on six hundred forty acres, [after the passage of the Stock Raising Homestead Act in 1916], you could file on a whole section. Well that’s when they…oh when they really started the Driveway.
People were afraid these homesteaders coming out from Texas and Oklahoma – liked all that level land on the Agustín Plains. If they could get 640 acres, they’d block the way of takin’ cattle to town. Now that started the Driveway I guess.
That’s when they realized they’d take up that open country with homesteads.
So they set it aside (the Stock Driveway), and we had clear right all the way except at Magdalena, and it was state land. We was gonna’ buy it.
This old boy got wise to it and George Goze, he was the manager of it, and he had been operated on, so his brother went to the meeting. This old boy outbid him.
So my dad had worked for the Game Department trappin’ turkey, and was a friend of Barkers, and so they met in that old barn.
And Johnny Miles was the governor. Well my dad was raised with him in Texas when they was kids. My dad said, well don’t worry about it. I’ll fix that.
So he got a hold of Johnny Miles and told him what happened. And he checked, said hell, he didn’t realize they’d sold that little tract of land. So he said, I won’t okay it. So when he backed out, that old boy, he raised hell.
But he was gonna’’ charge us to come and cross that. But I think they finally gave him five hundred dollars just ‘cause “you’re not gonna’ get it”.

Well, after we started grazing the Driveway there was a lot of people wanted it, and I had a decided on Datil. We traded a hell of a lot of free wells to join the Driveway. And I give this old driller five thousand dollars for his section [I think it’s a whole township]. Then he had some friends had half a section. I gave them twenty-five hundred, provided I could make it in two payments.
So everybody said “Oh, you give five thousand for that section of land.” And I said by god, you wouldn’t have got it any cheaper.
And see, Farr’s had a lot of country there. And hell, when he was on that board and gonna’ divide it – but he didn’t want it cause he was using all that free country. So they couldn’t agree, so they got another advisory board and my dad, they put him on it. Yeah, well I guess your sanitary board.

To be continued…