Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fite Recalls Family Ranch Operations

As the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Homestead Act approaches, the Socorro Bureau of Land Management’s Cultural Resource Program is increasing emphasis on oral history collection, particularly as it relates to homesteading. This interview with Socorro resident Evelyn Fite is a part of that effort.

After years of struggle, a homestead claim eventually resulted in the development of a large ranch for Dean and Evelyn Fite. A 640 acre homestead claim under the Enlarged Stock Raising Homestead Act enabled the Fites to develop a large ranch by establishing a basewater and gaining leasing preference on adjacent public lands after the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act. They did without a lot in the early years, saving up to buy more private land as it became available. Early on, Evelyn wanted to build a house, but Dean told her “you can’t make any money with a house.” So they bought more cattle, and eventually more land.
Evelyn and Dean lived in a train car at what is now called the #3 water, located approximately 14 miles south of the (now) Fite Ranch Bed & Breakfast. The current ranch headquarters is located at the old coal-mining town of Tokay. Dean and Evelyn ranched cattle here until his death in 1987. Still branding the cattle with F I T, the brand that Dean’s grandfather had used, Evelyn Fite continued the Fite Ranch operations until she sold it in 2002, after 64 years.

She was interviewed by BLM Archaeologist Brenda Wilkinson in 2009.

Evelyn Fite was born Evelyn Agnes Galonzowfski in 1918 in Outlook, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her grandparents had moved there in 1904 from southern Russia. They were wheat farmers of German origin, and moved to Canada to farm wheat. At that time Evelyn’s mother, Emma (nee Brown), was 9 years old. She grew up, married Herman Galonzowfski and gave birth to Evelyn in Canada.

Evelyn: “My dad worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. So we never lived on a farm. ‘Til we came to California; we had a farm there, but it was a peach orchard farm. And we had chickens, sold freshly laid eggs. Then we sold that and went to Oregon and he worked in the lumber mills. Depression came along…lots of things changed. So he worked in the lumber mills there, and then we came to New Mexico. We were very young when all that took place”

After living in California and Oregon, the family moved to New Mexico in 1928. They moved to Santa Rita, a mining town near Silver City. The depression hit, and Evelyn’s father left her mother; left her with three children, no house, no car, no job and no formal education.

Evelyn: “So we spent our life, our next 7 or 8 years, struggling to exist over there and trying to get enough money together to eat, you know. My mother worked taking care of a sick lady, and then she did housework for people - for teachers and for the mine bosses. There were several little mines around, and so there were different little areas around there. So we moved around and scratched out a living. Then later years we moved; she got a job at Rosedale.”

Evelyn’s mother ran the boarding house at Rosedale.

Evelyn: “And my sister and I were like 14, 15, 16 along those years. Nineteen thirty three [to] thirty four, something like that. And we worked in the dining room and we got paid! We got a paycheck! So we had board, we had a little house to live in, and we had our board and room there. So from there things started getting a little bit better.”

Ervin, Evelyn’s brother, worked in the assay office for two years, making two dollars a day. He was the assistant to assayer Johnny Kinds, and when Kinds left, Ervin got the job.

Ervin: “But you had to weigh all those samples you know, and all little tiny balances, and just had little wires and counterbalances , very delicate stuff to weigh, and keep track of the gold and silver. Thirty four, yeah, she first heard about it, asked him if they needed a cook up there. He said, ‘We sure do,’ so she jumped in the car with him and went to Rosedale and left us kids. And Lewis and I were still going to elementary school, and Evelyn stayed with us, kept us together. And summer of ’35 we all went to Rosedale, and all went to work. Boy, that was like….Christmas! ‘Cause before that we were living on a dollar a day, sometimes. My mother made a dollar a day, if she had a job.”

Evelyn: “Well, my mother cooked in the cookhouse for a couple a years and then they decided that her grocery bill was too high, so they let her go. So we went to Magdalena and opened a little restaurant, and then two months later they came and said: ‘You’ve gotta come back! All the miners are leaving - we can’t find a cook…’ If you don’t feed men, they don’t work. In mining camps and in cow camps it was important to feed well. So she went back. And I had dropped out of high school, and I went back to school in Magdalena, and took two years of school in one year and graduated from high school, walked out the door and married Dean and moved to the ranch.”


Evelyn: “When we lived in Santa Rita and we were going to school they had company stores and company schools, and this was the depression. And they had an excellent school. Because it was not a State school, and the company hired these teachers - and they had good teachers - and I didn’t even realize it. Until I went to high school in Hurley, that little tiny high school, and we had good teachers.

“Well I dropped out my third year and went to work, then I went back to high school in Magdalena. It was appalling. It was pathetic. I took two years high school in one year, and I hardly ever had to study. ‘Cause I already knew all that stuff. Those poor kids had no education…. And of course, I was just lucky. I got to thinking I was pretty smart when I got to high school. And I was a valedictorian. And I was too busy lookin’ out the window for …. when Dean was going to show up.
“[Dean’s mother] taught school at Rosedale, before Rosedale was Rosedale. There was just a …. see it had been a mining town, and then it closed up, but there was a building there and she lived on a ranch not far from there, and had four children. And her husband worked for Mr. Reinhardt who was a millionaire from Oklahoma. And he needed somebody to run his ranch, so Mr. Fite had that job. And Mrs. Fite had these four children and she taught school at Rosedale.
“She would take her Model T Ford and pick up her four…. She had three school age children and one was too young to go to school, so she’d leave her at another ranch house. She’d pick up their older kids and she’d have school in this little school house. And she would cook a pot of beans or make a beef stew, and they had a big wood stove and she’d put it up on top of that. And taught ‘em to read and write and do their arithmetic.
“Well the reason I didn’t continue my education, I had enough trouble getting through high school. Dean was sitting there with the motor running wanting to get married. So that’s when I moved to the ranch, the next day after I finished high school. See, that’s when I enrolled in ranching 101 - and studied it for 67 years and never graduated. I had the college of hard knocks. I had a college of learning at the ranch. I guarantee you, that was a whole different world. It was depression times and people had a tough time. During the drouth you know, and then they drafted all the cowboys, and we had rationing and all that - gasoline rationing and tires.”

Next week: Part 2 of the Evelyn Fite Oral History.

(top) Evelyn Fite at her home in Socorro. Photo by John Larson.
(bottom): Evelyn: “And there I am, look at that, funny little picture. I was 19 years old in this picture. You can see there’s not a blade of grass. There’s an old skinny cow standing there. That’s where I lived. That’s the caboose. We lived in that caboose, and then we bought some more land and lived up above Tokay, and then we bought Tokay after the mines closed. We bought that land there.” Photo courtesy of Evelyn Fite


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