My mother was a teenager during the 1930s. That decade was one of the busiest for the cattle and sheep raisers in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.
In 1885, the railroad company built a spur line from Socorro to Magdalena. Livestock growers then had a market for their cattle and sheep. They drove their livestock from as far west as Springerville, Ariz., to the “trail’s end” at Magdalena, where they were loaded on the train and shipped to eastern markets.
The driveway was about 125 miles long and varied from five to 10 miles wide. Cowboys drove their herds slowly, allowing them to graze on the way. Sheep covered about five miles per day while cattle traveled about 10 miles per day.
It’s said as many as 150,000 sheep and 21,000 head of cattle per year were driven to the shipping pens and loaded on the trains headed for slaughter houses in the eastern U.S.
My mom told me that from September until Christmas the San Agustín Plains were dotted with lights from the chuckwagons’ campfires and lanterns as the herds waited their turn in the loading pens.
My father worked as a cattle drover, and my grandfather was a chuckwagon cook. “The people who lived in Magdalena liked to go out and have supper at one of the chuckwagons,” my mom said, adding that my grandfather (her dad) took the cranky, crotchety chuckwagon cook idea to heart. He always told the townspeople, “You can eat if any is left after I’ve fed my cowboys.”
Mom says the cowboys definitely had a good time while they worked. If they got bored, somebody would tie an empty can to a steer’s tail, and then hop on and ride him up the ramp into the train car. His buddies were ready to stop that, of course.
One time I was dancing with an older cowboy, and he said, “I didn’t know people went to dances to actually dance — with a lady and everything. I always thought we went for the fights outside the dance hall.”
My mom laughed and said, “After the fight the cowboys drug their battered bodies to the bar and ‘drank on it.’”
During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps fenced the driveway and drilled a water well every 10 miles.
One cowboy admitted he didn’t like it when his boss replaced the mule team and wagon his cook drove with a pickup and trailer. “Any little sprinkle of rain and that motorized rig would get stuck, where the mules always made it,” he declared.
By the 1940s some ranch folks began using trucks to haul their cattle and/or sheep to market. The driveway was officially closed in 1971.
The shipping pens are still there, and each year in July Magdalena celebrates the “Good old Days” with an Old Timers’ Reunion. It’s three days of rodeo, a parade, a street dance, theatre, barbecue (made by famous Magdalena cooks) and other fun activities.
I haven’t heard of any fist fights at the street dances, though.
Glenda Price has been a contributing editor to New Mexico Stockman magazine since 1982. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org