Saturday, June 13, 2009

MARY NAN WEST: The boss lady runs Rafter S

Deborah Voorhees

RAFTER S RANCH - Mary Nan West's grandfather once told her that she needed to be as comfortable in the parlor as sitting on the side of the corral.

Running the family's South Texas cattle ranch has come naturally for this 73-year-old stalwart of the West. She's at home among the Rafter S' scrub brush, where for years she rounded up cattle from horseback, and vaccinated, branded and castrated alongside hired hands.

It was the parlor lessons that used to give her fits. "A needle was just something that never fit into my hand, " Ms. West says. And she didn't care much for the piano practicing that her Victorian grandmother, Robbie Bedell West, insisted on.

"When my grandmother would take a nap, I'd get one of the [workers' daughters] to pound on the piano and I'd run off and ride the calves, " Ms. West says. "I knew about when she'd be getting up, and I'd make sure to be back in that seat before she woke."

The young Mary Nan preferred driving cattle or taking daily shooting lessons with her grandfather, George Washington West. "He used to stand behind me, and he'd help me hold a .45 pistol. I couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 years old, but I remember it as if it was yesterday." Her parents divorced when she was about 2 years old, and her maternal grandparents raised her.

Mary Nan's grandfather groomed her to take over the ranch from a very young age. He had her do everything from work cattle to mend fences and windmills.

"He used to tell me, "If you don't know how to do something, you can't tell someone else how to do it, ' " she says.

Proficiency with firearms was another thing her grandfather stressed. He was there when Mary Nan killed her first deer. "I don't remember exactly how old I was; I just know I was very young. I shot it with a 30-40 Krag, " she says. "It kicked like a mule. I had a bruise on my shoulder and the side of my face. My grandfather was so proud."

Mary Nan's grandmother often scolded her husband, saying he was trying to turn the girl into a boy. To counter the ranching and hunting, her grandmother insisted that Mary Nan go to society parties in San Antonio.

"That was something I never enjoyed, and most particularly if I had work to do here, " Ms. West says. "That was a constant tug-o'-war beween my grandmother and me." But her grandmother did reap the benefits from some of the boyish activities. Mary Nan and her .22 bolt-action rifle kept her grandmother supplied with squirrels, a delicacy she loved.

By the time Ms. West turned 19, her grandfather was aging, and the time had come for her to take over the 36,000 acres of ragged country landscaped with mesquite trees, blackbrush, catclaw and guajillo, a desert brush that has tiny, lemon-yellow blooms inthe spring. The same land her grandfather started working almost a century before.

"Whatever is here in the way of flora is thorny, " Ms. West says. "Anything else that's alive will either sting ya or bite ya, including rattlesnakes."

The country is made for cattle, not sheep, Ms. West says. "It's too brushy and thorny. It will pull all the wool off."

These days, she's affectionately called "The Boss Lady, " and everyone says, "Yes, ma'am" to her out of respect, not fear.

"She's a throwback, " says George Bodden, her 29-year-old grandson. "She believes you can make a deal on a handshake. . . . You always know where you stand with her because she'll always let you know."

Not surprisingly, these are the same words Ms. West uses to describe her grandfather. After all, she is her grandfather's granddaughter.

She still runs her life and ranch much as he did. "I was raised that I didn't have to sign my name to a piece of paper to have a binding contract, " she says. "My word was my bond."
But the times have made ranching more complicated. She has to deal with more government regulations, and higher property taxes and overhead.

"A good ranch truck used to cost $1,500. The last one I bought was about $27,000. . . . And I assure you that rural electrification didn't come cheap."

Ranching today requires more than a knowledge of livestock. "You have to know bookkeeping, tax laws, federal and state regulations, and it doesn't hurt to have an "in' in the political world, " she says. "You have to be half doctor and half nurse when you grow up in the country, especially early on when we didn't have phones."

Her grandson, an agriculture graduate from Texas A&M, is her foreman. "George came back [from school] with good ideas such as clearing land and adding permanent grasses, " she says. "Wonderful idea. I couldn't understand why I never thought of it." He also saves on vet bills because he handles the medications and palpates the cows (checking for pregnancies).

These days, Ms. West and Mr. Bodden run the ranch. She's a part of buying and selling livestock, and she still feeds the herds, but she leaves Mr. Bodden and the hands to handle the cattle in the pens.

"She's the boss, though, " Mr. Bodden says. "I check in with her. She just can't scale a fence to get out of the way of a steer as fast as she used to."

As a youth, Mr. Bodden worked beside her, filling syringes as she vaccinated and castrated.
"I can remember her horseback. She sure knew how to work cattle. She could ride with anyone."
Her work force is smaller than when she took over the ranch, and the only horses left are retired. Roundups are done with trucks, utility vehicles or helicopters.

"If you have someone who knows what they're doing, you can drive the cows all the way to the pens with a helicopter - all you need is a guy to open the gate, " says her son-in-law Richard Traylor, who also uses helicopters on his ranch about an hour away.

"Cowboys have almost become a thing of the past, extinct you might say, " Ms. West says. "We still need someone who knows how to handle cattle in the pens. We still firebrand, and we still castrate with a pocket knife. Some things don't change no matter what they teach you at the university."

As for the mechanization of the ranch - she hasn't decided if it's good or not. "Oh, I suppose it is, " she says, grudgingly. The roads have made fixing fence and getting around the ranch easier. "But every time I turn around, something has broken down. You didn't used to have breakdowns because there wasn't anything to break. Now we have so many conveniences, but never any time to sit on the porch and rock."

Over the years, she has survived many droughts, including the seven-year 1950s dry spell that inspired Elmer Kelton's novel "The Time It Never Rained." Her grandfather died in 1956, one year before the drought ended. She remembers going to him for advice. "He said, "This won't be your last drought if you stick with this business, ' and I said, "Yes, sir.' So, in other words, "Deal with it.' "

Many ranchers and farmers lost everything. Others moved their cattle to greener pastures. She considered doing the same. George West believed leaving would cost more. So she stayed.
"That was a goody. We weren't into a big cow/calf operation at the time, " she says. "We had steers, which was good. Steers you can unload any time."

By the time the cows had eaten most of the prickly pear, she bought green-corn silage at $3 a ton and packed it into pits with a bulldozer. The concoction kept what few cows she had alive.
"That drought was odd. There was no forage on the ground, but we never had a tank go dry, " she recalls.

Her land is a bit wetter these days. Ms. West looks out the kitchen window surveying it. "This is my favorite time on the ranch. There's just nothing like the green after a rain."
She recalls how, as a child, the Leona River, which runs through the property, was her playground.

"I fished and swam in it. We'd get ticks all over us. When we got too many, I'd divide the girls and boys, and we'd strip down and wash them off, " she says. "When we saw a snake, we'd kill it. We grew up knowing how to take care of ourselves."

And that's how she raised her two daughters, whom she brought up after divorcing their father, Joseph Clarence Adams Jr., in the early 1950s. The girls were about 6 and 7 years old.
"By the time I was 7, I could prepare a dinner and put it on the table, " Mary West Traylor says. Her sister, Robbie Bodden, was the tomboy. She spent her time in the pens with her mother, helping to bring the steers down so they could be vaccinated and castrated. (Today, Ms. Bodden and her husband live in Dallas.)

One recent evening, Ms. West and Mr. and Mrs. Traylor took a drive around the ranch. The steers and heifers trot up as they hear the dinner bell (the honking of the horn).
"You want to feed them just enough to keep them gentle, " says Ms. West, who keeps stopping the truck, giving Mr. Traylor time to rip open sacks of feed and scatter a few morsels on the ground. Mrs. Traylor finally asks, "They already ate this morning, didn't they?"

"I can't help it. I just can't pass them by, " Ms. West confesses.

Most of the cattle come right up. A few wait in the bushes until the truck drives off, but all eventually wade in to get a taste. A little farther down the road, she looks over at a few cattle heading toward the truck. "They have the size but not the "groceries' to put weight on."
"You have about 30 days until sale. They'll put on conservatively 2 pounds a day, " Mrs. Traylor calculates. "I'll be happy if they put on a pound a day, " says Ms. West.

Ms. West sees a spotted steer with a patch around one eye. He's wet and muddy from the drizzle. After getting out of the truck, she strokes his forehead and hand-feeds him a couple of pellets, which he eagerly gobbles. "Hi there, Patches."

"That's one steer that won't go on the cattle truck with the rest, " Mrs. Traylor says.

"I got to keep a couple of the gentle ones around to teach the others, " Ms. West says. She's always had a couple of favorite cows that spend their lives on the ranch. Her soft spot is evident with other animals, too. She's taken in a couple of emus and several stray dogs that were dumped on her property. Wild deer come at dusk and dawn for grain, apples and carrots.

Still, her sure aim has put down more than a few rattlesnakes and a rabid coyote that wandered about 150 yards from her back door. And most of the cattle eventually will head to the meat packers. "That's just the way things are in the country, " Ms. West says.

She's also chased off a few intruders of the two-legged variety, albeit by accident. Not long ago, she was driving through the property and past a few illegal immigrants who were camped out. They weren't hurting anything, so she let them alone.

Just down the road, she saw a rattler and pulled over and shot it. "When I turned around they had all run off in five different directions. I really wasn't trying to scare them, just kill a snake."

Around the state she's been the first woman in many arenas such as the first woman chairman on Texas A&M's board of regents, and the first to serve as President and chairman of S.A.L.E, which puts on the San Antonio Stockshow and Rodeo. She has pushed its growth for 25 years, and currently, she is the chairman of the board.

"She not only worked in a man's world, but in a good old boy's world, " says Keith Martin, executive director of SALE. "If Mary Nan feels strongly about something, she'll get it done."
When she started working with SALE, it had only 300 volunteers compared with more than 3,000 today, and she says it was the first rodeo to pay equally to barrel racers (which is often the only rodeo event women compete in).

Among the many programs she started is the SALE scholarship fund. Since 1984, $11.5 million has been raised to help aspriring agriculture majors. Using her own money, she set up a $40,000 endowment for Mexican citizens to study agriculture at Texas A&M's undergraduate program.
"We should have good relationships with our neighbors, " says Ms. West, who speaks Spanish fluently. She learned Spanish as a girl while playing with the Mexican ranch hands' children.
Ms. West didn't attend college except for a brief stint at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her grandmother wanted her to study liberal arts, not agriculture. So she came home to run the ranch.

"I've been here all my life, and I wouldn't have lived anywhere else, " she says. Still, her life experiences are far from narrow. She's well-read, sophisticated and has seen the world. She's traveled to places such as Africa, England, Ireland, Japan, Antarctica, Easter Island, China and Greenland.

Her eclectic home decor mixes treasures from around the world with Texana such as an antique Colt .45 and an elaborate silver saddle and holster, suitable for Trigger and Roy Rogers.
Ms. West eventually learned to be comfortable in the parlor. Over the years, she has thrown dinners and parties for several foreigners wishing to visit a real Texas ranch.

"She can be in jeans fixing a fence or having dinner at the White House, " Mr. Martin says. "She has friends who are big politicians and others who are clerks at the grocery store. She treats them all the same."

"I don't care when you see Mary Nan - she's always perfectly groomed, even when she's horseback, " Ms. Freeman-Lee says. This trend may have started with her grandfather.
When Mary Nan was about 15, he took her to the Frost Bros. store in San Antonio. "He said since all the women in the family had a mink coat that I should have one, too. Being very female, I thought I should, too." He often would say to her, "You can do anything a man can do and still be a lady doing it."

Perhaps with this in mind he took her to Sol Frank Co. in San Antonio and had khaki pants, with a side zipper, made for her. "Back then they didn't make jeans for girls, and I didn't have the figure for men's jeans, " she says. "I guess that's something I did different than the women of my day. I wore pants. . . . But these were more ladylike."

On the ranch, Ms. West still wears pants, but whenever she goes to town, she slips on a dress and her hair is styled. However, she draws the line at the dressy hats such as those ladies wore during her youth.

"I swore if I ever grew up enough that I would never wear a hat - except for a cowboy hat on the ranch, " she says. And she has stuck by that. All in all, she says, "I've done the best that I can do, and as my grandfather said, "That's all a mule can do.' "


John Smith said...

Thanks, Deborah.

I worked for Ms. West for a time and I will never forget her. She's one of the great rancher ladies like Sandra Day O'Conner who did a man's job exceptionally well while being a lady.

You should write her biography!

Deborah Voorhees said...

Dear John:
Thank you for your kind note. I did so enjoy my time with Nan. She was quite a lady!

Deborah Voorhees