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Randolph Dible

History of the American West

December 2008

Transitions in the American West:

Peter Decker’s Old Fences, New Neighbors, and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land

In Peter Decker’s Old Fences, New Neighbors, and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land, the authors give

first-hand accounts of the hardships of the homesteading years in the American West. Indeed it is my

point to tell you about the Ismay-Ouray dismay! In Old Fences, New Neighbors, Peter Decker writes,

“The Old West doesn’t have much regard for the New West.” The author of the book’s Forward, Kent

Nelson writes, “the beautiful places the world over are running out.” (pp. xi) Years after writing the

book, in the Preface to the New Edition, the author writes, “What is evident about Ouray Countyis its

struggle to absorb new residents while coming to grips with a tourist economy often at odds with a

traditional agricultural way of life.” Despite the incredible hardships in creating and maintaining a

livelihood in Montana, Jonathan Raban tells us in Bad Land, “It was so empty that two strangers could

feel that they had a common bond simply because they were encircled by the same horizon.” (pp. 6) But

in Montana, the living was real hard, much harder than in Ouray. The two stories are about different

communities and different economies, but the human heart and life at the center is the same. The same

time period yields stories of the Homesteading years (1870s – present), and indeed many external factors

are the same: livestock ranching, farming, free land, and the economic depressions. But the roles of the

railroad industry, the views from outside, and the subsequent modernization were different. The sense of

community that developed in the two places (Ismay and Ouray) was ultimately quite different.

Old Fences, New Neighbors is written by Peter Decker, an historian-turned-rancher and twenty-

year resident of Ouray County, Colorado. He moved there in the 1970s, and left in the 1990s. Like most

newcomers, he was not welcomed when he moved in, but he was different from other newcomers,

especially the ones despised by the old-timers, the “hobby ranchers” or members of the “second-home
recreational economy”, and so Peter Decker attained an “insider’s perspective”, despite his late arrival

(1974.) The original inhabitants of the Uncompahgre valleys of the San Juan Mountains were the Ute

Indians, and they were officially given the San Juan Mountainarea in the Treaty of 1868, but when the

white man discovered gold there, the Indians were removed and bought off with the Treaty of 1873. To

appease the tribe, they named the county Ouray, after the late Chief. The first families were the families

of miners, and with them came all the necessary supply shops, saloons, a sawmill, a bank, two hotels, a

brothel, and a schoolhouse, which was the community center. Ridgeway, in Ouray County, was a

prefabricated town made by the Rio GrandeSouthern railroad, a creation of railroad tycoon Otto Mears,

who was previously involved in compromising with the Indians. Livestock ranching and farming was

soon taken up in Ouray County, and barter and labor (mostly provided by children) were the currency of

the lifestyle that lasted about three generations. Water was the most important natural resource, and there

was the institutionalization of water to ensure its posterity. There was a water court and a system of water

rights. Water was the life-blood of farming and ranching and whatever land plots had seniority got first

dibs on the limited water supply.

The real conflict articulated in Old Fences, New Neighbors was between the newcomers and old-

timers. The old timers were the original homesteaders, the ranchers and farmers, who began as the

families of miners settled the region in the late nineteenth century. Hollywood romanticized the hard life

of the West and used Ouray County as a backdrop for films such as How the West Was Won, which made a

special place in the hearts of many Americans. In the 1920s, therapeutic business opened to bank on the

romance and the hot springs naturally occurring in Colorado, and spas such as the Radium Vapor Institute

opened to visitors. Campgrounds opened and wealthy people vacationed there, going on hikes in the

County, meanwhile old-timers and their families were sweating and bleeding, working the land. As

tourist visitors began to take up residence in Ouray County, property values skyrocketed, which made the

prospect of moving out enticing to the old-timers, many of whom would not budge. The schoolhouses

were the center of the communities, and the most heated clashes between these two groups centered

around what to teach the children. The old timers wanted a practical curriculum so they children’s time

would not be wasted, and the newcomers wanted philosophy and literature in the curriculum. By the mid-
1980s, the number of permanent residents equaled the number of seasonal residents. In the 1980s, vast

amounts of ranchland changed hands. At one point, the town of Ridgeway was made into something of a

Western-themed amusement park, Trail Town USA, which may people saw as a travesty. They even

employed “rental cowboys” to add “atmosphere.” The problem with the image they were playing on and

furthering was that it was false and even worse than misleading in its portrayal. By the 1990s, cattle

farming no longer defined the economy, and the agricultural economy switched to being a recreational

economy, from work ethic to play ethic. That is about the time our author moved to Nebraska, selling off

half his land. The tourist industry created a “servant economy” (pp. 180). The conclusion of the book

was that in the course of progress, values changed too, and the community is now “more interesting.”

Bad Landwas written by an English visitor named Jonathan Raban, and his account is filled with

snippets from various historical documents (newspapers, advertisements, poetry, railroad propaganda, and

novels) which yield various perspectives on the land and rural life. Eastern Montanawas harsh and

unforgiving of those who were duped into inhabiting it. The railroad was largely to blame, but the federal

government offered an enticing expansion of the original Homesteading Act as well. Albert Earling was

the president of the Milwaukee Road Railroad during its early expansion into Montana. In 1907 he

named a town Ismay after his daughters Isabella and May. There is a certain irony in this. Ismay is the

focus of Bad Lands. (pp. 22) Earling would have gone down with the Titanic did he not elbow past

women and children to survive. In light of this embarrassment a disk-jockey on national radio suggested

the name of the town be changed to Joe, honoring the football star Joe Montana, in order to attract

football fans to Ismay, which was now in ruins. They even instituted a holiday called Joe Montana Day,

wherein they had a parade and expected an audience of 4,000 visitors, but didn’t even clear 1,000, which

was disappointing. (pp. 297-298)

The Milwaukee Roadpamphlet refers to a book by Mr. Hardy Campbell that homesteaders should

check out. It was about the new method of Scientific Farming, which came to be called “dry-land

farming.” Campbell’s Soil Culture Manualsold for $2.50 and was an inspirational book, about the
romance of Man and Earth that emerges when one is obliged to conserve the limited natural resources. It

was about tilling and packing the soil so that it retains moisture better. Urbanites could practice new

methods of agriculture in their kitchens before they applied their knowledge in the field. The case

example of the successful application of this method was Ismay. This put Ismay on the map.

Campbellgave impressive figures of crop yields from his methods (as seen on page 38.) Campbellwas

influenced by both Jefferson and Roosevelt. Jeffersonheld “cultivators of the earth” to be the most

valuable people (pp. 49.) Roosevelt saw rural people was backward, as we saw in Old Fences, New

Neighbors, which of course they didn’t appreciate, but in Bad Land, the people were not in a position to

reject the New Deal assistance, however much it was designed to get farmers into debt, “to make farmers

and ranchers part of society,” via debt! Indeed, Roosevelt thought that self-sufficiency was politically

dangerous! As did other members of his Commission on County Life. (pp. 203-204) On page 38 of Bad

land we learn that there were many success stories of Campbell’s methods. Tons of stories began pouring

in about the success of dry farming. But Campbell’s findings were ignorant, prejudiced and filled with

error. On page 41, Raban states:

“When Campbell wrote of how this system could enable readers to live “the ideal simple

life,” I think he was making a direct allusion to another inspirational work. Charles Wagner’s The

Simple Life was published in 1901 (in translation from the original French) and was an

immediate and spectacular bestseller. The success of Wagner’s book is a gauge of the powerful

tide of rural nostalgia that was washing through the industrial cities of Europe and America at the

turn of the century. There was a deep and troubled hankering for a life more neighborly, more

elemental, more “organic”; and the railroad pamphlets, Campbell’s Manual (along with several

other books on farming for beginners) and the Enlarged Homestead Act found a receptive

audience of people who were recklessly eager to believe in the idea of escaping the city to a new

life in the country.” (pp. 41)

In Bad Land’s Chapter Six, “Heavy Weather,” it is presented to us that these Book-of-Revelations storms

and the frigid winter (minus 35 degrees reported on page 209), the community comes together, of

necessity, in order to battle what Raban calls “a common enemy,” which I take to be a powerful idea

(from page 219.) Just as in Old Fences, the community centered on the schoolhouse, in the time of need,

in Bad Land, in inclement weather. In Old Fences, in the Conclusion, on page 191, Peter Decker states:

“What we long for is not the simple, hard life, but the sense of community that has existed in Ridgeway

and other small towns from time to time.” Although Bad Lands seems more a book about the struggle of

an arid climate, I assure you it is centered on the human struggle in the human community, just like Old

Fences, New Neighbors, and this is the theme of these two books and lessons in history. Regardless of

whatever brings a community together, or holds it apart in dissension, is irrelevant, the relevance is the

community itself, and that is the meaning of these accounts.