Project Description

Desert Histories

For Orion magazine’s Coda column

Visitors to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas come off the highway and down some gravel to the Frijole Ranch, a stone house and outbuildings that sit in the shade of pecans and chinquapin oaks, with a cold gurgling spring to the side. At the little gate outside the wall that encloses the house and spring, visitors are told a story.

Two pioneer brothers by the name of Rader arrived here in 1873. They brought a few head of cattle, built a house from native stone and plastered it with mud. But they never filed a deed on the land and eventually left their Texas spread for parts farther west. Later, in 1906, a couple from Wisconsin, John Thomas Smith and his wife, Nella May Carter, began to occupy the place. They lived here thirty-six years and raised ten children. Although J.T. kept some livestock, he was, the metal sign at the gate reads, primarily “an innovative farmer”: he and his family planted and tended fifteen acres of vegetable garden and fruit orchard; in the orchard he grew peaches, apples, pears, figs, plums, and apricots. Sometimes the Smiths would load their wagon with fruit, cover it with wet linen and paper to keep it cool, and take the dusty road two days south to Van Horn. There they sold the produce to other pioneer families who longed, no doubt, for a taste of a good Spitzenburg apple or Bartlett pear, which they recalled from the orchards of the East.

Pioneers who made a living in this place—that is one story, and it is not a bad one. But there are others, too.

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