The bean business on the Great Sage Plain: Part I

Thursday, March 9, 2017 6:13 PM
Beans in the field, some in the sack for market.

The area of southwest Colorado referred to as The Great Sage Plain – roughly the area between Cortez in Montezuma County and Dove Creek in Dolores County – has a long farming history. That history is based upon the soil.

Over the eons, the prevailing southwesterly winds have deposited deep layers of red loess soil in the area. This rich soil retains water well and lends itself to dry land farming. Native American farmers in the area depended upon this soil to maintain their subsistence way of living from AD 600 through AD 1300. Beginning in the 1860s, settlers began making their way into the area. This immigration was facilitated by several events: The Homestead Act of 1862 provided for land ownership, the Brunot Treaty of 1874 between the Ute Indians and the US Government allowed access to the mining areas of the La Plata and San Juan Mountains by miners and speculators, and Colorado Statehood in 1876. Many of these new immigrants would begin their relationship with the soil.

Though many of the immigrants came from the eastern US, a large number also came from areas of the southwest including Texas. The latter brought large herds of cattle to graze the lush, unclaimed grasslands that then covered the Plain. Overgrazing soon caused the grasses to be replaced by sage but the rich soil remained.

As the homesteaders cleared the sage from their 160 acre plots they planted wheat, corn and some potatoes for their subsistence and eventually some alfalfa for their animals. Most of their crops were dry land farmed.

Through the 1880s as the number of settlers in the valleys increased so did the number of gold and silver miners in the mountains. They needed provisions. Cattle, grains and produce were shipped to the mining areas and additional land was cleared to meet the increased demand. The area available for cattle to graze freely was diminishing as the land devoted to farming increased. During this period both Dolores and Cortez were founded, as were the areas around Lewis, Yellow Jacket, Pleasant View, Cahone, and Dove Creek. By the end of the 1880s irrigation water began to flow from the Dolores River via the ditches that would become the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company.

In 1891 the Rio Grande Southern completed laying narrow gauge track from Durango through Mancos, Dolores, the San Juan mining districts of Rico and Telluride, and on to Ridgeway. Commodity exports to the mining areas and the outside world increased. The population and productivity of the Plain continued to grow. The first measureable production of beans began in the 1890s. Crop records for Montezuma County in 1899 indicate that 9 acres of ground produced 150 bushels of pinto beans. Things were looking good.

Heading into the 20th century, wheat and alfalfa were the leading crops. Beans, specifically pinto or Colorado, which adapted well to dry land farming, were grown mainly for home use and as fodder for livestock. As a legume, beans add nitrogen to the soil to replace what is used by other crops. However, crop rotation was not generally practiced. It was common knowledge that the soils could be depleted in around twenty years. Bean production gradually grew. New markets were developed. In September 1915, Mr. Gilliland from Yellow Jacket contracted with Cortez merchants for half a ton of his pintos. He cleared $20 per acre on them. Denver dealers were offering $4/cwt. It had been $3 in 1914. And off we go!

In 1909, Montezuma County crop records indicate 26 acres produced 299 bushels of beans. Harry Roger’s store in Arriola was one of several local bean seed sources and starting around 1916, the Farr Company of Greeley was providing bean seed for local use. In November 1916, the Mancos Times reported unprecedented demand for beans and that Colorado’s bean acreage had tripled over the past 18 months, according to the Colorado Bean Growers Association.

Extension of irrigation water to the Lewis area in 1906 brought new settlers. Around 1911, CC McAfee and his family arrived in the area. Among other endeavors, they were dry-land farmers, ran cattle, operated a bean/wheat warehouse, operated the post office and had the first John Deere dealership in the area. By 1913, Trenzo Gai and family had arrived in the Yellow Jacket area where they farmed, operated a warehouse, and a trucking business. Of course, there were many other stories like these.

World events moved forward. In July 1914, war in Europe was declared. The U.S. stayed out until April 1917 – two years after the Lusitania was sunk. By August 1917, Colorado’s bean crop – some 2 million bushels – had been committed to the war effort. In 1916, 37,000 acres of beans had been planted in Colorado. In 1917, that number was 200,000. The war ended in November 1918.

And then it was over. In May 1918, the government advised all growers that they would not take any more beans, at any price, from the 1917 crop. In early 1919, the government purchased half of the 1918 Colorado crop for export and said they would purchase none of the 1919 crop. Growers were advised to “market their own crop.” World War I had carried the Colorado – and Montezuma County – bean industry to a high point of production.

The post-war years would be difficult. As usual, the farmers of The Great Sage Plain would adapt.

Presented by the Montezuma County Historical Society.