The ebb and flow of beans in Montezuma County, Part 3

Thursday, March 9, 2017 6:12 PM
Robin Brand
Pelican Brand
Montelores Pinto Beans
Mesa Verde Brand
Pride of Montezuma Brand

The first two articles in this series covered the bean industry from the 1890s through 1940. This third, and final, piece will cover from the late 1930s to the present. The focus will be on roads, elevators and a current assessment of the industry on the Great Sage Plain.It is difficult to imagine development of the bean industry on the Great Sage Plain without considering the importance of the highway between Cortez and Dove Creek. A 1934 Conoco Travel Map indicates a combination of roads connecting Cortez and Dove Creek: U.S. Route 160, State Route 10 and portions following section lines and topography. A shopping trip from Cahone to Cortez would take two days by horse and wagon. By the mid-1920s, motor vehicles (cars for personal use and tourism, and trucks for commerce) had become important on the Great Sage Plain. The Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RGS) reached Dolores in 1891 and until the mid-1930s provided the bulk of commercial transportation needs for the agriculture, livestock, mining and forestry industries on or near the Great Sage Plain. Annual railcar loads of pinto beans from Dolores averaged 50 carloads from 1930 to 1933, peaked at 364 carloads in 1938, and then declined to 228 carloads by 1940.

Work on Great Sage Plain highways had been going on since the late 1920s. In the mid-1930s, Federal funding for highway projects became available as part of economic revitalization efforts. In 1935, in addition to the economic need for highways, there was an effort to at least gravel surface all rural mail and school bus routes across the area. By 1937, the Cortez-Dove Creek Highway had been realigned in a more direct route, leveled and graveled. By the end of 1939, the three main routes in and out of Cortez (Cortez-Durango, Cortez-Gallup and Cortez-Dove Creek) had also been oiled. One casualty of the highway realignment was the dryland community of Ackman. Having been bypassed by the new highway, most of the residents, including Calvin Denton and the Post Office, moved to the newly established community of Pleasant View, which, not coincidentally, was located on the new highway. You can appreciate the importance of the highways to the commerce of beans on the Great Sage Plain.

Between Cortez and the Dove Creek area, there were about 20 elevator/warehouse facilities – including one in Dolores at the railhead. We’re still trying to determine exactly how many existed, as well as the location and pedigree of each facility. Often, folks call one site by different names depending upon their age or knowledge of the history of the site. For example, the Rogers Elevator in Arriola changed hands four times that I know of. Some elevators were built before 1940 (Farr/Macorada in Cortez) and more after 1950 (Hi-Country in Dove Creek). Our hope is that this will all get sorted out in the eventual book version. We also hope to have pictures of each site and its trademarked bean sack. We’re still conducting interviews to gather information.

Through wars, economic issues, moisture issues, technology changes and the simple hardships of working the land, the bean farmers and elevator operators have always adapted. Problems have arisen and been solved. In the early days of irrigation, pinto beans got diseases. Dryland beans were less susceptible to disease. Chemistry abated most of the disease issues. Today, most pinto beans are produced either under irrigation or in areas where there is more rainfall than on the Great Sage Plain. Places like North Dakota, with more 20 inches of rainfall per year, and Nebraska, with ample irrigated acres, are the largest producers of pinto beans. North Dakota produces around 20 sacks (cwt) per acre and the Great Sage Plain produces about 5 sacks per acre. Since 1990, the number of acres of all edible dry beans being planted in Colorado has declined by more than 70 percent. The Mexican market for Great Sage Plain beans, traditionally strong, has declined as Mexican farmers have become more effective producers. The price to the growers has remained about $23 per sack or about what it was five years ago. So, with the initial high entry costs for equipment, land and water and the low yield for dryland beans, there is little to encourage the entry of young farmers. The current problems may pose the most difficulty for growers and operators on the Great Sage Plain.

I think it is important to preserve the history of the bean industry on the Great Sage Plain. It is part of our heritage, and has touched many families. As those of you with the memories slip away, the story becomes very difficult to re-create.

I would ask your help in preserving this heritage. If you have old photos, stories, or documents related to the roads, equipment, equipment dealers, elevators, or beans sacks (that I can photograph), please call me. If there is a substantive error in an article or more that could be said about a topic, please call me. I live in Cortez. My cell: 970-739-6772.

Presented by the Montezuma County Historical Society