This is a tender book about tough women: eight women who ranch for a living on the scrubby, arid, unforgiving folds of the Edwards Plateau, north of San Antonio and west of Austin TX. These women aren't hobby ranchers or weekend visitors. They live and work on the land, doing the hard work that the land demands—as author-photographer Lashley Lopez describes it, the relentless labor of "sowing, plowing, hauling, checking, fixing, counting, feeding, defending, and nursing." It is not a life that many women would choose. And that's what makes these women's stories so extraordinary.
When Lashley Lopez began the project that resulted in Don't Make Me Go to Town, she had two aims. She knew that Hill Country ranching was a vanishing way of life and she wanted to record the way women were managing their ranches. She also wanted to know why they did it and how they felt about it. "More simply," she says, "I wanted to tell their stories."
The stories share some similarities but are all unique and different. They span almost a century of living, learning, and working: the eldest, now deceased, was born in 1914; the youngest in 1972. The women live in different areas of the Hill Country (a map would have been helpful). Some run cows, others herd sheep, some lease to hunters, some raise horses. A few have graduated from college, others from the school of hard knocks. All, as rancher Teeny Stevenson says, are gamblers. "It depends on whether it rains or not, whether it makes the crop." Some years, they hit the jackpot. "Many years, there's absolutely no profit at all."
Wisely, Lashley Lopez allows the women to tell their stories in their own words, with photographs that show them at work in the landscape, at home with themselves, their animals, and their tools. The many black-and-white photographs are priceless. Lorelei Hankin's well-worn boots; Amanda Geistweidt wrestling with the squeeze chute; Dot Miller, in her 80s, shoveling cottonseed for her cows and baking cookies for prisoners at the jail; an orphan calf licking Mona Schmidt's little girl; Lena Kothmann feeding her Angora goats; Joan Bushong's guard donkey. The photographs help to root the women in the real worlds of their work—on the land, in the barn and corral, in the kitchen.
But the stories are the real heart of this book. They are simply inspiring—if you are inspired, as I am, by stories of grit, determination, and productive work. Lorelei Hankins gets up at the crack of dawn to tend her animals. Dot Miller plants oats, wheat, rye, vetch, clover, and sorghum, all for her cows (and makes agarita jelly, too). During her long life on the land, Lena Kothmann gardened, canned, milked, made her own soap, and did the washing in a hand-cranked Maytag, as well as managing the livestock. Robin Luce spends most of her time checking on cows, bulls, goats, grass, water, and fences. "There's always something wrong," she says. Cows in a neighbor's pasture, leaking water trough, animals that need to be moved. "There's always something."
Collectively, these women have raised kids, cows, sheep, horses, dogs, chickens, crops, and husbands. They know the importance of friends, neighbors, and family members they can call on in a hurry. And they understand their enemies: coyotes, fire ants, the drought, cedar brush, the plunging livestock market, taxes, and urban sprawl.
But if you ask any of them if they'd ever move to town, to a woman they say "No!" or (because they are realists) "Only if I have to." They love the landscape, the animals, the wildlife, the freedom. And as for fear—well, here's Lena Kothmann's take on that: "Some people say, 'Aren't you afraid?' And I say, 'No, I'd be afraid if I was in town.' Out here, there's no need to be afraid. The thieves could hardly find you."
It's a good bet that if they did, they'd have a fight on their hands.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Rhonda Lashley Lopez began the ranchwomen project while earning a graduate degree in journalism/photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Since then, she has worked in newspapers and magazines as a photographer, writer, and editor. She has also taught journalism at Schreiner University and Austin Community College. Visit her website.
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