By Rail Through Uruguay
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"April 25: We left Salto early this morning by rail, going northward in search of a great estanciero of Uruguay whose cattle and sheep are as the sands of the sea in numbers. Near the city of Salto were many little farms, with orchards, orange groves, stables, cows, pigs and fowls. Soon, however, we passed the zone of small farms and reached the open camp, or the land of big, fenced pastures. It is a picturesque land of rolling plains, almost hilly, and usually rather dry, and almost uninhabited, so far as men count. Many wild ostriches are seen hurrying away from our train. The cattle and sheep are emaciated, and there are many dead ones along the way. We learn that the estanciero for whom we search is losing cattle at the rate of 100 per day. Because of the recent revolution he has not horses enough to enable his vaqueros to skin the dead animals. We are so aghast at this we do not care whether we find our man or not; surely he will not be glad to see us at this time. The little train is a curiosity; it is small and light and the water tank is so small that every few miles we stop to replenish it, so that I remarked to Dr. Garrahan that it was the first train I had ever seen that ran by water power.
"What picturesque men are the Uruguayan camp people. Their trousers are so wide that they are fully as large in the leg as are modern fashions in women's dress skirts; they wear splendid thick, warm ponchos, too, and look as though they were more at home in the saddle than on the ground, which is no doubt true. The poncho is merely a big thick blanket with a hole in the center through which is thrust the man's head. It seems a sensible thing when one is riding horseback in the rain. With the poncho and the saddle blanket the guacho is always at home; his bed is ready whenever or wherever he is ready and all his wealth he carries in a huge belt about his slender waist. These men endure in-credible exposure at night. I have frequently seen them from Punta Arenas to Brazil lying on the ground under their carts, with only the thickness of the poncho between them and bitter cold—cold that would chill me to the bone. They have of course undergone acclimation.
"We send repeated telegrams trying to locate our big estanciero, who is, however, so much on the move on an estancia as vast as one of our, smaller states that we at last despair of locating him. The whole land is soaked; rain, so long withheld, is now falling in excess of the land's needs. All the land is devoted to wild grasses; there is no agriculture. I see no valid reason why the land could not be. sown in part at least to alfalfa; probably it would grow corn, too. These must come some day, when the revolutions cease and colonists come. Our toy train lands us at last at the little village of Santa Rosa; with some peril in a small sail boat we cross the Uruguay again in a violent windstorm, with waves threatening our little boat and the swarthy boatman with bare feet braced against the cleats pulling for dear life. We land at Monte Casares and the sun comes out from behind the angry clouds; all the world is wet; again the plain springs up with all manner of green things, and as I walk on the shores of the river the pebbles glow like emeralds."
AT MONTE CASARES
Those pebbles were my torment. I would pick them up, one by one, examine curiously, marveling over the ancient river that tore them from their mother bed and rolled and polished them, millions of years ago. After a time my pockets would be heavy with them; regretfully I would lay them aside, for there remained many leagues of travel between me and a certain small boy on Woodland Farm who likes pretty pebbles. There are tons of pebbles in that land pretty enough in coloring to be set as jewels.
Monte Casares is unlike anything that I had seen. It is a village of wide streets, carpeted with fine, thick grass and grazed by sheep and goats. Perfectly in Spanish character are the houses, only many are yet in rough brick, unplastered, and on each street corner there is a little shop where things are offered for sale. I came near saying, "things are sold." It seems quite a deserted village, so far as life or commerce is concerned. It was built I think, with grand expectations of being a port. Let us hope that it has not yet achieved its destiny. There was a soft mellowness in the air, as befitted its location, which is as near the equator as southern Georgia. In the suburbs happy children wearing short shirts played about, and among them were young ostriches, caught in chickhood, I assume, or perhaps hatched from eggs brought to town by the vaqueros. The ostriches were perfectly tame and merely eluded the grasp of the merry children as they played. Here I saw many new plants, great climbing cacti that covered garden walls with a prickly tangle of arms as thick as a man's, and yellow with blooms as large as soup plates. There was, however, about the place that indescribable air of poverty, sadness and decay that seems indissolubly linked with the tropics.
At the inn we were fortunate in finding some of the leading estancieros of the neighborhood, among them Señor Fernando E. Etorena. From him we learned that good land in this region was worth about $13.50 per acre ; that sheep, mainly of Rambouillet blood, throve during dry years and were afflicted with worms in wet years; that Romney rams were coming in; that to get sixty lambs from 100 ewes was considered a good increase. His labor cost was astonishingly low. The wage scale there is from $8 to $12 per month to : the peon, with shelter, of course and meat, biscuits and mate. The senor thought, however, that the wave of immigration would reach him and that then much land would go under the plow. It did not look like an alfalfa soil, or a land suitable for wheat, but it may grow maize fairly well. I know no reason why it should not grow cotton.
"April 26: In the suburbs of Monte Casares (the name means Casares' grove or forest) are huts of bamboo and thatch set down promiscuously on the green plain, with many small flocks of sheep, goats and children. The goats kids stand within the huts and peer out of the doorways, looking strangely innocent and domestic. Doubtless they share their mothers' milk with the family. There are great eucalyptus trees, roses in bloom and very early in the morning children start for school carrying books and little baskets with their breakfast and lunches. There were ponies being hurried about bearing big bags of loaves of good Argentine bread and enormous carts, each drawn by four oxen. In some of these carts were families of women and children, journeying to perhaps some other land. To some of the gardens there were hedges of a sort of cactus, with tall, erect stalks as thick as a strong man's arm. These things I saw on a brisk morning walk while the doctor took another nap. My fur-lined overcoat made people stare in wonder, as I passed by, but there was nearly a frost last night."
`April 26 : We came by train to Curuzu Cuatia in Corrientes. It has rained in Corrientes; in fact, the drouth has not been nearly so severe, and now the recent rains have made the level plains all a-bloom. Imagine a wide plain with park-like areas of trees like big apple trees, that is, trees in groups and areas, meadowy expanses between of hundreds or thousands of acres. This is the monte country, or region of trees. Imagine the plain a lively, ten-der green from the fresh springing grass and then areas of color—sometimes yellows, sometimes pinks or reds, sometimes a blending of those colors. These were not small areas of color, but stretches of miles of it, and cattle in great droves were eating only the blossoms. Nowhere else in the world have I seen such a sight, the prairies of the gulf coast of Texas in spring being nearest like it. The trees are of the acacia family, and are called the Nandubay, which is pronounced `nyanduby.' Crooked although they are, their stems make imperishable fence posts. In all the ride to Curuzu Cuatia, I do not remember to have seen one farm, although the soil looks black and good. It is, however, bard and impervious to water, so that great shallow pools stand here and there in the pastures, betokening the recent hard rains."
Millions of little flowers that look like crocus blooms, spring up in the grass and along the rail-way tracks. Our long ride in the slow train was enlivened by watching the people inside the cars and the sights outside. Across the aisle from me were many children, fat and roly-poly: Their mother ignored them, and finally went to sit with a mustached señor with whom she carried on a vigorous flirtation while the little six-year-old boy held the head of a very chubby and heavy three-year-old, both going to sleep, and they would have fallen off the seat had I not gone to their rescue. There was another and more pleasing family party, also with many children, clean in dress and per-son, that attracted my attention.
Curuzu Cuatia is a thriving little city, but not attractive or picturesque. It is set out on a rather barren plain of black adobe earth. I walked early one morning when it was crisp and cold, with no frost and a bright sun. The town has perhaps 2,500 inhabitants ; in the outskirts live many people in mud walled, grass-thatched huts, scattered around promiscuously as' though they might be the dwellings of squatters. In the center of the town stands a truly splendid monument to Belgrano, an Argentine hero. The monument is a Corinthian column, which is tall and supports a female figure signifying Liberty. I could not but compare the artistic beauty of this monument in this unheard of Argentine camp village to the efforts of our richer people in American towns and cities, the comparison being not at all favorable to us.
Out in the suburbs a few little ostriches walked about in dooryards. There were not many trees nor flowers, since the soil and climate are both difficult and since the most of the inhabitants are only poor Indians. Our hotel was interesting and good; there were two patios, with rooms surrounding them and floors of red tiles; in our rooms there were neat iron beds, fairly free from fleas (turpentine between the sheets 'is the trick to banish fleas in the tropics). The windows were French, coming flush with the floor, with Venetian blinds and strong bars outside for which we are always grateful in a land where there seem to be a certain number of cut-throats. Perhaps I wrong them, but I feel safer behind bars. We met at the hotel a fine young Scot, G. Norman Leslie, who invited us to view his estancia and promised to send a vehicle for us the next day. At the appointed time appeared an English dogcart drawn by a magnificent carriage horse. The peon who brought this equipage led his own saddle horse and when we started back he rode and led the way, himself a picturesque man, swarthy, evidently of Indian blood. His trousers were so full as to suggest skirts, and he wore a gay cloth about his neck. He rode a good horse, and seemed a part of it. We followed his pilotage out through the outskirts of Curuzu Cuatia. The road was very wide and untouched by the hand of man; doubt-less it was good in a dry time, and most times are dry in that land. But there it had rained; it was as though we were in the black gumbo soil of our own West, in a wet time, and no roadmaking done. I observed a familiar plant, the cockle bur, thick along the way. It and the rich black mud reminded me of home. Water stood in holes by the wayside, and on the plain, beside every little pool, was an Indian woman washing clothes—surely not always her own—and on every thorny shrub were garments drying. Thus do these excellent brown people approach to godliness.
MR G. NORMAN LESLIE'S ESTANCIA
Wonderingly we forded a river twice; it was safe, however ; we turned in at a gate and came down to the estancia headquarters at Los Ingleses. First we saw a brick-walled, reed-thatched shearing shed and woolhouse, with a tiled floor, comfort-able and very cheap (we had found such things in Argentina that cost up to $10,000; this one served as well as any) ; then we passed the rams' shed with the little yards all paved with tiles, to be always dry and clean in front; then we sped on to the long, low bungalow where dwelt Mr. Leslie. I cannot tell how much I admire this young Scot, for his using native material in an inexpensive way and yet se curing both beauty and comfort. His bungalow had, it is true, mud walls, yet they were glistening with whitewash; the roof was of splendidly made thatch; there were wide verandas on three sides and a floor of tiles. He could live, and did live, mostly out-doors. Within were books, pictures, things to re-mind him of home, including an outfit for playing polo, for Mr. Leslie was once an officer in the British army, stationed in India.
On the veranda were cages of birds with brilliantly red crests, the South American cardinals, seemingly content; others at liberty hopped about near by; a trap, worked by a string, threatened to imprison more of them. Fox terriers crowded and begged for caresses. In the stunted trees of the lawn oven birds called, and other sorts that I did not know. The oven bird builds a clay house as large as a medium-sized pumpkin, on a gate post or a branch of a tree. It is curious to see.
Mr. Leslie's welcome was cordial and complete. His cupboard was thrown wide and we were asked, "What shall it be?" and, indeed, it would have needed to be a rare beverage that he could not have supplied, although from his appearance I should guess that he keeps them all for guests only. Breakfast next, for it was noon and we were all hungry. Our host had ridden far that day, for the estancia contains 7,500 acres and the had been back to some of the outlying places, working with stub-born black cattle.
In the cool, dim dining-room we were served a meal that made us wonder. It was served by a neat and comely maiden. "I have a whole family of Italians," explained Mr. Leslie; "they take beautiful care of me." As we ate we talked, over the coffee and between courses. "This is a good country for cattle and for sheep, if one takes jolly good care of one's sheep. I find the Shropshires do best; they are hardier than the Merinos and less subject to disease. Angus cattle? Father is a. breeder of them at home, in Aberdeenshire, so I thought to have them here. They thrive jolly well. I have had a lot of trouble getting bulls out from home; they are so apt to die of tick fever, what you call Texas fever, but I am getting a start at last. I think the best plan is to send the cows south to be bred, bringing them back to calve. Yes, I can show you 1,500 good Angus cattle. I breed Romney sheep too, and they thrive. You must be watchful in this country ; when it rains too much is the danger time ; the sheep may go wrong in the feet or get lombriz (worms) ;but you shall see. It is a jolly lively life, for I am my own superintendent and all. We have 7,500 acres, 2,000 cattle, 6,600 sheep and 200 horses. I' breed race and coach horses."
Then we sallied out, first to see the Angus bulls, fat and saucy, and then out into the park (I can hardly call it else) that made his range. The little trees stood just nicely spaced over the green sward so that they looked as though they had been placed there intentionally. They had been trimmed also. On these trees grew curious striped pods like our string beans in the North ; the animals eat the pods. We were in the dogcart when we met about 500 Angus cattle coming. We had seen dying cattle all over the parts where we had been, and in Uruguay I had been told of a man who was losing 100 a day, so naturally I had inwardly smiled when told that I should see fat cattle. There they came, fat, round and sleek, fit for a show, many of them, and testifying splendidly to three things : the ability of Mr. Leslie to breed them well, the goodness of his range and the suitability of the cattle to it. Assuredly I had never before seen so many good Angus cattle together. Asked if they bred well, he replied that they did, only that now and then some heifers would get too fat to breed.
What a picture the shining, round, black cattle made in the park of miniature but ancient and honorable trees. To myself I said, "His cattle are all right, but I know what the sheep will look like; this is no place for Shropshire sheep." We drove on and presently met the Shropshires coming, some brown-skinned men bringing them slowly up to us. Then did I receive a shock from which I may never recover. Many of us in North America can muster twenty or possibly fifty, or very remotely possible 200 sheep of which we are proud; here came a great army of many hundreds of splendid Shropshires, well bred, very fit, fat, heads up and eyes bright. The grass was as green as our grass in spring, and pink with little wild flowers, and under the charming little green trees the fleeces were white as snow, for the hard rain had washed them. There was not a sign of disease or scab.
In South America many estancieros, even those of English origin, admit that their flocks have scab, even much scab, but contend that it is inevitable. But this Scot had not a trace of it, and yet he dips four times a year, for he fears his neighbors' flocks may be affected.
We saw Mr. Leslie's great round water tank, sixty feet across, walled with galvanized iron and filled by an American windmill. We watched the men ride two bronchos; I should think them as good riders as ours, and that is high praise. Then we secured data on the cost of operating the place. Wages were less than with us. He had sold his wool for 21½ cents a pound, but the clip was lighter than it would have been in a cool climate. He was making some money, it was evident, but land was advancing in value. There was $132,000 invested in the land. "Come to see my alfalfa," said he, with just pride. Eagerly I went. There were about four acres of it. At present he cultivates no more land. It is good, and the will sow more alfalfa, and also Johnson grass. Locusts, Mr. Leslie thinks, make general agriculture impossible.