( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"May 10: Here we are in the desert. We got in last night in time for dinner, after dark, and found the landlord on the outlook for us. The kind Spanish gentleman who had given us a letter of introduction to the manager of his estancia had telegraphed ahead that we were coming. The hotel is kept by French folk; two pretty French girls came to our room, set our table for us and brought in our dinner. I ate with my fur coat on. We went early to bed, for it was not pleasant trying to read in the cold room. There is a teru-teru bird in the patio; it resembles a monstrous killdee. The sun streams in. We are waiting for a coach. Here they call the lightest, two-wheeled sulky a `coach.' Well, it is just as well; it costs no more. We drive, I think, twenty-seven miles; the roads are good. There are here the largest wagons that I have ever seen; the hind wheels are seven or eight feet high ; the front wheels turn under the body of the wagon. They hitch a drove of little horses or mules in front and load them with nearly a carload of alfalfa. There seems to be some agriculture along the river. We see the first sign of frost; in the patio the castor bean is killed; there had been no frost yet at Bahia Blanca.
"Early in the morning we were out to see what the land looked like. To one side stretched the desert, thinly covered with scrubby brush; to the other side a plain and on it alfalfa ricks. 'Good! We have reached the land of irrigation,' I cried. `How dreadfully alike are all the small villages of Argentina, save that in the north one sees tropical vegetation peeping over the walls that enclose the yards ; here there is nothing. There is the `almacen' that sells everything from macaroni to cheese and harness ; there is the `ferreteria,' where ironware is sold and maybe blacksmithing is done ; there is the `peluquria' where the barber is supposed to shave a man at his convenience; there are the `tienda and roperia;' where one buys cloth; and then there is a place where implements are sold, a large yard, usually, with sheds about it. Also there are 'fondas,' or places for workingmen to eat' and drink, and hotels for the upper classes.
"In Choele-Choele the traffic seemed to be in alfalfa hay. From the fields came a wagon such as none ever saw outside of Argentina. It will carry seven tons of grain or as much baled alfalfa as could be piled onto it. There is a real advantage in this great wagon in a land where as yet never shovel has stirred either to make or to mend roads; the giant wheels will go over brush or gullies with unconcern, and the wagon once possessed is, I should fancy, the owner's forever, as no one could either break it or steal it. It is a good wagon moreover where one must send his wagoners many leagues with freight, or after it, as the most stupid or careless of drivers could hardly break anything about it. I imagine the employment of such men as one ordinarily sees driving horses in this land must be a sore trial to men reared in lands where horses are loved, understood and cared for. The whip is too often cheaper than oats.
"Our man left nothing to be desired when he brought our two horses, each drawing a two-wheeled cart with top. He led the way, driving one cart; in the other Dr. Garrahan, my guide, and I followed. Rain had fallen and the roads were heavy. Out-side municipalities in Argentina I have yet to pass over one mile of road that had been made by the thought or care of man. There seems here a lack of road laws. Bridges are built sometimes, but there are no roads; what they term roads are places between fences where the traveler picks his way as best he may.
ALONG THE RIO NEGRO
"Across the muddy plain we went toward the Rio Negro. The sun shone warm, though there was haze in the air. Our good, fat and gentle horse, full of alfalfa, jogged along, following its mate. We forded an arm of the river and entered a region with belts of timber, the beautiful native Patagonian willow, with also the giant bunch grass that we call pampas grass. The trees were in their autumn tints of gold. It was a sight that I had not expected to see in Argentina, being just as one might see in many a northern state in late October; here it is their November, and the leaves are not merely yellow, but they are falling as well.
"We crossed a great stream on a ferry boat and were on the Isla of Choele-Choele. The island is twenty miles or more in length and several miles wide. It has a rich sandy soil, with some spots of hard clay. It is being put under irrigation ; we saw the beginnings of farms. Unfortunately the units here are 250 acres, and the men are poor; thus their land comes slowly under cultivation. In Argentina they have come to invest and own homes. It is a cosmopolitan lot—Italians mostly, I should say—and then Spanish and native Argentines, Basques and Russians.
"We stopped for breakfast at noon, at a store of galvanized iron set down where there is to be, some day, a village. Around us were the newly-plowed fields and the small adobe houses of the new colonists. It would be a dreary prospect to one who had not seen what irrigation will do and who had not faith. At the store a peone set a table under a great shed, and presently we were filled with boiled beef, mutton, potatoes, squash and, to finish off with, soup. The scheme is to eat the meats first, then to finish boiling the pot a little while, when, presto, your soup is ready—a scheme that I commend to burdened housewives.
A CRUDE FERRY
`We harnessed again and set out .on our way. Some miles of journeying up the island we reached a ferry. The ferryman was away; the boat was small indeed. The señora, a vigorous Italian woman, flew about getting ready, sending a lad for a peone who was somewhere in the fields. She made the boat ready; then she dashed madly up the hill to see that the bread that she was baking in a great mud oven out doors did not burn. A large brood of ruddy children watched her and us. While the peone was coming I went to see her home; it was a very small picturesque mud hut under a tree; there were grape vines of European sorts in the dooryard, the big oven, a pile of squashes half as big as the house, some very good maize, and the señora. One must never forget her. How I admired her, in her flexible-soled cloth-topped shoes, unfettered with two much clothes, walking with the strong, calm, free stride of the athlete, her face smiling, especially when she drew from the oven a loaf of really delicious bread, and giving us a taste divided the rest among her expectant children. Great are these Italian colonists. From their strong loins will come the new Argentina. The present lords of the soil, who so often toil not, neither spin, little realize that some day Argentina will be for the sons and daughters of women like this señora. It is the law of the universe that to those who labor, and bear children, the things of the earth will finally belong.
"We crossed the river after four efforts, and were on a lovely bank with willows great and small, set as though in a park, and tufts of the giant grass eight feet high. A short distance away was the margin of the desert, through which we were soon to pass. It was almost identical with the desert that I had seen in Chubut, some hundred miles south, and between here and Chubut lay not one settlement excepting along the coast. It is an unbroken expanse of plain, covered thinly with desert shrubs, under which is some short sweet grass. Along the river the land is all owned in great tracts of from 12,000 to 100,000 acres. Back a little way it is fiscal, unpeopled and unstocked, except for a few wandering shepherds and flocks."
A DESERT ESTANCIA
The desert was wet. Little birds flitted through the shrubs; three zorros or little foxes quarreled impudently near us for the possession of a bit of carrion. We noted that where the sheep had destroyed the brush the wind had swept away the soil, carrying it to drift about the fences or corrals. Presently a windmill from North America hove in sight and then the galvanized roofs of some small houses; it was the sheep station of Señor Antonio Balma.
What is a station like in the Argentine bush? This one was especially favored, for it lay against the rich valley lands of the Rio Negro, and so had its alfalfa field and its outlook toward trees. Apart from this, it was like many another station. It consisted of a galpon or shearing shed of galvanized iron, corrals and a dipping vat near by. The corral fences were made with thick-woven willow branches to stop the drifting sand, which nevertheless buried them in places and half filled the corrals. Beside the windmill, stood a round tank of great size, made of galvanized iron. It was used for irrigating a garden as well as for watering the stock. There were three small houses of mud, whitewashed and thatched with pampas grass and covered then with galvanized iron. Some huts, windowless and with earthen floors, completed the inventory. The senor was, I take it, a Basque; he resembled a prosperous working farmer of Nebraska. His señora was a plain but comely woman, moving about silently on errands of kindness, her feet shod in the cloth shoes of the country.
Dinner followed, with meats in various courses and home-made bread. I should say that the food of the camp man in Argentina was fully three-quarters meat, and if he desires a change, he cooks the meat in a different manner. We had delicious broiled mutton ribs and later saw the fire over which they were broiled, for the house possessed no stove and no fireplace. Instead, it had a mere plat-form on which the fire was built, and over it, high up, a wooden hood leading to a small opening in the roof, inviting the smoke upward. I sat in the room for some time the next morning and enjoyed the fire while maté and coffee were being prepared, but I could not see that any of the smoke went out of the hole in the roof. Perhaps it would have done so had we closed the outside door, but none of us thought of that.
I enjoyed thoroughly the six or eight children of the household; they were fine, sturdy little ones, well behaved and helpful to one another. The house possessed no chairs, but it had enough stools, home-made, and benches, and by the fireside sat a row of children, baby and all, enjoying the warmth while their mothers gravely boiled the coffee and made the water hot for the maté (Paraguayan tea). That was at breakfast time; like true Argentines, we ate nothing, but drank much at this meal.
Afterward, with many adios and saluagos and hand shakings, we bade goodbye to the honest folk who had given us their beds, while I fear they had slept on the floor, and went on our way to visit an-other and greater estancia. The day was overcast; rain fell gently. Down the river we rode, mostly through the high camp and brush. We followed a great new irrigating canal for some miles and passed a camp where government engineers were living and surveying a greater canal that may carry much water from the river south to the desert. At last we came in sight of fine green fields of alfalfa and great ricks of alfalfa hay, Lombardy poplars, a white and really handsome house, with an avenue leading to it from the desert, between fields of alfalfa. We were at the estancia of Dr. Victor M. Molina. The estancia contains about 70,000 acres of land, mostly desert of course, but all good sheep land, so there is not much danger of overstocking.
The estancia carried only 8,000 sheep. The back country awaits the windmill, the fence, stocking and, maybe, higher prices for wool and mutton. The sheep are dipped and shorn ; the ewes are Rambouillets and the rams Lincolns. The location is about as near the equator as Dayton, O.
Let us imagine ourselves in a great, rambling, white-walled estancia house, enclosing two sides of a court. A high, white wall encloses the other sides. Within the court are grape vines with trunks as thick as stove pipes, figs in bearing, eucalypts, peaches and a fine apple tree. In the lot there are all sorts of American plows, mowers and harrows, a road-making machine and a gasoline traction engine. Toward the river we see an orchard of peaches and grapes; near the water on the bank there is a lovely flower garden with many chrysanthemums in bloom and some rare trees, among them a deodar. Through the native willows, avenues and walks have been cut by some one who loved trees; below flows the noble Rio Negro. I marvel at all this adornment and imagine it to be in part, at least, the work of the ferryman. As I wandered there, I gathered twigs of the Patagonian willow to bring to plant in my own land.
While we had breakfast, the mayodomo told of his having been up nearly all the night trying to find two would-be murderers who had assaulted one of the engineers ; so the scene was not so peaceful as it appeared, although I had stood within six feet of a little bird that swelled out its soft brown breast and sang to me, much as the mocking bird sings, only with less power. Then in the rain, which poured by now, we started off again, and the ferry-man said with astonishment that the river had risen two feet since he had crossed last and it was still rising.