LastFrontier889—Lea Image

Jim Harris

            Lea’s Image Isn’t Everything, but …

            Back in the early 1990s, the Cannon camera company was running television ads with tennis star Andre Agassi hitting balls and saying, “Image is everything.”

            It’s one of those annoying advertisements that just won’t leave the memory, no matter how hard you try to just forget it, although one of the reasons it stays with me is that about the same time the ads were running, wife Mary and I walked out of an elevator in the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas and bumped into the high-profile athlete.

            Of course, Agassi was not the only person of note to be connected to the sentence.  Writers have written dozens of quotable lines that say something similar, especially at the end of the last century when most countries were gearing up for the coming digital universe.

            Since I moved to Hobbs in 1974, I’ve been conscious of the image of Southeast New Mexico and Lea County, as seen in other parts of New Mexico and the Southwest, partly because that image seemed in contrast to the image of the state, as touted by chambers of commerce.

            After all, I had moved to the “Land of Enchantment.” 

            Nationally, this corner of New Mexico doesn’t really have an image, other than being the general territory where Billy the Kid roamed during his murderous and psychotic rampages just before he was killed by Sheriff Pat Garret.                   

In some literary and pop culture circles, Southeast New Mexico may be thought of as by the Pecos River valley where Oliver Loving roamed too far from  his herd of Texas cattle and got himself ambushed by Indians just after the Civil War, injuries that led in a few weeks to his death.

            Both of those western narratives took place around 150 years ago.

            Although we won’t know for some decades, there is a possibility that Lea County is currently developing a newer version of another oil-boom image, that is for being part of the productive Permian Basin.

            However, as a cover photo and article in an August, 1985 New Mexico Magazine makes clear, Lea County had for several decades the reputation of being a “cowboy capital” since it produced quite a few rodeo champions.

            The cover photo showed Lea County rancher Fern Sawyer dressed in skin-tight cowgirl gear, including a white cowboy hat, and sitting on her white horse Sloan.

The caption for the cover reads, “Meet Fern Sawyer and Her Horse Sloan From Lea County, The Champion Cowboy Capital of the World.”

            The long story inside the magazine contains three images.  They are another photo of Fern, along with one each of rodeo cowboys Tuffy Cooper and Troy Fort.

            All three of individuals have by now gone on to that great roundup in the sky, and in many ways the image they projected for Lea has passed on too.

            This is not to say that the county does not have some great rodeo cowboys.  As seen each year in the Lea County Fair and Rodeo, there are still a good number of them are successful nationally.  And you can see many of them roping in local arenas just about every weekend.

            Here are a few passages from the 34 year old magazine article: 

            “The people of Lea County, for instance—down in the southeastern part o the state, where Indians are few and the natural beauties normally associated with New Mexico are almost nonexistent—aren’t going to let you forget abou their cowboys.

            “Lea County is more likely to be labeled oil country than cattle country, because it seems to a traveler driving through at seesawing oil pumps far outnumber the stock.  But while Lea County cowboys will admit that oil pays a lot of the county’s bills, they still maintain that this is prime cowboy country.  And that’s no idle boast.  They measure and back it up by the number of cowboys who have been bred here on the high plains beyond the caprick and then gone on to be world champion rodeo performers.”

            The author of the Lea County story goes on to visit and quote Fern, Tuffy, and Troy about their lives in Lea.  In addition, he took fine separate photos of the three of them.

            Then here is the last paragraph of the story with the author sitting in the stands of the Lea County rodeo arena as the show was going on despite days of heavy rain:

            “Looking down on what bore a closer resemblance to a front pond than a rodeo arena, I thought that there probably would be some grass on the high plains next year.  And that maybe the cowboy had been right about the tought gittin’ goin’ when the goin’ gits tough—at least it seemed to be true down here in Lea County, the Champion Cowboy Capitol of the World.” 

            Part of our attraction to the cowboy image of Lea stems from the western pioneer narratives that developed when this corner of the state emerged from being one of New Mexico’s last frontiers.  It was at the beginning of the 20thcentury that the first permanent settlers began to create the dozens of small towns which were forming where there had only been ranches.  The ranches, of course, were the economic institutions that ended the occupation of the region by nomadic Native Americans who had passed by here for centuries, ending their forays only following the end of the Civil War and in the last years of the 19thcentury.

            Thinking of the short history of Lea makes me curious about what sort of image Lea land had for the pre-digital Apache, Comanche, and other tribal peoples of what would become Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

And, of course, I am curious about the image of Lea in the future.