Farming On The Rio Gallegos

Always a dreamer of dreams, I seemed to fore-see the day when the Gallegos would flow through great canals from the interior, bringing down the wool in barges—bringing its life-giving waters to wide stretches of alfalfa. The estancieros replied that the wind would blow away the soil, were it plowed, clear down to the rounded cobblestones of the subsoil. This would no doubt be true; only that irrigation could precede the plow. Wet soil does not drift, and once alfalfa was established the soil would blow no more. Dreams, these, but I am sure that the world-hunger for land to till will some day make them come true.

Speaking of dreams, how I longed to be appointed governor of the territory of Santa Cruz. Nowhere else in the world, I feel assured, is there so much to be done as here. With a government intelligent and constructive, a slight tax on the estancias would provide funds, so that water could be brought from Rio Gallegos, the town provided with streets from the millions of tons of fine gravel at hand, and a plaza, with grass, flowers and possibly trees would come. How the fine, intelligent estancieros about Gallegos and all over Santa Cruz would welcome such a change. Now when they wish to go to town, they go far to Punta Arenas, or to London.

I did not penetrate very far into the interior because there was not time; but I went far enough to see that the land consists of great plains, plateaus; or a series of mesas. Usually it is all smooth and grassy, as would be the plains of the more thinly grassed parts of eastern Colorado. Sometimes one would find small shrubs, among them the califate, a wild barberry with big, sweet, delicious berries. This fruit should be in cultivation in North America. I learned, with delight, that the Scotch broom has gone wild here; I wish the gorse might be introduced for its shelter and beauty, as well as its tender, nourishing twigs which sheep eat.


One night at the hotel Herbert Felton told me the story of his coming to Patagonia, and his settlement at Killik-aike. From the bleak, windswept, peaty pastures of the Falklands he came in 1887—up overland from Punta Arenas, spying out what was a virgin land. With good judgment he chose for his location the riverside, where he could load wool in his own sloop and take it to port. Two years later he brought sheep from the Falkland Is-lands. At first they were herded during the day by mounted shepherds and dogs and corralled at night. He had the usual difficulties of pioneers. He once caught a puma by its tail as. it was crawling in ‘between some rocks. He had no fear of the animal. Once a fire swept away his shearing sheds and his wool clip, just as he was ready to enjoy the fruits of his labors, but gradually he took firm anchor. Fences made herding easy, his sheep increased like the sands of the sea and new sheds replaced the ones burned. His sheep graze over 175 miles of territory, and his 30,000 sheep, wisely managed, enabled him and his wife to live where they would ; indeed they have made more than one trip to London during the season. But they loved Patagonia, loved their garden, which they achieved with such labor and care, were in perfect health and would not be long satisfied in any other spot.

One day we rode on native hard-gaited ponies to an estancia at the crossing of Rio Gallegos. A new iron bridge was being erected—a godsend to all the country to the north of the river, for swimming sheep and horses has been perilous work in the past. I quote from my diary :

“Mr. Carr’s estancia house is a low one-story iron affair, as are all the houses in this land of high winds. Within we found comfort, coziness, almost elegance. Various illustrated London papers were in the tiny drawing room; our hostess served us with a four-course dinner, a white-capped maid doing deft service. Coffee was served in the drawing-room. Mr. Carr told us of his experiences of early days in Tierra del Fuego, when the Indians were troublesome. He lived there then and knew all the terror of the Indian raid, the following of flocks driven off in the night, the sickening horror of finding the sheep dead in bogs or disemboweled by the wanton savages. It was necessary practically to exterminate the Tierra del Fuego Indians be-fore sheep could safely be grown there. In Patagonia the Indians were never numerous or trouble-some; they had melted away now, disappearing before the white man much as our own Indians have done in North America. Some had gone to work for the estancieros; others were near the Andes where grass was better and water more plentiful.

“Both Mr. Felton and Mr. Carr told of their trouble with guanacos. These singular beasts are of the camel tribe; they stand about six feet tall and have slender necks and small heads. They are yellowish in color. They once existed in countless numbers along the coasts. They broke the fences because they had not learned to jump over them. The beasts were of no value excepting that their. skins made good bed covers. After a time they be-came wary and difficult to shoot. However, their numbers were now much diminished. The ostrich also once existed here, but it was nearly extinct.”


Best of all my memories of Rio Gallegos is my visit to Estancia Chymen Aike. I made two starts for Chymen Aike; the first one was unsuccessful because my horse gave out and I had to make an in-glorious retreat to Gallegos to feed it and rest it—things that evidently its owner had neglected to do for some days. Next day the horse showed its gratitude and drew two of us, Dr. Richelet and myself, very well. That day the wind did not blow and the sun shone. The way lay over the pleasant, almost grassy plain, intersected by tracks that led hither and yon, and one needed a guide to give directions. We found the gates of Chymen Aike, however, and rejoiced. We first passed by a great shearing shed, its walls of concrete, glistening with whitewash, and its roof of galvanized iron. Next, in the sunny little valley through which trickled a stream, and where vega grass grew, we came to a large house built for the men. It also glistened with white-wash and was very comfortable. Corrals covered one slope and fences enclosed pastures of no more than a hundred acres. This seemed homelike, especially as pure-bred Romney rams fed within them. The atmosphere of the place was not like anything in North America, perhaps, yet if eastern Wyoming were so fenced and so stocked it would be strikingly similar.

Malcolm McLeod, the manager, was working at the corral, assorting the rams. They would be turned with the ewes in April or May. He had perhaps 750 rams in the corral and put them rather rapidly through the assorting chute, taking out those that he knew to be somewhat old, or that he disliked for one reason or another. Some of the rams showed perhaps a quarter of Merino blood; these he was discarding, although I could not refrain from remonstrating with him, for in North America we find that a certain percentage of Merino blood adds to the value of the fleece and the hardiness of the sheep as well.

Mr. McLeod is a most thorough man. He dips his sheep with such care that he keeps the estancia practically free from scab—that disease of the skin that is caused by an insect almost microscopically small and that if allowed to develop has a terrible effect on its unhappy host. He had just told me that for a year there had been no sign of the trouble, when his face grew stern and troubled. “Catch that sheep,” he called to his Scotch shepherds, and a ram was dragged out and examined. On its shoulder was a patch of wool licked until it was white. It was the first symptom of infection. The shepherds were new from Scotland. “I have never seen scab before,” one after the other confessed. “Well, now you know what to watch for. These rams ought to have been found and dipped before this.” They were put in a pen by themselves, the half-dozen that undeniably were scabby to be immediately dipped, although all the lot would go through the vat with-in a short time. In the dense mob of rams Mr. McLeod discovered a woebegone sheep that did not belong there. “Catch that scabby stray,” he said. It was a mass of scab in an advanced stage. “This is none of our sheep. I don’t know where it came from, how it got through our fences or who helped it over them, but that sheep is the source of our trouble. Take it down the hill and cut its throat.”

“Why, Mr. McLeod,” I cried, “can you not cure it,,,

“Yes, no doubt, but it is worth no more than eight shillings ; why would I run the risk of having such a sheep about for eight shillings? It is hard to cure them when they are so bad as this one ; it takes several dippings to do the work.”

The rams were fat and fine, by far the most active sheep that I had ever seen, barring the Black-face sheep in the Highlands of Scotland. The men work them always on horseback, with dogs, and gently as one might guess, being Scots, but they are too active to be worked on foot and the distances are too great.

Down in the boiler room of the dipping house, where the bath is heated, there was a sight that made me wonder : a great pile of fuel neatly corded up, ready to be used in heating the boiler. It was a pile of some tons of the feet and legs of sheep, cut off just above the knees. These had been gathered up all over the estancia, wherever a sheep had died, and accumulated as sheep were killed to be eaten. Truly an enormous flock could have walked off on those little black feet. It illustrated the old truth, once expressed by Virgil–“the sheep is ever an unhappy flock.” Even in favored Patagonia the sheep is not immortal. It must be remembered that in this cold, treeless country fuel is an important item; all coal is brought from England and quite generally dried sheep manure from the corrals is used as a substitute.

A little before lunch time we went to Mr. Mc-Leod’s house where a surprise awaited me. The house sits down in a little rounded, smooth hollow or valley, grassy on the sides and bottom, and quite hidden as one rides across the plain. It is a modest structure, though so ambitious as to have two stories, but it is surrounded with glass-covered porches, much like conservatories, and has a small yard en-closed by a tight board fence to break the wind. The door yard was a mass of bloom. Nowhere else in the world have I seen a gayer sight; nowhere else surely do flowers bloom so freely as here, al-though one must of course plant only very hardy things, as marigolds, pansies, daisies, broom and the like. Mrs. McLeod was a delight to meet. Keenly intelligent yet warm in her greetings, she made us feel as though we were in Scotland in the edge of the Highlands. She was from the islands of the west coast of Scotland and she found that seeds brought from there usually throve at Chymen Aike, if they had water and shelter from wind. Inside the glass-covered porches there was a riot of bloom –a hundred flowers and all blooming for dear life., The home was comfortable and filled with good books and English periodicals; in fact, once one was within the walls of Chymen Aike one was trans-ported thousands of miles from the bleakness of the Patagonian plains to modern, civilized land, with many of the finest cultural influences.

Chymen Aike is in many ways a model estancia. It is situated so that it suffers little from either drouth or excess of snow, and is well grassed and finely equipped. Best of all it is beautifully managed. I may here copy a part of an inventory lent me by Mr. McLeod :

“Sixteen leagues (about 100,000 acres) of land, all freehold; 135 miles of fence; the shearing shed; six houses; the manager’s house, wells and American windmills ; 29,000 sheep; 65 cattle ; 100 horses.”

The sheep were worth a little less than $2.00 a head. The year under review there was marketed 192,760 pounds of wool. The sheep sheared a little less than 7 pounds per head, which is fairly good, considering that many of them are ewes suckling lambs and that they are never fed. I quote again from my note book:

“This land cost originally about $70,000. It would now be worth much more than that. It is divided into pastures of from 175 to 12,000 acres each. In these pastures are cottages where live Scotch shepherds. The shepherds have horses and try to see all of the sheep under their charge each day. As a matter of fact, this rarely is possible, .but at least once in a few days the eye of the shepherd is on each sheep. A man may have 10,000 sheep under his care; oftener he has no more than 3,000 to 5,000 head. His duty is to see that the fences are intact; that no scab appears among his sheep; that pumas and wild dogs do not trouble. The wages of the shepherds vary; new men receive $25 per month, and old faithful men as much as $40. As a rule they provide their own food, sold to them from the estancia at very moderate prices. At Christmas time the faithful men receive gifts of $15 each. A few Argentines and Chilians are employed. Mr. McLeod had much to say to me about his help problem. He finds the Argentines good workers but they can not endure to stay long in Patagonia.

Old or decrepit sheep are not permitted to die on the pastures if it can be avoided; instead the shepherds kill them, take off their skins and send their bodies to the rendering plant where the tallow is extracted. Every sort of practical economy is found at Chymen Aike. The great shearing sheds and wool warehouse were as modern and good as could be made. Gasoline power turned the machinery. The wool was very carefully assorted and baled on the place, and then sent direct to London. The rams were nearly all of Romney blood, pure or in part, and the ewes showed one or two crosses of this blood. The wool was so carefully assorted and marked that the buyer in London knew exactly what he was getting. The bellies were taken off, and baled separately, and rams’ fleeces were by themselves. A bale of wool weighs from 500 to more than 700 pounds. I quote from. the invoice a description of a few bales :

`Mark 116, 2d cross ewes, weight 730. Mark 117, 1st cross ewes, weight 735 pounds. Mark 157, bellies, weight 656 pounds. Mark 72, 1st cross hogs (lambs), weight 705 pounds”—and so on for all the 410 bags described and consigned.

Estancia Chymen Aike sends to its owner in London a revenue of from $30,000 to $40,000 each year. It is, however, exceptionally well located and exceptionally well managed.

Malcolm McLeod showed us with some pride his vegetable garden, wherein grew well all manner of hardy things, with currants and gooseberries galore. He had also a little alfalfa, not irrigated, and so not very thrifty. It was probably the most southern alfalfa field in the world. At the time of my visit all. of the estancieros were apprehensive of what the winter might bring. A hard winter with deep snow coming with pastures nearly bare would mean-the loss of many sheep. “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb”—sometimes, and this was one of the times, for the winter proved astonishingly mild, indeed almost frostless, although on occasion the mercury has been known to drop 40 degrees below zero.