We had a letter to Alberto C. Bracht of Estancia “La Peregrina.” We dropped off the train at Gualleguay and went tired to bed. It was April 19 when we awoke ; the air was crisp and cool. They do not turn on steam or order fire in hotels in Argentina ; guests dress in a hurry and get out and walk in the sun. Some of us did not get up be-fore midday, when it was warmer. As for me, I made haste to get out to walk in the streets of quaint Gualleguay while the doctor was dressing. Orange trees and palms stood up above the garden walls, and roses bloomedgreat sumptuous roses such as we grow only in California. I wore my fur overcoat, but children went bare-legged. I am no longer a child, so I kept on the sunny side of the streets. An Argentine town is not at all like a town in North America. There are few lawns or outdoor gardens, in the North American sense. Here and there great eucalyptus trees grew behind walls. We saw large pear or fig trees ; oleanders bloomed sparingly; grapes made shady arbors in patios.
There was promise in the air, for was it not mid-April, and had not the long delayed rains come at last?
I was especially pleased this morning because I had a conversation or two with men in the streets, and they understood several words of my lame Spanish, and I understood enough of what they told me to follow their directions to the central market, where I bought apples and oranges from an honest man who refused to be overpaid or to let me take suspicious oranges. Then in high spirits I hastened back to the hotel. An Argentine morning meal followed; it consisted of two small rolls, butter, a pot of tea for the doctor and of hot water for me. I began by eating several rolls for break-fast and wishing for more, for the bread of Argentina is the best that I have seen. Within two months, I was eating only part of one roll and was satisfied. The Argentines eat but twice a dayreally, once, and that at midday. I think there are no dyspeptics and assuredly the people are well nourished.
Having drunk our tea we sallied out and acquired some rather disturbing information. La Peregrina was twelve leagues distant. It was not certain that Señor Bracht was at home; assuredly he would soon leave for Buenos Aires. Our landlord found us a carriage owner who would drive us over, but he asked us $40 for the trip. It would take eight horses and alfalfa was worth $12 per ton. The telephone was out of order and we could not learn whether Senor Bracht was certainly at home or not. There was but one way to learn, go and see. We ordered breakfast as soon as we could have it; while we were eating, our coach came clattering to the door. We drove four wiry horses abreast, as is the local custom. Four others for a relay had been already despatched ahead to a halfway point.
ON THE ROAD IN ENTRE RIOS
That wide road from Gualleguay to San Julian was a wonder. The road between fences nearly or quite 100 yards wide, unmade, seldom having been touched by the hand of man, was good for the most part, and we made fair speed, the driver urging the horses continually. At first we went through a region of small farms, with trees about the houses, barns of plastered brick, whitewashed, and white walls about the home places. Little fields of alfalfa were delightfully green, for it was April, and rains had recently come. We passed a great cabana, too, or place where pure-bred sheep are bred, with its splendid buildings of brick, gleaming white, its paddocks, its rows of towering eucalypts and its avenues’ of paraiso or China ‘treesthe trees that we use so much in our southern states.
The lay of the land was not flat ; it rolled in gentle sweeps up to the horizon on either side, long slopes of miles, yet never so steep as to suggest hills and every inch of it black as a prairie in Illinois; in fact in texture and color it resembled the best soils of Illinois and perhaps surpassed Illinois in fertility. Nowhere else have I seen land that suggested so graphically the plow, exuberant fertility and rich harvests. And do they come? We shall see. As we drove along I would perforce spring out of the carriage now and again to gather delightful little spring flowers that pushed up through the dark earth. There would be whole fields of bright yellow blooms, lying close to the earth. The fields on either hand were soon as wide as the eye could reach, untilled for the most part, and over them roamed cattle and sheep.
What an abundance’ of animal life this rich black earth feeds. There were enormous holes in the ground where dwelt the vizcacha, a beastie, suggesting a cross between a woodchuck and a Tamworth pig. Its industry is prodigious; the animal must have palaces under the earth with very spacious dancing halls, judging from the amount of earth it brings forth. It is hard to kill, as it comes forth usually at night and yet sometimes persists in dwelling in the very center of the highway. Occasionally we saw tame ostriches in paddocks. I think the wild ones are nearly exterminated. The number of birds was extraordinary. Most common was the teruteru, something like a curlew; it walks proudly about over the prairie as though it owned it and often flies toward, instead of away from one, as though inquisitive. Then there were the owls, dozens and hundreds of them, not in flocks but in pairs, as are our North American prairie owls. They look cheerful and seem to believe that they own the earth which they inhabit, They have the same wise look as our owls, but I am informed that they are often otherwise. We amused ourselves by shooting (harmlessly) at these birds with a revolver as we passed them, just to show our good-will. Then there are great beautiful birds like long legged eagles that stalk proudly over the prairie. There also are partridges and doves in flocks. The doves look much like our turtle doves. Also there were white birds with cardinal heads and in trees I saw flocks of green parrots. Some of them could speak two languages, I was told.
Once we passed a line of paraiso trees, six miles long, beside a field, and once we saw the work of a steam plow that had just begun to turn furrows in a field at least three miles long. Once we met an American gasoline tractor that came rumbling by, going on an errand of mercy to weak horses, to do a job of plowing. Often, too sadly often, in the fields or in the road, we saw dead cattle, sheep or horses, and the survivors’ gaunt skeletons wandering about eagerly licking up the green grass as fast as it grew, for it was the close of a great drouth that had endured for thirteen weary months, the worst since forty years ago.
The grass springing up through the rich black earth was fine, short and sweet, like our bluegrass, though I have an idea that it is annual grass and not a perennial, except where the camps have not been plowed; there one sees tall, coarse grass in tufts a foot or two high in April. It is not liked much by animals. It is the “strong” grass that once covered all the land and that has been subdued by plowing. At half-way we overtook our spare horses, change was made and we hurried on. It was near sunset when we turned into the gates and wide pastures of La Peregrina. Ahead stood splendid eucalypts; they had been in sight for the last hour, sheltering the estancia buildings. And, new to me, to our left was a monte or park-like expanse of trees, set wide apart. They were spreading trees like large and untrimmed apple trees. Between the trees was in one place a wide expanse of yellow wheat stubble, a lovely combination of green and gold.
Splendid Short-horn cows we passed; they were thin, and ahead were the great brick, white-walled barns where were the pure-bred bulls, and a little beyond we saw the beautiful gates of the park of La Peregrina. A group of noble pines, without foliage, stood near the park gates; within were many trees, from, palms and eucalypts to fruit trees, and a large and fine house.
Señor Bracht came forth to give us a hearty South American welcome, our weary horses were sent to the stables and we were taken inside. The first room was like a deep American porch, the length nearly of the house, and sixteen feet wide. It may have been left open at one time, but now was enclosed, mostly with glass. Here was the office of Señor Bracht ; here also were fine pictures, with more books about country life than one often sees on a farm, and English, French, Spanish and American agricultural periodicals. There was too an American heating stove, with plenty of fuel. How I surrounded that stove, and how Señor Bracht, seeing my appreciation, filled it with wood to the very top of it. The next room had a cheery open fire. Besides us there was a guest from Belgium, a young man who spoke English, and the manager, who spoke French and Spanish best. At the table that night the conversation was in English, French, Spanish, German and United States. We ought in the states to be ashamed of our poverty of speech. Why, we seldom can as much as speak English.
What happy dreams we had that night. Señor Bracht was glad to have us with him and so courteous and willing to give us the information that we needed. The mere fact that we had found him a cattle rancher and not a sheepman seemed a trifling thing, but then he had in any event 5,000 sheep, just for his own and his laborers’ tables, and 10,000 cattle. Early in the morning we were afield with Señor Bracht driving a pair of Hackneys that tore over the prairie or dragged us flying across the hollows. They were splendid horses of wonderful mettle. “What do you feed these horses?” “Alfalfa, and alfalfa alone, no grain,” was the reply. We drove league after league, seeing the gaunt cattle, the rich earth through which the soft green grass peered and the alfalfa fields on which the cattle eagerly grazed. The alfalfa could not get a start, since it held too many hungry beasts. If only the meadows had a month’s rest all might be saved, but how? In all the land not a haystack could be bought; remember, there was no rain for 13 months, and there was an awful plague of locusts too.
“These cattle are strong; they will come through all right; it is already nearly May,” I remarked, encouragingly. “Yes, but you forget where you are; it is winter that is coming, not spring. May is often a very cold month; we can hope for very little growth after this time; frosty nights will soon begin to come. I expect to lose half or more of my cattle.” I shuddered at the thought. “Is there nothing to be done?” I asked. “Nothing. Two years of drouth, and locusts worse than ever before; there is no help for us but to let them die. Next year will probably see a splendid harvest and fine pastures with fat cattle. Many estancieros I predict will lose three-fourths of their animals. This is the worst that has happened in forty years.”
The estancia contains in all about like 30,000 acres and is divided into pastures of from 1,000 to 3,000 acres each. Then there are thirteen alfalfa fields each with 300 or more acres. Each alfalfa field opens into a pasture of grass. The plan is to open one field at a time to the cattle, giving them also access to the grass pastures. Thus treated the cattle do not suffer bloat.
“Señor, it seems to me all you need is. more alfalfa to solve your ranching problems.”
“True, but consider my difficulties. Two years of drouth and then the locustsI cannot establish alfalfa under such conditions. Then all horses in the land are weak; I cannot buy feed for them; I cannot plow. I have bought a new American plowing engine and will set it at work as soon as possible; we will try to secure in the future reserve alfalfa in stacks so that if another drouth comes in my time it will not find us so unprepared.”
What tales of the locusts they told me. They come in swarms that darken the sky, coming from no one knows where. They devour every green thing except the paraiso trees. They devour the very palm leaves. They do not come every year of course. They had stripped the bark, but as they were gone the trees put out leaves again, though it was April, which is their October. The land has a winter like Los Angeles, Calif., and a summer like Illinois, only with some cool spells and some cool nights and some dry years. There are years with forty inches of rain; then one can hardly find the sheep for the grass, and everything in nature is fat and happy. The growth of vegetation is then riotous.
We talked of the colonists from Italy, Russia and Austria. They rent land, paying usually 25 to 35 per cent of their crops in rental. They grow maize, wheat, flax and alfalfa. Often they make money, then go elsewhere and buy land of their own. They plow, harrow, drill in maize and usually never touch it again with cultivator or hoe. It yields from nothing to eighty bushels to the acre, according to rainfall. Senor Bracht told me that where manure was put on the land it spoiled it for agriculture, making it too rich.
This land was perhaps as fertile as any that I have ever seen. Alfalfa is sown with wheat in the fall, April or May, March or Juneit matters little when, if rain comes. They have a bitter maize that locusts will not touch, and yet it is said that it has as good grain as any. Cattle eat the stalks and blades after they are dried, when the cattle are hungry. It seems to me the people have much to learn. They have Kafir corn, Egyptian corn and Milo maize to test. They can grow Johnson grass splendidly. They need thousands and thousands of people to till this land, each settler with large flocks of fowls; then the locusts might disappear. They do not now trouble Kansas (but they do Colorado). Nature has assuredly given a wonderful land in this of Argentina, and the land of Entre Rios seemed to me the most charming. Barring locusts one there can have apples, pears, peaches, pomegranates, palms, roses, oranges, wheat, corn, alfalfa, flax, oats, barley, horses, cattle and sheep. It is a land of plenty, when these pests are absent.
It was at La Peregrina that I received my first astonished realization of what sheep mean to the Argentine. “You must understand, Mr. Wing, that I do not have sheep for profit at all; we keep them merely for consumption on the place,” remarked Señor Bracht. “But you have 5,000,” I said. “True, but even with that number the increase is all eaten, and we may buy some; there usually are no fat sheep sold.” Then it was that I learned that it is the custom to allow to each peon (laborer) one sheep per week for his use. I assume that Señor Bracht supplies the colonists also with mutton. He told me of the early days of this estancia, and how on its 31,250 acres it carried 90,000 sheep. These nearly ruined the grass by eating it too close. It now carries 10,000 cattle and but 5,000 sheep. Normally the grass would improve under such moderate stocking. There are 850 horses on the place; they are of excellent breeding. Mr. Bracht had sold his wool on the estancia for 18 cents per pound. He was using Romney rams on Rambouillet ewes, and the result was very good. His wethers, had he sold them, would have been worth $1.60 each. He found that it would not do to allow the sheep to graze in the alfalfa meadows, as their close biting killed the crowns. He paid shearers 2 1/2 cents per head and the flock clipped about 6 pounds of wool per head. The wools of Entre Rios are not at all greasy, so they are light; but our buyers prefer them for that reason.
I left La Peregrina and its charming host and hostess with real regret. I do not remember ever to have met a finer type of man than Señor Bracht, a man of the highest intelligence and education, practical, thorough and a devoted lover of country life and living. I learned later that the winter was so mild that his losses were less than he had expected.