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The Bootheel

New Mexico
ranchers Bill and
Cordy Cowan are
quietly conserving
land and legacy.

Story by Judy Keeler.
Photo by J. Zane Walley

It didn’t take Bill Cowan long to convince wife Cordy to be a full-time cowboy, but, Cordy says, “It took 35 years to make Bill a New Mexican.”

The Douglas Dispatch proclaimed the marriage of William R. Cowan to Cordelia C. Robertson on December 14, 1943 as “the unification of two states,” bringing together two longtime Arizona and New Mexico ranching families.

Others perceived it differently. Cordy’s family sat on one side of the church, Bill’s was on the other, Cordy says, “bawling their eyes out because Bill was marrying a sheep herder’s daughter. We had run sheep and goats during a drought, but cattle were our mainstay.” It didn’t take Bill long to convince Cordy to be a full-time cowboy, although Cordy teases that it took “35 years to make Bill Cowan a New Mexican.”

Bill’s family moved to Arizona from Canada in the late 1800s. Pressed for more details, Bill admits, “I’ve never been much on genealogy.” Cordy is quick to add “unless it’s horses or cattle you’re talking about.” His father, Ralph Cowan, served 17 years in the Arizona legislature while Bill handled the responsibilities of the family’s ranch.

Ben Robertson showed up in the New Mexico Territory sometime between 1896 and 1898, driving a herd of horses from Texas. Finding the Bootheel pleasant, Ben chose to stay, got a job as cowboy for the Diamond A’s Gray Ranch, and established a homestead in Cloverdale.

He became foreman of the Gray, a position he held into the early ’30s. “I can still remember my dad mounting his horse in late evening to meet one of the other Gray cowboys,” Cordy recalls.

It was Arizona the young couple first called home and where they sought to build a future for their family. It wasn’t until the 1970s they finally made the move to Cloverdale, N.M.

Situated in the Bootheel of New Mexico, the Cloverdale Ranch had been managed by Cordy’s family since the early 1900s. In 1958, following the death of her husband, Cordy’s mother, Marguerite, split the family ranch among her three surviving children. The next 40 years found Cordy and Bill hauling horses, cattle and equipment between two states.

In the Bootheel of New Mexico where the gently rolling grasslands skirt forested mountains peppered with junipers and oaks, Cloverdale still looks as it must have to the optimistic frontier settlers arriving around the turn of the century.

Forty-two miles south of Animas, the Cloverdale Ranch borders Mexico to the south, the Gray Ranch to the east and lies within a half mile of the Arizona border to the west. Buying groceries in Douglas, Ariz. requires a tortuous round trip of 250 miles.

Since the Cowans are known for their hospitality, agency employees frequently find themselves staying for “a bite of lunch.” One border patrol agent addresses Cordy as “Gammy” when he sees her in one of her frequent trips to Lordsburg, N.M. It’s obvious he’s shared a meal or two at her home. Cordy smiles at his endearing reference, obviously pleased. One of their neighbors jokingly refers to her friend’s hospitality as Cordy’s Cafe. “They even have take-out food,” she adds as a brown bag is pressed into her hands. “No charge!”

There’s never a shortage of guests at the Cowan home, even in such a remote area. “My grandmother’s door was always open,” Cordy says. “I’ve heard tell there was always some dust leaving as some was coming. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”

As high-spirited hummingbirds flit around several feeders strategically placed in windows so spectators can watch, Cordy identifies the many varieties. She admits her expertise came from a university professor who dropped by requesting to study the small bird’s summer terrain. Never known to turn away a stranger, the Cowans agreed.

Hummingbirds are not the only species of wildlife that receive special attention. During droughts, and in winter, it’s not uncommon to find 200 head of deer eating alongside the carefully tended herd of Brahman and F1 cattle. When supplemental feed and hay is put out for the livestock, it’s a given that wildlife will also partake.

A doe, affectionately called “Grandma,” is a standard part of the ranch tour. Cordy always enjoys demonstrating the proper way to feed her, and newcomers are encouraged to give it a try. Many a photo has been snapped as someone places an apple in his mouth, bends over and stretches forth, as Grandma accepts the small mouth to mouth offering.

Their ranch is a reflection of the Cowans’ foresight and progressive techniques. The livestock are well cared for, wildlife abounds in every crook and cranny, and it’s obvious to visitors and neighbors alike the Cloverdale is well-managed. The Cowans’ whole life has been dedicated to breeding the best horses and cattle, designing the best set of corrals and finding the best ways to improve their ranches. A neighbor once complimented Bill by saying “even his fences are a work of art.” Bill’s peers describe him as “a real cowman’s cowman. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk.”

Their three daughters were active in horse and cattle shows, as well as rodeo sports during their teen years. While Cordy bred mares, fed dogied calves, helped deliver puppies, kittens and calves, bandaged scrapes and bruises and edited Bill’s speeches, she somehow found time to haul the girls to their many activities.

The Cowans are always quick to point out their children’s many accomplishments. The oldest, Ruth Evelyn, an international flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, partially purchased and manages the family ranches in Arizona. Recognized as a conservationist in her own right, and following a family tradition, she was recently awarded the 1999 Whitewater Draw Conservation District’s award for Cooperator of the Year.

The middle daughter, Marguerite, lives in Animas where she serves as her dad and mom’s “right hand,” and helps with many of the daily chores. Marguerite gained invaluable knowledge while working on ranches in Brazil and Venezuela. Back surgery has slowed her down just a little, but she still delivers mail to Animas Valley residents, and assists her many elderly friends in Douglas, Ariz.

Daughter Flossie, a former state police officer, made a career change a few years back, and is now an accomplished chef at the Prairie Star in Albuquerque, N.M. She also operates a catering service.

Modest to extremes, neither Bill nor Cordy likes to brag about past accomplishments. Although their many trophies are exhibited in a case, they are discretely kept in a hall where casual company seldom visits. Bowls, buckles and trophies represent such outstanding achievements as Arizona’s American Quarter Horse Association’s Champion Mare–Miss Taffy Kid; American Brahman Breeders Association’s award for Outstanding Breeders and Promoters for the Western United States; Houston Livestock Show’s award for both International Grand Champion Brahman Heifer and Cow–CRC Cloverdale ’86; and the Grand Champion Appaloosa Stud award for a horse named Little Pilot. The movie industry fancied Little Pilot so much they mounted John Wayne on him for the movie “El Dorado.”

Two awards signify recent achievements. One was presented by a local group, the Hidalgo County Soil and Water Conservation District, for Outstanding Conservationist of the Year, 1999. The other comes from the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts for being Region III’s Conservation Rancher of the Year.

The Cowans have always kept their eyes focused on the future. Knowing water is the lifeblood for both cattle and wildlife that inhabit the fragile deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, Bill set out to improve his permanent waterings and preserve his rangeland long before they became publicly declared conservation practices. Today, the ranch has 20 miles of pipeline and many troughs that benefit a variety of life, both domestic and wild. The rangeland also preserves a diversity of plants and grasses. Nothing can make Bill Cowan “fluff up” more than the mention of “welfare ranchers.” He doesn’t understand how any educated person could coin such a term, and succeed in getting it to stick.

Not only have the Cowans been involved in activities that promote their business, both have helped their communities and states. Bill served on the Border Commission under two governors, and was instrumental in starting the Border Fence Project. For 30 years, three as president, Cordy served on the Cochise County Foundation Board. When time came to retire from the board, it took her two years to convince them to accept her resignation.

Although many opportunities have come knocking on Bill’s door throughout his 75 years, his love for the land, his animals and the desire to ranch for a living have always taken first place. It’s obvious he’s put in many hard days and long nights realizing his dreams.

Acknowledging that some call her the “dragon lady,” Cordy takes no guff from the visitor who neglects to ask permission before looking around the spread, or surreptitious hunters seeking to kill a deer on the sly.

But to those who knock on their door, seek their company, and ask permission, the Cowans are just going about their business, as many unassuming ranchers do, making their living, helping their neighbors, leaving a lasting legacy and quietly conserving nature. No charge!

Judy Keeler and her family ranch in the Bootheel of New Mexico, close to the Cowans.


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last page update: 04.03.05