Subscriptions click here for 20% off! E-Mail:

Git Home!


The powerful fist
of Myrtle Cox

A tiny, 85-year-old New Mexico rancher gets locked in the hoosegow but still comes out swinging. By Tim Findley
America needs places like Catron County, New Mexico, where people still insist on thinking for themselves and regarding federal authority as something useful only for rounding up renegades. And, God knows, America can always use people like 85-year-old Myrtle Cox who can still sling a bale of hay or, if necessary, a sharp right cross to the mouth with the best of them.

It might be just one of those cosmic mistakes that Catron County and Myrtle Cox find themselves today in the same place at the same time. This, America, gets complicated.

To be sure, Myrtle was here first. Her father, Ira Sweazea, homesteaded outside Quemado in 1918, when what little was yet known about this part of west-central New Mexico was still a part of Socorro County. The Catrons and their sometimes notorious style for establishing land baron authority wouldn’t make it a county of their own until 1927. Myrtle likes to keep that point firmly in mind as she does battle with county authorities these days over a road that cuts right across her property, within sight of the still-standing adobe house Ira put up as part of his claim.

Ira was not really a cattle or sheepman. He was, for his day, what might be considered an entrepreneur, ready to deal in mercantile and services that were sorely needed on the opening frontier. Nevertheless, he had a keen eye for land, and that part he claimed for his own was chosen carefully beneath the Mangas Mountains and alongside what became Highway 60. Unless you know the land the way Ira did, today you might not even be able to catch on to his cleverness. From the highway, and even from the much disputed road, his land–now Myrtle’s land–looks about as ordinary as the rest of this part of New Mexico, with long sloping foothills dropping into coulees and disappearing before climbing out again and rolling on south in a plain of sage and piñon.

Myrtle Cox keeps all of her gates locked. All of them. Getting a look at her property beyond the gates means either a risky trespass or hiring an airplane. No other way are you likely to see the treasure Myrtle holds.

There was a Mr. Cox, but he hasn’t been seen around these parts since Myrtle caught him in the back seat of their car with one of her best friends back in the 1950s. Neither has the former best friend. Myrtle has two kids, a son and a daughter both in their 50s, but they have moved on to their own lives elsewhere, leaving Myrtle and the hired help she manages to run her 20,000-acre ranch.

Like her father, Myrtle was more merchant than rancher for most of her life. She owned and operated the trading post in Quemado for more than 20 years before finally selling it in the mid-1970s. It was in part during that time when teetotaling Myrtle established her tough reputation from behind the trading post’s bar or back of its business counter. She wasn’t there to win a popularity contest, and, by her own account, slept on the floor of the bar more than one night rather than take the risk of leaving after hours. Not that Myrtle doesn’t have friends. She has plenty of them, and plenty of respect even among others who might not count themselves exactly as pals.

The mistake made by some newcomers especially is in thinking that because of her advanced age, one can easily befriend Myrtle with a few kind and condescending words that will help her understand the new way things are done.

That’s the way Molly Thomas tried it, leaning over to the driver’s window of Myrtle’s pickup and trying to “explain” to the elderly lady why she was wrong. Myrtle answered with a fist in Molly’s mouth that sent her sprawling on the ground.

“Well, she was a gal who moved here from California and thought she was going to teach everybody out here ’cause we’re so stupid, I guess,” recalled Myrtle. “She was holding my window down so she could tell me what was wrong with me, but I didn’t want to listen.”

Twenty-five of Myrtle’s friends went with her to court before the assault charges were dismissed.

Molly Thomas and another active woman Myrtle refers to as “Tokyo Rose” represent the kind of changes coming to Catron County as much as to almost anywhere in the West. New “ranchette-sized” developments have sprung up in the mountain regions north of what Myrtle’s father used to call Swaezeaville. Expensive new homes with colorful subdivision names like “Golden Horseshoe” and “Indian Springs,” where people with money from somewhere else suddenly appear and start demanding that it all look more like home, with cable TV, phones, lights, and, most important, roads.

Authorities in Catron County, in truth, aren’t much happier with that situation than is Myrtle. “But it’s what happens after federal authorities keep forcing ranchers out of business,” said County Manager Adam Polley.

It was the road out from such a subdivision that cut across Myrtle’s property that first began the battle in the 1980s. They already had at least two other roads, but the one that cut directly down to U.S. 60 over an old wagon trail was the most convenient, and according to a state judge who finally ruled on it, Myrtle Cox “owed” them that one.

Not by your longest shot, as far as Myrtle was concerned. The road edged in from a little patch of ground her family had sold, but then took off on an old trail across 14 miles to the next highway, half of that over land Myrtle Cox had no intention at all of “owing” to the county. The new fence she put up on an open range side of the road narrowed it down to a near hazard that infuriated the subdivision residents. As the battle raged over 10 years and more, the sides grew ever more rigid, until finally Myrtle, at the age of 84, was put in jail by the judge for contempt. “She had the key herself,” said Polley. “All she had to do was remove her fence.” An old lady locked up in the hoosegow over a road dispute was an outrage even in Catron County. She was out the next day, but the fence was gone as well.

“It’s gotten complicated,” bemoaned Polley, who would probably prefer not to have to take sides. “I just wish we could all get along on this.” With the offending fence gone, the new subdivision folks came racing down the dirt and newly graveled road so fast that a lease holder on that side of Cox’s property didn’t dare allow his cattle to graze on open range.

All that, however, is on the more or less east side of Myrtle Cox’s property. On the other side of that road, a courteous 30 feet from its center, Myrtle’s firm fence still stands. Locked. There aren’t a handful of people who get beyond those gates these days, because that’s where the treasure really is.

“They think I’m rich,” she said, a wry smile on her thin face. “I am rich, but not the way they think.” Not trusting anybody else with the duty, she firmly snapped the padlock back in place before heading out on the two-track cutting west across her property. It rolled ahead over the long slope and seemed to disappear into the canyons of coulees.

There before and below us on the bluff where Myrtle brought her pickup to a perilous stop was what Ira Swaezea knew made his claim most valuable in whatever they called the county–a long, deep blue lake stretching gently into meadows where deer and antelope seemed as comfortable as the sleek cattle.

“That’s what they really want,” Myrtle said. “And they’ll never get it.”

“Oh, no,” groaned Polley, defensively pleading his own case for understanding. “We don’t want the water. It is a beautiful lake and she has taken magnificent care of it, but we’re not after it in any way. That’s not in anybody’s plans.”

So says the county. But Myrtle Cox looks the subdividers in the eye and figures she knows what they’re thinking. They’ve learned not to stand too close to Myrtle, but the distance is likely to be closed by yet another lawsuit before the battle of the road is over.

“If they know anything at all about me,” she said, “it better be this: I do my homework, and I don’t give up.”

America needs a place like Catron County, no doubt about it. At the same time, these days it seems that there are just too few Myrtle Coxes to keep it all in perspective.

Tim Findley lives in Fallon, Nev. He broke his truck trying to follow Myrtle at a flying rate across her New Mexican dirt roads.

Table of Contents | Git Home!

To Subscribe: Please click here or call 1-800-RANGE-4-U for a special web price

Copyright © 1998-2005 RANGE magazine

For problems or questions regarding this site, please contact Dolphin Enterprises.

last page update: 04.03.05