Pete and Minnie Lewis – Dell City School alums – are Grand Marshals of the 2019 County Fair
Grand marshals of the county fair are the best of our community, and there's no doubt that's true of this year's grand marshals. Pete and Minnie Lewis have been a part of the Dell City community since its beginnings, and their lives are a story of love for this place, its people and its ranching way of life. The couple has lived for more than half a century on the family ranch in Otero County, New Mexico, just north of Dell City.
The Lewis name is inseparable from ranching here. In the late 19thand early 20thcenturies, members of the Lewis family moved west from Bandera, in Central Texas, to homestead and cowboy here, on ranches from the Sacramento Mountains to the Sierra Diablo. Pete's grandfather, Martin, was among them. He drilled a well near Pete and Minnie's current home in 1911.
Pete's father, Howell, was working in El Paso when Pete was born. But before his first birthday, Pete's family was back in Crow Flat, ranching. It was a community of people who “lived and breathed cowboying,” Pete said, and he never had any doubt that he wanted to be part of it.
“Hell, I wanted to be a bronc rider when I was growing up, and a horseman,” Pete said. “Me and my brother had more stick horses than most people had cows. They were made out of sotol stalks, and we had 'em all named. We rode them so much it drug the tails off 'em.”
Pete's grandfather, Martin, was an early and powerful influence.
“I can't remember him when he had hair any other color but white,” Pete said. “He and I were pretty big buddies – I really thought he was the grandest thing.”
The family had milk cows – and Pete and his brothers used the calves to learn their way around livestock. When Pete was 8, his father built him a wagon, and Pete trained a milk steer to pull it.
“I had a couple runaways,” Pete said. “But I kept working with him, and that steer got pretty good. I drove him around, and rode that wagon.”
Farming began in Dell Valley in 1948, when Pete was headed into the fourth grade, and Dell City had its first school session that spring – with 18 children, and a single teacher, in a trailer house.
“It was probably 115 degrees in there on hot days,” Pete said, “and probably 30 below when it was cold.”
But the family had moved that year to Alamogordo, where Pete's father had leased grazing land. With his parents, brothers and other kin, Pete rode on the 13-day cattle drive from Crow Flat to Alamogordo. The crew set out in late August, and it was a hot, dry journey. Pete's uncle built a chuck box for the family's pickup, and Pete's mother, Evelyn, piloted the pickup, and cooked meals in a Dutch oven.
“She was something else behind the wheel of a vehicle, but she was a good cook,” Pete said of his mother. “We didn't get started to school in Alamogordo till we got there with those cows, because my father needed us – he needed all the cowboys he could get.”
Pete was back on Crow Flat the next year, and started school in Dell City in 1949, in fifth grade.
Minnie Jonas would become a schoolmate the following year.
Minnie was born in Arizona, and lived on ranches there. But Minnie's father had a connection with the Gentry family, pioneering farmers in Dell Valley. As farming took off here, Minnie's father saw an opportunity. He was a heavy-equipment operator, and the Gentrys, and other Dell City farmers, needed work done.
“Clearing land, building tanks and dams – whatever you do with heavy equipment, he could do it,” Minnie said. He was known to everyone as Boots Jonas, and, Minnie said, “if you called him by his real name, he'd say, 'I don't believe I ever knew anyone by that name.'”
Minnie, her siblings and her mother joined Boots in Dell City in 1950. At first, the family lived together in a tent. Later, Minnie, her parents and her five brothers and sisters lived in a one-room house.
“Any time anybody first moved there, there wasn't any place unless you built something,” Minnie said. “So they would start off a lot of times in a tent, and they'd build something and move into it, and that's what we did.”
Minnie didn't immediately take to life in Dell City. But at school, she soon made a friendship that enlivened her new home, and that would be the closest of her life. Minnie is a model of dignity, kindness and courtesy. Bonnie Prather Larreau, who operated Dell City's Sheepherder Bar for 30 years, and passed away in 2017, was blunt, unafraid to offend. But the two connected immediately.
“There was just something there – opposites attract, maybe,” Minnie said. “We just got to know each other, and that was it – end of story. It was the same from that time on.”
Soon, Minnie had formed another important relationship – with Pete. The two became a couple in school.
Pete was a standout high-school athlete – he competed in the state track tournament, in the 100- and 220-yard dashes, and he was a star halfback on the Cougars' six-man football team. His coach took him to Albuquerque, to meet football coaches at the University of New Mexico. Pete said UNM was “just too big a place” for him, but he was awarded and accepted a football scholarship at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.
Minnie joined Pete when he made the move, and the two started their family while Pete was in college. Their first two children – Bill and Brenda – were born in Alpine. Both Pete and Minnie loved living in Alpine. Pete played on the Sul Ross football team until an injury after his sophomore season, and he competed on the school's rodeo team for four years.
After Sul Ross, the couple returned to the ranch where they still live today. Their daughter Deborah was born in 1963, and their son Kenneth in 1967.
For several years, the young family lived under one roof with Pete's parents, as Pete ran the ranch with his father. They later built another home, just next door.
Minnie said the first years on the Howell Lewis Ranch were a learning experience.
“I'd lived on ranches, but so far as the running of one, I didn't know anything,” she said. “But you don't have a choice if you're going to live out here – you're going to figure out how everything works.”
Minnie said that her children were the great joy and work of her life – though she said their childhoods “went too fast.” She was deeply involved during their school years in Dell City, serving as class sponsor for her children when they were in high school.
Both Minnie and Pete said it was a pleasure to raise their children next door to their grandparents. Pete's father especially “loved having the kids around,” Minnie said.
“He told me one day, 'I wish you'd had four more,'” Minnie said. “I told him I would have been dead.”
All four of the children became talented cow hands. And they learned cowboying the way Pete himself had.
“My dad, all my uncles – they were all cowboys,” Pete said. “You learn it from the elders. It's just something you pass down. There's no way you can teach somebody to cowboy out of a book, or just tell 'em, you've got to show 'em – that's how you learn to cowboy.”
“As soon as they could ride any at all, they were going to wherever the crew was going to brand,” she said, “and they got to learning the country, so that they could be sent off by themselves to look for cows. They learned how to bring them in. But they learned all of that because of the older folks.”
Along with cowboying, the Lewis family brought another tradition with them when they came west from Bandera – music. Lewis fiddle traditions are revered among devotees of old-time styles, and Pete is a great heir to that tradition. On ranches like his family's – where electricity didn't arrive until 1958 – handmade music was the entertainment. Pete's fiddle playing has been a highlight of countless Dell City gatherings over the years.
Living for decades in a remote place, accessible only by dirt roads, may be inconceivable to many contemporary Americans, but Minnie said the isolation “is the beauty of it.”
“Living out is probably not for everybody,” she said. “There's people that have come out to see us over the years, and say, 'How do you stand it? What do you do?' Well, anything we want to.”
Pete said he likes “pretty much everything” about the life that he and Minnie have lived.
“I like cattle and horses,” he said, “and I like the people that do it. And I like what I got last Sunday – a hell of a good rain – as good anything.”
Thank you, Pete and Minnie, for everything you've contributed to our community, and we look forward to seeing you at the head of the parade!