Roundup of the CenturyRanching is big in Arizona. Or at least it was. For many reasons, running cattle is a vanishing way of life. The Herefords, the horses, the ranchers themselves ... they're slowly disappearing. That's why Scott Baxter set out to preserve their collective history, one photograph at a time. He's calling his collection "100 Years, 100 Ranchers." It's a marathon photo shoot that will document the lives of men and women whose families have been working Arizona's open range for at least a century or more.
By Kelly Kramer/ Photographs by Scott Baxter
There are places, still, where cattle graze at the edges of dirt roads — open-range places, where sun and dust and grass mix with sweat and leather and long days. They’re Arizona’s ranch lands, Arizona primeval.
Tradition lingers there, mixing with the wide-eyed wonder of children in Western shirts and cowboy hats, watching as their fathers and grandfathers and uncles round up and rope. Scott Baxter has found them, and thanks to his cameras, his truck and a little bit of true grit, he’s preserving their collective history, one photograph at a time.
It’s all part of Baxter’s “100 Years, 100 Ranchers” project, a marathon photo shoot that will document the lives of ranchers — men and women whose families have been working land, cattle and sheep in Arizona for 100 years or more. The project’s completion is scheduled to coincide with the Arizona Centennial in February, and the photographs will appear in galleries around the state.
For Baxter, though, the project isn’t about the exhibitions or his name in lights. It’s about maintaining a piece of Arizona history.
Consider this from his published artist’s statement: “My goal is to recognize these families who have struggled to survive and persevere in these difficult times. As ranches are lost to developers and poor economic conditions, I hope to be able to preserve photographically an integral part of the Arizona tradition.”
And consider this from the artist himself: “People say, ‘The project should be here, and it should be in a museum, and it should be a book.’ For me, my obligation is to just finish shooting. That’s what I want to do. It’s not about me. It’s about all these people I’ve met. When someone sticks out their hand and looks you in the eye and they shake your hand — that’s my impetus for finishing. It just needs to get done.”
It hasn’t been easy.
A history buff — he completed a master’s degree with a thesis on the annexation of Texas — and a fly-fisherman, Baxter stumbled upon the idea for “100 Years, 100 Ranchers” serendipitously.
In 1999, one of Baxter’s friends recommended that he fish at a ranch down the road from a piece of state land they often visited near Springerville. The ranch turned out to be the X-Diamond, and that’s where Baxter met Wink Crigler, the granddaughter of legendary Arizona pioneer Mollie Butler.
“Wink has a sister named Sug Peters,” Baxter says. “When Sug was born, her parents didn’t name her, and the doctors called her ‘Sugar,’ so she’s been called Sug ever since. I was just kind of taken by them.”
“I met Sam at his ranch,” Baxter says. “He was shoeing horses at the time, and he stopped for about five minutes. I try not to overplan what I’m doing — maybe sometimes you allow the photograph to come to you. If I push too hard or try too hard, stuff gets messed up. Lots of times, I just watch and take what’s given to me. I shot that photograph, then I spent more and more time talking to these [ranchers], and I started to realize how vital their heritage is to Arizona and the fact that they’re going away.”
It was a prescient step, especially considering that at the turn of the 20th century there were approximately 1.5 million head of cattle in the state. Thanks to the overgrazing of cattle in places like Texas during the Civil War, many ranchers headed west. Still more Arizona ranches were remnants of Spanish land grants, some of which dated to the late 17th century.
“The ACGA is dedicated to the ranching families of the state of Arizona,” reads background information on the association’s website. “Our purpose is to strive for a quality of life for those families without harming the land which we all depend on. As time goes on and knowledge, opportunities and alternate ways an individual has to feed, clothe and shelter themselves increases, the general population gets further from the agrarian roots which our forefathers understood.”
Recent reports indicate that the state’s cattle population has shrunk to between 700,000 and 800,000 head, but the ACGA still boasts around 900 members. It’s an alliance of ranchers who’ll go so far as to adjudicate the state’s water rights laws, litigate against federal and state agencies that attempt to seize control over sections of ranch land, and educate the public about where their meat comes from — a pasture-to-plate education.
For Baxter, the ACGA is a place to meet people, to learn more about the lifestyle he finds so often in front of his lens.
“I’m not a rancher,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to speak for them, but I think there are all kinds of issues when it comes to the decline of ranch life in Arizona.”
He cites drought and economics, of course, but he also emphasizes the importance of family in keeping a ranch alive. If a ranch patriarch or matriarch dies, and no family member steps forward to take over, that’s when a ranch is sold or parceled out, he says. But there’s hope in youth.
“Sure, I’ve photographed people who are 86 or 91 years old,” he says, “but there are also people in their teens and 20s. Those are the ones who carry on the legacies.”
He and the ACGA also hope to address a common misconception about ranchers: that they work to the detriment of the environment.
“There’s a huge misconception among the public that these people are messing up our public lands,” Baxter says. “ ‘Oh, they’re just running cattle all over the place,’ people say. I’ve done riparian studies with them. I’ve ridden out with them. I’ve seen how they take care of wildlife.” He points to groups like Southeastern Arizona’s Malpai Borderlands Group and the Flagstaff area’s Diablo Canyon Trust as Exhibits A and B of responsible ranching. He also talks about grass-banking, the process by which overgrazed land is allowed to regenerate.
“Certain ranchers let other ranchers put cattle on their land, or they rotate cattle,” he says. “That way, land in other areas can come back. It helps ranchers who are having a hard time. It helps them so they don’t have to sell.”
It helps them so that one more ranch — one more piece of Arizona history — can live on.
The photograph of Sam Udall now hangs in “100 Years, 100 Ranchers” headquarters, a charming 1920s adobe home at the base of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix that was donated to Baxter’s project by John LaPrade, who lives in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana.
The shot — of Udall riding through snow on the Slade Ranch near Sunrise Ski Resort — is a testament to both the project’s humble beginnings and just how far it’s come.
Although Baxter’s initial idea for the project dates back more than 10 years, he didn’t approach the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission to designate “100 Years, 100 Ranchers” an official Centennial Legacy Project until 2008. Since then, fundraising has been — at times — slow going, and Baxter has more than six figures’ worth of his own hard-earned commercial photographer’s income tied up in the venture.
“Someone once said, ‘You can’t do anything. You’re running out of money.’ I said, ‘If I wait for the money, I’m not going to get anything done,’ ” Baxter remembers. “So I started calling people. The best thing to do is just find a way to do it. That means going without an assistant, and that’s what I do. That means sleeping in the back of the truck, and that’s what I do. That means making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and throwing them in a cooler, and that’s what I do. It’s not a great, big, luxurious photo shoot.”
That’s not to say that Baxter hasn’t been disheartened or that he hasn’t been tempted to throw in the towel. After all, it’s no small task to travel across the state — oftentimes on rugged, rustic dirt roads far from cell phone towers and other modern conveniences — to photograph 100 different ranches and generations of ranch families.
Along the way, Baxter went through a divorce, sent his son off to college at Tufts and watched as his daughter started high school and became a serious lacrosse player. He moved his Alzheimer’s-stricken father to the Valley. He didn’t know if he’d ever finish the Centennial project. That’s when Mike Campbell, his friend, designer and project supporter, ticked him off.
“Mike said, ‘Why don’t you sell it? Just sell the project,’ ” Baxter remembers. “So I went home and pulled together an estimate, and I got mad.”
That’s exactly what Campbell wanted. He didn’t really want Baxter to sell the project, he just wanted him to finish making the photographs.
Baxter, who could easily play the part of cowboy — he’s tall and lean and boasts a sometimes-stubbled beard and a pair of well-worn boots — has since launched a Facebook campaign and redesigned the project’s website. He obtained nonprofit status and works with a professional fundraiser. He attends a lot of cattle-growers meetings and networks at every opportunity. Like so many of the plans he makes with ranchers, a lot gets accomplished through a handshake and a smile.
“If I can, I just like to spend time with them,” Baxter says of the photo shoots. “Then I do a combination of shots — some are action shots, some are portraits. Actually, they’re all portraits. It doesn’t matter if the subject is really small, or if they’re looking at the camera or doing something else, they’re all portraits.”
He chose large-format, black-and-white film because it requires a slower, more personal process. It allowed him, he says, to study the spirit of the ranchers, whom he calls a “unique group of Arizonans.”
Looking ahead to when the project is finally finished and the exhibitions have officially closed, Baxter might finally take a breather. He might. And if he does, he’ll likely stay close to those open-range places where earth and sky meet in one big, brilliant embrace.
“It’s an amazing experience to sit on top of a bluff with ranchers and ask them, ‘Where do you go on vacation?’ ’’ Baxter says. “Most of them say, ‘Why would I want to go anywhere but here?’ ”
To make a donation or to learn more about “100 Years, 100 Ranchers,” visit www.100years100ranchers.com.
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