ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was a pioneer in a male-dominated culture; a fiercely independent female rancher who ran and preserved her family’s historic ranch in northern New Mexico.
Gretchen Sammis died Aug. 14 in the same bed she was born in at Chase Ranch, a few miles northwest of Cimarron. She was 86.
The 12,000-acre ranch, along the banks of Ponil Creek and about 40 miles southwest of Raton, has been in Sammis’ family for four generations. She and her ranch foreman and longtime companion, Ruby Gobble, did all the cattle-driving, branding, hay bale-bucking, fence-building and horse-breaking for many years.
“You weren’t going to dynamite Gretchen off the ranch,” said Sally Schwartz, who started working on the ranch at age 14. “That was what she loved.”
Sammis’ great-grandparents came to New Mexico and bought a 1,000-acre parcel of land in 1867 from land baron Lucien Maxwell in exchange for wild horses they had captured. Early visitors included Kit Carson, who had a cabin nearby, and territorial Gov. Lew Wallace.
Sammis was born on Oct. 12, 1925, the daughter of Fred Sammis and Margaret Chase Rupert. Her parents divorced when she was 3 and she was raised by her grandparents on the family ranch.
She attended school at Colorado Women’s College and graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1952. She got a master’s of science and physical education at University of Colorado, then taught in the Cimarron Public Schools for 26 years.
She began operating the ranch after the death of her grandfather in 1954.
In 1963, she was working as a teacher in Cimarron and looking for some hired help. That’s when she met Gobble, who became her steady companion for 49 years. Gobble, an experienced horsewoman who spent her early years on the rodeo circuit, was running a tack shop at the race track in Raton.
“Yeah, Ruby’s my ‘hired man,’ ” Sammis said jokingly in a 1981 Journal feature story about the Chase Ranch.
Sammis was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1986. Her selection was due in part to her civic and conservation work. She served on numerous local and national boards.
She was voted “New Mexico Cattleman” in 2007, an honor given by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and earned by a lifetime of service in the cattle industry.
Sammis and Gobble were self-sufficient and “never believed in hiring anything done,” Schwartz said. “You just figured out how to do it yourself: build fence, build corrals, put up hay, fix any equipment that broke down, build roads and dams, and of course all the cattle work.”
Barbara Van Cleve, who met Sammis and Gobble while working on her book: “Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women,” recalled taking photos of Sammis in her 60s bucking 75- to 95-pound square hay bales in the winter.
“Gretchen was tall,” she said. “She really stood up ramrod straight. She was pretty imposing.”
Despite her stature, friends said she was very compassionate and would open her home every Thanksgiving and Christmas to anyone who needed a place to go.
Sammis and Gobble maintained the adobe house much like it was in the 19th century, including a Home Comfort wood- and coal-burning stove in the kitchen. The bedroom suite where she was born and died in was brought by Manly Chase, her great-grandfather, by oxcart over the Santa Fe Trail.
“She was so proud of it in her kind of off-hand way,” Van Cleve said.
A trust will transfer Sammis’ home and land to a foundation on Jan. 1, 2013, which will run the home and its antique furniture as a museum and operate the ranch as a model historic ranch. Gobble will continue to live there.
Sammis never thought of retirement or selling the ranch, she said in a 1986 Journal article about her induction into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
“It will always be here,” she said.
— This article appeared on page C3 of the Albuquerque Journal