Editor’s note: The following is a reprint of an article by Gabriel Weinstein in the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle’s Spring 2014 Land & Home magazine.
The late Gretchen Sammis’ favorite classroom was the Chase Ranch near Cimarron.
The ranch was a living classroom for Sammis, who had full ownership of the property for nearly 50 years before her death in August 2012. The antiques she kept throughout the main house served as historical reminders of the early days of ranching and farming in the Cimarron region. The hours her students from Cimarron Municipal Schools spent fixing fences and helping with cattle doubled as lectures on independence and pragmatism, values that propelled Sammis to success in ranching and education and helped her students thrive once they left her traditional and outdoor classrooms. Sammis viewed the brandings, roundups and other chores on the ranch as preserving a way of life, and more importantly, her family’s heritage.
The Chase Ranch was established in 1867 by her great-grandparents Manly and Theresa Chase on the banks of the Ponil Creek four miles northeast of Cimarron. A Wisconsin native, Manly Chase first ventured west to Colorado before settling in New Mexico. He became a prominent rancher and businessman in Colfax County and the New Mexico Territory.
Sammis was born Oct. 12, 1925 on the Chase Ranch to Fred Sammis and Margaret Chase Rupert. She was primarily raised by her grandparents on the ranch. Her grandfather Stan Chase was Manly Chase’s son. It was during her childhood that Chase developed her love of the Cimarron region and ranching. She took over ranch operations in 1954 after her grandfather’s death and eventually bought out her other relatives’ interests in the ranch.
During her youth, Sammis dedicated herself to her education. She studied at the Colorado Women’s College and later earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico and a master’s degree from the University of Colorado.
After briefly teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Sammis returned to Cimarron to be closer to the ranch and became a teacher at Cimarron High School. She taught chemistry, world history and physical education, and she coached basketball. Sammis approached solving chemical equations and analyzing historical events with the same tenacity and dedication she used to lead a cattle drive. She expected excellence from her students and had no tolerance for mediocrity.
“She had high expectations, no nonsense. She expected your best and accepted absolutely no less. She encouraged you to do your best. She believed in kids; she liked kids,” said Thelma Coker, one of Sammis’ former students and a director of the Chase Ranch Foundation. “It was not just an academic education. It was an education in character. … Kids by and large wanted to meet her expectations. You hated to disappoint Ms. Sammis.”
Students knew Sammis owned and loved the Chase Ranch. Students would go there to pick apples in the ranch’s orchard and a few worked at the ranch after school and during the summers. They respected Sammis even more after baling hay and fixing fences alongside her.
“We all knew how hard she worked at Chase. We knew she loved Chase and went home to running a ranch. And kids who worked for her in summers always said she worked harder than any of them did,” Coker said.
After 26 years in the classroom, Sammis took early retirement in 1973 and devoted herself to running the ranch full-time. During her educational career, the ranch hummed along under the care of its longtime foreman Ruby Gobble. Gobble came to the ranch in 1963 after working in Raton at a tack store.
“Ruby was the doer of the two. If something needed to happen she could make it happen. She could run a bulldozer. She picked up the slack of anything that didn’t happen and did it herself,” said John Clark, general manager of Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron.
Like Sammis, Gobble had deep Western roots. She was born and raised on a ranch outside Wickenburg, Ariz. She started training trick horses when she was 12 and performed with trick horses throughout Arizona during her teenage years. A talented roper, she won the World Champion Team Roper title each year from 1951 to 1953, world champion Ribbon Roper title in 1953, and runner-up World Champion Calf Roper title in 1953 and 1954.
Gobble and Sammis took ranching seriously. It was a part of their family histories that they celebrated, but also a business in which they were determined to thrive. Out in the field, Sammis was a demanding boss with high expectations. Both were known to occasionally lose their tempers.
“The hard worker that (Sammis) was, she tried to entice that out of you,” said Robert Esparza, who did landscaping work for the ranch and whose father Roberto was a worker on the ranch for more than 15 years. “There were no shortcuts.”
Sammis used her master pedagogical skills to teach her workers about cattle, ranching and farming. She walked them through each step of repairing fences, birthing calves and fixing irrigation ditches.
Neither the elder Esparza nor Bill Doerr, a ranch hand from 1977 to 1987, had ever worked on a ranch before their time at the Chase Ranch. Doerr used the training and skills he received at the Chase Ranch to work at other large ranches including the nearby CS Ranch.
“They were patient. They would show you one, two times and a third time,” Doerr said.
Those who worked for Gobble and Sammis say the women were the hardest workers they had ever seen. Fiercely independent, the pair personally did many of the ranch chores. Gobble was widely respected as a master welder, mechanic and heavy equipment operator.
Their workers, just like Sammis’ students, had the utmost respect for them.
“Sometimes I’m afraid of Gretchen and Ruby. They worked as hard, probably harder than a male,” Doerr said.
Part of their intensity stemmed from their love of animals.
“They had a name for every cow. They were more like pets,” said Rev. Ellen Swain, a longtime neighbor and friend.
Outside of the ranch, Gobble and Sammis were both active in Cimarron and the national ranching community. Sammis was a longtime member of the Cimarron Municipal Schools Board of Education, a member of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers, chairman of the Colfax Soil and Water Conservation District Board, and an active member of several other local and national organizations. Sammis was New Mexico Cattleman of the year in 2007. Both are members of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.
Before her death, Sammis decided she wanted the ranch to be preserved as a working cattle operation and the main house as a museum after she and Gobble died. In her will Sammis tapped a local organization she knew well and loved, Philmont Scout Ranch, to lead the ranch in its next phase. Philmont and the Chase Ranch Foundation announced a 50-year operating lease agreement in October 2013.
“All of the things that Gretchen wanted done, Philmont was already doing. And they were doing them very well,” said Ed Pease, president of the Chase Ranch Foundation. “What she saw there was the opportunity to put all those resources to use making sure that the Chase Ranch, with its own special and unique history, was being managed by people who knew, appreciated and shared her vision.”
Sammis’ relationship with Philmont dates back to the 1960s. She was a member of Philmont’s Ranching and Conservation Committee and was adored by the Boy Scouts she lectured over the years. Clark said the Boy Scouts found her enthusiasm for ranching and the region unmatched.
Clark said Philmont expects to have the main house open for tours by June 2014 and will lead backpacking trips on parts of the property throughout that summer. The organization has been running the Chase Ranch’s cattle operations since November 2013.
Philmont is “tickled to death,” as Clark put it, to help transform the Chase Ranch into a living classroom once again.
“The goal that we all had is to make Gretchen’s dream come true … which was her ranch would continue to be a living, working ranch — and educate young people, boys and girls about ranching and conservation,” Clark said.
Though Sammis and Gobble are gone, their influences on the Chase Ranch remain strong. The last ranch hand who worked for them is still at work on the property as a Philmont employee. Dozens of people in Cimarron still rely on their lessons every day.
The Chase Ranch continues to be one of Northeastern New Mexico’s favorite classrooms. But Colfax County may never have a pair of master teachers like Gobble and Sammis again.