Plains Folk

Monkey Business


J. Evetts Haley was not a guy you wanted to cross, because he cherished his grudges.

Born in 1901, Haley grew up in a family that had a hardware store in Midland, Texas, and a ranch nearby. He grew up doing ranch work, riding in rodeos, and studying history. In fact, he completed an MA in History from the University of Texas in 1926. He then wrote a couple of books that established him as one of the great historians of Great Plains ranching—a history of the legendary XIT ranch, and a biography of the legendary rancher, Charles Goodnight.

Haley, the author, rather resembled Goodnight, his subject: crusty, not tolerant of fools.

With the onset of the Great Depression and of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Haley went to work for the government. He served as director of the Texas Historical Records Survey. He soon became disillusioned with the Roosevelt program, however, and became a vocal anti-New Deal Democrat. He got fired from his records job.

After that Haley managed several different West Texas ranches and remained prominent in public affairs. He ended up on the wrong side of history, running for governor in 1956 on a platform that favored racial segregation. But he sure was a heck of a historian.

And in 1934 he wrote an essay, published in the Saturday Evening Post, that has come to epitomize the rugged individualism of western ranchers. The title was, “Cow Business and Monkey Business.”

“We are in the cow business,” Haley writes. “We have preserved something of that independence and love of liberty that have characterized the cow country from its earliest days. In its practical application liberty, with us, seems to be the right to handle our business in our own way.

Haley complained that government programs raising the price of cottonseed and corn were running cattlemen out of the business. The government answer for the cattle business, then, was to go onto ranches, appraise and condemn drought-starved cattle, kill some of them for canners, and the rest, just shoot them and bury them.

On the Haley ranch, cattle were shot with a .30-.30 and left to rot, including valuable veal calves. Haley never got over his anger about this.

In my home state of Kansas, the federal government in late 1934 bought 10,000 cattle a day, more than a half-million total, coming from all counties.

In North Dakota county extension agents were involved in the cattle condemnations, and they didn’t like it. They did their duty, but they took grisly pictures of the cattle killings and pasted them into their annual reports. None of them outright opposed the program—that might have put them in the same place Haley ended up in Texas—but they let the photos, and grim captions, speak for them.

Evetts Haley maybe just lived too long. His values were those of the open range, values out of place in the middle of the twentieth century. But the thing that set him off—the killing and waste of animals for which ranchers, however hard-bitten, feel the responsibility of care—left an ugly scar on the prairie.


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