The first settlers who came to New Plymouth saw much of what is visible in this photo – excepting there were no fences yet. Many remarked that they knew the ground was fertile because the sagebrush was tall and thick – much like the right side of this photo taken along Big Willow Creek. But, notice the gully to the left, and looking out over the sage you can see additional gullies. All the land on the Plymouth Bench was covered with sagebrush. It not only showed the amount of normal rain, but the general “swales,” hogbacks, ridges, stream beds, and other features of a pristine “rough” desert landscape. Not only would they have to bring irrigation water to this part of the desert, but would have to grub out the sagebrush, and level the land somewhat in order to get water to flow over it in some managed way. This is not difficult today. But in late 1800s and early 1900s it had to be done by men and horses. And, it was very hard work. Getting the land into farm-able condition would be a work in progress for a century. At that time, it simply could not be done all at once.
Over my lifetime in New Plymouth 1933-1951 farmers would tackle parts of getting their farms improved as they could economically afford, and as the equipment to do so became available. However, in the meantime, you used the land as you could. Ditches would follow ridges and hogbacks in order to use gravity to flow over the fields. Drain ditches would follow the gullies and low spots. Some lands would simply be fenced off for the future. A lot of the land was simply fenced off, irrigated as possible, hit or miss, and stock turned into it. It was very common to see some cut off portion of farms–perhaps cut off by a drain ditch– with its original sage cover. The stock would keep down the brush and get some food from the areas that could receive water. Fields were nearly always irregular shapes, which were very inefficient and wasteful of resources and land. Just “working” the land would make it some better, having a leveling effect.
This is a 1900 photo of one of the May women sitting on a flume over a gully. Behind her is a small wooden bridge over the same gully. The May farm was close by, within a mile, southeast of New Plymouth.
Today we see land around New Plymouth after it has been occupied and farmed for over 100 years – and vastly improved. However the first settlers faced sage brush flats, with gullies running every direction. Even the flattest land was crisscrossed with gullies. Many of these gullies would have running water when it rained – as this one must have. There is no need to bridge such a small gully unless it would be inconvenient when water made it impassable. To bring water for irrigation means a ditch must be built. If the land is not leveled yet, or might not be for some time, then it is necessary to bridge small gullies, like this one, with wooden flumes to get the water to where it could be used – leaving eradication of the gully for another time. Over the Plymouth Bench there were hundreds of similar temporary flumes to work around these gullies.
Farmers had a sort of principle or ethic about such makeshift flumes or bridges. They represented “momentary convenience” not “investment.” As a result not only were they “makeshift” but they would be patched as necessary in, at times, the most willy-nilly manner. It was similar around the farmstead buildings and corrals. While looking very patchwork, in a way, it showed the farm mentallity of not expending a lot of effort or resources on an expendable item. To survive in farming is to husband resources like in few other industries. This need was evident every time you looked at f arms of that period! They had no resources to spare. Patching took moments to do with whatever was at hand, the very least consideration was, did it look pretty!
Even as late as 30s-40s, when I was a boy working for various Plymouth farmers, I saw many of these makeshift methods of getting irrigation to some unleveled part of their farm. It was very inconvenient to farm around them – especially as tractors used bigger and bigger equipment. Tractors gradually began eradicating some of these gullies. I erased many myself. Many times areas cut off would be pastured and stock meant having fences to contain them. Fences often acquired tree rows for wind breaks or were simply planted by birds. Farming does not do well next to tree lines, so they had a tendency to spread taking up more and more land. So, over the years when leveling the land we took out these fences and tree lines in order to make fields bigger, more level, and more farm-able. Moving ditches and fences meant squaring up the fields and much more efficient farming.
Because drainage was essential, the big drain ditches dug by huge steam powered draglines left enormous piles of “tailings” alongside the drains. These tailings were very “in-your-face” inconvenient. At first, we had to dig ditches thru these tailing piles just to get our waste irrigation water into the drains and off the fields. Many of these tailings would be eroded and worn down by cattle pastured near them as the cattle would go to the drain ditch for water they made many pathways. My dad moved many of these tailings away from the drain, spreading them evenly on the fields as he leveled land for farmers. I have removed many myself. Eventually, the tailing piles, like the tailings the canal companies would pile on the right of way, would be moved and spread out on the fields and disappear the tailings completely. Today it is rare to see such tailings anywhere.
As time went on thru the 40s, drain ditches diminished greatly in the negative effects. But, there was a bright side to these drains. They were small eco-systems for animals. Cat tails, trees, and all sorts of growing things grew there undisturbed and with plenty of water. Drains like these never ran dry.
There were many negatives about the drains. Gophers are a persistant pest, and often a very destructive pest. Drain ditches are an ever present “reserve” for gophers–which reserve constantly replenishes gopher numbers trapped and killed by farmers eradicating them from fields. There will never be eradication of this pest as long as we have drain ditches!
A large negative was prevalence of gophers affecting irrigation. The ever-present gopher population along drains meant gopher holes that irrigation water would gain access to out in the field. As these holes eroded quickly with water flow, sometimes a real torrent would combine to erode a hole big enough a tractor could fall into. A constant erosion effect all along drains meant a lot of sediment washing our best soil into the drains and filling them with sediment. So any farmer having such a drain on his property must expend effort and constantly be on he watch for signs of this problem
Over the years many ditchbanks would be eroded via cattle, or gopher bank erosion, having the effect of widening the drain ditch many times its original needed width. the widening would be down in the ditch and sub level to the fields adjacent. with the advent of modern tractors and equipment, much remedial re-arranging of these affects could be mitigated, prevented, and fixed–at least for the moment.
Contrast the sage brush first photo with the photo of the Chandler farm with its beautiful square leveled fields – perfect for irrigation and the use of equipment. It had begun just like the sagebrush, with as many gullies, swales, ridges, etc., and cut by big drain ditches with their tailings. It records a lifetime of a little improvement here, and more there, until after decades of effort it has reached a mature farm-scape. Some Plymouth area farms have made this transition, many are still in the process. Many will never go all the way to this level because the process has been interrupted by some other use or process. So, still today, if you look around Plymouth area, you can still see remnants of the original landscape, if you know where to look. The more recent land brought under cultivation, the Black Canyon Canal service area, shows many of these features