Interviewing Leslie Stewart

The folklife research project team conducted a lengthy interview with rancher Leslie J. "Les" Stewart on May 9, 1981. Most of the formal interviews in the Paradise Valley Folklife Project were recorded on audio tape, but this interview, intended to complement our motion picture footage, was videotaped.

May 1981 was the driest May in several years. In April, the Ninety-Six turns its cattle out to graze; the herd vacates pastures on the home ranch and moves to rangeland leased from the federal government. In a normal year, melting mountain snows provide water to this near-desert environment at least until the end of May, but this year the snowmelt had long since disappeared. Les was forced to haul both water and gasoline-powered water pumps into the range to water the herd. It was hot and dry, the pumps kept failing, and the cattle had to be forcibly prevented from returning to their former water holes, now dry.

We had written ahead to arrange a date for our interview. Arriving in Winnemucca on Thursday, May 7, I telephoned Les to confirm our Saturday appointment. He said that he would be available, assertively adding, "This won't take long, will it?" On Saturday, Bert Wilson, Rusty Marshall, and I drove out to the ranch. The pumps were still acting up, but Les welcomed us nevertheless. After an exchange of pleasantries, he turned to me, said that he did not want to be taken by surprise with any questions, and asked me to read them to him. I consented, hoping that after hearing all of the questions on our seven-page list, he would understand the degree of importance we attached to the interview and foresee how long the session would take. Les listened to the entire list without any visible reaction and said, "There's nothing there I can't handle."

We then turned to the matter of location. I had thought we might conduct the interview in Les's office, a handsome, wood-paneled room decorated with plaques from cattlemen's associations and model airplanes that reflect his fondness for aircraft. The setting would contrast nicely with our outdoor motion picture footage and convey a sense of the business side of ranching. But Les vetoed the suggestion, saying, "I don't think of myself as a desk man."

My alternative location was a nearby barn with an open door for light and electricity to power our equipment. Les agreed, adding, "Why don't I get a saddle horse and tie it up?" I automatically responded, "sure," since my attention had turned to our complicated video and audio gear. If I understood him at all, I suppose I pictured a sawhorse, perhaps as a stand for a saddle. As I was unpacking our gear, I turned and saw Les leading a saddled riding horse into the barn. It was, of course, an excellent idea and the perfect prop, and the very thing for which I, as photographer, would be reckoned responsible.

During the interview, there were times when Les's use of certain words or the emphasis he gave a certain topic suggested that he might be catering to our folkloric predispositions. For example, during the second part of his explanation of how to part cows from the herd, he stresses two nouns much favored by folklorists: tradition and custom. They frame his prescription that buckaroos should not ride in front of one another, nor indiscriminately ride into the herd to part cows. In other statements, Les pressed the point that a "real" cattle ranch should prefer work on horseback to work on foot, in spite of certain technological advances.

Our interview session lasted four hours and Les responded to our questions with careful and complete answers. His description of federal land management was thoughtful and balanced, and his words about the future of the ranch were frank, albeit melancholy. Many of the recordings in this online collection and much of the information incorporated in the written annotations to them are drawn from the two hours of tape we made that day.

by Carl Fleischhauer