Ranch matriarch survives tests
August 9, 2006
NEW CASTLE – It’s hard for Martha Porter not to ask herself the question.After recently losing Bill Porter – the third of her six sons to die a ranching-related death – she thinks of the toll her family’s livelihood has taken.”I wonder, sometimes very much so, is the price too much?” she says.But then she finds comfort, and perhaps an answer, in the land. All up and down the Alkali Creek valley near New Castle, generations of Porters have cleared and irrigated, turning scrubland into hayfields, creating pasture for cattle, finding satisfaction in making a living off the land.For all her travails, Martha said, she’s had a wonderful life.”I’ve been very lucky,” the 79-year-old proclaims.And somehow she keeps smiling her gentle smile through the pain. She shows a fortitude and positive attitude that Bill Porter’s daughter, Cheryl Snyder, said makes her the heart of the Porter family and an example of the life Snyder wants to lead.”She’s the strongest woman I know,” Cheryl said.
To help explain her irrepressible disposition, Martha goes back to the land, which has both taken and given so much.”I think it has to be something to do with being on the ranch,” she said.It’s a place where she finds faith, too, no matter what burdens she may bear.”On our ranch, you can see that God’s there,” she said.The tests Martha has faced have been shared in almost equal measure by her daughter-in-law, Marla. Marla first married Mike Porter, who was shot to death in 1989 during a property line dispute with a neighboring landowner, leaving her a widow with five children. In 1997 she married Mike’s brother Bill, only to lose him June 8 when the bulldozer he was driving rolled over on him. He was 55.But just like Martha, she counts her blessings rather than considering herself unfortunate.”I’m the lucky one. I got to be with two of the Porter men and learned a lot and loved it,” she said. “There’s that song, ‘You could have missed the pain, but then you miss the dance,”‘ Marla says.Said Martha, “We’ve lost so much but we’ve had so much, too, we really have.”
Parents aren’t supposed to go through the ordeal of burying even one child, but Martha lost a third son, Alan, when he was just 11. He was on a tractor when it rolled.Martha and her husband, Barton, laid Alan to rest on their wedding anniversary.Despite her losses, Martha can cherish the memory of having had six Porter sons. All of her children were boys, and they earned a reputation for a ranch-honed toughness and determination while growing up. As someone joked at Bill’s funeral, when Meeker played Rifle in football, it really was Meeker against the Porter boys.Son Terry Porter continues to live up Alkali Creek and raises domestic elk. Eric now lives in Oregon, and Dan in DeBeque.Unlike Alan and Mike, at least Bill was able to have lived long enough to accomplish many of his life goals.One of his big achievements was the enlargement of Porter Reservoir high up Alkali Creek. Built in 1958 as a 300-acre reservoir, it was expanded to four times that size in a project completed in 2004. It’s fed by a 13-mile ditch, and reflects the foresight of previous generations of Porters in acquiring water rights.”That’s the whole blood of the place, is the water,” said Martha, a writer of poetry who considers water the paintbrush of the Porter land.Bud Porter, Barton’s grandfather, started the ranch on about 200 acres before the start of the 20th century. Through foresight and resourcefulness, the family has expanded it to 3,600 acres, and today they run anywhere from 900 to 1,300 cattle.
The Porters had those who doubted them when it came to things such as their plans for expanding the reservoir, and even continuing to try to make a go of ranching these days. But they press on. After Barton died three years ago at the age of 79, Bill pursued such innovations as the use of gravity-fed, center-pivot irrigation systems on the hilly terrain up Alkali Creek.Usually deployed on flat ground, the labor-saving devices dot much of the Porters’ valley.When Bill died, he took with him not just his vision and work ethic but a lot of knowledge about the ranch’s operations. Marla said the family definitely will move forward with the ranch, but added, “There’s no way that it will be anything near the same – it’s not even remotely possible.”Maybe she and other family members will surprise themselves at their ability to continue to build upon the efforts of Porters who have passed on.Maybe they’ll be surprised, too, by help that comes from unexpected places, such as when family, friends and even hunting acquaintances from as far away as Florida showed up right after Bill’s death to finish building an urgently needed one-and-a-half miles of fence over rough terrain. Bill had been using his bulldozer to make way for the fence before his death.Marla remembers Bill as someone who was strong, and yet at the same time “still so very soft.” The stories are legion of the joy he found later in life in his grandkids, and the lengths he would go to spend time with them.Although Bill is gone, Marla still can find signs of him in the paintbrush he wielded up and down the Porter ranch. When Marla sees the green fields he left behind, it helps to ease the pain of her loss.”Just driving up through the place is a comfort,” she said.