Black ranchers transformed Yuma’s no man’s land, left a family legacy
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Elmo Dees, whose white, straight hair is often tucked in a gray baseball cap, is one of the last two children of 16 to live and work on his father’s farm.
“I’m going to outlive them all,” the 74-year-old said.
His father, John, who grew up in the North Gila Valley, purchased squatters rights and moved to 160 acres of undeveloped and destitute land near Yuma called “The Island” in 1950, two years after Elmo was born. John had to clear brush, mesquite, willow and saltbush off the area to turn it into the home where he and his children would grow crops, raise hogs and herd cattle. It was land where the Dees family legacy as barrier-breaking Black farmers and ranchers would take root.
Like his oldest brother, Alex, who became a renowned cattle breeder, Elmo picked and chopped cotton in his father’s field as early as 7 years old. In the late 1960s, his legs took him to San José State University, where he said he ran track with John Carlos and Lee Evans, two Olympic runners. The famous 1968 Black Power Olympics photo hangs on the wall in his house, along with small pictures of family reunions.
When Elmo’s father died in 1978, he passed the land down to his children.
“I always wanted to be a farmer,” Elmo said, adding that at the time San José State University didn’t really have an agricultural program. After college, he returned to the farm, where he helped Alex turn it into a cattle ranch. He’s lived on his family’s land ever since.
“My dad is the last of a dying breed,” Elmo’s son, Johnathan, 38, said.
Alex, the oldest Dees brother, who often wore a cowboy hat in family photos, was a Brangus breeder who broke many barriers on the land where he spent his life and eventually died as a 74-year-old man. But the cattle that put the family’s surname in the American Brangus Breeders hall of fame are long gone.
Today, the Dees’ land is a place where family reunions are held once a year. Where the third generation, who co-farm with Grimmway Farms, grow organic carrots and where Elmo still lives and raises hogs.
The rusted sign for Alex’s cattle ranch hangs in front of the property. Bull corrals and the horse arena where a generation of Dees became cowboys and ropers remain standing, too.
“As long as I’m managing the farm, and as long as I’m alive, that sign will still be up there as long as we own the property,” Johnathan said. “That’s part of our history, part of our heritage.”
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Turning ‘No Man’s Land’ into a farm
The Dees’ land is near the Quechan Tribe’s Reservation in Winterhaven, California. The ranch is part of an area known as “The Island” that formed when the Colorado River changed its course in 1889 and left about 2,300 acres of land on the California side of the river, according to an 1984 Arizona Republic article.
The area once called “No Man’s Land” and later known as “The Island” is near the 1904 Yuma Project, one of the earliest irrigation projects in the western United States. In 1894, the federal government deeded the area to be farmed for produce by the Yuma Territorial prisoners. When the prison closed in 1909, the land reverted to desert.
Then, in 1920, a portion of the Gila Valley was cut off by a “man-made avulsive move” of the Colorado River. The federal government provided seven kegs of black powder to local farmers who blew up the entrance of a river oxbow that had been developing for 70 years. The oxbow formed 4,000 acres of weeds and trees, according to a state proclamation honoring the area’s 100-year anniversary.
As more gray-haired children who grew up on “The Island” grow older, the complicated stories of the Black farmers who were denied land in Yuma and Somerton and sought refuge on what was once Quechan land fade away in memory. Little is known about the Black, Mexican and white farmers whose children watched their fathers turn the area into their families’ legacies. Though records that do exist document hardships.
In 1949, when a federal project to move the Colorado River irrigation water to the Mohawk Valley was approved to help irrigate farmland in Yuma, “The Island” was excluded, leaving the families to build their own irrigation, according to the state proclamation.
By the time Elmo’s father, a row crop farmer, moved his family to the area in 1950, people had been farming the area since the 1920s.
The Dees children remember growing corn, cotton, watermelon, raising pigs and living in a house that didn’t have electricity until 1975, according to Elmo.
Alex’s daughter, Dwella Galicia, 63, said that the way her father and his siblings were raised instilled the values of hard work, education and family, which they passed on to their children and grandchildren, along with the land and a place in cattle ranching history.
Becoming Dees Bros. Brangus
Alex had developed his ranching skills overseeing over 700 head of cattle as a herdsman for the Yuma Valley Cattle Co. when Louie Robinson of Ebony magazine, wrote in 1976, “Whenever men talk knowledgeably of cattle and those who know cattle, the name of Alex Dees is heard again and again.”
Alex worked at the ranch operated by Floyd Newcomer, a Brangus cattle pioneer who in 1949 crossbred Brahman and Angus cattle to develop the hybrid Brangus.
When he met Newcomer, Alex didn’t want to farm, he told the Yuma Sun in 2004. “I wanted a five-day-a-week job,” he said. But he ended up working for the pioneer for nine years, until Newcomer died. Alex then went on to establish a ranch of his own in 1973 on his family farm.
Alex judged livestock starting in high school. During the 1950s, he judged sheep, goats, horses and poultry. Years later, he traveled throughout the country to places like California, New Mexico and Texas to judge cattle.
“If Alex Dees come in and grade them and say they’re top cattle, they’re top cattle,” he said in the “Rare Breed” documentary, produced by family friend Troy Hill.
When Alex traveled, Elmo took care of the ranch from sunrise to sunset. As his brother’s right-hand man, he ran Dees Brothers Brangus seven days a week doing everything besides the paperwork.
The brothers built houses side by side on “The Island” and raised a third generation of Dees surrounded by goats, pigs, hens, cattle and horses like “Hotshot” and ranch dogs like “George.”
“It was a simple life,” said Johnathan who moved off the ranch and into town when he was 13 years old.
But, breaking into the cattle industry as a Black man wasn’t as simple and was far from easy.
“He was discriminated against because they didn’t feel he was good enough, even though everybody who lived in Yuma and even outside of Yuma knew who he was,” said Willie Mae Crosby, Alex’s fiancé. “And that was the same thing when he was judging. There were people as he was judging that was like, I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. And then the very minute he picked that one, oh, yes, they were real happy. They clearly knew he knew what he was talking about.”
Breaking racial barriers in ranching
For most of his life, Alex worked in agriculture where he often experienced racism.
“Some of the people in Yuma didn’t believe that they would discriminate against him. But if you’re not around it, I guess you wouldn’t realize that,” said Willie Mae.
He once said that during high school in the 1950s, he was the only Black person on the Futures of Farmers of America team at his school. Once, he said, on a field trip, he and his classmates ended up at a hotel that didn’t allow Black people to enter.
His stepson, Craig Crosby, remembers when Alex told him about his classmates’ decision to leave the hotel.
Alex once dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and went to Arizona State University, but switched to study animal science when instructors told him that it would be difficult for a Black person to get into veterinary school, he told Ebony magazine.
“There were good time and bad times,” Elmo said.
Some of those good times, included when Alex won one of his first significant livestock show, in 1974. His heifer AD Miss Maybelle was named the female grand champion at the 25th-anniversary celebration of Brangus in Texas. For that show, Alex had hired a white woman to show his heifer.
When they won, people in the crowd were shocked to see a Black man accepting the award.
“When they announced that it was Dees brothers and Alex Dees came out, you should see the expression on their faces,” Felix Dees said in the documentary. “They may not want to give him respect, but they have to because of his character, his background and knowledge.”
The bad times included money problems. Like other Black farmers and ranchers, Alex had a difficult time securing loans from the bank.
In the documentary, Alex recalled trying to borrow money from a bank after he’d become well known in the community, but he wasn’t allowed to talk to the banker in the bank. He said that two weeks later a few big-time bankers gave him an award to celebrate his accomplishments in the cattle industry.
“Why give me an award when they won’t give me any money? If I’m that good, at least loan me some money, loan me something. But for them to give you an award and celebrate what you have done and what you mean to the community at that time was kind of heartbreaking,” Alex said in the documentary.
At one point, Alex used credit cards to keep his cattle business afloat because he couldn’t get a loan.
“They’re just not used to letting the African-Americans and some of the Hispanics people with that much money. They’re just not used to that,” he said. “But I had some buddies who had half of less than I did and they went in there and got three and four hundred thousand. One guy, he went broke and owned the bank $600,000. Well, Christ, there’s no way I can get $100,000 from the bank.”
Despite the hardships, Alex Dees made history in Yuma and beyond and is now seen as a pioneer in establishing the Brangus breed of cattle.
“A lot of people say his name is synonymous with the cattle industry,” said Craig Crosby, Alex’s stepson.
But Alex’s greatest legacy isn’t cattle, but inspiring a new generation of farmers and ranchers in Yuma.
“He enjoyed working with youth because he knew they were the future. Whatever he could do to help those he would,” Willie Mae said.
‘I didn’t know Black people were doing that type of stuff’
One summer, as an 8-year-old, Troy Hill and his father stopped at “The Island” at a big ranch before the two went fishing in the Colorado River. It was the first time he would meet a Black cattle rancher.
“I was amazed because I’m an inner city kid going to the country with green pastures and a lot of cows,” said Hill, who is from California. “And then when he came outside, to see an African-American, it was kind of amazing to me. I didn’t know Black people were doing that type of stuff.”
In 1981 when he moved to Yuma, Hill went to the ranch twice a month. One fall, he bought a Yorkshire pig named Rudy from Elmo and entered him in the county fair. He then purchased his first heifer named Eight Ball in 1989 from Alex and showed it at the livestock shows in California, Arizona and New Mexico.
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“He was treating me like the nephews. I had to work,” Hill said, adding that he earned his relationship with Alex.
While showing at livestock shows in the early 90s, Hill said he experienced the same racism Alex had decades earlier. After a string of losses, he entered Eight Ball into a show with his friend, who was white. Eight Ball won grand champion.
The discrimination Hill said he experienced is what discouraged him from pursuing a career in agriculture.
“Alex Dees was a very strong man, a very determined man. And he didn’t take no for an answer,” Hill said.
Several years later, Hill produced his first documentary, “Rare Breed,” about Alex Dees. He wanted to showcase one of the few Black cattle ranchers in the United States.
The end of an era
Alex spent his final days as a cattle rancher with Micaela Rodriguez, 34, who had worked on his ranch since she was a freshman in high school. Rodriguez took care of the young heifers and bulls, as Elmo took care of the older bulls and heifers.
Rodriguez, 15 at the time, dreamed of becoming a cattle rancher and wanted to show cattle, but couldn’t afford it. She worked a deal with Alex where she would work on the ranch in exchange for a way to show cattle. She showed her first heifer named Convenience Store at five different livestock shows.
During the morning rounds she made with Alex in his ranch truck, she learned secrets that helped her establish a livestock business of her own.
“It was basically a dream job,” she said. “Every day was great.”
The day Alex auctioned his cattle was a bitter-sweet day for everyone there, several people recalled. Alex, who was 74, could not continue to run his cattle business with heart problems and his children never felt like they could fill their father’s shoes.
“It was Alex’s thing, and that was his pride and joy,” Hill said.
The family knew that once the cattle were sold, that chapter of the Dees family was ending, Johnathan said. “There was a very slim possibility that cattle would return to that to that property.”
Two years after Alex died in 2014 due to congenital heart failure, his stepson, came up with an idea to honor his legacy. With the help of other family members, he developed the Alex Dees Memorial Foundation to continue passing on agricultural education and inspiration to people of color.
The last of the Dees brothers
“It’s something you have to love,” Elmo said, adding that he thought of retiring, but raising hogs keeps him busy. “I’m my own boss now. I don’t have to answer to anyone.”
As the last brother to live on the ranch, Elmo returns to his home on the ranch every day after venturing into a town where he visits his family.
Johnathan said that he has cousins who are now cowboys and ropers. “You never know what family member might go back to the farm and live that lifestyle.”
Though Elmo is the last of his generation to live on “The Island,” he may not be the last of the Dees to make a life on that land.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or on Twitter @Jonmaesha.
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