Through the Portals of Stately Ranches

Article excerpt

IT WAS EL DORADO without all the bother of mining the gold. It was Europe with its ideals of beauty; it was America with its vast opportunities. Such was life on the flourishing Argentine ranches from the middle of the nineteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth.

At that time the ranches were efficient meat factories where free-grazing cattle multiplied peacefully. The county prospered as it consumed and exported the products of the estancias. Lands which had been savagely conquered from the Indians were being settled and developed to produce wealth. In return for this effort by the ranchers, the state gave away huge tracts of land and kept taxes low, thus enhancing the cattle industry. Even the luxury of having unlimited acres for each animal was profitable. And cows were not the only livestock growing fat in Argentina's dreamlike countryside: they shared it with thousands of sheep and horses grazing and multiplying on the vast expanses of natural grasslands. The nations of the world contemplating Argentina's livestock-based wealth perceived this country as a vigorous civilization destined to replace those of the Old World.

A privileged group in Argentine society--those who owned livestock or had participated in the campaign to conquer new territories--had become the owners of large landed estates. These families, obligated to the country and to nature for their bounty, were jealous custodians of their properties, generous with their staffs and respectful of the flora and fauna. The families of the peons (gauchos) prospered as well. Since the owners depended on their labor and skills, the peons were well treated. The gauchos, in turn, took pleasure in their own activities: rounding-up cattle, breaking-in horses, and branding.

As the tacit contract between landowners and ranch hands was respected by both sides, the cattlemen could spend long periods in Europe without fundamentally affecting things back home. Argentine oligarchs travelled to the Old World with their families, their servants and, it is said, even a cow so they could have fresh milk daily.

In England they found studs to refine their herds; then, on the continent, especially in France, they refined their taste for beautiful things and the good life. There were also those who had become smitten with Spanish colonial art and systematically did the rounds of antique dealers throughout the Iberian peninsula in search of important pieces. They returned to Argentina with enormous crates of art and craft works, furnishing and luxury articles, as well as an addiction to European social graces. The ranchers were the princes of the pampas, and their eccentricities and extravagances were simply further proof of their quasi-sovereign status.

Finding life as country squires thoroughly congenial, many of them began to invest fortunes in their properties. They built sumptuous villas, surrounded by luxuriant gardens and parks with avenues, marble statutes and alabaster fountains such as they had seen in Europe. Hospitality was intrinsic to their lifestyle, thus they spent lavishly. They also provided appropriate housing, dining halls, and recreation facilities for their mayordomos and servants, as well as schools for their children. Finally, mindful of the origin of their wealth and proud of their magnificent herds they constantly introduced improvements in storehouses, corrals, pens and fencing.

Historical and literary records recount that an atmosphere of exquisite culture and civilization reigned on those estates. For example, it was said of Huetel, at one time the estate of the Unzue-Casares family, that "it was a setting fit for the most demanding of aristocrats." As for the architecture, no shoddiness was tolerated. Huetel rivals any of the great residences built since the Renaissance whose beauty has given them a place in history. The following was written on San Jacinto Palace, erected by Don Angel de Alvear: "The ample lines of the main building dominate the whole and harmonize, like all the other structures, with the hues of the park and the joyousness of the gardens. …