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Tom Bolack: A Modern Johnny Appleseed
In cowboy boots, string tie and ten-gallon Stetson he appeared oddly out of place at New York's LaGuardia Airport. And from the way he hovered over the six big cardboard boxes that accompanied him, protecting them from customary airport abuse, it was obvious he was guarding some very special cargo. It was special; Tom Bolack, oilman, rancher and former governor of New Mexico, had traveled halfway across the country to plant the first Navajo willow trees in the state of New York.
Tom Bolack had been planting Navajo willows in New Mexico—and lately, in other parts of the U.S.—for two decades before he arrived in Carmel, NY, all the Navajo willows now growing in the U.S. stem from a single giant tree. It was brought from China by a returning missionary more than 100 years ago and planted on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Bolack's home city of Farmington, NM.
When Bolack bought the initial 350 acres of what is known as the 3,000-acre B-Square Ranch adjoining Farmington, his first act was to establish a full-scale nursery and stock it with shoots from the original tree. In the years since, the B-Square has produced almost a million Navajo willows, and Bolack has given away more than half that number to schools, churches, municipalities, colleges and hospitals. In a single year, in New Mexico alone, B-Square has donated some 50,000 trees as part of its private campaign to “keep New Mexico green.”
The trees grow as far south as Vero Beach, FL. and as far north as North Dakota. In most places, the willows have been used to reforest barren lands, but the trees also were planted as landscape—as they were outside of Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine.
The planting in New York was for still another reason. These trees were a memorial to a young teacher, Diane Gorman, who died last spring after an automobile accident while en route to the Kent Elementary School in Carmel, NY. When Bolack was asked if he would provide a memorial tree for each of the children in Ms. Gorman’s third-grade class, he not only agreed but also insisted on bringing them himself. At the school, he supervised the planting then led the dedication to the young teacher.
Born May 18, 1918 on a Kansas farm, Bolack spent his boyhood milking cows and operating the family farm machinery. When he was 16, already 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, a wildcatter drilled a well on the farm. The well was dry but Bolack’s imagination brought in a gusher and he left the farm to seek his fortune in more productive fields. For years, Tom lived off the land, shooting rabbits and other small game for food. What he did not eat himself, he traded with a night watchman on a construction crew in exchange for moonlight practice sessions learning how to operate some of the heavy equipment.
There was no oil-related job in those early years that Bolack did not hold at one time or another. He worked as a laborer, shovel operator, tool dresser, roustabout, driller and miner. At night when he was not learning how to handle another piece of mechanical equipment or how not to handle some of his fellow workers—he acquired six broken noses, 14 concussions and a set of permanently gnarled knuckles in the process—he took correspondence-school courses in geology by the light of a lantern on the dashboard of a battered Hudson car. That Hudson served as his home as well as his transportation, and eventually served as collateral on the $600 loan that launched Bolack's fortune.
Bolack applied his correspondence expertise to a survey of the San Juan Basin, a wasteland in northwestern New Mexico that other geologists had written off. His faith in his own survey was so strong and his arguments so persuasive that he managed to talk a banker into putting up the initial $600 he needed to buy leases in the area. Within months, Bolack proved right.
Months after he bought his first leases, Bolack sold a block of them to an oil company for $520,000 and a 5% royalty. He drilled his first well in the San Juan Basin in 1953, and then went on to drill 14 straight producers. In 1958, he sold leases on 560 acres to Standard Oil for $3 million plus royalties. At one time, he held leases on more than 100,000 acres in the San Juan Basin, Alaska and Montana, and interests in 140 oil wells and a variety of businesses, including a small airline, travel agency (referred to in Tony Hillerman's A Thief of Time), uranium firm, shopping center, gypsum plant, four banks, a baseball club (the Albuquerque Dukes minor-league baseball team) and a ski resort.
Bolack's political fortune also began in the San Juan Basin. In 1952, he was elected mayor of Farmington, a town that at the time had 3,500 residents and 20 feet of paved road. He immediately set about changing things—adding roads, an airport and new businesses. What the region needed most, however, was the water of the Colorado River and its numerous tributaries. As chairman of the Aqualantes, a four-state citizens' crusade, Bolack launched an exhausting oratorical campaign that extended from Arizona to Washington, DC. His efforts resulted in passage of the Upper Colorado Bill and the establishment of a network of power and irrigation projects that dramatically changed the agriculture and economy of the four-state region.
After serving in the New Mexico legislature, Bolack ran for lieutenant governor and was the first Republican in 32 years elected to that office. He became governor — and held office for less than two months— after Governor Edwin Mecham resigned to fill a Senate vacancy.
“He enjoyed every minute of it,” a reporter recalls. “He’d sit back in his chair, put his feet and a bottle on the big desk and invite us all in to swap stories. We ate it up. He may have been the shortest-term governor in the state, but he was certainly one of the most popular.”
When Bolack began his B-Square Ranch in 1957, his wealth was already such that it would have purchased the richest land in the state. Instead he chose 350-acres of what was probably the poorest. “I wanted to prove a point,” Bolack said. And he did. By draining, leveling and irrigating those original 350 acres, he managed to put 250 of them into cultivation. By bulldozing and banking the San Juan River, he cut back erosion, prevented the uprooting of hundreds of trees and reclaimed land that had hitherto been useless.
On this land he produced, in addition to the Navajo willows, more than 100 varieties of vegetables that year after year took top prizes at the New Mexico State Fair, proving to his neighbors and the world that one does not have to start with the best farmland to grow the best produce.
Bolack's efforts were not been limited to greenery. Over the years he converted his ranch, now grown to 3,000 acres, into a vast wildlife sanctuary. He drained swamps, created an 85-acre artificial lake and built dozens of nesting islands for waterfowl. On land, he left countless stands of grain and corn to provide food and cover for the chukars, guinea fowls, coots and Canada geese that he brought in and released there. These were soon joined by pheasants, quail, doves and ducks, for which more than a ton of ranch-grown grain is scattered daily as part of the feeding program. More than 25,000 waterfowl winter at the B-Square. The ranch, which prohibits hunting, is a regular stop on annual wildfowl migrations.
“We cannot go on taking from the land without putting something back. That is what this is all about.”
In 1973, Tom was severely injured, but survived as he and his pickup went over a 300-foot drop when it accidentally rolled off a canyon rim where he was posting 'No Hunting' signs. A stroke in 1985 forced him to spend most of his time in a wheelchair, but he still had sufficient upper body strength and mobility to hunt and fish.
On May 20,1998, Governor Bolack passed away but his passing did not go without notice. As Time Magazine was to report later, “The ashes of former New Mexico Governor Tom Bolack were launched skyward with his family's Fourth of July fireworks.”
B-Square Ranch http://www.bolackmuseums.com/index.html. Accessed February 21, 2014.
National Governors Association. http://www.nga.org. Accessed February 21, 2014.
The Political Graveyard. http://www.politicalgraveyard.com. Accessed February 24, 2014.
“Putting the Fun in Funeral,” Time Magazine, v. 154, # 3, p 21, July 19, 1999. ‘The ashes of former New Mexico Governor Tom Bolack were launched skyward with his family's Fourth of July fireworks.’
Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 3, Westport, Conn.; Meckler Books, 1978. 4 vols.
“A Modern Johnny Appleseed” by Virginia Kraft. Sports Illustrated, November 30, 1970.