Mar 20, 2016


When Elia Rodriguez’ mother , Araceli de las Casas, died in 1932, her 1911 Will and Testament left her estate in equal parts to her eight living children, Concepcion (Conchita), Araceli (Celita), Angela, Gaspar, Maria Luisa (Male), Rafael, Margarita, and Elia. She owned three fincas — cattle ranches — named Saratoga, Lauritania, and Songorrongo; her house in town; $5000 in Spanish gold; and a share in a house-for-rent at 123 Republica Street.
Araceli de las Casas

(Interestingly, the will was written and filed by Elia’s future husband’s father, Joaquin Buenaventura Martínez Diaz, an Attorney practicing in Camaguey. In 1911 Elia was 6 years old and Ventura 13, and by all accounts had never met until Ventura returned from University.) 

Camaguey province was to Cuba as northeast Texas is to the United States: cattle country. Camaguey had its sugar plantations and citrus groves like the rest of Cuba, but it also shipped dressed beef and beef-on-the-hoof by rail west to Havana and east to Santiago and all points in between. It was cowboy country. There were rodeos. Texans came to Camaguey to check out the cattle and Cubans went to Texas to do the same. During the great Cuban exodus that began in the 1960s, a large number of Cubans settled in Texas.  Growing up in Camaguey in the 1950s, meals I remember were always beef or pork, beef or pork. Chicken was a special treat.

1923 Plat of Songorrongo with the newest additions
Click on the image to enlarge
Araceli’s will said that her estate was to be divided equally eight ways. Araceli’s eldest son, Gaspar Rodriguez, was named executor in her will and he and his seven siblings reached an agreement that he would get the Lauritania ranch, Rafael the Saratoga ranch, and the six girls would split the Songorrongo ranch. Elia does not remember a discussion. She said that the boys told the girls that this was best and it was the way it was going to be, and that was that.  The girls got Songorrongo. She was still annoyed all those decades later.

Earlier in 1913 shortly after her husband died, the widow Araceli de las Casas purchased a rural piece of land of around 550 acres bordering La Horqueta Road named “La Amelia,” (previously part of the “Martinez” ranch) adjacent on the south border of her late husband’s ranch “Songorrongo” , for $18,200 in cash. The sellers were behind on their taxes and part of the payment was retained by the lawyer to obtain a clear title.

The 1933 division of Songorrongo
I can find no additional paperwork, but the note on the 1923 plat for Songorrongo notes the La Amelia addition, and also 100 acres subsequently annexed (purchased) from the adjacent “Martinez” ranch. This all made the 1923 Songorrongo  a ranch about 2260 acres (just under 68 caballerias in the Cuban land measurements of the day) or a little over 3½ square miles. It was an irregular area, longer north to south than east to west. The river Guareao wound through Songorrongo, roughly from the northeast to the southwest. 

Songorrongo’s original ranch house, outbuildings, and corrals were near its northwest corner, off La Horqueta Road. The six women agreed that since these improvements had value, whoever got the division with the house on it would get less land. So, starting from the south, using east-west lines Songorrongo was first divided into four 12-caballeria lotes or parcels (about 399½ acres each), leaving just shy of 20 caballerias at the north. The remaining 20 caballerias were divided with a north-south line into 8 caballerias on the east where the ranch house was located, and just shy of 12 caballerias on the west.  They drew straws and Maria Luisa got the ranch house.

Five of the Six Owners of Songorrongo at Songorrongo
Elia, Margarita, Maria Luisa, Celita and Conchita Rodriguez
circa 1955. Behind them the veranda of Elia's ranch house.
The parcels were numbered 1 through 6; top to bottom on the map. Maria Luisa Rodriguez got parcel 1 with the house. Elia got parcel 2. Margarita parcel 3, Angela parcel 4, Celita parcel 5, and Conchita parcel 6. The parcels did not get new names each as sometimes happens, instead they were all known as Songorrongo plus their parcel numbers. Five of the six parcels bordered the road, an unimproved, rutted country lane which forded a number of streams. Elia’s parcel did not border the road and initially could only be reached on horseback.

Elia Rodriguez and Ventura Martínez married in 1925 and she moved in to Ventura’s and his brother Antonio’s house to start their family. Ventura’s mother had passed away in 1914, but Elia would tell you that she moved in with four mothers-in-law: Ventura’s spinster aunts!  (Ventura’s father had also died when Ventura was young, in 1918 when he was 20 years old and studying law at the University of Havana.) After graduating and obtaining notary concessions from the government, he revived his father’s law practice and slowly built up his income. Then in 1933 his wife inherited a piece of Songorrongo.

Ventura and Elia in the 1920s
Ventura was a city boy, born in 1898 in Havana. His family moved to another city, Camaguey, when he was 10 years old. But this city boy was not only studious but athletic and liked horseback riding. He probably learned how in Jaruco, in the countryside outside of Havana where our branch of the Martinez family came from.  Even before he was married he knew the Rodriguez girls from when he played tennis and I’m sure he was invited out to their ranches on occasion where he could ride. He not only liked the countryside, but he found that he was attracted to the business of farming and ranching. It seems he was born to be a country boy.

Elia, the youngest in her family, could not help but like the countryside. Her mother owned three ranches, and when she was not at their city house or at boarding school in Havana, and later in New Jersey, she was with her mother and siblings at one ranch or another. And it was nothing for her to jump on her horse and ride to visit friends at a nearby ranch. After she married, she still found time to spend at her mother’s ranches, and now Ventura went with her.

So when Elia inherited one sixth of Songorrongo in 1932, she and Ventura made plans to turn their piece of it, parcel 2, into a working ranch and build a house in the countryside they could retreat to. The first order of business was to find a nice location on their parcel for the house and to build a driveway to the it from the old ranch house on Maria Luisa’s adjacent parcel 1. Remember, their Songorrongo parcel did not have road frontage. It took two tries to site the house, as the first location, on a rise with beautiful vistas, was not suitable because the wells they dug did not produce good water.  Near another nice rise they dug a well and found sweet-tasting water this time, cut the driveway to it, and built a simple two-room palm-frond thatched house, outbuildings and corrals. They repaired fences, started an orchard of fruit trees, cleared for a vegetable garden and started ranching.

Elia and Ventura's eldest, Mariana, in Songorrongo, 1951
And now Elia had a place she could call her own. She would be running this household, not her mothers-in-law. And now she had a ranch where she could introduce her children to the rural side of life.  When her mother Araceli died, Elia and Ventura had three children, Mariana (born in 1926), Elia Maria (born in 1930), and Ofelia (born in 1931). Joaquin Ventura (Venturita) would be born soon, in 1934. Nine years later Juan Antonio would arrive, followed by Natalia in 1944. 

But getting to their sixth of Songorrongo could be difficult. No matter how much gravel they dumped on problem areas of their long driveway, the mud during the rainy season made the way in and out of Songorrongo Parcel 2 next to impassable. Eventually Ventura and Elia purchased a 5-mile 50 foot wide easement northwestward that gave them access to the new Carretera de Santa Cruz — the Santa Cruz Highway that ran south from Camaguey to the coast. That driveway was a much shorter route to Camaguey and only had one low-lying section that got muddy occasionally.

Some 10 years later, Ventura and Elia were earning more money from Songorrongo than from his bufetes — his law offices — so he wound down his Camaguey law office, keeping the one in Gauimaro  (50 miles east of Camaguey) where he installed a law clerk to do the heavy lifting, driving over every other week just to review and sign documents.  With the significant majority of their income now from Songorrongo, he was now a rancher full time, energetically improving their Songorrongo parcel and the adjacent parcel they operated for Elia’s sister, Margarita.

Approximate Location of Songorrongo
Then they started on building their dream house in Songorrongo. It took some 20 years to finish it. They would do what they could when funds were available, and they saved and waited so they could use the best materials and methods. It would not be ostentatious or extravagant; instead it would be well-built, comfortable and functional.

Songorrongo Parcel 2 Ranch House
This photo shows the veranda at the front of the house.
In the foreground is Elia with her son Venturita's horse, El Guajiro.
 Built of masonry with a low-pitched terra-cotta tile hip roof, the new house was built in front of the original thatched-roof house, with a breezeway connecting them. When the new house was habitable, the old house was improved to become the kitchen and ranch-hand quarters for the complex. The house was as simple as it was beautiful. The floors were laid with large Spanish ceramic tiles. A great room the length of the house was flanked by spacious bedrooms , three on the left and two plus a bathroom on the right.  The bedroom walls stopped short of the cathedral ceiling, allowing for breezes to flow throughout the house when windows were open.

In the great room a large dining table was nearest the kitchen, with sofas, rocking chairs and small tables grouped into conversation areas throughout the rest of the room.  A large Atwater-Kent console radio was centered in the room on one of the lateral walls. A small pantry was off the dining area with cabinets, a counter and a single-door Kelvinator — an automatic refrigerator that was cooled by kerosene. The great room opened to a veranda on the front of the house that looked out on a modestly sized lawn that sloped down to the driveway gate, with a small pond across way in the distance on the left.

Juan Antonio swimming in the pond
The complex had running water, including hot water heated by coils and a holding tank built into the kitchen’s large multi-burner cast-iron wood-fired range. A windmill at the well in the orchard pumped water to a large wooden tank nearby set on tall stilts. On windy days the tank would overflow until someone ran the distance from the house to disengage the clutch on the windmill.  The house was lit with electric ceiling lights and table lamps powered by a 12 volt DC system. Twelve large one-volt lead-acid batteries located in a small outbuilding and were recharged by a noisy gasoline generator that was fired up every afternoon for half an hour or so to provide power for that evening’s lights and radio.

Elia’s and Ventura’s ranch was a dairy farm with about 300 cows and maybe 100 to 200 calves born there every year. Every morning 10-gallon stainless steel cans of milk went out to the highway for 5 a.m. pickup. The milk went to the Guarina dairy in Camaguey for pasteurization, and for butter, cheese and ice cream. Some female calves were kept to replenish the herd and the rest were sold to other dairy farms. The male calves were weaned, castrated and pastured for a season before being sold as añojos — yearlings. They were sold to Elia’s sister Margarita and later to her son José Calderón when he came of age, and they were raised for two years on Margarita's Parcel 3.

“La Promesa.” This heifer won first prize at the Sancti
Spiritus Exposition in December, 1944.
The yearlings, now adult cattle, were subsequently sold to Federico Castellanos, Elia’s sister Angela’s husband, who administered parcels 4, 5, and 6 for his wife and two of her sisters. The steers were driven across the fence to Songorrongo parcels 4, 5, and 6 where they were fattened up for another season or two before going to market. As you can see, even though Songorrongo had been divided and with different owners, its parcels together functioned as a complete cattle ranch with cows giving birth to calves, calves growing to yearlings, yearlings raised to adults, and beef cattle fattened and sent to market. To the beef output add milk, and as you will soon find out, chickens, eggs, and a bit of fruit, and Songorrongo was a full-function, if small, piece of the system that once fed the nation.

By the 1950s the orchards were well-established and providing fruit for the household and for sale — avocados, anoncillo, tamarind, guava, and various varieties of mango.
Melicoccus bijugatus
Sweet, tart and creamy

White and Red Guava
Psidium guajava
Fragrant and sweet

The guavas at Ventura and Elia’s Songorrongo orchard were of the more common red variety. But there was a tree of white guavas at Maria Luisa’s Songorrongo ranch that Elia’s daughter Elia Maria recalls that were just divine. When they got word that that tree was in fruit, she and her sisters Mariana and Ofelia would jump on their horses and gallop over to gorge on those fresh white guavas.

Brooder chicks in shipping carton
In the 1940’s Elia came up with the idea of raising hens for eggs. She purchased White Leghorn hatchlings by mail-order from Oregon and raised them to hens, and with the help of a rooster or two they were in the egg business.  A large hen-house was built and eggs were candled and sized in the evening for grading. By the 1950's 2000 hens were laying eggs at Songorrongo. Another 10,000 chickens were raised from chicks for market. Songorrongo eggs and Songorrongo chicken were sold in grocery stores in Camaguey and served in restaurants there. Songorrongo had the Woolworth lunch counter concession for eggs.

A Screaming Peacock
The ranch also had guinea fowl which raised themselves and were culled periodically, and a flock of free-range chickens that would roost in trees near the house at night, where, using ladders and flashlights, they could be picked for market. Rounding out the fowl was a  flock of free-ranging peacocks and peahens, who Venturita says, made excellent “watchdogs,” announcing arrivals by car or horse with their unique calls, way before any human could detect them.

Double-yolk fried eggs
 I remember looking forward to breakfast when I visited Songorrongo as a young child. We were served two-yolk eggs,  extra large eggs, or multiple undersized eggs sunny-side up — they were the eggs that did not make the grade for sale. And with all that milk, cream, and eggs on hand, there were all types of yummy deserts and sweets at Songorrongo.

Marabú in bloom
The bane of ranching in the Camaguey countryside were these three nuisances: marabú, nabú, and garrapatasMarabú (Dichrostachys cinerea) is an invasive species in Cuba, imported from Africa in the 1800s for ornamental gardens, from where it immediately escaped into the wild. In the U.S. it is known as the sicklebush, Bell Mimosa, Chinese lantern tree, or Kalahari Christmas tree.  It is a fast-growing leafy woody spiny bush with beautiful pink and yellow blooms. It spreads rapidly in open pasture, choking out grasses and other native species. A pasture can become unusable by cattle in just a few seasons if marabú is not kept in check. All ranch hands and Elia and Ventura’s children went out on their horses on marabú patrol to keep it in check, spraying poison on its leaves. When it got established it had to be hacked out with machetes, and the spines took their bloody toll.

Cattle shunned marabú, but they loved nabú, a tasty little plant that grew in the shade of pasture trees where cattle loved to congregate in the heat of the day. Nabú, however, gave milk a nasty flavor, and nobody but the pigs would drink nabú tainted milk. The Guarina dairy certainly would not accept it. Whenever the milk went off, the ground under all the trees had to be inspected and nabú pulled out or poisoned.

Elia Maria on her horse, Mambí
Elia Maria swears by her story of the exploding sow. It was not only nabú-tainted milk that was added to their slop, but also whey (the watery part left over from cheese production).  You see, when milk was not picked up for some reason or other — perhaps the dairy’s truck broke down  or came too early — a scramble ensued at Songorrongo to use all that milk immediately before it spoiled.  A few gallons were stored in the small kerosene refrigerator in the pantry, but all those other gallons were turned into cheese, or boiled down with sugar into dulce de leche and other desserts.  One day, after an especially large batch of cheese was processed, one of the big sows was gorging on whey in the pig pen when she exploded!  Elia Maria heard the sound and came running, finding pig guts all over the sty. Perhaps the whey was not all that fresh and had fermented. I’m guessing there was pork on the menu at Songorrongo and nearby ranches for a number of days afterwards.

Then there were the garrapatas — the ticks — that clung to livestock, horses and people.  Livestock had to be dipped and sprayed often to keep them in healthy. Horses where brushed down daily to discover and remove them. And there was the nightly check for garrapatas  before going to bed. They could have crawled anywhere before they sunk their teeth in you. How to remove a Cuban tick from a human body? The two approaches were to apply the lit end of a cigarette to shock them into letting go, and the other was to suffocate them with a cotton ball soaked dripping wet in rubbing alcohol.

You also had to be careful of snakes. They normally kept to themselves and slithered away when you came close, but after a few cold days in winter, rare in Cuba but not unknown, they would seek the warmth of the outbuildings or the ranch house. Mariana told the story of the snake she found in her bedroom in Songorrongo one afternoon at siesta time. All the men were out in the pastures and it was just her and her mother Elia at the house. It was a good size snake, four or five feet long. She cried out and retreated, slamming the door and calling for her mother. Elia got a machete, dispatched the snake and then cleaned up the mess.

Joaquín Cane de Varona
Posing with his milk cans.
Songorrongo had a special ranch hand, Joaquin Cane de Varona, Elia’s “older brother.” He would tell everyone that, and if you asked Elia to verify she would agree. It was because they grew up together at Elia’s mother’s main ranch, Saratoga, and they were very close. Joaquin was the son of a former slave that worked for the Rodriguezes, and he went to work for Elia’s mother when he came of age. Shortly after Elia and Ventura started their Songorrongo venture, they hired him away from Saratoga. He was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was good at small, repetitive tasks.  In the 1940s and 1950s he was in charge of getting the milk cans to the highway before dawn every morning and bringing back the empties. He had a small purpose-built cart he used to convey the milk, pulled by a horse.

The milk cart
Playing on the milk cart are Ofelia, cousin Teresita Martínez,
Elia Maria, Venturita and cousin Alfredo Salvador with the reins. 
Ventura’s and Elia’s children loved to be at Songorrongo.  They learned to ride at a very young age, and had their own horses. On horseback they had the run of the ranch and nearby properties. They could go down to the river for a cool swim, or across the back meadows and across nearby ranches to visit friends. They were sent out on horseback to scout lost cattle or to report on the state of  watering holes and fences at distant parts of the ranch. When Elia Maria married Manuel Lopez, an engineer with an American nickel ore company operating in Cuba, he only had one week’s leave for the honeymoon. So everyone cleared out of Songorrongo’s ranch house and they spent it there. Both were avid horse riders, and they spent their honeymoon on horseback in paradise at Songorrongo.

The Martínez-Rodríguez Family at Songorrongo’s front lawn, circa 1950s
Left to right, top: Elia Maria, Mariana, Natalia, Ventura, Elia
Bottom: Venturita, Juan Antonio, Ofelia.

The final touch to Elia and Ventura’s Songorrongo, a modest entrance gate at the foot of the lawn, was erected in 1960, and a year later the ranch was confiscated by the new Cuban government that had decided that communism was the way to go. There was to be no more private property; everything belonged to the people under the care of the state. You could have only one home and there you would just be the tenant. So Elia and Ventura chose their city house in Camaguey and reluctantly left Songorrongo, taking Joaquin Cane with them. The three were old enough to retire, and that is what they did.   

Benito and Mariana Prats in Songorrongo
Mariana's sister Elia Maria on horseback
Their ranch hands in Songorrongo became employees of the state, and were surprised when their salary was adjusted down and benefits they were enjoying, like free food staples and gasoline Ventura brought in from the city, stopped. They could no longer simply grab a chicken for the fry pan because the chickens now belonged to the state.

The centralized top-down economy imposed from Havana did not work well for Cuba’s cattle industry, and ranching output dropped like a stone. Before long, Cuba, a net exporter of food even when not counting sugar, began importing food from the Soviet Union. (Today, Cuba imports more food from the United States than any other single country.) By 1963 possessing beef without a permit, for example, ground beef in your refrigerator, was a crime punishable by jail time*.

In the 1970s the state abandoned Songorrongo and marabú promptly consumed its pastures. Afterwards, the government tore down the ranch house, as it was no longer needed.


Notes:  “Songorrongo”  is a Taino and Siboney Indian name that means “Land of Gold”  in reference to the rich and fertile soil of the area.

Google Songorrongo and you'll find references to the Cuban revolutionary war against Spain. Some rebels made their headquarters there. Also, in 1903, a number of landowners including Gaspar Rodriguez, Araceli's husband and then the owner of Songorrongo, petitioned the new government in Havana to have the La Horqueta Road improved and a bridge built over the Guareao River, which you will find on the plats shown above at the curve in the in the road. There is no information as to whether their petition was successful.

Cuban style Palomilla Steak
One day in the 1960s, it became illegal to possess and consume
beef in cattle-country, Camaguey. 

* Benito Prats told the story of a doctor in Camaguey, an anesthesiologist who, in the 1963, was found guilty of possessing beef. Someone had ratted him out and beef was found in his refrigerator. He was sentenced to a month in jail. Unfortunately, he was the last anesthesiologist in Camaguey, the others having fled the country earlier. He was still needed at the hospital so he was released from jail every morning so he could work at the hospital.