Fermin fell in love at first sight after meeting Benancia Erro Miranda in Flagstaff. Benancia’s mother had immigrated into California in the early 1890s. The Miranda family and Echeverria were from close native villages in Spain. Benancia came to Flagstaff from California to work for her uncle, Gregorio Erro, who owned one of two Basque boarding houses. She would help sheepherders who came through the boarding house with any translations that were needed or other problems that they needed an English spokesperson. After only a few months of courting, the couple married in Los Angeles on October 5, 1918, returning to Arizona for Fermin to continue in the sheep business.
Fermin and Benancia would split their time between Wickenburg and Winslow. Sheep are grazed in the summer months in the high cool forest lands around Winslow and to the east and further north toward the canyon. The animals would be trailed there each spring. Sheep, burros for carrying supplies, dogs for protection and dogs for helping to move the sheep would be accompanied by a herder or two as they walked for six or more weeks to the cooler forest where grazing was plentiful. Fermin would go with the herders. When the temperatures began to cool, the ewes which are now pregnant, would be moved to the warmer desert areas. Here in this setting, the lambing would begin usually in November and continue until February. This practice of the migration of sheep between summer and winter pastures is known as transhumance. It is unique to the western states but not to other countries.
The couple’s first home was purchased in Winslow. The couple was blessed with five children; Fermin Matias born in Los Angeles, Ellen in Wickenburg, John Philip in Winslow, Rachel Marie in Wickenburg and Irene in Winslow. The children traveled each summer to the family home in Winslow along with the families of Fermin’s partners. The children would play together as the families lived in the same ranch house or very near one another. As the children grew they learned a work ethic that is so common among the Basque as they were given chores and expected to carry them out. Fermin and the other men would spend time among the sheep and herders. The men would make supply runs to purchase weekly supplies that the herders needed. Other times the whole family would take a trip to the sheep camp taking fried chicken and hand-beaten cakes that the women had prepared. Mothers taught their daughters how to cook traditional Basque food. Everyone would enjoy the camaraderie for the day with the herders. The children would carve their names or animals or other things in the aspen trees. The herders also would carve designs, their names, where they were from in Basque country, or to give directions. This is a trait of the Basque. A photographic documentation of many of these carvings has been made by the forest service and others allowing future generations to see them.
Back at the ranch house, many evenings were spent playing games or listening to someone play a musical instrument. As Irene Echeverria Aja said one day to me, “Quality family time was spent in the evenings. We made do with what we had growing up in the fields around our homes and we used our imagination to invent ways to keep ourselves entertained!” After spending the summer in the cool forest of northern Arizona a return trip to Wickenburg occurred in October for the children to attend school.
Fermin Echeverria passed away February 7, 1974 followed by his wife February 17, 1976. Fermin and Benancia had instilled in their five children to be true to their Basque Country but to have a great love for their adopted country, the United States.
More information on the Echeverria family is found in Where Have All the Sheep Gone? Sheep Herders and Ranchers in Arizona – a Disappearing Industry.