Volume 103, Number 17 - December 28, 2006
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
part 2 of 3
by Helena Linn
Men who were beginning to build ranches in what was Uinta County and is now Sublette County in the last few decades of the 1800s and first few decades of the 1900s also were beginning to build up their herd of cattle. According to Frances Johnson, whose father settled on Middle Piney Creek about 1893, her father George Johnson and several neighbors might only have a few cattle to sell in the fall but that was their only livelihood so they would trail what cattle they had to Green River City where a butcher there would buy their cattle then sell the meat. As their herds grew to more than the butcher could use, the ranchers had to find buyers for their cattle so they began trailing their cattle to Opal where their beef could be shipped by railroad to a market in Chicago or other place in the Midwest until about 1905 or 1906. By then, Omaha was the most economical market although Frances said they sometimes shipped to Ogden, Utah. They had to sell wherever there was a market for their cattle. There were buyers in Omaha who would send commission men to take consignments for going to Omaha so that helped establish that as a market. Mr. Johnson went to Omaha several times and twice his cattle topped the Omaha market price. Frances didn’t know what that price was but the usual price those days was around 12¢ a pound.
Frances said that at first her father held steers until they were two years old but it took too much feed to keep them that long so he began selling yearling steers and older cows that would not produce a calf every year. Like all the ranchers, they kept as many heifers as replacements as they had or could afford to keep.
It took about five days for Mr. Johnson and his neighbors to reach Opal. Ranchers along the route advertised that they would provide feed for the cattle and a place for the cowboys to stay and eat as they trailed cattle to Opal so the ranchers would make arrangements to stop overnight at the various stops. Since it was the time of year to sell cattle, there could be several cattle drives underway at the same time.
Frances thought the men usually stopped first at Homer’s nearer Big Piney, then on to Midway, somewhere around LaBarge, to Fontenelle, then on to Craven Creek which was five or six miles from Opal and the last layover. For ranchers who trailed their cattle together, Craven Creek was a good place for them to separate their herds before they went on to the stockyards at Opal.
Weight loss was a big consideration. Most of the cattle had trailed off the summer range, spent a few days or weeks on pasture or being fed hay, then had to make the long trip to Opal so the cowboys tried to let them travel slow enough to prevent any more weight loss than necessary. That was not always easy because they had to get to the next stop in time for the cattle to be fed and watered each evening. During the Depression, not only were cattle prices low but sometimes it was hard to get railroad cars reserved.
The Whitman family lived on LaBarge Creek and Ben Whitman was about fifteen years old when he first went with the cattle drive to Opal. Phil Twitchell and the Genetti family were neighbors and Ben often rode for them. From LaBarge Creek, the ranchers usually stopped first at Fontenelle at a place they called the “Old Bill Place”. They would stop again at Craven Creek where cattle would be fed and watered and herds separated as needed.
Ben says they had supper and breakfast at Fontenelle but seldom had any lunch. From Craven Creek they would ride into Opal and stay the night.
Ben went to work for the Osterhout Ranch near Big Piney as a young man and stayed with the Osterhouts and Guios until a few months ago. He lives in the retirement home, Sublette Center, in Pinedale now but he remembers those early day cattle drives and that it was a long way from Big Piney to Opal and that one or more of the cowboys had to bring the horses back once the drive was over.
Like the other cowboys still living that actually went to the road with cattle in the fall, Edward was just a kid the one time he went with Joe and Solon Murdock and their cattle. Since the Murdock Ranch is on the east side of Green River, they had to find a place to cross the river around LaBarge. They spent the first night at what he called the Salmon Place on the south side of LaBarge. They followed the old road to Aaron McGinnis Ranch for the second night out.
A coyote ran through their cow herd and it had a trap on its foot. Solon Murdock intended to rope the coyote but the coyote managed to get loose from the trap and ran away. Solon picked up the trap and the next morning he tied it behind his saddle. It spooked the horse so much that he bucked Solon off. Solon gave the trap to Aaron McGinnis and the cowboys went on their way.
The men stayed at the hotel in Opal but the trains made so much noise they didn’t get much sleep. Joe and Solon came home in a pickup so Edward brought the horses back. He rode his horse and drove the others who were ready to be going home. It took two days to bring the horses back to the ranch.
Mardell didn’t go to the road with the cattle drive but she did take lunch to the men sometimes. Most of the time, she and the other Fear women prepared a lunch for two days to send with the men On the third day someone from the ranch usually went to help work the cattle at Craven Creek and she would send lunch with whoever went.
One fall (probably 1943) Mardell left her daughter Deanne with Grandma Bennett so Mardell and her mother-in-law Cornelia Fear could take lunch to the men at Craven Creek. Mardell had gotten up early to fix a fried chicken dinner for the men. Her son Kenny went along with them as well as Pete Fear’s son Frank. Pete Fear Sr. (Clifton) met them where the highway turned off towards Opal and said it was storming too much and he would take the meal to the men and the women and kids should go on into Kemmerer because the weather was turning into a blizzard. Mardell ran off the road in one place and had to use the tire pump to clear snow enough for some traction but she managed to get going again. They went on to the hotel in Kemmerer and couldn’t leave for a couple of days.
In the meantime, Buss and Pete Fear Jr. and the other cowboy, Tude McWilliams were in such a blizzard that they were losing their way. Finally, they saw a telephone pole and Buss said to let the cattle go. The men made it to Opal by following the telephone line but they could have lost their lives in that storm. It was two or three days before they could try to round up their cattle. When they finished, they found that they recovered all but nine head of their herd.
Pete Jr. and Jeanetta Fear became new parents during that time so Mardell and Cornelia stayed in Kemmerer a day or so longer so they could bring Jeanetta and baby Pauline home with them. Mardell says she doesn’t know what happened to the fried chicken dinner but at least Grandpa Pete made it to Opal. When Kenny was old enough, Mardell loaded his horse in a trailer and took Kenny to Craven Creek to ride the last day of the cattle drive.
Mardell remembers that usually the cattle had been contracted for sale at the ranch and just had to be driven to the railroad.
The cattle drives were a pretty good diversion from work on the ranch but they were also a very necessary part of the ranching business because cattlemen had to sell the cattle they had raised, to make a living for them and their families. That was their paycheck for the year. Beef drives started the latter part of September and lasted until November.
Johnnie said he didn’t get into any bad storms on the way to Opal but he remembered when Fears had to abandon their cattle and find shelter for themselves Wardells often hauled hay to feed the cattle on the way to Opal. Mr. Wardell loaded a tent and bed rolls on the hay truck so they could camp along the way. They also lived on the east side of the river and had to cross to the west side to follow the trail to Opal. Some of the places Johnnie remembers stopping were at Dave Johnson’s, Ira Bailey’s, Herb Booth’s, Billy Grahams, the Churndash (Polson’s), and Slate Creek. They would try to make 12 to 15 miles a day but that depended on where they could stop for the night.
Later he worked for Bill Todd and since that was nearer Daniel, it took six days for the cattle drive from Daniel to Opal. They went to Wardells, the Yose Place, Bill McGinnis Place, Aaron McGinnis Ranch on Fontenelle, then to Craven Creek.
Aaron McGinnis hauled hay to Craven Creek for them. There were pens at Craven Creek and a reservoir (where the ranchers hoped their cattle would drink lots of water and thus weigh more at the railroad) but there were no accommodations so Mr. Todd would meet the riders with a car and take them into Kemmerer to stay overnight.
They would get back early the next day to move the cattle on to Opal. They would try to get the cattle corralled at Opal between train times so the train whistle didn’t cause a stampede. At Opal, the men sorted the cattle into carload lots and the brand inspector (Bill Sherman at the time) would check them and fill out forms to tell how many cattle there were, what car they were loaded into, and who they were consigned to. The inspector then helped the men load the cattle onto the train. The railroad cars would be pulled up to the three chutes, the cattle were loaded, and the engine would pull cars up to the three chutes again for another load.
Johnnie used one horse, some riders took two. Usually two or three men drove the cattle but that depended on how many cattle they had to drive. He always got the job of bringing the horses back to the ranch and it was nearly always on his birthday, the 13th of November.
The last beef drives occurred about 1941 or 1942 for the ranches where Johnnie worked. He said that more cars were on the road by then and the cattle drives followed the roads so it was harder to drive cattle along the roads. Although ranchers on the east side of New Fork River had started trucking their cattle earlier, most on the west side of the rivers went to trucking about the 1940s. On the east side, there were fewer ranches for the cattle drives to stop overnight and cowboys had more trouble finding water along the way. Johnnie said that taking cattle to the railroad by truck was “harder on the pocketbook but easier on the cowboys”.
Next week, some other cowboys will tell us about “going to the road”.
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