Volume 103, Number 19 - January 11, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
by Helena Linn
Sometimes going to the road with cattle was a fairly uneventful few days; other times there were some experiences that weren’t easily forgotten. During the Depression there was such a drought, feed was short, cattle were poor, and ranchers weren’t allowed to glut the market because people couldn’t buy the meat anyway. Consequently, the government took over. A government representative marked which animals should be disposed of, paid the rancher $12 a head, and shot those cattle. Tharon (Mickelson) Thompson remembers standing on a hill and watching the cattle being shot. Gordon Mickelson said that a veterinarian, Dr. Lee, was given the job of killing the cattle. For ranchers who raise their cattle from a baby calf, then know and care for each animal, it is difficult to sell their beef, let alone watch them being shot to death. Here are some more pleasant memories from cowboys who enjoyed the cattle drive to the road.
Gordon was in the third grade when he made his first trip to the road. It was in 1934, during the Depression and there was such a drought that it was necessary to take the cattle to Opal in August. Gordon and his brother Polly went along with Blackie Bray and another cowboy. On the way, Gordon tried to ride under a bridge and his saddle horn caught on a stringer. Thankfully, the cinch broke and Gordon wasn’t hurt.
Gordon’s father Jim had made arrangements with the railroad and had bought hay at the Robinson Ranch near Opal for the 800 to 900 head of two-year-old steers to stay overnight so they could be loaded on railroad cars the next day. Blackie was night herding the steers when a train came through and blew its whistle. It was very dark and those cattle stampeded. They went through the fence and passed the nearby bluffs. Jim and his other cowboys were eating in Opal when they heard the whistle and realized the cattle had run, so they went to find Blackie and the steers. Using flashlights and matches they trailed the herd and finally found the steers and Blackie miles away near Granger. Blackie said sometimes he would be in the middle of the herd; sometimes he had to try to stay on their trail. His horse was sure-footed and even though he jumped ditches and took chances running in the dark, Blackie managed to stay on his good horse.
Fifteen or 20 of the steers had broken legs so Jim Mickelson gave them to people in the area who could use the meat. When the men brought the beef back to Opal the next day, they stopped at a creek so the cattle could have water. The buyer went to the creek and protested about the cattle drinking because he had contracted to pay 3¢ a lb. and didn’t want the cattle to fill up with water. Jim Mickelson made it clear there would be no deduction and the cattle were sold as agreed.
On a trip to the road during World War I, Gordon’s grandfather, James Mickelson, followed the Wyoming Range Mountains. They had a chuck wagon and camped along the way. When they reached Round Mountain north of Kemmerer, they discovered that there were no railroad cars available right then so they had to wait 10 to 12 days to load the cattle. In the meantime, they pastured the cattle as they went on toward Opal.
On one trip, Gordon lost the flip of the coin and had to bring the horses home. He left Opal at 6 a.m. and after changing horses about four times, he arrived home that evening at 6. His dad said he had made arrangements for Gordon to spend the night at the Bill McGinnis Ranch and asked why he didn’t go there. Gordon explained that he wanted to go to the dance that night. His dad said, “Go to the dance then.”
Gordon thought he might have set a record for bringing horses back in one day but they discovered that Roy Lozier probably set the record. He rode one horse, from Opal to the Box R above Cora, all day and until about midnight.
Sometimes the Mickelsons would take along some cattle from other ranches. Since it was the fall of the year and everyone was shipping about the same time, there could be five or six herds on the trail at the same time. It could be hard to keep the cattle separate. Another problem was that sometimes they would have to wait awhile to have cars available. On one occasion, Jimmy Jensen had to graze his cattle up and down the area close to Opal for about four days. Gordon’s dad usually made the arrangements for railroads cars and they would load around 40 head to a car. Someone also had to haul hay to Craven Creek where the cowboys penned the cattle and left the horses the last night on the way to Opal.
On one trip, Trav Whitman was one of the cowboys. It was dark and he rode under a telephone line (which wasn’t so high as they are now). It caught him under the nose but he was sure he had cut his throat. One time, they had started up the draw near Name’s Hill. Jim Mickeson told Gordon to tie his horse and hitchhike back to LaBarge to get lunch for the men. A car passed Gordon, and then began to back up but another car was coming; it banged into the first car, and a third car banged into the middle one. Young Gordon was plenty worried about how that was going to turn out.
Gordon didn’t go to the road every year because he was still in school. He remembers the last trip they made – about 1964 or 1965. Bob Thompson, Jim Greenwood, Al Gilchrist, and Buzz Wassenberg were along and they had about 1000 head. They worked the steers out first and while Buzz stayed back with the rest, the others took the steers to Opal. They came back and they all took the heifers on to Opal. Gordon made five or six trips to Omaha with the cattle. The cattle were sent to a commission firm and someone had to go along to deliver the beef to the company.
Kenny Fear and Tom O’Neil
The railroad didn’t carry only cattle from and to the upper country in the early days. It was the main means of bringing in supplies. Ranchers drove a team and wagon, or more than one, to Opal once or twice a year to buy several months’ supply of groceries, feed, and whatever they needed. Kenny Fear’s great-grandfather Frank Fear bought a house from Sears-Roebuck. With wagons pulled by fourhorses, they brought 52 wagon loads of lumber for the Fear house. That house was put together on the ranch and still stands today.
The day that Kenny Fear was born, Oct. 23, 1938, his grandfather Rod Bennett came from his birth at Kemmerer and waved down the Fear cowboys going to the road. Buss Fear, Pete Fear Jr. and their dad Clifton were near McDonald Draw when he hailed them down. Rod told Grandad Fear, “We have another cowboy.” Kenny went to the road twice and remembers watching Buss Fear and Shrimp Woffinden counting the cows in at Polson’s where they made their second stop for the night. Cows were counted in each night and out each morning so they were sure they had gathered all the stock. The Fears followed along the Green River like the other cattle drives but at Name’s Hill, they continued down the road and stayed at a sheep ranch before they went on to Opal. They took steers, heifers, beef cows, and culls all together and worked them at the top of the hill just northwest of Opal where the gas plant is now.
Kenny remembers hauling hay with John Burnett, who worked for the Fears for many years. Kenny also remembers that his dad Buss Fear often went to Omaha with the cattle and whoever went had to ride in the caboose. If the train stopped or slowed down, a cowboy was often thrown into the woodbox. He said it was a rough ride but they had a pass to ride in a passenger car on the way back.
Ralph Armstrong will be remembered by many local elders because he was a terrific saxophone player and played with the Stepp brothers for dances. Mr. Armstrong was also the Opal teletype operator for the railroad. When someone needed railroad cars to ship cattle, he sent the message to Kemmerer to order the switch engine that would come to move cars up to the chutes. When three cars were loaded, the engine pulled three more cars into place. The railroad cars were then moved to Kemmerer or Green River to get on the main line. Tom O’Neil, like Kenny, is a grandson of T.D. O’Neil, an early settler on Cottonwood. Tom went to the road with Buss and Pete Fear Jr. and remembers that he had to skip school to make the trip. On the last cattle drive the O’Neils made to the road, Gene Pfisterer brought some cattle to go with the O’Neil cattle. Tom had just graduated from high school in 1955 and two of his fellow graduates, Jim Smith and Ray Wardell, went on the same drive. It took six days to make the trip from Cottonwood to Opal. T.D. O’Neil once took 1600 steers on that long trip to the railroad.
Tom and Kenny provided pictures so we could see what the stockyards were like in Opal and also showed us their grandfather watching his 700 head of cows moving off the hill down into Opal. The stockyards are no longer there in Opal. Those 700 head of cows sold for 5¢ a lb. that year. Oh, by the way, the rancher who stopped at the roadhouse and found a horse that belonged to him: The horse had been stolen. He told the shady character who owned the roadhouse that he wanted his horse back. The man said he sure liked that horse and couldn’t he pay him some way. The rancher said he really needed a set of harness. A few days later a package arrived with the harness. The harness had been stolen from the Opal Merc.
I sincerely thank everyone who contributed to these articles about “going to the road." The era has long since passed but for country that didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a railroad for 60 or 100 miles, it was the only way ranchers could sell their cattle and since that was how they made their living, they could be seen every fall doing what they called "going to the road." I appreciate the opportunity to record this history and I am grateful to all the cowboys who gave me their stories.
Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Tom O'Neil and Kenny Fear
See The Archives for past articles.
Copyright © 2007 Pinedale Roundup
All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means must have permission of the Publisher.
Pinedale Roundup, PO Box 100, Pinedale, WY 82941 Phone 307-367-2123