Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Heather Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Coming Back to Withington Creek

Lynn and me standing in the front yard of the little cabin in early spring of 1967, after we came back to Withington Creek to begin ranching.

After Lynn and I were married on March 5, 1966, we spent our first spring, summer and fall on a dairy farm near Gooding, Idaho. We didn’t have a honeymoon; we had to go home from the wedding and milk the cows. Lynn was already leasing a farm, and had a small herd of Holstein cows. Dairying was a quicker way to get into agriculture at that time than trying to start out with beef cattle, because bankers would more readily loan money for a dairy operation. Our long-term goal, however, was to have a ranch. That fall we sold the dairy cows and moved back to Salmon, Idaho where we both grew up. My parents leased their ranch to us (which we would eventually buy), and we began buying one of the neighboring ranches on the lower end of the creek.

The homestead cabin on our ranch, built in 1885. This is what it looked like when Lynn and I moved into it in January 1967

The move from Gooding was a major undertaking. We had very few household belongings, but many animals and some farm machinery. Friends and family helped us make several trips with trucks and trailers. On our last trip, Lynn and I brought our pickup—with our dog Liesl and a box of cats in the cab with us (and bags of clothing), and 7 dairy calves in the back. We pulled a big flatbed trailer that Lynn made. On it was a 1940 Oliver tractor, several half barrels full of tools (the barrels were nailed to the trailer bed), plastic pipe from our water system, and anything else that would fit. It was so overloaded we barely made it up the steeper parts of the highway through the Craters of the Moon National Monument. A friend drove a stock truck loaded with cows and Lynn’s horse Bambi.

I was glad to be coming back to the creek where I’d spent most of my youth. This area has an interesting history. In early days before the settlers arrived, “mountain buffalo” roamed the rangelands where our cattle graze today. These “buffalo” were a smaller version of the plains bison. Evidence of their existence here included old bones and skulls at the base of several cliffs where early-day Native Americans ran the herds over the precipices to their death. We’ve also found some old bison horn shells on our cattle range.

This area was hunting ground for Shoshoni Indians, who traveled up into the mountains for summer and back down to the valley floor (where weather was warmer and snow not so deep) for their winter camps. There are several old travois trails still evident up and down the ridges on our cattle range, where the Indian horses traveled single file--always straight up and down the slope (and never sidling, else the travois would tip over).

Sacajawea, the Indian wife of Charboneaux (who was a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition), was born a few miles from our present ranch. She led the group of explorers to this valley, where her brother Cameahwait had become chief. Our present rangeland was summer range for his horses. The tribe traded horses to Lewis and Clark in 1805; the expedition had come as far up river as they could, and had to abandon their boats and continue over the mountains (the Continental Divide) with horses.

The old root cellar at the top of our driveway, as it looks today

Homesteading began in the mid-1800’s after gold was discovered. Settlers took up land to raise cattle to sell for meat to the mining towns. Here on our creek, Lester P. Withington came from Pennsylvania in 1864 and built a home at the mouth of the creek, which was named for him. His house was made from hand-hewn cottonwood logs with a sod roof. He and his wife had 12 children, all born in that house. It was located down in the valley where the creek joined the Lemhi River, and served as a freighter stop, where teamsters could change horses.
The place where Lynn and I have lived for 43 years was homesteaded by the Chandler family. They crossed the plains with an ox team in 1877 and took up 160 acres here on the creek in 1884. Their 2-room log cabin was built in 1885, where their last 3 children were born. This cabin had only one small addition on it when Lynn and I moved into it in 1967. We’ve since added on several more rooms. This ranch didn’t have electricity until the 1930’s; the families who lived here kept their food cool in a milk house down by the creek, and stored garden produce (potatoes, carrots, apples, etc.) through the winter in a “root cellar” dug into the hill at the top of our driveway.

Altogether there were 14 different attempts at homesteads on our creek, but not all at the same time. Several homesteaders didn’t succeed. The homestead farthest up the creek reverted back to public domain. Some passed into other hands, becoming parts of the little ranches next to them. Most of the small ranches on this creek changed hands several times in those early years. It was very difficult to make a living on pieces of land that were too small to support enough livestock for a viable ranch.

The Homestead Act of 1862, allowing 80 acres and then expanding to 160 acres (and eventually a grazing homestead of 160 acres) was best suited to farming areas, and never was adequate for arid western lands where it took many acres to pasture one cow. Many of the small homesteads in our valley sold out to their neighbors and some were sold at public auction for delinquent property taxes.

Old freight wagon that was used to haul ore from the Harmony Mine. It's now parked in our "maternity ward" where our cows calve

Copper and gold were discovered at the head of our creek in the early 1900’s, and the Harmony mine was established on that steep mountain slope. It was operational in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, with ore brought down in freight wagons pulled by teams of horses and mules. One of the old freight wagons is parked along the fence in our calving area next to our house.
The various homesteads on the lower part of the creek eventually coalesced into 3 small ranches. The Dawson place (which included the old Chandler homestead), where we live, had a large barn and corrals. They pastured their horses on the surrounding rangelands, and rounded some up periodically to break and sell, and had Sunday rodeos at the ranch. The Johnson place on up the creek (and the Wittiborg place above it) also ran lots of horses; many ranchers in those early days raised more horses than cattle. The rangelands outside the homesteads were used mainly by large itinerate sheep ranchers (who trailed their big bands over the country) and locally owned horses until the 1940’s. After the Taylor Grazing Act and eventual creation of the Bureau of Land Management, sheep numbers declined; range use was predominantly cattle and horses. Most horses were removed from the ranges in our area by 1955.

The Johnsons had an Army Remount stallion named Cheyenne Chief, who sired many good horses in our area—including the Thoroughbred filly (Nell) that my dad bought from Lester Withington (a grandson of the original Lester Withington for whom our creek is named).

This is what our place looked like--where our ranch buildings are located--in 1967 when Lynn and I started buying this place.

When my dad bought his little ranch (Wittiborg’s place) at the upper end of the creek in 1955 there were still 3 small ranches on the creek, none of them big enough to make a living that would support a family. Dad already had a job as a preacher; he bought the little ranch as a sideline because he enjoyed raising cattle (he grew up on a farm in southern Idaho). Lynn and I eventually bought Dad’s little ranch as well as half of the ranch where we’re living now, and leased the other parcels, putting it all together. With hard work, and my writing, this was enough land to have enough cows to create a livelihood.

It’s still a marginal ranch. It’s beautiful country, but not very productive land. Our ranch consists of steep hill pastures (native bunch grass) but not enough hay ground. The only places we can grow hay are the small meadows along the creek where it’s not too steep to irrigate and to operate haying equipment. We maximized our grazing potential with various crossfences to facilitate pasture rotations, and bought some extra hay. Thus we were able to run 175 cows and 30 to 40 yearling heifers. This, along with my freelance writing, enabled us to make a living on this creek and raise our children here.

It was a tremendous challenge—to create new ditches and repair old ones, and build more than 10 miles of new fences and repair the old falling down fences on parts of these ranches. We now have more than 25 miles of fence and 10 miles of ditches on this strung out place. Our ranch is more than 5 miles long but most of it is very narrow--just the land along the creek canyon and some of the surrounding hills.

Our upper place in winter, showing our narrow little hay meadows along the creek bottom. Most of our land is steep hillsides. This photo was taken on a frosty morning after feeding our cows.

Because of the challenge to create a living from this marginal but beautiful land, we’ve become innovative, tough and enduring, but it’s been a very satisfying life. We’ve created our own hardy type of cattle, and have learned a great deal about raising cattle and horses. In continuing installments I’ll recount some of the experiences and adventures we’ve had, and the valuable lessons we’ve learned, here at Sky Range Ranch on Withington Creek.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

1 comment:

Maryellen said...

Wonderful words, wonderful pictures, wonderful life!
Thanks for sharing Heather. I look forward to your next blog entry!!!