At our wedding, Sid Connell – who ranched on the Little Missouri up river south of Medora and very good friends and neighbors to JoAnn’s parents, George and Donna Klein – took me aside and said, “If you’re going to ranch, it ain’t the hard times that’ll break you – it’s the good times.” I took that as gospel our entire career, as well as a couple other statements from guys I looked up to.
Early on in our ranching, I was at a loss for when would be the best time to market our calf crop, as I watched the market bounce around. I then confided in Willard Schnell, head of the long running livestock auction facility. He told me, “That’s anybody’s guess, but I can tell you never to overstay a good market, it can only go one way from there.”
The other was my dad Harold. We grew up with these guidelines to not overspend purchasing cows. She should be worth two fall steer calves. A good purebred bull, for commercial use, should cost no more than two good young stock cows and, finally, that a stock cow is equal to an ounce of gold. That’s held up more times than not through our career.
We grew up getting by doing for ourselves or do without. Our dad taught us how to axe cut our own cedar corral and fence posts and thin out heavy ash tree growths by selecting the straightest of the tall, slim saplings to build our high rail horse corrals and pass it down to the next generation.
One annual, long time friend from Fargo once remarked to our oldest son, who was building a tack shack out of some beaver fallen cottonwoods, “Boy, you really know how to make a ranch look western.”
Lane came back with, “What does that mean? I can’t afford to go to town and buy everything.”
Others used to do the same. If they had a lot of rocks, they built sheds out of rocks. If they had abundance of cedar canyons, they built with them. Down below us on the Little Missouri River, they built log houses from their giant cottonwoods. As they aged and settled the front door would have to be taken off and shaved down a bit so it wouldn’t drag on the floor when opened.
Just past our east range there’s still remains of an old sod dugout in the hillside of a deep side draw off Brown’s Plateau. I’d been in it several times as a kid, long after it was abandoned. The front was boarded up and I’ve heard he had a cowhide hung up for a door. Both sidewalls and the back wall were dirt banks. The entire floor was dirt. Large ridge pole logs spanned the ceiling supporting smaller rails with woven wire, flax straw and then dirt for the roof. Gene Nolan had come up the Texas Trail and ranched there until the 1940s when he retired to Terry, Mont. My dad knew the old bachelor well.
That’s a piece of history that’s gone. It seems anymore, its town bought and hired contracted.
All my years of growing up and until our son Lusk and family moved home to partner ranch with us, I could never understand how those farmers out on the flats ever got their tractors started to do a days work. We always had to park ours on a steep hill to roll start every morning and then make sure you never killed the engine all day long. Lusk’s a top notch mechanic, so I live in luxury now. It’s never bothered me one bit if someone can afford to purchase brand new equipment – I’m happy for them, but what really torques me is if they don’t take care of it – because I have to use it next.
Back to logs. Our sons, Lane and Lusk and I have built several log buildings on the ranch. We hauled a couple loads of even sized pines from a sawmill in the Black Hills of South Dakota and built a nice guest house.
When Montana-Dakota Utilities (MDU) went underground with their main line from town to town they stockpiled their abandoned overhead poles. These were huge, low altitude Douglas Fir. Their big end measured right at two feet in diameter while the other end at 40 feet tapered to half that. We bought them pretty cheap, due to that fast taper; nobody seemed to want to build with them.
One friend advised me to just start building on a steep side hill so when I got to the roof it’d be just right. I think that was late into happy hour. In reality they worked out fine by swapping ends on each layer. We built a small one first and after a career of a snow bank and crescent wrench for a shop, I was so proud of it that we built a second one, with three bays, a pit and roomy work bench area. Three 67-footers that were used to cross the Little Missouri River serve as free span ridge poles.
The next summer a young family from the west coast drove in, retracing their family heritage of the “Dirty ’30s.” My dad met them in the front yard. The young husband looked with awe at the old style, rough log shops and exclaimed, “My gosh, those must be old, they don’t build them like that anymore.”
My dad laughed and replied, “My son and grandsons just finished them, and they’re the newest buildings on the ranch.”
Do it yourself or do without.