My last blog I got carried away, and drifted a little from what I intended to write about. Remembering events from 26 years ago served as a catalyst to dredge up many other memories.
My intention was to tell a little about cattle drives from my granddads day, and I will do it now, before drifting back forward in time. As I have posted before, my ancestors came here mostly in the 1870s, and most by railroad. The toughest of the pioneer days were over. From the time they got here, up until the 1940s, the train was the most common method of getting livestock to market, and unbelievably the markets were a long way away, my great grandfather shipped cattle to Chicago, offhand I would guess that to be 500 miles from here, and then later to Kansas City(100 miles away), as did my grandfather. I can just remember the Kansas City stockyards as a very young boy, being carried by my father. The train stopped about 4 miles straight north of our farm at a place called Root station, where there was a stockyards. Grandfather told me they use to drive the cattle on horseback to that station, and have my great grandmother follow in a car. When the cattle were loaded, they tied the reins to the saddle horn and let the horses go, and they would come home on their own while the riders came home in the car. He also told me of a time his father bought several head of cattle that had come from various farms, and all been driven on foot to the stockyards and then on foot down to our farm. That night someone left the gate open, and the cattle all went back to their respective farms. However the droving that has always impressed me as being the most out of touch with my life today was hog droving.
In the days before the hammer mill, the corn(maize) was fed to the cattle on the cob. A tremendous amount went through the cattle whole, and the custom was to buy feeder pigs and run with the cattle, to make use of the wasted corn. Usually these pigs were also fed skim milk. Granddad said his father usually had about 200 pigs with the cattle. In the fall of the year, when the pigs were fat, they would drive them to the rail yard in town to load on the train. This seems unbelievable to me, driving pigs along the river 2 and a half miles, as I have rarely been able to drive a pig over 50 feet with any success. A rather successful local farmers wife tells how in the 1970s after hearing for years about the local pig drives of the 1920s, she and her husband decided they would drive their market hogs to town, and had a disaster on their hands. Apparently, somewhere in the period between 1930 and 1970, pigs lost their "driveability".
Flashing back to where I left off in my last blog, the cold nasty winter of 1983. I didn't fully comprehend at the time what was going on. The 1970s had been fairly good to farming in the USA and in our area. Fairly decent weather, good prices and good yields ended abruptly in 1980 with the worst drouth I have ever seen, and according to grandpa and the other old men the worst since 1936(one farmer said 1936 was so dry he was conceived in 1936, but wasn't born until 1939).. Coupled with that was interest that eventually ended up at 20%, and diving commodity prices. While the weather did recover in 1981, prices remained miserable, and by 1983 the stress was showing. The reason my grandfather chose to send cattle to the commercial feedyard in 1983, and again in 1984, were predictions of higher prices for fed cattle 3 months in the future,and those better prices never did materialize. One of our two local banks changed hands during that time, and the new owners had no agricultural background and began leaning hard on many of the farming customers. Many of our neighbors were in much worse financial shape than we could have ever imagined, including our friends who helped us move the cattle on that cold December day. In the spring of 1984, the son of the father/ son duo walked into my grandparents house and announced, "I have some news that is going to affect you, we are selling out". I had never seen my grandfather so shaken by any news in his life. This sale would be the first of many of our neighbors from 1984 to 1988, and our world was turned upside down more than once. We saw land prices plummet, leading my father to comment that Butch had quit "in the nick of time".
Dad auctioned quite a few sales in those days, and along with an older auctioneer he cried the auction for our neighbors. Grandpa bought the hay baler, and dad bought the horse named Gene, mentioned in the previous blog, although at the time Grandpa did not know that. I was with grandpa as he was leaving, and the older auctioneer asked "what did you think of the sale Bill?". Grandpa replied "the horse and the hay baler were the highest priced things here" bringing a big laugh from the auctioneer.
Gene's only real strength was he was fast. He was dumb as a post, and prone to throwing fits, but he could run like nothing we had ever seen, prompting my brother and I to fight over who was going to ride him. I started running cattle on my own in an 80 acre pasture my great great grandfather bought in 1895. The fence had been built by him in the 1920s, and the wire was brittle, about once a summer I had a head or two escape. Trying to retrieve one of these escapees one Sunday afternoon, a bee buzzed Gene just right, prompting him to go into a bucking fit, tossing me off. My brother was riding Levi, as I was tired of trying to control Gene I agreed to trade horses. My brother is 4 years younger, and had watched too many cowboy movies, he believed true cowboying was done at a dead run. My steer was in with a bunch of 130 steers, in a 520 acre pasture. My brother took off full stroke after them, they scattered like dust in the wind, wrecking the entire operation, which meant one thing, we had to call Junior.
"Junior" is the only first name I ever knew for the only true cowboy I have ever known. He looked like a cowboy, tall, slender and weather worn, walked like a cowboy slightly bow legged from days on horseback, spurs jingling, he was a cowboy. His name, "Junior" was spoken reverently far and wide in the cattle raising community, as in "we will have to get Junior" whenever there was a big cattle wreck that had to be sorted out. This sure enough qualified as a wreck, so, I said, "I will have to get Junior".
I really can't remember how we communicated before cell phones, it certainly wasn't as instant as today, but arrangements were made, and later that same day Junior arrived on scene. I have commented most people have horses half as good as they think they are, that did not apply in this case. Junior's horses were the real deal, they were smart, fast, well trained, and worth a good pile of money, probably they were the most valuable things Junior owned. I reckon Junior must have been about 60 when this happened, but his weather worn face and squinted eyes made him look ancient to me. I told him how our earlier approach had worked. He nodded, and said he would rope this steer. We located the group of cattle, Junior rode toward them, they watched for a minute, and then took off, my brother immediately wanted to give chase, but I told him to wait for orders from Junior. Junior simply turned his horse and walked slowly back to us. He sat in his saddle and looked squarely at us, and said "the first thing you two need to learn is you can get alot more done at a walk than at a gallop. There is a pretty good chance since I didn't chase those cattle, curiousity will get the better of them, and they will come back to see what we are doing". I had my doubts, but sure enough, in about 5 minutes the entire group came at a dead run, then stopped suddenly, surrounding us.
Very quietly Junior asked if I saw my steer, I scanned the bunch for my brand. It was hard to see as they were facing us, and Junior said simply to walk the horses slowly toward the cattle. If the cattle started away, we turned away and stopped. It went on like this for about 10 minutes, until we spotted the steer. Junior made a big loop, then started his horse at a slow walk toward the group the steer was in. When the cattle realized what was happening they suddenly broke into a run, Junior spurred his horse and like an explosion the horse lunged for the steer as the loop shot from Juniors hand, and in a flash the steer was roped, the dally tied, and the horse was set. Nothing like a rodeo or a movie, where the cowboy chases the steer for several hundred yards. I think I was barely 18 at the time, but I realized I was in the presence of a master.
Junior is in his 80s now, I don't think he even owns a horse, and while still working on farms and ranches horses are giving way to portable corrals and 4 wheelers(quads in your language). I suppose at some point the animal rights groups will get both roping cattle and using horses to rope them banned, along with spurs. I will always be glad I at least caught a glimpse of the old ways, and I will always admire men like my grandfather and Junior, who made a living in a much simpler, yet much more demanding time.