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Home on Range in the Lonesome Cowboy State

Charles Hillinger's America

May 19, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

NEVADA PALACE RANCH, Wyo. — Perspiration poured from the young cowboy as he kept the 450- to 500-pound yearling heifers separated in the long chute leading to the squeeze where the animals were being spayed.

He wore a black, dirt-splattered hat, chaps, spurs. His face was burnt bright red from the scorching sun. His lips and teeth were smeared with chewing tobacco.

"It's spring. Time of no sleep," Ken Trigg, 21, muttered. "We're underpaid, overworked. Haven't been to town in two months. I can't wait to get to Casper to chase the girls. . . ."

He allowed as how a person has to have one heck of a sense of humor to be a cowboy, quickly adding: "I wouldn't trade this life for any other on a bet."

All of Wyoming is range land. From Cheyenne to Cody. From Sundance to Rock Springs.

"Best grassland on God's green earth," the cowboys say.

Cattle, Sheep Country

Wyoming is cattle, 1.5 million head. Wyoming is sheep, more than a million of the wooly critters. About 460,000 people. Only Alaska has a smaller population.

Ed Herschler, Democratic governor the last 10 years, is a rancher. Half the governors in the state's history have been cowboys.

Wyoming is the cowboy state. Its license plate for more than 50 years has been a cowboy on a bucking horse. It's a state where everyone wears boots. Where beef and lamb are the main dishes. Where people turn up their noses at the mention of chicken and fish. No poultry farms here.

Nevada Palace is one of seven ranches spilling over 200,000 acres owned and operated by Webb Stoddard, 74, and his three sons, Bob, 42, Paul, 38 and J. R., 34. They run 5,000 head of cattle, 600 sheep.

Like ranchers throughout the nation, the Stoddards are having a tough time making ends meet because of agricultural economics. Beef consumption has declined 25% in the last decade and Wyoming land prices have plummeted.

Two months ago, Stoddard lost a finger when a horse threw him into a barbed wire fence. "Man takes his life in his own hands out here," the rancher laughed.

Stoddard was standing by the squeeze, which held a heifer that was being spayed by "Doc" Rich Johnson, 41. When Stoddard released the squeeze, the heifer did not budge. "Get 'em, Rooster," Stoddard shouted to his Australian cattle dog. The dog darted over and nipped the yearling on a leg. The spayed cow bolted from the squeeze.

Rooster ran around the squeeze and guided the heifer toward the animals huddled in the corral. The dog ran on three legs. One leg was crippled from a steer falling on it.

"People don't know what a rough life ranching is. They think it's all peaches and cream and glamour. They think all ranchers are wealthy. I can assure you that isn't true. We're barely surviving in today's tight economic crunch," Stoddard said. "It's up before dawn and working into the late hours of the night. Skimping here and there to keep this outfit going."

It's springtime in the Rockies.

Wyoming is alive with newborn lambs and calves. As far as you can see from one end of the state to the other, from the endless grasslands to the high mountain pastures, there are bands of ewes with lambs, herds of cows with calves. The creeks are bubbling over with runoff from melting snow. Wild flowers are everywhere. The music in the air is a delightful dissonance of baa's and moo's.

Wyoming is America's lonesome state. Mile after mile of open spaces. Highways and byways with hardly a car. Ranches 30, 40 and 50 miles from the nearest town, and the nearest towns aren't much--a handful of people, a few stores, a couple of bars.

Towns like Bill, Buffalo, Chugwater and Horse Creek, Jay Em, Kaycee and Lightning Flat, Lost Cabin, Medicine Bow, Moose, Pitchfork, Spotted Horse and Ten Sleep.

Lost Springs claims to be the smallest incorporated town in the nation--pop. 5. Incorporated in 1911, it has never gone out of business, even though at one time it was down to three residents.

Leda Price, 38, is mayor, paid $3 a year, and is up for election every four years. She has been mayor 10 years. The three members of the town council--Postmaster Clara Stringham, 58; her husband, Bob, 61, a cowboy, and the mayor's mother, Edith Droster, 70, receive $10 a month for attending the monthly council meetings in the Town Hall. The mayor's husband, Vincent Price, 61, is town clerk, a job that doesn't pay anything.

Postmaster Stringham is also the town mechanic and runs the Lost Springs General Store that boasts a billboard with a big sign that proclaims: "Just Because Everything Is Different Doesn't Mean Anything Has Changed."

Seven Vacuum Cleaners

The store is stocked with a few shelves of groceries, fan belts and other auto parts, over-the-counter medicine, a refrigerator full of soft drinks, and seven vacuum cleaners on the floor near the front door. "A couple of years ago I bought eight vacuum cleaners. I thought some of the ranchers around here might need one," explained Clara. Three months ago she sold her first vacuum cleaner.

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