Column: A Wisconsin guy’s venture into the Old West

By Craig Cook

Ever since I was a young child, I dreamed of wrangling cattle, riding on the range, and working hard to maintain the ranch life we all read about in books and see in movies.

Being from Wisconsin and getting to experience what dairy and beef cattle farms were like throughout the countryside gave me the excitement at some point to saddle up the horse (my car) and head west where the cowboys wore spurs, owned a horse named Silver, and could handle themselves at the local saloon.

Recently, I was asked to go work on a real working cattle ranch over, just over the border of South Dakota in Wyoming. The ranch had been in the same family since the late 1800s and had well over 2,000 acres and hundreds of cows—cows that had to be kept safe and raised to the right age before they could be sold.

We headed out from Wisconsin heading down I-90, which took about 12-plus hours. It was interesting to watch the Midwest fade away and the trees, then small hills, eventually morph into the famous Black Hills after we crossed the Missouri River through Chamberlain, South Dakota.

As we neared our destination and it seemed as if every field, we passed had cattle on them we entered the heart of the Black Hills and headed through the famous city of Deadwood.

As we finally arrived at the ranch and drove down the mile-long driveway, we reached the original homestead and the barns that had been standing for over a century. We were greeted by the owner, who in good Wyoming fashion asked if we were ready for dinner after a long day of travel.

The next day started very early before the sun crested the hills. Bacon, eggs, and sausage were on the menu to fill our bellies before we headed out for the daily chores that needed tending.

The wind in these parts could be very formidable, and the past summer had taken its toll on two of the large barn doors that had hung from these structures like airplane hangar doors. We used our crude carpentry skills to bring new, rough-cut pine to assemble and recreate doors that once hung on these structures.

After the first barn was done, it was time to bring the cattle into the closer pastures for their transport the following day to the winter home, another ranch to the north where heifers will graze and roam as they carry the calves born each spring.

The cattle were brought in by horseback, the traditional way it had been done for centuries, then rounded up and brought to the corral in preparation for their ride north.

The next day, earlier than the last, we saddled the horses and worked to get the cattle staged and ready to load the ramp for the trucks. Each was reviewed by a brand inspector to ensure the correct cattle were present before crossing state lines. One by one each cow loaded, knowing they were heading for richer and greener pastures until their return to the melted snow and another season roaming the range in the Black Hills.

It was exciting to get the chance to full fill a lifelong dream, to experience the essence of the Old West, to meet new and wonderful people, and create a lifelong friendship for return visits.

To know I had the opportunity to walk in the same spaces as General Custer, the Sioux, and Cheyenne Tribes that you only read about in books was beyond an experience. As we drove out early in the morning in the dark, heading back to our home state, it was something to reflect on my journey and the anticipation of my return adventure in the future.

Craig Cook is a U.S. Army veteran and owner of Fall Line Outfitters in downtown Stevens Point. He lives with his wife and children in Stevens Point.