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Tales of Canyonlands Cowboys

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Richard Negri interviews cattlemen and women about ranching in the rugged canyonlands region of southeastern Utah. Personal stories and anecdotes from the colorful characters who ground out a hard living on ranches of the are in the early 20th century.

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1 Wiladeane Chaffin Wubben Hills

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Wiladeane Chaffin Wubben Hills is Ned Chaffin’s niece and grew up on the Chaffin Ranch. Her story gives us a rare opportunity to learn what it was like for a child growing up in an environment dominated by cow and horse talk. During her first five and a half years on this isolated ranch, before her sister Claire came along, she had to make do with a favorite dog and horse for playmates. There were other children at neighboring ranches, but those neighboring ranches were ten to thirty miles distant.

Wiladeane coped very well, and in addition to learning early in life the ways of a ranch woman—canning, cooking, sewing, and hauling water—she became a first-rate cowhand and performed most of the duties of any cowboy when it was time to drive the cattle from one grazing area to another.

She is retired now and recently moved to Grand Junction in order to be nearer to her children, and so that her bright eyes will be closer to Utah’s wonderlands. In spirit, Wiladeane has never been far removed from them.

 

2 Ned Chaffin

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Ned and his wife, Marjorie, live in Bakersfield, California. His folks bought what became known as the Chaffin Ranch in 1929. Ned was born in 1913 and spent his tender young years pushing stock around the desert and red rock canyon country that surrounded the Chaffin spread. He had a job most kids, who don’t know any better, would give their eyeteeth to have. The ranch was located near the junction of the Green and San Rafael Rivers. Ned left the ranch in 1936, leaving an older brother, Faun, and his wife, Violet, to operate the ranch, but Ned frequently returned over the intervening years to lend a hand when one was needed.

The Chaffin family had a prominent role in cattle raising on the San Rafael Desert and in the grazing areas Under the Ledge that became part of the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. Many of the landmarks in the Maze District were named by various members of Ned’s family. Clell’s Spring was named for a brother; Lou’s Spring was named for his father. Lizard Rock, Arla’s Bottom, Harness-Up Spring, and other names originated with Chaffin family incidents. Ned recorded much of the history of some of those early ranchers and settlers. The inspiration behind these interviews came about when Ned organized a cowboy caucus on Memorial Day in 1994. Eight or ten mostly retired stockmen got together in Green River and relived old times.

 

3 Lorin Milton

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Lorin Milton is a cowboy’s cowboy. Though born in 1918, he continues roping steers in rodeos and raising cattle on his spread in Torrington, Wyoming.

In his younger days he cowboyed in the Book Cliffs, at Art Ekker’s spread at Dubinky Wash, and in the nearby Ten Mile Wash area located on the high plateau north of the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. He also covered the west side of the rivers, where the members of the Wild Bunch once took refuge in the canyons of the Robbers Roost area, and ranged throughout the San Rafael Desert.

He speaks of Dubinky as an area rather than just a wash. Driving the Dubinky Well Road, today’s visitor will discover a nonfunctioning windmill and a stock watering tank that has been vandalized with guns and graffiti. The windmill and stock tank are located alongside a dirt road some six miles from Utah 313. Three-quarters of a mile before reaching the windmill, the road crosses Dubinky Wash. The Ekker Ranch was located down the wash about a mile and a half south of the road.

 

4 Harry W. (Bill) Racy

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Bill Racy, unlike the others interviewed in this book, was an import to Utah. He was an Indiana boy who learned to be a ranch hand in those hard, hard years just prior to World War II. In 1937 sixteen-year-old Bill hopped off a freight train in Green River. He was cold, hungry, and flat broke and eventually found work as a ranch hand on the Chaffin Ranch. He worked on various ranches in southeastern Utah’s canyon country, but also found his way through most of the other western states.

He is one who encouraged Ned to organize the cowboy caucus because he hadn’t seen Ned for fifty-six years. Bill has written autobiographical sketches of his early life. Portions of those sketches have been incorporated and expanded upon with this interview.

I was born in Oaktown, Knox County, Indiana, on May 31, 1921. My parents separated when I was three. I went with my father until I was eight years old. After that things just went to pot, and I never lived with my parents again. I just spent time with this aunt or that uncle or neighbor or what have you. I don’t remember my father too much; I knew him, but I don’t really know him, and the same way with my mother.

 

5 Guy Robison

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People who didn’t live through the depression years of 1929–1938 may never be able to fully grasp the difficulties encountered in making a living in tiny rural towns in the western states.

Guy Robison, another cowman (they’re common around Green River), also ran sheep, ferried rigs and stock and people across the Colorado River on the Hite Ferry, owned a store, became a trapper, ran a motel, and farmed. He did anything he could to earn a living and to provide for his wife and daughter. “To earn a living.” What a respectable phrase, an important phrase to Guy and others like him who, without the benefit of higher education, had to learn to survive in those tough years. His wife, Nina, shared in that effort and now shares their home in Green River, where she works as a volunteer at the impressive John Wesley Powell Museum. Like most of the persons interviewed for these profiles, Guy and Nina are of Mormon stock. It is not unusual to learn that the parents or grandparents of many of those families were original settlers in Utah towns and villages. Some of them had been directed by Brigham Young to venture forth and establish communities. Their practical skills and determination to survive are traits that show up in Guy.

 

6 Nina Angela Johnson Robison

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Nina Angela Johnson Robison has lived a life as diversified as that of her husband, Guy. During the early years in the life of a successful ranch, a monetary subsidy from an external source is frequently required. Throughout her marriage, Nina took on outside work to help pay off the ranch mortgage. She juggled her life, and when times were tough and the price of cattle hit rock bottom, she was the household’s primary breadwinner. On the Fairview Ranch she was a mother, kept the house and ranch, and worked as a cowhand. When necessary, she worked for others as a postal clerk and a retail clerk, managed a motel, taught school, and was an office nurse, cook, and “billet-mess” cashier at the Green River Missile Base.

Her ancestors on both sides of the family were early converts to the Mormon religion. One of her grandmothers arrived in Salt Lake City after walking beside a wagon practically all the way from Vermont. Nina too has inherited some of those determined pioneer traits. She and Guy have pulled together for nearly fifty-eight years, during rough economic times and even rougher times when they lost loved ones.

 

7 Lowry Seely, Gwen Seely, and Hugh Seely

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Brothers Lowry and Hugh Seely live in Craig, Colorado, and remain active in the cattle and sheep business. Gwen, Lowry’s wife, frets when he defies his age (they were married in 1937) and enters roping contests as he did this past summer. He won some ribbons, too; he also got a banged-up shoulder, again. It required surgery this time, but he is back roping calves, working as part of a two-man team with his “heeler,” striving to shave seconds off the clock.

Though both of the brothers have been on the San Rafael Desert with stock, it was their father, their grandfather, and their grandfather’s cousin Karl who ran sheep Under the Ledge and up on the hills above the leading edge of the Book Cliffs.

Their interview addresses problems with coyotes more so than the other interviews because the Seelys were more sheepmen than cattlemen. Coyotes, being smart critters, prefer killing docile sheep to taking on nine-hundred-pound, overly aggressive cows. The interview also speaks of some of the trouble the Seelys have had with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), not an uncommon theme with ranchers.

 

8 Gwen Seely

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Gwen Seely is statuesque and graceful, a handsome woman indeed. She is a well-educated and determined woman of the West. She must have seemed out of place during her younger days when she and husband Lowry made do in the remote log cabin that was all they had back then. Although she learned early on that a smelly kerosene lamp was a lousy substitute for her teenage vision of dinners by candlelight, she built the foundation for a solid family life and a marriage that soon will reach its sixtieth year.

Drama classes and bridge lessons did her little good when Lowry chose ranching and started a spread from scratch, and far out from town to boot. She learned though. She learned that cooking, helping to move cattle and sheep from one pasture to another, raising the kids, nursing a bunged-up husband, canning, bottle-feeding newborn lambs—all these things and a myriad of others are required of a ranch wife. She since has maintained a compassion for those newborn lambs and calves. Now she looks with pride both at the three children Lowry and she reared and at a well organized and managed ranch home in Craig, Colorado, where she doesn’t have to put up with having cold feet any longer. Once in a while nowadays she actually can find time for a hand or two of bridge.

 

9 Chad Moore

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Chad Moore’s father, Andy Moore, has been described to me as the epitome of a western cowboy. With his two sons and an occasional ranch hand or two, Andy made a name for himself by developing a good-sized herd of cattle. In a tragic accident while on the range he lost one of his two sons. Chad was there at the time of the accident, but there was nothing he could do. Even today in this wild and dangerous country medical help is miles and miles away.

Chad lives in Green River and carries on running cattle at his ranch headquarters at the Texas Well. The well is about fifty miles south of town across some of the best grazing land imaginable. That is, when it rains! His dad cross-bred stock until he developed a breed that could withstand the desert life better than the pure Hereford. Chad has continued with that science, and I honestly think he will never retire from life on the range. Neither will he change his attitude about the BLM. He has very little good to say about that outfit. Just ask him!

 

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