Trying to Beat the System
A Northeast Nevada Rancher During the
Great Depression, circa 1920s-1930s

He had a cattle kingdom, but a small one as bovine empires go. Nevertheless, the rancher still had a feeling of power that comes from owning cows and land. Every time he rode out to his herd, each burned with his brand, a feeling of ownership and pride engulfed his whole body. Dang, but it felt good! He was king of all he could see from his leather throne.

About the only burrs under his saddle were the county commissioners and cattle prices. They made a crown of thorns for him to wear. Why couldn't the commissioners and sales money go his way, at least occasionally? He was doing his best to make a decent living.

One of his biggest gripes was the condition of the county road running by his ranch. Bone jarring potholes, back wrenching ruts, and mud and more mud raised his blood pressure to dangerous limits. After asking, begging, and demanding that the county keep the road in reasonable driving condition, he caved in and built his own road - on his side of the fence. The entrance to his lane was at the beginning of his property. If the turnoff was missed, a traveler drove for miles on the county road then had to back track those same miles to get onto the ranch.

Cattle prices are always a prime concern of any rancher. What the rancher can put in his pocket in the fall when they sell the animals governs success or lean times. During the Great Depression, prices were way down. Actually, rock bottom. He gave it great thought and came up with what looked like a great idea. Instead of driving his herd to the nearest loading pens on the railroad and selling there, he decided to bypass the middle man and take his cattle to Oakland, California and sell them on his own. He did just that but the deal didn't work out as he planned. He sold the herd for just enough to pay the railroad shipping charges. Another lousy year on the ranch.

Having learned his lesson about shipping and selling on his own, another year he just gave up. All the cows were allowed to grow to maturity and he sold them for stew meat. Which, of course, wasn't such a good idea. Stew meat was worth next to nothing and that's exactly what the rancher collected for the herd. Another lean year.

Sitting on the porch with his cow boss, he pointed to a nearby mountain and said he saw a prospector there the other day. The rancher said that he thought the mountain was on his land and that the foreman should go up there and chase off the prospector. It was done. A few days later, he told the cow boss that he saw the prospector again, this time on another nearby mountain. Citing the same reason, that he thought that mountain was also on his property, he sent the foreman off again to throw the guy off the ranch. Didn't really matter if the mountains were on the ranch or not, he didn't like strangers around.

Another story about the rancher. A jackrabbit invasion happens occasionally in northeast Nevada. Perhaps, during those times, local coyotes are off on vacation or there are just too many rabbits to eat. Who knows? Whatever the why, jackass rabbits, that's what Mark Twain called them, devoured gardens, fields of feed, and grain. Very costly to ranchers and farmers.

For weeks, every evening before supper, all the hands and whoever else was around, spent a couple of hours shooting rabbits with small caliber firearms. There are photographs with great piles of jackrabbits stacked as high as five or six feet. Yes, they were a serious problem. One of the main reasons a dry farming promotion at Metropolis, Nevada failed was a couple of seasons of rabbit overload.

The rancher barely survived his problems but he did make it. It was the first ten or twenty years that were extra tough.

He's long gone now. Wonder how he would deal with today's federal regulations, fees,  grazing allotments, various permits, wilderness roads, endangered species and water rights? 

Source: Dale Porter, Elko, Nevada resident.

©Copyright 2008 by Howard Hickson.

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