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Monday, 2 May 2011




My apologies. There was no internet service yesterday. I’m playing catch-up.

Spring is holding back, doggedly, determinedly. Yesterday it was wind. And, briefly, snow.  I was driving back from Gordon (groceries, library, laundromat) when the flakes started flying. And all day, indoors or out – mostly in, I hasten to add - I could taste the dust in my mouth, feel the grit between my teeth. But by way of antidote, I am posting two or three pictures I took on a hike the other day – of trees putting out their spring buds. It can’t be long now. I have even bought a few packets of seeds in town, to start a vegetable garden.

I picked up a fascinating book in the library and, like a flighty teenager, have immediately abandoned Mari Sandoz for the moment in favour of her father’s mortal enemy.

Dedicated to peopling the Panhandle with farmer settlers – preferably from his native  Switzerland - Old Jules was vehemently opposed to the cattleman. In particular, he found himself in opposition to Bartlett Richards, proprietor of the huge – and hugely successful - Spade Ranch.

Originally, Jules had settled down by the river, south of Hay Springs, maybe fifty miles west of here. I’ll be visiting the site later, and will doubtless write about it. Jules had always had a hankering to be in the sandhills proper. In 1909 he staked a claim to the east, thirty-odd miles south of Gordon, way out in the wilds – to the horror of his long-suffering wife, who had somehow forged a social life at the Flats, as the old place was called, and seen her children get proper schooling.

Under the Kinkaid Act (1904), which recognised the improbability of anyone making a living on 160 acres in these dry parts, Jules was entitled to claim 640 acres. But with the river place still to be sold, and with his wife carrying a sixth baby (Caroline) a move wasn’t yet possible, so in May of 1910 the old man sent Mari (now aged 14) and her brother James (aged 10) to look after the place: a square mile of empty grassland, a small lake surrounded by hills, and a shack he’d built – all except a door, windows and floor, that is.

The two children went out in May, and would remain alone there until a devastating range fire in September prompted Jules to set out and see how they were doing.

This summer in the hills was a crucial turn in young Mari’s life – for two reasons. One, she felt free: for the first time since she could recall, she had no baby to carry round on her hip while her mother worked outside, no overbearing father bossing he around; and two, she became intimately acquainted with, and fell in love with, the sandhills environment. These were idyllic days, spent wandering the hills, hunting grouse and rabbits to fry for their meals, learning about the plants and animals, the weather, the character and moods of the land. The marble slab that marks her grave sits on a hill overlooking the place.

But back to Bartlett Richards and the Spade Ranch. Richards, like many cattlemen, had played fast and loose with the law. He had carefully acquired lands around his spread which made it nigh impossible for neighbouring farmers to access water and the hay meadows. When Jules first tried to run a small herd of his own on the new place he found that Spade cattle (there were anything up to 50,000 head, scattered over a great sprawl of land that stretched from Ellsworth in the south to the Niobrara, some 30 miles north, a total of around 500,000 acres) were soon trampling his fences.

Reading the first few chapters of this book, Bartlett Richards, Sandhills Cattleman, I see that I am living on what was actually Spade Ranch land. And I am curious to know more about this man Richards. He seems to have been an extraordinary character.  Not a well child, at the age of 17 he was sent to a Wyoming ranch for his health, and – just like Theodore Roosevelt, just like Owen Wister, who wrote The Virginian on the back of his experiences out west – young Bartlett thrived. By the time he was 19 he was managing three Wyoming ranches covering an area as large as his native Vermont. For the next 30 years he was a big, big player in Wyoming and Nebraska ranching. In 1910 he went to jail for offences having to with his land acquisition. He grew ill, and died in 1911, aged 49, still in Federal custody.

Well, it’s only 1030, but I have just taken six loaves out of the oven. Will rip one apart for my lunch, I dare say. Then back to the story of the man who once ran his cattle over this very land.