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Hyattville – According to Merle and Eleanor Hamilton, lots of hard work and being conservative with their spending are what helped bring the family ranching operation through the years to what it is today.

Now Merle and Eleanor live on the family ranch, which is managed by Keith and Linda Hamilton today.
Eleanor grew up on the family ranch north of Hyattville, while Merle says he was born in North Dakota “a hundred years or so ago” before moving to the Newcastle area with his family in 1937.

Eleanor and Merle met in Laramie at UW, but they didn’t move directly to Eleanor’s family ranch after they were married.

“We were over in South Dakota, where Merle was a dairy herdsman for the state TB program, then we moved to Newcastle and from there we came to the ranch in 1952,” says Eleanor.

When they arrived on the ranch it was under the management of Eleanor’s dad and uncle, but they were able to purchase the ranch and take over in 1968.

“It was not easy for a while, and we didn’t borrow money except to buy land. We did our very best, and we were successful through not borrowing money,” says Eleanor, adding they were also fortunate to keep some of the ranch’s long-time employees, who helped them get started.

The ranch had been in the cattle business at the outset, but converted to sheep in 1928 and only kept a few head of cattle through the sheep years. Of the changes to agriculture since their time managing the ranch, Merle says they used to be able to hire help.

“The local guys who didn’t have steady employment would wait for spring and get an irrigating job,” he says.

“When we first took over, Merle took care of the sheep camps, and he didn’t have a camp-tender, so he’d have to be gone for two or three days and left me ‘in charge’ down here,” says Eleanor. “Fortunately we had a fellow who had helped us a long time who helped me keep things going. It wasn’t easy, but we made it work.”

Of tending sheep camps, Merle says he shod 15 head of horses and packed them, living in tents when he was out on the forest allotments.

“We didn’t have any facilities on the mountain except for a sheepwagon,” he notes. “When we first started we just had one forest permit, but then we got another and started taking both bands to the high country, and it was a packing job. You think you’ll get something done, but it’s slow going with a string of horses.”

“It was hard work, and long rides. You always think you have the most dependable horses, but there can always be something that happens,” adds Eleanor.

Merle and Eleanor raised Foxtrotters to ride and pack.

“We had some good ones,” says Merle. “The Forest Service had a string of Foxtrotters, and they’re going horses, and they got me interested so I started raising them. I wanted to ride the good ones, but you have to sell the good ones to be in the horse business.”

He says he always kept a colt or two in the pack string.

“They’d go in the pack string when they were two years old, and I’d load them light and make them make the trip,” he notes.

After they quit breeding horses the Hamiltons started purchasing them, and Merle says, “You can have a wreck with a pack string any place, any time with any string of horses.”

Merle says the artesian wells on the ranch’s headquarters have been a big benefit.

“We have two at 1,000 gallons a minute, and they’ve had a major impact on our operation, because we don’t have to buy water, and we don’t have to pump it,” he says.

Of lambing, Eleanor says there have been many improvements in that area. While it’s still lots of work for Keith and Linda, she says it’s no longer as intense, and the ranch used to run twice as many sheep as it now does.

“It’s the same with irrigating,” says Merle. “You turn the valve, and you have water.”

Eleanor says some of her favorite memories growing up on the ranch are feeding bum lambs, breaking the milk cows’ calves to ride and pack with her brother and making teams out of their dogs.

Although they’ve slowed down quite a bit, Merle still helps take care of the sheep on the Hamilton operation.

“We have a good herder we wish would stay forever,” says Eleanor. “He’s the best one we’ve ever had, and we’ve had a series.”

Merle adds that one herder stayed with the family for 45 years.

“The basic type of sheep hasn’t changed,” says Merle of what’s changed in the sheep business. “We raised Columbia sheep the whole time we managed the ranch, but now we raise Rambouillets.

Columbias were better, as they were a crossbred and more vigorous sheep, but their wool isn’t quite as fine. Columbias were good to us.”

Merle and Eleanor used to put their lambs on beet tops when they came off the mountain before selling them to a feedlot.

“We’d buy beet tops and keep the lambs on them for a month or two, not making them clean them up, and then we’d bring in the ewes in December and January and have them there for a month or two,” says Merle.

Of what they like about their corner of Big Horn County, the couple says it’s the climate, which doesn’t have the wind characteristic to other places in Wyoming.

“And the mountain,” says Merle. “The mountain makes this country.”

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Greybull – Probst Western Store at the heart of Greybull was founded in 1945, and business remains strong today under the management of the third-generation Probst family member to run the store, Tyson Probst.

“The store was founded in 1944 by my grandfather after he returned from World War II,” says Tyson. “He was from Gillette, and his father was also in the Western business, so he came over to Greybull and bought a shoe repair shop and that’s when the business started.”

Tyson’s father Jeff Probst says the store’s original sales tax license is dated November 1944. The store has expanded twice – in 1957 and again in 1974. Jeff started with the store in 1969 and continued through the mid-‘90s, when Tyson took over.

Tyson says his grandfather started out in shoe and saddle repair, and building a few saddles, before transitioning to dry goods.

Jeff says he’s always joked that he came to the store a year after college, thinking he’d try it for a year to see if he liked it.

“Thirty-five years later, I was still trying to decide,” he says.

“Being a family business, I grew up working in the store,” says Tyson.

Through the years, both Jeff and Tyson say the challenges have changed, from mail-order catalogues to big box retailers and the internet.

“Our competition has changed immensely over time. In the ‘70s we had to worry about competing with catalogue stores like Sheplers and Western Ranch Outfitters from Cheyenne, and then stores like Cabela’s started coming in the ‘80s,” says Jeff.

“In dealing with the discounters, we try to carry a little higher-quality merchandise so we don’t compete directly with them on most things,” says Tyson.

However, Jeff adds that they still compete for disposable income, and the internet even more so.

“Our location hinders us because we don’t have that many people to draw from, but I also don’t have direct competition here in town,” adds Tyson. “But with the internet and modern vehicles, people travel more and I’m in competition with the surrounding communities.”

“Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when my father was running the store, the roads weren’t so good, and it was a big deal for someone to go to Billings, but now they go on a whim,” says Jeff. “Before, we planned for a week to drive to Cody. Things have really changed over time as far as who our competition is.”

Where the store used to sell 90 percent cowboy boots, Tyson says it now deals more in work boots, with only 30 percent of boot sales being cowboy boots, and that three or four of the best months of the year for business come in the summer with the tourists.

“The main group of tourists we see are from the Midwest – if they want to see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone they come over the Big Horns. We’ve also seen more European and foreign people in the last 20 years – they really like the Western things,” says Tyson.

He says the Europeans tend to go for flashier things than his local customers.

“The local might come in and buy a pair of cowboy boots that are oil-tanned workboot leather, while the Europeans like the pointed toes and ornate scrollwork on the top. I’ve got to buy separate for what I think they’ll go for,” he explains.

Tyson adds that another help for their business over the last 10 years has been the Hideout Guest Ranch, which is just up the road near Shell.

“They run a lot of people through there from all over the world, and inevitably they forget or need something,” he notes. “But what keeps us going from year to year is the local economy. We definitely have a solid ranching business base, and that’s what keeps my bills paid.”

Of what he enjoyed about operating the business, Jeff says, “You’ve got to like people to survive, and like the community and where you’re at, and try to be a part of the community and contribute in ways other than your store.”

Jeff says he also enjoyed choosing his merchandise, and trying to guess what his customers would want.

“I always looked at it as a competition – to see if I was good enough to figure out what or whose merchandise to buy,” he says. “If I brought it in, and it sold, I was the winner. We don’t make our money selling merchandise, but buying it, and choosing the right things.”

The store currently employs four people, while Tyson’s mother helps out with keeping the books, a job she also held while Jeff managed the store.

“We have many customers who were customers before I started, and they’re still customers today,” adds Jeff. “We’re the longest-standing business in the community, and we have been for years. There are many other businesses that have come and gone through the years.”

Of surviving so long as a family business in a small town, Jeff says, “It’s a matter of doing the things we need to do to make the business successful, and for us that’s having plenty of merchandise and treating our customers well. That’s always been our philosophy, and we’re proud of our legacy.”

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cowley – John Gams was a buyer for Black Hills Pack, and later Midland Pack when he and his wife Sylvia bought their first cows in 1974.

“We started with Hereford and Black Angus in 1974,” says John. “By 1980, we had sold all of those and went strictly to Longhorn cattle.”

With John on the road at cattle sales in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming during the week, Sylvia, who also held down a full-time teaching job, and their children were having a hard time managing the Hereford and Angus herd.

“When we were running Herefords and Angus, we had our land fenced into different pastures and had to rotate them,” explains John. “When we went Longhorn, we just leave the gates open, and they are rarely in the same place.”

Along with the ease of running the land, Sylvia mentions that the Longhorns calve easier and are great mothers.

“We used to have so many calving problems, and John was gone,” says Sylvia. “The kids and I were here alone and it was very difficult.”

With Longhorns, John explains that their cows throw only 60-pound calves, as opposed to 120-pound calves, so the heifers calve easier.

“It cuts down on labor,” says John.

John traveled six days a week as far away as Nebraska and into Idaho to make ends meet.

“It took two jobs to support the cow deal,” says John. “It’s paid off in the long run, though. We’re pretty comfortable now.”

“Longhorns are a niche market,” says Sylvia. “They’re not for everybody, but they works for us. We’ve got our registered buyers and a little feedlot that we sell fat cattle out of.”

The meat from Longhorns is trimmer and more flavorful, explains Sylvia. It also marbles and grades stiffer and lacks the heavy rind of fat around the outer edge of the steaks they produce.

“A lot of people also like the hamburger because its leaner and more flavorful,” says Sylvia.

Once they entered the Longhorn business, John and Sylvia traveled to fairs across the western United States, starting new shows and winning awards for their high-end cattle.

“We got the Longhorn classes at the Wyoming State Fair going and helped start the Longhorn show at the NILE,” says Sylvia.

John adds they also helped start shows in Spokane as well and have also competed in Washington, Oregon and Montana. The couple has the trophies and belt buckles to prove that their cattle are top quality in the Longhorn world.

When they stopped showing cattle in 2004, to pass on the traditions of showing Longhorns the Gams gave one of their good cows to a young girl in Sheridan, who showed the animal and ended up third in the world show.

John looks back to the start of the industry, saying, “The bull Texas Ranger was the one that started the whole industry. Ranger Splash was our first bull and a direct son of Texas Ranger.”

The Gams used Ranger Splash for a number of years, getting calves out of him naturally until after he was 16 years old. When he died in the late ‘80s, they collected and froze semen from him and two years ago artificially inseminated 35 cows back to him.

“We went back to square one,” says John. “We’ve got some yearling heifers now, and they look really good.”    

John has noticed, in recent years, that the Texas Longhorn industry has seemingly begun to focus on the head and horns of the animals, rather than their quality for meat.

“They are breeding them for horn and a tremendous head,” says John. “It’s ruining them, really. Most of them are narrow-backed, fine-boned and can’t raise a calf.”

The Gams focus on conformation, rather than the large horn, but can still sell the skulls for a decent price.

The merits of raising Longhorns are numerous, and the Gams are passionate about their animals.

“This works for us,” emphasizes Sylvia. “We really love the Longhorns.”

“Another good thing about these cows its that they are really good mothers. If you see a cow, her calf is nearby,” says John.

“They are a nice disposition breed of cattle,” adds Sylvia. “When the kids were little, we just couldn’t have anything else.”

The Gams run on three separate sections of land, as well as BLM leases, and irrigate nearly 300 acres.   

Alongside the Longhorns, John farms hay, grain and corn to feed the herd in the winter. He also still buys cattle for packing houses, but works for himself and is home more frequently to help Sylvia.

This year, John says the land is very productive, due to all the moisture in the spring.

“It’s the best that it has ever been,” says John. “All the reservoirs are full, and the grass looks good.”

“We’ve had some awful dry years recently,” he continues, “but that is when we really benefit from the Longhorns, because they really utilize the country. They travel a lot and are always moving.”

On their BLM land, where they keep the cattle for a large part of the year, there is very little water available. Aside from access to canals on either side of the lease, there are only two reservoirs.

“The Longhorns travel a lot,” says John. “It’s not unnatural for a cow to travel four miles to water like they do here.”

The Longhorns do very well on the rangeland that was previously only used for sheep.

“We have enough land that we run about 160 acres to a cow,” says John. “That’s a lot better than in places like Texas, where you see 16 cows per acre.”
Sylvia adds, “They are in good shape, nice and fat.”

The range they run on is also thick with salt sage, so the Gams provide very little supplemental salt.

“You know, people think we are crazy raising Longhorns,” says Sylvia. “It’s been fun. We’ve had good times and met good people, but our neighbors all think we are crazy.”

“When we first started, Sylvia’s dad was against the Longhorns,” says John. “Then he realized they were utilizing the desert. You have desert land, so you run a desert cow.”

Saige Albert is assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shell – Ranching in country that ranges from 4,200 to 10,000 feet, Stan and Mary Flitner focus on quality cattle and horses that can work in many environments.

The Flitners, along with their son Tim, are mainly a cow/calf operation, but they also stock light calves in their feedlot, raise ranch horses, manage some irrigated ground and run a small electric fence company in addition to leasing out an outfitting business from their cow camp on the Big Horns.

“We’re busy, and we had to do a lot of things to stay in the business in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Stan.

“Everything we grow we feed through cattle – we don’t raise any cash crops. We grow a little corn for silage, and we raise alfalfa and grass hay.”

The Flitners ran their outfitting business with a partner for 25 years.

“We built the first cabin at the cow camp in 1968, and most of the other cabins are old homestead cabins we improved. We were always looking for cabins to rebuild, and there were a lot of cabins on the mountain that were melting down, so it was a good way to preserve them,” says Stan, adding that one of the buildings is even the old post office from Beaver Creek.

Of the ranch horses they breed, Stan says most are Doc Bars. A son of Docs Jack Frost is now the Flitners’ main stud, while they also stand a Paddys Irish Whiskey stud and Tim is a partner on a Blue Valentine stud.

“We aren’t into marketing horses, so much,” says Mary. “We don’t have a sale – we sell private treaty – and our preference is to sell weaned colts. There’s a high demand for well-broke ranch geldings, but we only part with one or two of those each year. We use a lot of those horses ourselves.”

Of the few they have sold, Stan says Amy Shepperson of Midwest won the College National Finals Rodeo breakaway roping on one of them, and her brother Les Shepperson also uses one for steer wrestling.

“We sell some around the state and other places, but there’s not a whole lot of money in the horse business, so the only way we can justify having horses is because we use them so much,” says Stan of their ranch work. “It’s a lot easier to have a good bunch of horses, and sell a few to help maintain the broodmare herd.”

“We don’t work any livestock with ATVs. Our terrain wouldn’t allow it,” comments Mary of the 75-mile round trip they make with their cows each year to the mountain and back.

To get to their permit, the Flitners trail up a rough, rocky road that used to serve sheep camps.

“The horses have to be tough, and they have to be shod,” says Stan of the trip. “They’re not as tough as they were 30 years ago, because of horse trailers. Thirty years ago we went out all day, and we don’t do that anymore, but they’re a lot more pleasurable to ride than the ones of that era. Some of them just kept your feet off the ground, and these are a lot better horses.”

When Stan and Mary were first married their operation’s income was 80 percent sheep, but they transitioned to cattle in the 1970s. Another change came in the 1980s when they moved from a registered Hereford herd to all black cattle. Stan credits his son Tim with the quality of the family’s cowherd today.

However, along with the switch to black cattle came the concern of high altitude disease. The Flitner’ strategy includes high-altitude bulls bought mostly in-state from other high altitude producers.

Speaking of changes in cattle genetics, Stan says, “When we first started out we were selling 375- to 400-pound calves, and in the ‘50s or ‘60s we thought we were doing a pretty good job. Now we precondition and wean, and if our cattle aren’t over 600 pounds, then we’ve failed.”

The Flitners manage a rangeland monitoring program, and Stan says that anything a producer can do helps – even as simple as taking some pictures or writing something down.

“Many of the old cowboys monitored – they just forgot to write it down,” he says. “They were pretty good at it, but you have to have some type of documentation, looking at increases and decreases and knowing exactly how many cattle and how long they’re out there.”

In working with the Forest Service, Stan says it’s easy to get mad at the agency.

“We could solve a lot of the problems, and there are plenty of empty permits on the mountain, if they’d just let us use them. But, because of public pressure, they have a hard time doing it,” he says. “It’s not their fault, but it’s frustrating for people like us who see the things we could do, that we do on our own ranches, that could make the pastures so much better.”

Of his area of Big Horn County, Stan says he appreciates that, although the drought affects them, they always have water, thanks to reservoirs constructed before 1950 and other improvements.

“What I think is unique about this country is the elevation,” says Mary. “There’s a low elevation of operations for us, with the farm, pasture and our croplands, and then we go dramatically up, so it’s two completely different styles of operation, and we really never have a slow season.”

“There are many different management systems going from 4,200 feet to 10,000, because we going through three different rainfall areas,” notes Stan. “It’s a challenge, but there are advantages.”

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Big Horn County – From rangeland monitoring to Coordinated Resource Management (CRMs) to rotational grazing and full-time cowboys, the public lands ranchers in Big Horn County rely on many strategies to make, and keep, grazing on federal land possible.

Merle and Eleanor Hamilton, who live on their family’s ranch north of Hyattville, remember a time without grazing permits and government intervention.

“I remember when the BLM first started to ask where we were going next, after so many years of planning our allotments our own way,” says Eleanor. “Pretty soon they got a little more heavy-handed, and I can’t imagine what my father would think these days, with the regulations we have to abide by.”
Merle says Eleanor’s dad was instrumental in dividing up the federal land when the Taylor Grazing Act passed.

“Something definitely needed to be done,” says Eleanor. “The range was in very poor condition from overuse, and anyone who wanted to could buy a little bunch of sheep and go out wherever they wanted.”

Merle says he was told that at one time there were 14 sheepwagons between Hyattville and Manderson.

“My dad agreed with the concept to an extent – he realized that something had to be done, and it had to be managed,” says Eleanor. “But he was very conservative, and he believed in very limited government. If he saw the way things are today, I’m sure it would be almost too much for him.”

Today some cattle and sheep operatorsrun on their BLM permits on an actual use basis, which they say is convenient.

“We submit our AUMs twice a year so the BLM knows how many units we run at what period of time and where they’ve been,” says Keith Hamilton, who now manages the Hamilton ranch with his wife Linda north of Hyattville. “Actual use is convenient for us because, as we turn out of our meadows in the spring, we can go in ahead of time and anticipate what our numbers will be, and the BLM bills us accordingly.”

“This year was certainly an example of that, because we couldn’t get to the mountain as early as we normally do, so we’ve been able to work with both agencies to make it work so we didn’t have a gap in the middle with no place to go,” adds Linda.

Keith says the jury’s still out on their grazing on the mountain this year.

“We don’t have the production in the higher country that we normally do, but the lower country is exceptional with all the rain. Right now it appears we’ll be a little short on the upper end, but we aren’t stocked to the point we ever have to worry too much about that,” he says.

“We are blessed with enough private land on the slope and on the mountain that we have quite a bit of flexibility,” continues Keith. “It helps juggle things a little bit if we need to.”

Gene Robertson, who ranches from east of Hyattville with his wife Kris and daughter and son-in-law Amanda and Cal Tharp, says he thinks wolves will be one of the major issues on the Big Horn forest permits.

“Up to now we haven’t had packs of wolves, but when we do get packs, it’s not so much what they kill, but that they won’t let the cows stay,” he says. “We won’t be able to keep our cows anywhere, and it’ll be tough to keep weight on our calves.”

Of grazing on federal land, Gene says, “We make mistakes, but my thinking is that it will be ok, as long as we don’t make the same mistakes in the same place every year. Nobody’s perfect with the cows – they’ll be cows – but overall I think our deal with the Forest Service has been pretty good.”

Stan Flitner of Shell agrees, saying, “It’s pretty hard for a rancher to go out and destroy the environment, because he doesn’t have enough money, and he’s too busy. He may make some big mistakes, but it’s nothing he can’t solve.”

Although Stan describes their relationship with the Forest Service as tough over the last few years, he says it seems to be getting better.

“You could say the federal agencies are exactly as good as the personnel they have on the ground where you are,” adds Stan’s wife Mary Flitner. “I think the agencies’ emphasis in the Big Horns has become heavily toward recreation, with a disregard for grazing, other than its visual aspects.”

“I don’t think they have a very good concept of livestock. They don’t understand livestock, and most don’t stay here long enough to learn anything about livestock,” says Stan. “The problem is they move. If you get a good one, he’s gone, and if you get a poor one he’s here forever.”

Stan says that transient tendency results in a federal agency that has no sense of history.

“There’s no connection,” he says. “Nobody knows how to connect the dots, because they’re not here long enough to see a change. That’s our biggest obstacle.”

In dealing with the public and recreationists, Gene says they run in the Paintrock Basin, which is hard to access any way other than horseback, but in the summer they camp in the Battle Park campground.

“We get along really well with most people there,” he says. “More out-of-state people are coming in and spending a lot of time in the country, and 99 percent of them are good about shutting gates. There’s only one percent that shows up every once in a while that will leave gates open.”

“We try to have the same purpose with our federal land as we do the private – trying to make it so the next generation can take it and not feel that they’ve got to fix a mess,” says Keith of his land management philosophy.

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..