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Hard work and long rides: Hamilton generation recounts ranching days

Written by Christy Martinez

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..