Proffits add numerous disciplines to familyâ€™s ranching traditionWritten by Jennifer Womack
Bringing one child back to the family ranch can prove difficult. Yet, four of Don and Claudia Proffit’s daughters have returned to the family ranch bringing careers, families and a ton of talent with them. The ranch’s products reach beyond cattle, horses and sheep to websites, artwork, guest accommodations, photography and more. Four generations strong in Wyoming, the Proffits have a family tradition of “making it work.”
Don Proffit’s dad, Hight, was born and raised in North Carolina. At age 19, and during the Great Depression, he signed on to drive his uncle from North Carolina back to his home and grocery store business in Evanston. Upon arriving in Wyoming, Hight took a job at the grocery store and met and married Don’s mother, Dorothy.
In the mid-1940s Don’s parents purchased the ranch that he and Claudia call home. Claudia, whose maiden name is Hamilton, grew up in the Bridger Valley where her brother Richard Hamilton now runs the family ranch.
Hight Proffit was elected to serve as a Uinta County Commissioner, a position he ended up holding for 30 years, and later served in the Wyoming Legislature. Don says his mother, who taught in Evanston, would ride the bus from Evanston to Cheyenne each Friday during the legislative session. “She liked to be in the thick of things,” he laughs. When Hight Proffit decided to return to local politics and rejoin the Uinta County Commission, Dorothy succeeded him in the Wyoming Senate.
“I thought everybody’s grandparents were in the Legislature,” laughs Don and Claudia’s daughter Liberty Proffit Day. Liberty is a watercolor artist and painted the portrait of her uncle, Richard Hamilton, that appears on the cover of this edition.
“Like all ranchers do,” says Don of his father, “he worked doing whatever he could to feed the family. He worked some winters on the section and at other times he’d go all over the country combining grain so we could ranch.” When Hight reached his mid-60s he asked Don and Claudia if they’d like to take over the family ranch.
“I was scanning some old papers and ran across their tally sheet where my grandparents had been marking off each payment on the ranch,” says Kim, another of Don and Claudia’s daughters. “It was kind of a neat thing. It took them a long time paying off little bits and little bits.” Kim, in addition to overseeing the ranch’s guest operations, works in Evanston as a registered nurse two days a week. Claudia is also an R.N., working in surgery at the Evanston hospital.
“Our little place isn’t big enough to run much of a cow-calf operation, so we lease pasture wherever we can,” says Don, who jokingly refers to their family as grass gypsies. They lease a ranch from a family member eight miles up the drainage and then seek country outside of the area to winter and calve out their cows. Don has been a brand inspector in the area for 25 years.
An early 1980s quest for grass landed the Proffit’s cattle on Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. The same inversion that flooded the Great Salt Air in 1984 brought numerous challenges to the Proffits and others running cattle on the island.
“Usually you don’t have to feed hay there and they got that inversion and the snow melted and it rained and froze over the whole island like cement,” says Don. The family hired Hawkins & Powers at a rate of $2,500 an hour. “That’s the only people we could find that would try and fly hay for us. They brought a WWII cargo plane with radar installed and Bombay doors. We could put a semi and a half of hay in there.”
“My dad hates heights and he was up feeding hay out the door of an airplane,” says Liberty.
“We flew for six weeks out of the Salt Lake airport and the control tower had never seen our plane, the fog was so thick,” says Don.
“It about broke us that year,” says Claudia. The ranchers running cattle on the island lost 165 head of cattle before the inversion lifted.
The skies cleared long before the floodwaters receded enough to reveal the road leading to the island, leaving the Proffits and others with the challenge of getting their cattle “back to the mainland.”
“We had to renovate an old barge Peter Kewitt had abandoned when they were building the causeway for UP,” says Don. Riddled with bullet holes, they began patching and split the cargo area into three compartments to keep the cattle from shifting to one side.
“It was a huge job to get it seaworthy,” says Claudia. “The engines would go out and the waves would wash it back around. It was a fright. Salt Lake was really mean in those situations.” While they claimed it couldn’t happen because of the salt, Claudia says icebergs were a challenge.
At the time the Proffits were running cattle on the island it was owned by Anschutz, but the State of Utah has since condemned it for a state park. Antelope Island is about 20 miles long and eight miles wide. It includes 58 fresh water springs.
When it was all said and done, says Claudia, “For a couple of years when the cows would hear an airplane they’d look up. They were programmed for hay from heaven.”
Power Genetics is the company the Proffits choose to work with when it comes to purchasing their bulls and marketing their calves. “There are quite a few people in this area who are involved,” says Don. Essentially, he says, the company wants calves out of their own bulls.
Cattle are marketed in the “Big Blue Barn,” an online sale barn. As offers are negotiated Don says, “They’re on the sale barn for 48 hours and people have a chance to bid. When they sell you have 12 hours to decide whether to take the offer and you can negotiate.” The company also provides information back on how the calves perform.
“They specify how they want them vaccinated to comply with their requirements,” says Claudia.
Calving begins early March at the ranch. “We brand the last of June,” says Don noting that they head and heel the calves. Don says it’s an approach they learned in Nevada and one part of the larger effort to have a fun, community branding.
“There will be 60 people here for branding,” says Claudia. “It’s gotten to be a competition as to who can do it with the most skill. It’s an opportunity to show progress on horses and roping skills.”
A pen of calves is cut off for the younger, up and coming ropers. Dads stay in the pen to guide the process and ensure nobody gets hurt, says Don. “After dinner all the kids will have their ropes in their hands, chomping at the bit for their turn.”
In addition to Kim and Liberty, the Proffits’ daughters Tiko and Nonie are also living back on the ranch. Nonie has a team of horses and runs a small flock of sheep.
“Our other daughter lives in Cokeville where her husband teaches,” says Claudia. The couple’s son, Clint, lives and ranches near Kemmerer.
“They’ve all been away, but this is their love,” says Claudia. “They all have their means of support away from the ranch, but they’re all very much tied to the ranch.”
Claudia continues, “These kids are total talent. Every once in a while we look at one another and say, ‘Where did they come from?’” One doesn’t, however, have to look far. Don and Claudia, themselves, are multi-talented individuals. They both write cowboy poetry. Don, a self-taught leatherworker, built each of his children a saddle as well as the chinks they wear.
Don’s desire to own a registered Quarter Horse launched the family into the horse business over 30 years ago. He purchased some mares from Jack Hickey and Cliff Castagno. He bartered with Castagno, starting colts in exchange for stud fees.
With a program built on Foundation bloodlines, the Proffits hold a horse sale each Labor Day. It’s an action packed weekend in Uinta County including a rodeo and festivities in Evanston and the Mountain Man Rendezvous just down the Interstate in Fort Bridger. 2009 marked the Proffits’ 8th annual sale.
From the historic art of cowboy tack to the modern world of website design, the Proffit family makes quite a team.