Hamiltons couple quality ranching with a willingness to share agâ€™s messageWritten by Jennifer Womack
The word takes center stage amidst conversations with Fort Bridger ranchers Richard and Carol Hamilton. Maybe it’s Richard’s training as an educator. Maybe it’s Carol’s discontent with the lies, half-truths and “urban legends” issuing a daily assault on ranching as we know it.
Regardless of the reason, the couple has spent countless hours on the path to “setting the record straight.” It’s an effort that has landed unlikely guests at their doorstep, spawned interesting conversations and convinced them America knows too little about the source of their food and the production practices that land it on their dinner plate.
“She went back to junior college and started coming home on the fight because the students at the college had been lied to,” says Richard of Carol’s decision to take classes at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs. “The attitude, that’s what bothered me about the community college,” says Carol. She says she thought if you raised food you were the “white hat guy.”
She continues, “I had completely missed out on the attitude change. It was just ‘cows are bad.’ They’d look down their nose at what you did, but would turn around and say, ‘Do you have a couple of acres along a stream that you’d like to sell?’”
Marcia Hensley, who was teaching college there at the time, encouraged Carol and Sweetwater County rancher Jean Dickinson to help with her Western Studies summer class. Everyone from junior high students, to teachers to environmentalists looking to prove a point, visited the Hamilton’s ranch, as well as others across southwestern Wyoming, in the years to follow.
“When they started the class two or three people would come and spend two or three days with us,” says Richard, who notes they’d later spend two or three days with representatives of the environmental community.
“They’d usually come when we were up moving cows in the timber,” says Richard. Oftentimes he says, “They’d have their jaw set, out to prove to you how you’d ruined the land.” The drive to and from offered ample time for discussions.
Richard says, “By noon the first day you’d see this bewildered look come across their face and pretty soon they’d say, ‘I’ve been lied to.’” Carol says the gentlemen who represented the environmental side of the issue for the Western Wyoming Community College aspect of the classes quit attending the closing sessions where final perspectives were offered. After seeing both sides, none of the class participants sided with those environmentalists who had labeled cows as bad.
Perceptive to misinformation spread about the industry, Carol says. She’s seen anti-ranching propaganda everywhere from textbooks to the free publications handed out to schoolchildren. She recently joined forces with a six-member group to expand the “Thank a Rancher” billboard effort highlighting ranchers’ contributions to Wyoming’s open spaces. Two of the members had already placed a few billboards throughout the state and she hopes to see the number grow to include a billboard in each of the state’s 23 counties.
“Ranchers took quite a while to promote ourselves as doing something that matters and being good stewards of the land,” says Richard. He says we’ve been too slow to defend our educations and our occupations as equal.
A former member of the local school board, he also says Wyoming was too slow in its willingness to hire local graduates to teach in our classrooms.
The Hamiltons continue to be gracious hosts to those who have an open mind and a willingness to learn the facts about ranching. Most recently, their ranch was “adopted” by 60 third graders as part of an educational program through the local conservation district. The students will be asking the Hamiltons questions about ranching throughout the school year. The highlight will be a visit to the ranch in May to meet the animals and the family and to see the ranch.
For the Hamiltons it hasn’t been just about spreading the word, but ensuring that they are implementing the best management practices on their own ranch. With headquarters south of Fort Bridger, their operation spans into the Uinta Mountains.
One of the allotments includes a section of Willow Creek. It’s an area where the BLM had called for development of an allotment management plan. “We went into rotational grazing and made a lot of improvements through fencing to facilitate rotational grazing, upland water development, planting an early spring pasture to Crested wheatgrass and implementing brush control,” says Carol.
“We had the option to get a 319 grant,” she explains, “and with that, because of the obvious improvement of our allotment, we were able to encourage our neighbors to formulate a Coordinated Resource Management Plan and it became a Willow Creek Water Shed improvement project.”
By working with the BLM and their neighbors through the CRM, the Hamiltons have been able to establish a quality partnership with the agency. They’re allowed to manage their season of use and AUMs within certain parameters and report their numbers to the agency at the end of the grazing season. Carol stresses, “Do you know how nice it is to have the BLM happy? It hasn’t always been that way.”
Hamilton’s headquarters sit at 7,000 feet in elevation with mountain permits reaching up to 11,400 feet in elevation. They purchased the ranch’s core from Richard’s father in the early 1970s.
“The first year we bought in, calves were a $1.00 a pound,” recalls Richard. “We started figuring how rich we were going to be how fast. The next year the calves sold for 31 and 29 cents in Omaha, Neb. The heifers sold at 21 cents. These were 350-pound calves. It wasn’t an enormous paycheck. In fact, it was really ugly.”
He says, “We started to keep a few calves and worked into the yearling business. It was quite a sobering experience as to how this ranching business works.” Richard laughs, “I told my dad he could have it back and he didn’t want it.” The ranch is now a cow-calf and yearling operation running black cattle.
Richard and Carol have expanded through both the addition of real estate and by improving the country they already own. “We have pastures out here that were just pasture,” says Carol, “and we’ve turned them into really good hay meadows.”
Raising their own replacement heifers, Richard says, “We expose 160 head for three weeks. Whatever is bred we keep. We calve heifers for 21 days and we’re done.” The heifers are typically done calving before the cows start.
Given the altitude at which they ranch, Richard says, “One of the things we have a problem with here is the high altitude or brisket disease.” By purchasing bulls that PAP test 39 or less, they’ve lessened their problems, but Richard says it’s a challenge the Angus breed needs to address. As they made the transition from Herefords to Angus he says, “The blacker we got, the worse it got.”
Richard and Carol’s families have pioneer era histories in Uinta County. Richard’s great-grandfather, also named Richard Hamilton, is buried at Historic Fort Bridger. He was equal silent partners with Fort Bridger post sutler Judge Carter, who was married to his sister.
The duo, trading one healthy ox for two lame oxen, grew their cattle herds and became the first ranchers to graze cattle into the Big Horn Basin. Carter Mountain and McCullough Peak, named for the company’s Big Horn Basin foreman, are namesakes of the early day ranch.
“They hung in until the winters of 1886, 1887, 1888 and 1889,” says Richard. “That pretty well wiped them out. They just had a few cattle left here and there and Carter Cattle Company per se was broke.”
When Richard’s grandfather was nearly of age, in 1890, he homesteaded near Richard and Carol’s present-day home. Of the Hamiltons, he says, “We’ve been in the cattle business since 1858 one way or another.”
“They had one fall where every calf they had died of black leg,” says Richard. “He skinned them and hung the hides on the fence. As fortune would have it, later that year hides were worth just about as much as the calves were. A hide buyer came through, so he survived one more year.”
Carol’s family history in Uinta County also dates back to the 1850s when her great grandfather Moses Byrne came to the area and contracted to build Pony Express Stations for the government. He retained and operated one on the Muddy prior to moving to Piedmont, Wyo., now a ghost town, and closer to the railroad activity. Byrne built the charcoal kilns, now a state historic site, near Piedmont. “They were more entrepreneurs than ranchers,” says Carol.
Carol’s father firmly established the family in ranching when he returned from World War I. A hermit, whom he used to visit in the Black’s Fork area of southern Uinta County, fell ill and died while Carol’s father was away at war. On his death bed the man told the doctor to give his ranch to Carol’s dad. “We inherited a little bit of that and bought a little bit of it,” she says.
Whether you’re looking for a Uinta County history lesson, natural resource information, or a frank discussion on “where the rubber hits the road” in the world of ranching, the Hamiltons can provide a quality lesson laced with 150 years of family stories.