Deep roots: Fitzhughs’ history influences todayWritten by Saige Albert
John Fitzhugh was a doctor who worked in Fort Laramie during the winter of 1849. He stayed there because of a smallpox outbreak at the Fort, later continuing to California in search of gold, where he struck his fortune. His son, Gordon V. Fitzhugh, came to Wyoming as part of the large cattle drives into the territory. He participated in eight trail drives before ending up south of Douglas in 1884. Gordon V. raised his family on the land and his son, Jim’s father, Gordon M. took over.
Today, Marilyn and Jim live on the Fitzhughs’ ranch with their son Gordon Dana and his wife Bobbe, who help to run the cow-calf operation. Their daughter, Kristeen Elaine, lives in Alaska with her family.
“We used to run Hereford cattle,” says Jim. “We were up at Midland years ago and a man had Red Angus bulls that topped the whole mess – they outgained everything and outperformed everything.”
“We started with Red Angus in ’74, and we were originally going to run red cows and put Hereford bulls on them to raise red baldies, but it didn’t work like black cattle,” continues Jim, “so we gave that up and went straight red. We’ve been straight Red Angus since about 1995.”
Jim notes that the calves do very well and he is pleased with them. Each year, they average between 660 and 670 pounds by delivery and gain on average 2.75 pounds per day. He also says that they also withstand the heat better, are better mothers and are less prone to pinkeye than the Herefords.
The Fitzhughs have consigned their cattle to Northern Video Auction, sold in August and delivered in September, for the past 15 years, and they say they have good results.
“One buyer has purchased our steer calves every year for the past 14 years, and he pays the top price, so that speaks something,” adds Jim. “If they weren’t doing well, he wouldn’t buy them.”
In selecting their cattle, Jim has high standards to ensure good quality yearling heifers, noting, “The heifer calves are ratioed by themselves, but after the first year they are ratioed with the rest of the cattle. The old cows get culled if they don’t meet that same ratio.”
“By the time they get to be three years old, we usually have about 65 of the original 75 left,” says Jim. “Some of them aren’t good mothers, or some of them don’t milk well, so we cull them.”
The Fitzhughs calve in February and have nearly finished constructing a new calving shed for this year.
“We don’t get much sleep for six weeks, but they calve fast,” says Marilyn, continuing that, when they were first married and working for Jim’s father, their calving season was nearly three months.
They also calve in several herds, with the two-, three- and four-year-olds on the ranch and the older cows on their leased land.
After branding in April, cows are moved up to breeding pastures and turned out on summer range in June. By the end of November, or as soon as Jim has to start feeding the cows, they bring them down to the winter pastures closer to home.
“The Red Angus have done well,” says Jim. “We’re happy with them.”
“Jim has really built up a nice herd,” adds Marilyn.
Jim sees that a number of things have changed in recent years and technology has advanced, transforming cattle operations.
“When we first started, dad would have never thought of pregnancy testing a cow. All they did was give them a shot of black leg,” says Jim. “Now they have good vaccines and things that have really eliminated a lot of the sickness in the cattle.”
He also notes that much larger cattle migrations are seen today than in the past.
“They winter cattle in California where they have grass, and then ship them to the Laramie Plains for the summer,” explains Jim. “Think of the diseases that come with those cattle.”
The use of new technologies, like ultrasound and blood testing, are a great tool, according to Jim, and should be used to alleviate some of the uncertainties.
“We have to close every door that we can,” says Jim, “and even still, there is quite a bit of a draft underneath it.”
The family has taken on a number of projects to improve their ranch and production. The ranch was awarded a lifetime conservation award by the Converse County Conservation District for their efforts.
“I think we ought to be caretakers of the land,” says Jim.
A major obstacle with the ranch for many years was getting water to all the pastures, so they have installed a number of large water tanks on the property.
Marilyn says, “We have a spring down by the creek, and we pump water up to a big tank. It gravity feeds out of there to 10 tanks in seven pastures.”
That project involved the installation of nearly 36,000 feet of pipeline.
“In 2001, Jim put in another 9,000 feet of pipeline on leased land. It was 21 days’ worth of digging, but that gave us water up on top where there was just a reservoir,” says Marilyn. “When his dad had the other ranch, they put in about 20 tank springs to get water.”
Jim adds that they worked with the NRCS to offset some of the costs of the project. The NRCS also helped in drafting plans. They also worked to improve their range and pasture land to support more animals and wildlife.
“We sprayed 5,000 acres of sagebrush in 1973,” says Jim. “It was the best thing we have ever done.”
They also burned 2,000 acres of sagebrush on their leased ranch. Since these efforts, Jim notes that grass has replaced the sagebrush, making the pastures more productive.
“It’s amazing what you can do with burning or spraying the sagebrush,” explains Jim. “This ranch wouldn’t carry 125 head of yearling heifers, and now we can run 200 mother cows on it. We just didn’t have the grass before.”
Jim also sees inflation as a particularly difficult challenge.
“I think the biggest challenge we find today is staying ahead of inflation,” says Jim, saying cattle prices are higher than he’d ever dreamed of, but so are their expenses. “Steel posts that we used to buy for two dollars a piece are now six, and a good corner post that used to cost seven dollars is now $19. Inflation is our biggest fight.”
Because of high prices for inputs, Jim notes that those ranchers without minerals or energy on their property do what they do very well.
“All ranchers that are left are good operators, or they wouldn’t be in business,” he continues. “The man that doesn’t have minerals has to be a good rancher and a good steward of the land to survive in this economy.”
Jim has proven that he uses his land well and is able to survive as a rancher, also noting that he enjoys the work and his cattle. Marilyn echoes the sentiment, saying they like to be busy.
“The biggest joy in all ranching is in the spring, and we can’t enjoy it because we’re too busy,” says Jim passionately. “That’s when everything comes to life. The green grass comes and the flowers bloom. We have newborn calves or lambs. It does something to me that you can’t see. Really, that’s the time when we should enjoy what’s there.”
Remnants of the past “The cavalry that came from Fort Fetterman to Fort Laramie used to come through here,” says Marilyn Fitzhugh of a piece of their winter pasture. “They used to have a saloon across the road.”
She adds that Oregon Trail ruts run across the property, heading toward Cold Springs and Glenrock.
When her husband Jim began plowing the land and doing other work on their property, they found hundreds of old bottles.
“Jim came back with a box of whiskey bottles that came out of the ground,” adds Marilyn.
When the couple installed new pipes for their house, Marilyn says they found inkbottles, dolls and hairbrushes, also noting that she has five-gallon buckets full of broken china.
“We found a lot of the heavy stuff that they had,” explains Marilyn, noting that it was likely people along the Oregon Trail had begun discarding personal belongings to lighten the load. “We’ve found everything – there was even a conch shell that comes from the Mediterranean. We really had fun.”
She adds that for nearly two months she spent a number of hours digging in the hard ground using a screwdriver to save all the bottles they could. Among her findings, Marilyn has more than 10 different types of inkbottles, including a quart size ink jug.
“I found 10 different ink bottles,” says Marilyn, “and not-a-one was alike.”
Her vast collection of bottles includes a wide array of sizes, colors and styles.
Marilyn says she enjoys collecting these bits of history, commenting, “It was the most that I have had here – just pure fun.”