Whitaker Ranch remains in family ownership for more than a centuryWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Cheyenne – In the late 1890s, Dugald Whitaker developed his ranch along Horse Creek near Cheyenne after following one of his older brothers to Wyoming.
“My grandfather came over from England in 1895. He came from a rural area, and he came to ranch, specifically,” comments Whitaker's granddaughter Mary Weppner.
Herefords were Whitaker’s breed of choice, and in 1926, he began to mix them with Shorthorns for better milk production in his cattle.
“At that time, it was kind of a different idea, although there was one other ranch close by that did the same thing about that same time,” Mary notes.
The cross proved successful for the Whitaker family for many years, until quality Shorthorns became difficult to find.
A different breed
“A lot of them, in the last number of years, have been raised by smaller outfits east of here. We had trouble with some bulls that had never seen a horse before, and they got to be really hard to handle,” mentions Mary’s husband Ed.
Without previous exposure, the cattle showed little respect for horses, and it became a struggle to move them or work with them.
“That was one of the reasons we moved away from the Shorthorns,” Ed adds.
In the last 10 to 15 years, the herd has transitioned to new breeding and is now almost primarily Red Angus.
“In the last 20 years or so, instead of selling our cows, we’ve backgrounded them in Wheatland or at other facilities. Then we fatten them and sell them directly to the packing plant,” he continues.
Less than three percent of the ranch’s production goes through auctions or sale barns, and almost everything, including the cows, is sold to the packer.
“It’s a different way of doing business than a lot of people in the state,” Ed comments.
Whitaker Ranch cattle run on almost 40,000 acres in southeast Wyoming, between 6,500 and 7,000 feet elevation.
“It’s all in one block,” Mary describes. “A lot of people have the amount of acreage that we do but not all in one block. A lot of our pastures are very large, which is very helpful when we’re trying to have a good area for cattle. We are able to move them around, and we usually have plenty of grazing.”
Ed also comments, “It has some really good hay meadows on it and about 1,000 acres under irrigation ditches on three different creeks. There is a quite a bit of natural water.”
Natural springs are found throughout the ranch’s pastures as well, and the family has also added a number of windmills.
“The power company wanted to come through and run another line, so we had an opportunity to electrify several windmills at minimal cost,” he adds.
The power company isn’t the only outside entity that has expressed interest in Whitaker Ranch. The land also appealed to the Air Force as tensions built around missile technology in the 1950s.
“Through condemnation, the Air Force took a section and a half, 960 acres, of ground and built six Atlas launch pads with all of the support buildings,” Ed remarks.
The area was operated until 1963 when new technology introduced the minuteman missiles, and the Air Force built facilities for those on another part of the ranch much closer to the house.
“That was eventually modified and turned into the peacekeeper missile, which we had until a little after the turn of the century,” he remarks. “We had a 40-year forced relationship with the Air Force, which had its positives and negatives. We were glad to do what we could for the effort.”
Once the original Atlas site was retired, the Air Force offered to sell the land – devalued as ranch land due to the developments – back to Whitaker Ranch for a much higher price than they bought it for.
“Finally, they sold it to a combine of salvage people who went in and took out everything they could get ahold of, including a lot of copper wire and materials like that,” Ed explains.
Eventually, after it was gutted, Whitaker Ranch was able to purchase the Atlas site.
“They didn’t give it back to us. They sold it back to us. It was encircled by the rest of our property, and we didn’t want to have a strange outfit in there. The building is still there today,” mentions Ed.
Because it was built to withstand missile attacks, the building will likely be standing for many years to come, he adds.
“The grass around the base is mostly crested wheat now, so it’s pretty good feed most years,” he notes.
The smaller missile site near the house is also still intact, although it has also been gutted. The military has yet to take action toward removing the facility or returning ownership to the family.
Other than the missile sites, Whitaker Ranch is fully comprised of deeded land.
“The only land that isn’t privately owned is the school sections,” Mary remarks.
The school sections are part of the original school trust lands that were created when Wyoming became a state.
“Two sections of every township, 16 and 36, were reserved for the schools. Over the years, some have been traded for other pieces of ground or sold,” Ed says.
Revenue created from those sections, through grazing fees, mineral royalties or other incomes are committed to the state for a trust fund benefiting schools.
“It’s still that way,” Mary comments. “Our sections are still intact.”
In recent years, Ed and Mary have retired from their commercial cow/calf operation and currently lease their property to a neighbor. In the future, when circumstances allow, the Weppner family may very well return to ranching.
“It’s been a good piece of ground, and we’ve raised several families on it. It has provided us with a lot of good background, a lot of good work and a lot of memories,” states Ed.