Plains Folk

One with the Horses


Attending the field day of the Hettinger Research Extension Center a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the historic importance of sheep culture on the northern plains. Then, a week or so later, I was at Assumption Abbey, in Richardton, lodging with a group ofstudents composing the NDSU field school on historic earthen buildings. Breakfasting one morning at the abbey, one of the monks pressed upon me a rare book from the abbey library he thought I should read.

The book was Dakota Days, a memoir by Edson C. Dayton, privately printed in 1937. The author was a New Yorker, seminary trained for the ministry, but afflicted with respiratory ailments and an inflamed throat. His doctor told him to go west for his health. So he ended up in Dickinson, North Dakota, wondering what to do for a living. He began investing in cattle and then sheep, and for a time in the 1880s and 1890s, owned a string of three sheep ranches-one on the Cannonball just west of Mott, another at the base of Black Butte, and the third on the Cedar, just north of Lemmon.

Dakota Days offers a rare view of the open range sheep industry in Dakota, a subject not much treated by historical writers or popular imagination. It seems the cattlemen had the badlands locked up, and so the sheep men commenced operations on the benchlands to the east. Sheep ranching was challenging but profitable, providing the rancher was a quick study and his hands were trustworthy.

Lambing, which took place in early May, was a time of stress and danger. Haying, in late summer, was exhausting, requiring many acres of shortgrass to make modest stacks. Systems evolved, similar to those in Montana, whereby flocks were dispersed from headquarter in spring under the charge of lonely shepherds and lively dogs. Sheep wagons accompanied the shepherds far from headquarters, thereby saving nearby grass for winter.

It is a commonplace to say that life on the plains is a struggle with the environment, but that commonplace does not begin to capture the complexity of the relationship. There were struggles, of course. The threat of prairie fires required the laborious construction of fireguards. One year, too, Dayton was sold a band of sheep invested with scab, a disastrous disease borne by mites in the sheep’s fleece. This necessitated the building of great vats for dipping every animal, twice, in water heated and mixed with tobacco paste.

Still, there was healing, and joy, in the prairie experience. Dayton  recovered from his infirmities to live long and prosper. And the most affecting part of his book recounts his admiration and respect for his best hand, a young man named Dominick Vranna, who probably was a German from Hungary, or Banat German.

Stocky and virile, Vranna loved hard work and was equal to any task. When a blizzard came up, he sent the regular shepherd home and held the flock himself. Rough and ready though he was, Vranna also possessed a “native refinement.”

Dayton particularly recalls traveling the prairie in a buckboard behind a beautifully matched team with Vranna holding the reins but letting the horses go, the beasts delighting in their exertion, their driver’s face aglow. Dayton says of Vranna, “He was one with the horses.”

Dayton learned the country by managing sheep. Vranna felt the country through the muscles of the horses. There is something about the experience of working with animals in a landscape that connects people with nature. I’m going to quit this essay now and go outside.

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