Chronicle of Cowboy Life
On the surface, the Sandhills of west-central Nebraska is nothing more than an enormous expanse of bleak, lonesome prairie, offering little attraction to passersby.But 19th century English immigrant Harry Haythornthwaite saw possibilities within the rolling hills.
Despite harsh winter conditions, the abundant grassland, fed by a great aquifer, was a prime setting to raise horses and cattle. With equal parts of ingenuity and sweat equity, Haythornthwaite, who shortened his last name to Haythorn, and his wife, Emma, built a ranching dynasty that’s now five generations strong. (For more on the Haythorn ranch, see “Ties That Bind,” December 2006 Western Horseman and “Cowboying on the Haythorn,” November 2005 Western Horseman.)
Artist and photographer Lisa Norman, wife of longtime Haythorn employee Denley Norman, documents the ranch’s rich history, as well as the contemporary day-to-day happenings, in Haythorn Land & Cattle Co.: A Horseman’s Heritage. The hardbound, coffee-table book features 500 images, including old, never-before-published photographs and records from the Haythorn family’s personal archive, as well as images Lisa has taken during the past 13 years she and Denley have lived and worked on the ranch.
Always armed with a camera, Lisa has captured shots of the seasonal landscape and working cowboys in their everyday environment. Through her work, she has created a photographic chronicle of life on the Haythorn, traditions that still persist on the ranch, and the hidden beauty of the prairie. Her realistic portraits are a testament that hardscrabble people still make a living off the land and from the back of a horse, and that the cowboy is not a relic of the past.
“People still respond to the cowboy and his ways with awe and respect,” Lisa says. “He lives a simple, often romanticized life that people mistakenly think no longer exists. There’s a little pioneer in everyone, but few get to realize it in their lifetime.”
Much like Harry Haythornthwaite, Lisa and Denley left their homeland of Wyoming and set out for an adventure in a new land. Prior to their move, Denley was a ranch hand on the Padlock Ranch. Lisa worked in an art gallery in Sheridan, while pursuing an art career. The chance to be a part of the Haythorn horse heritage drove Denley to take a job tending cattle on the ranch’s most remote section. Traveling via truck and trailer, the couple traversed a single-lane road to an isolated camp located 27 miles from the nearest signs of humanity and 70 miles from supplies.
Peering out of a line-cabin window at the stark, snow-covered ground and listening to the whistling wind, Lisa was uncertain about this new environment, but made the Sandhills her home. The Normans spent seven years at the remote ranch, where they had only each other and the animals to occupy their imaginations.
The advent of spring revealed a colorful landscape of lush grasses, delicate wildflowers and scenic horizons. The artist began to see the Sandhills in a different light.
Working beside Denley, Lisa contemplated what it must have been like to be Harry and Emma, building the ranch from scratch and looking out the window of a sod house and seeing opportunity. She also wondered what the pioneer ranchers would think of the present-day operation.
Her pondering inspired her creativity. She began photographing different aspects of the ranch to have as reference material for her art. Having worked toward a degree in medical illustration, Lisa was especially intrigued by the horses’ anatomy.
“I’ll never get tired of observing, studying and photographing horses,” she says. “They’re magnificent animals in so many respects—their intelligence, musculature and athletic ability. I’m fascinated with every detail about them.”
Seizing the opportunity to use her photographic, artistic and graphic-design talents, Lisa carved out her own career on the ranch, photographing, writing and designing sale catalogs and marketing materials. This required researching Haythorn family history. Sifting through archived photos, newspaper clippings and records, Lisa pieced together the ranch’s chronology and compiled it into self-published book as a gift for current owners Craig and Jody Haythorn.
The sentiment was well-received, not only by the Haythorn family, but also everyone who saw the book. With a list of 200 people interested in buying copies, Lisa approached the Haythorns with a proposal to create a high-quality coffee-table book documenting the ranch’s history and current operation.
“The traditional definition of family is no longer applicable to most Americans,” she laments. “And to have a trade passed down five generations is virtually unknown in any other industry. You really had to love this life, the animals and the country to have kept this operation afloat through the tough times. The entire story—the hardships, changes, tragedies and humorous incidents—is worthy of remembrance.”
Finding a publisher that would produce such a book, grant Lisa total creative control of the project, and print the final product in the United States using environmentally friendly materials was a challenge. After several rejections, Lisa found Tim Trabon of Trabon Printing in Kansas City, Missouri. A prominent publisher and fellow rancher and horseman, Trabon had been to the Haythorn’s horse sale and agreed to Lisa’s terms. Lisa also commissioned leather-crafter Monty Reedy of Weatherford, Texas, to carve the book’s front and back jackets.
A devoted ranch wife and mother of two daughters—Kate, 5, and Carly, 2—Lisa worked on the book mostly between midnight and sunrise, completing the project in less than two years. The result is an entertaining and visually appealing book that takes readers inside the ranch and reveals subtle nuances that can only be recognized by someone who has lived and worked there and been part of the family.
“In many ways, ranching isn’t considered a real money-making business,” Lisa explains. “It’s not a job in which you clock in and clock out. It’s a way of life, and the whole family is intertwined in it.”
In researching and writing the book, Lisa was drawn to the many faces and personalities in the Haythorn story, and aimed to create an entertaining narrative that supported her vivid photography. The author was impressed by matriarch Emma Haythorn’s “can-do spirit,” which made a statement during a time when gender roles created boundaries for most women.
“Emma must have stood out in a crowd,” Lisa says. “She was a flashy dresser, and she rode, drank and cussed with the best of them, while cooking for 10 ranch hands each day and raising a family on the prairie.”
Though the Haythorn saga is more than 100 years old, many aspects of the epic still apply today.
“Harry built this ranch with sheer determination and hard work,” Lisa says. “Now, the challenge is to keep it together, in the family, using the same industriousness and pioneer spirit he used to start it.”
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. Haythorn Land & Cattle Co.: A Horseman’s Heritage is available in regular and signed editions. To order, call (308) 726-2114, or visit on the Web imageswest.com.