Using the experience he gained as a young man starting colts and cowboying with some of the best horsemen and cattlemen in Nevada, Jerry Chapin trained a new generation of cowboys on the ranches he managed.
Many young buckaroos have gathered their saddles and bedrolls and tramped from outfit to outfit in search of different horses and range to ride, and the chance to improve their horsemanship and cattle prowess. Jerry Chapin, longtime manager of the Muleshoe Ranch in Battle Mountain, Nevada, has cowboyed in northeastern Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. However, the list of ranches the 75-year- old has worked on is not as extensive as that of roaming cowboys half his age.
Without a doubt, Chapin was meant to be horseback, but in his 20s he chose a path that was stable for a working cowboy who was married and had a growing family. He has spent most of his years managing two big outfits in Nevada: the YP Ranch in Tuscarora and the Muleshoe. Chapin earned the respect of the ranch hands he hired through the years because he was an honest, fair leader, and he was horseback every day with his crew and made work enjoyable.
The youngest of five brothers, Chapin was raised in the Humbolt River Valley and the Northfork Country of northern Nevada on ranches where his father worked. From the time he was 4 years old, Chapin was roping and punching cattle alongside his father and brothers, and learning buckaroo traditions.
“We all learned to rope with reatas,” Chapin says. “I didn’t know there was anything else. My dad was a reata man and rode strictly center-fire rigs. He wouldn’t hire a man who rode a double rig. At that time there were a lot of Thoroughbred-type horses with high withers, and a center-fire rig stayed put a lot better.”
Chapin’s cowboy dreams grew during grade school as he peered out the window of a one-room schoolhouse in Jiggs, Nevada, rather than focusing on his lessons. In the spring, cowboys rode through Jiggs and often worked cattle in front of the schoolhouse,” he recalls. “It drove me nuts because I wanted to be out there with them. In the back of my mind I knew I’d one day be a cowboy.”
When Chapin was 12, his father died from a heart attack, leaving his mother to provide for her sons.
To supplement the family’s income, Chapin got a job on the 25 Ranch riding out on the wagon and starting colts for Tom Marvel, as well as for Mo2at Cattle Company in Elko. He continued to work for Marvel and Mo2at through-out the 1950s, an era when cowboys rode big circles horseback rather than trailering to the cow herd.
“One year the youngest colt I started was 4 and the oldest was 7,” Chapin says. “We waited to start the colts because they had to be strong and tough [to handle miles of riding]. I’ve had guys ask how we got those older horses broke, and I tell them we didn’t have trailers. A lot of the horses were cranky, had a lot of bottom to them, and it took trotting all day to get one to the point you could use it.”
Fences had yet to be built, and ranches ran cattle in common on the open range. During seasonal works, each ranch sent representatives to work cattle in a rodear. “We didn’t push the cattle into a corral for branding,” Chapin explains. “A bunch of [horseback] cowboys formed a circle around the cattle, and three or four guys would go in at a time and rope and brand the calves. We had to make sure the calves mothered up first, though, so we knew which iron to use.”
When the cowboys gathered, it was not only for work, but also to show off their horses and stock-handling skills. “Everybody took a lot of pride in how their horses handled and worked a cow,” Chapin says. “Before we got together with the other ranches, Tom would say, ‘I hope you all rode your good horses,’ because we were going to meet the Joneses, the VanNormans and the other great horsemen at the time. It was like a ‘who’s who’ horse show at the rodear.”
Chapin was just as handy in rodeo as he was in a rodear. He team roped and competed in all three roughstock events. He was a seven-time Nevada Cowboys Association saddle bronc champion, won the saddle bronc riding at every amateur rodeo in Nevada, and one year finished 13th in the Interstates Rodeo Association saddle bronc standings. He had his Rodeo Cowboys Association permit and had a chance to travel with six-time RCA saddle bronc champion Casey Tibbs.
“Casey was a family friend. His brother worked with my dad, and he used to come out before the Elko rodeo and cowboy with my brother, Charlie,” Chapin recalls. “He was known in Elko as ‘Whispering Tibbs’ because he would get around the gambling tables and start hollering. The casinos liked him because he drew a crowd.”
“I sort of wished I’d rodeoed with him to see how far I could’ve gone, but by that time I was married and had a family of my own.” In the early 1960s, Chapin cowboyed in Oregon for a short time and then worked on the Wright Ranch in Tuscarora. He was hired to be the cow boss at the nearby YP Ranch, one of the largest and oldest out3ts in Nevada, in the spring of 1967.
Following in the footsteps of Marvel, Chapin hired teenagers, particularly from the Western Shoshone-Northern Paiute Duck Valley Reservation in Owyhee. “I enjoyed helping and teaching the young guys, and if I could help them get a step ahead I was happy to do it,” he says. “I don’t know if they learned anything from me, but if they did I’m proud of it.”
Each cowboy on the YP had eight to 10 horses in his string, including at least two colts. “We started colts in the winter because that’s when we had more time, and the horses would be ready to work in the spring,” Chapin explains. Cowboys came from as far as Arizona to work for Chapin in the summer, because he had a reputation of being good to work for and occasionally having fun.
“My job was to make sure everybody got along and played every once in a while,” he says. “I never had favorites. I had some good cowboys, and I had some older guys who were awfully ‘coyote’ that I had to watch and know where to put them. If they thought we had too many calves to brand they’d hold back calves and not gather everything. I’d ride by them and make them go back and get the cattle they left behind.”
Chapin was cow boss at the YP for nine years and then became manager of the Muleshoe Ranch, a position he’s held for 38 years. The 35,000-acre ranch lies along the banks of the Humboldt River and is owned by the Pershing County Water Conservation District. Each spring, cattle from as many as 19 farms and ranches in Lovelock, Nevada, are brought in to graze the Muleshoe meadows until they are shipped out in the fall. Through the years, Pat, Chapin’s high school sweetheart and wife of 43 years, cooked for the cowboy crews and helped until she succumbed to cancer in 2001.
Their three sons, Kevin, Kyle and Kelly, also helped. Chapin married his second wife, Karla, in 2006. The couple is horseback nearly every day, doctoring cattle and doing other ranch work. They also help other ranchers with their seasonal works.
“He jokes that he couldn’t hire anyone around here, so he married me,” Karla says. “I became his gate opener, fence fixer and cowboy. “Working side by side every day, you have to have a mutual respect for each other and look out for each other’s best interest. Jerry trusts me and knows that if he sends me to do something that I’m going to do it right, and it’s the same if I ask him to do something.”
Arthritis has settled in Chapin’s joints and he moves a littler slower than he used to, reminding him of the wrecks he has had and the surgeries to repair his battered body. The lines on his face and his callused, leathery hands illustrate years of hard work in harsh weather conditions. Still, Chapin is more comfortable sitting in his saddle than in a pickup.
“I can cowboy all day horseback and never hurt,” he says. “If I sit in the pickup my legs and back will start hurting within an hour.”
Looking back on the places he has worked, Chapin says the YP is his favorite. “I liked the openness of the Owyhee Desert,” he says. “I could see for miles, hit a trot and go places.”
It does not look as though Chapin will be moving on anytime soon. Though he admits he may have to retire someday, he says as long as he can ride and take care of cattle he will still cowboy.