Only a handful of ranches in the West send out a wagon anymore. Most places aren’t big enough to justify the experience. Finding cowboys willing to sleep in a teepee for six weeks isn’t easy, either. But for the Spanish Ranch in Elko County, Nevada, sending out the spring wagon is a way of life.
I caught up with Ira Wines, buckaroo boss at the Spanish Ranch, in early May of 2006, just 10 days before his spring works began.
At 6-foot-5-inches, the lanky Wines has roots that run deep in this part of the world on both sides of his family. The Wines family has ranched in Elko County for six generations, and Ira’s late maternal grandfather bought an Elko County Ranch in 1944, where Ira’s grandmother still lives.
As buckaroo boss at the Spanish Ranch for the past four years, Wines is used to the constant shuffle of men under his supervision. With only 10 days left until time to run the wagon, he is still working on building a crew of nine men for the spring. His crew fluctuates from about that many at a maximum to two men during the slow times.
Young cowboys drift in, sleep in a bedroll for six weeks with the wagon, and then move on like tumbleweeds in the desert.
When he’s fully manned, Wines will leave two cowboys at headquarters to take care of things there. Seven will go out with the wagon.
Ah, the wagon. “It’s one of a kind,” Wines says with a smile. “It was an old army truck, so it is camouflage. But it has the box of a Ryder rental truck, which is bright yellow. It’s really something. It has a propane stove and a fridge.”
Once out with the wagon, the crew will move only a few times. They need to camp where they can have a fenced-in pasture for their horses. It wasn’t always that way. Wrangle boys would move with the camp, keeping the horses together at night.
“Bill Maupin at the IL would camp the wagon anywhere,” Wines explains. “But there’s no wrangle boys around that can handle that. We’re kind of limited to where we can go.”
Now each cowboy takes a turn wrangling the horses in the morning.
A good portion of the time on the wagon will be spent on the desert part of the IL Ranch, which the Spanish Ranch has leased for two years now.
Branding is an important part of the spring works. Wines usually has four men roping at a time. “We head and heel,” he explains. “Our calves are big, and that’s a whole lot faster for us.”
Coming back to headquarters around the first of July, Wines will only have a few weeks until he’ll be pulling the wagon out again.
“The cows on the IL need to change allotments on August 1. It’ll take us a few weeks to gather them,” he says.
After the steers are gathered and classed according to size, they’ll be shipped in early September. Then the Spanish Ranch buckaroos will spend a few weeks weaning out on the desert at the IL. Around the first of October, they’ll gather the cows and trail them home to winter at the Spanish Ranch. This trip up the river will take about three days.
The first cows trailed home to the Spanish Ranch came in 1871. They were trailed all the way from Mexico.
Margaret Ellison Jones tells me the story. An Elko County resident, she is a shareholder in the Ellison Ranching Company that owns the Spanish Ranch. More importantly, she grew up on the Spanish Ranch and her family has sought to preserve the story of this historic place.
“Two brothers, Pedro and Bernardo Altube, came over from the Pyrenees in Spain,” Jones says.
The Altubes landed in Independence Valley in 1871. On the way, they had spent time in South America and California. The cows they brought with them had been trailed from Mexico. They selected the long dusty valley with sagebrush-covererd hills as their new home.
“They named it the Spanish Ranch after their heritage,” Jones says.
Ranch headquarters are 10 miles from Tuscarora. Back then, Tuscarora was a booming Wild West mining town. Today it is a ghost town with a post office. The nearest doctor’s office or grocery store is 56 miles away in Elko.
Subsequent workers on the ranch have wondered why, with all that land to choose from, the Altubes chose to place ranch headquarters where it is. As the lowest spot around, it gets pretty wet every spring. And summertime brings frogs—lots of them—that try to get in everyone’s houses.
The Altubes enlisted the help of Native Americans who lived in the area to drag logs from the mountains. From these they built a bunk house, a home, a storehouse and a blacksmith shop. Plentiful willows on the ranch were woven into corrals which are still in existence. The brothers quickly acquired a substantial amount of land by encouraging their hired hands to homestead surrounding areas which the brothers then purchased.
The winter of 1889–90 is notorious in northern Nevada. Prior to that time, ranchers didn’t put up hay, relying on winter pasture to get through the cold and snow. But the extreme cold, snow and length of that winter ended all of that. Like most cattlemen in the area, the Altubes were virtually wiped out.
“But they had faith in God,” Jones says. “The believed that God had given and God could take away. They rebuilt their herd with cattle from Idaho.”
The Altubes sold out in 1907. Between 1907 and 1925, the ranch changed hands several times before being acquired by the Ellison Ranching Company, which still owns it today.
Ellison family members remain involved in the day-to-day operations of the Ellison Ranching Company. In 1935, Stanley and Mae Ellison, Jones’s parents, came to the ranch, and Stanley became foreman of the company and manager of the Spanish Ranch. He held this position until 1986.
Over the years, Stanley and Mae’s three daughters’ husbands held various positions at the ranch, from cowboss to general manager. Today, their families are involved only as shareholders in the corporation.
“But our hearts are still at the Spanish Ranch,” Jones says.
The only remaining family members who currently work at the ranch are Doug Evans, ranch foreman, and Aulene Ratliff, the bookkeeper. Doug and Aulene are children of Bill Evans, Mae Ellison’s brother, who served as bookkeeper for the ranch for over 50 years.
The Ellison Ranching Company has extended holdings in northern Nevada which includes over 100,000 deeded acres and an estimated 879,000 acres of government allotments. Besides about 5,500 mother cows, 7,500 ewes and 250 horses, the Ellison Ranching Company provides for the support of a plethora of wildlife and hundreds of free-roaming wild horses in this high desert land.
The Ranching Company has been and continues to be committed to proper stewardship of the land—both public and deeded.
Ellison holdings include the Spanish Ranch, which serves as company headquarters, the 71 Ranch in Halleck, Nevada, and the Mendive Goldcreek Field and Martin Creek Ranch near Wildhorse Reservoir. Ellison Ranching Company also owns four farms south of Battle Mountain: Fish Creek, Cottonwood, Yozgott, and Ellison Farms of Nevada. These farms serve as feedlot areas and sheep-wintering grounds. They also sell dairy-quality alfalfa hay and calve 800 first-calf heifers every winter. Mature cows calve on their own, out on the desert.
Bill Hall has been general manager of the Ellison Ranching Company and the Spanish Ranch since 2002. Hall grew up in Colorado and spent 19 years managing the EK Carey Ranch.
“It got pretty congested there,” Hall says.
Under Hall’s management, the Spanish Ranch has implemented modern livestock and farm management practices.
“We still run this as a desert operation,” he says. “But we have fertilized hay ground, upgraded genetics and improved water development.”
Hall also works closely with the Bureau of Land Management.
“The Spanish Ranch is a big allotment,” Hall says. “It’s broken down into several areas. We have worked out a management program with the BLM.”
In late March, the cattle are turned out to the farthest West allotment. By the end of June, they are rotated throughout the allotment.
“There is not a fence out there,” Hall says, “but we move the cattle to several different areas.”
The Spanish Ranch itself consists of approximately 76,000 deeded acres. Its operations are closely tied to other Ellison holdings. Hay raised on the farms is trucked to the 71 and the Spanish Ranch. The Spanish Ranch also has a big sheep operation with about 6,500 producing ewes and 1,500 yearlings.
Horses are of paramount importance to the work of the Spanish Ranch. The acreage is so vast and the terrain so rugged that there aren’t other options.
Buckaroo boss Wines supervises the horse operation. The Spanish Ranch has around 150 saddle horses in their cavvy. Most of them are Quarter Horses.
“Our horses need to be tough,” Wines says. “We put a lot of miles on them. It’s not uncommon to ride 40 to 50 miles in a day on a horse.
“Some of our horses are what you’d call ‘rock pounders.’ They’re good at pounding rocks and not much else. But still, they’ll pack a guy all day long. We can use them. If we get a smarter horse, though, we’ll take more time with it.”
Each buckaroo has seven or eight horses in his string. That many are needed because of all the miles Spanish Ranch cowboys traverse.
On the Spanish Ranch allotment between ranch headquarters and Four-mile Creek, there are no roads. That’s a distance of about 30 miles. When buckaroos are working in that area, they trot there. Even when they do trailer out, they often ride a long ways to get to where they are working.
“It makes for some long days,” Wines says. “Last year we trotted to Squaw Valley to get some cows that had gone over the mountain. There were four of us. Two of us went down one creek and two went down another. I told everyone we’d meet where the creeks met. By the time we all got there, it was 8 o’clock at night. We still had 15 miles to trot home.”
The Spanish Ranch has a reputation for having a mean cavvy. But Wines doesn’t think they’re that bad.
“I had heard the stories, but when I came here, I was pretty surprised,” says Wines, who attributes the rumors to young buckaroos, inexperience and bravado.
“It’s not the case this year,” he says. “I’ve got a great crew right now that has a lot of experience. But the Spanish Ranch typically hires a lot of kids. We don’t have much housing for families. Our turnover rate is high. A kid might have heard stories about the horses here, and he’ll be scared. The horse can tell he’s scared and they won’t get along. Then he’ll go to town Saturday night, and by the end of the night, he’ll be telling stories about a horse that nobody could ride.”
Wines supervises breaking new colts. His training philosophy emphasizes utility.
“I figure these horses are going to be ranch horses their whole lives,” he says. “I don’t waste a lot of time doing ground work with them. I just get on them and ride them.
“My dad taught me that the first thing a horse needs to learn is how to move with someone on it. I take them around one or two times in the corral, but then I get outside and ride them. They might as well start doing ranch work.”
Horses doing ranch work is what it is all about on the Spanish Ranch. Looking at the sagebrush-covered hills, one could almost imagine that it is 1871 and the Altube brothers have just arrived in this valley. In this vast, rugged land, things haven’t really changed that much.