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This story could never have been written if Sylvia Tippett had not died on May 23, 1915 at the age of twenty. Because of her death, the story can now be told—ninety-four years later.
About 1914, my grandfather, J.H. Jidge Tippett, began piecing together a ranching system that I would later come to know as "the home ranch." The ranch system eventually grew in size to include five winter ranches, three summer ranches and a couple of cow camps on U.S Forest Service grazing allotments. The acres of leased and deeded property were perhaps more than one hundred thousand acres.
Known as the Hashknife Ranch, the ranch system was surrounded by rivers on three sides. The Snake River, also known as Hells Canyon, bordered the eastern portion of the ranch. To the north was the Grande Ronde river and the western boundary was Joseph Creek. Though called a creek, Joseph Creek would be considered a small river by any definition.
The rivers isolated the ranching system from the rest of the world. For the first twenty years, Jidge did not have the luxury of a bridge or ferry to cross the rivers. During the spring and early summer months, the high country snow melt turned the rivers into raging torrents, and always at a time when cattle needed to be moved to late spring or summer pasture. The cattle, and the cowboys, were forced to swim the raging currents as the herd was moved to different pastures and on to market.
(courtesy of family friend, Mike Edgmand) Local cowboys and family members at the Grande Ronde Crossing during high water—circa 1940.
(courtesy of family friend, Mike Edgmand) Moving the cows into the swollen stream on the Grande Ronde—circa 1940.
(courtesy of family friend, Mike Edgmand) The herd reaches mid-stream at the crossing (Circa 1940)
It was during the high water of May 1915, the horse of my grandfather’s young bride and first wife, Sylvia, went down while crossing Joseph creek with the cattle. Sylvia Steen Tippett drowned in the flood waters that spring and little is known of her previous life. Within two years, my grandfather married a young schoolteacher, Jessie Wilson, and she became my grandmother.
The only road to town from the Joseph Creek home ranch, at that time, was an improved travois trail that led to Enterprise, Oregon, some seventy miles to the south. On the northeast corner of the ranch was the old town of Rogersburg that sat along the banks for the Snake River. Steamboats and freight boats brought provisions, mail and passengers from Lewiston, Idaho, thirty miles to the north. At that time, Rogersburg contained a post office, mercantile store, a steamboat warehouse, and a few houses. When prohibition came along, several moonshiners opened up business as well.
In 1936, a road was built along the Washington side of the Snake River from Lewiston to Rogersburg, and a ferry was put in. Shortly after, in the early 1940s, a bridge was built across the Grande Ronde river three miles up stream from Rogersburg, and our family ranching system became connected by automobile to the outside world. Soon after, the economy of Rogersburg dried up and it fell into ghost town status.
The Rogersburg ferry in the late 1930's. The large building with a square black window on the second floor was the Grande Ronde Lumber & Mercantile store. It was also the post office. We used the post office as a storage building until the 1970's.The house next to it was torn down by my father to use to make an addition to the Joseph creek ranch house. In the fore ground a windmill and pump house can be seen. The windmill pumped water from the river to a large cistern behind the post office.
My father began improving one of the large houses at Rogersburg, and during the harsh winter of 1948-49, we moved there from the Joseph Creek home ranch. It was to be my home for many years. During that winter, the Grande Ronde river froze over, and the ice became very thick—much like a glacier. During a January thaw, the ice began to move and then it jammed in a portion of the river known as the narrows—some two miles upstream from our bridge. When the ice jam released and began to move, the ice lifted our bridge from its foundations and scattered portions of the bridge along three miles of the river. Once again, we were isolated from the outside world.
The winter of 1948-49. The river froze over and created huge ice jams in narrow portions of the river.
After the ice jam began to move, it pushed ice and drift wood debris across our road. The river can be seen to the far left.
During January of 1949, the ice jam broke loose and eventually removed this bridge and scattered it for several miles downstream. The loss of the bridge severed our link with town.
Soon, the county road department installed a ferry. Before the ferry was installed, they installed a cable car across the river. We had automobiles and trucks on both sides of the river, and we would use the small cable car to cross the river—sometimes in the black of night.
Shortly after the loss of the bridge, the county road department put up this cable car for the isolated ranchers to cross the river. For several months, this was our means of crossing. We were able to bring in all of our supplies via the cable car. I am the small boy with the pom-pom on top of my hat. My brother is the taller boy with an aviator cap on.
In about a year, the county had replaced the bridge, and sometime thereafter, a new bridge was installed across Joseph Creek as well, and our days of crossing the rivers were greatly changed. Since then, cattle and horses could use the bridges to be moved from one pasture to another.
Perhaps the last unusual crossing of the river came in the late 1970s, when my father moved eighty-five steer calves from Rogersburg to some newly acquired grazing land on the Idaho side of the Snake River. The crossing was by means of a sixteen-foot aluminum boat with an outboard motor. He built a plywood box in the boat and then he backed the pickup truck loaded with steers to the water's edge, and forced a steer to jump into the boat. Upstream, he removed one side of the plywood box, and the steer was forced to jump over the side of the boat into the water and then wade to shore. When roundup time came, he drove the steers to a trailhead, high in the mountains on the Idaho side, where they could be loaded and trucked back to market.
My father navigates his 16-foot aluminum boat behind his pickup truck at the Heller Bar boat landing by Rogersburg, Washington (late 1970s)
Dad gets the plywood box ready for loading a steer.
One steer is goaded into jumping from the pickup into the back of the boat.
Dad and his boat head up the Snake River for a three mile journey to the Idaho side where he has acquired some grazing property. This was the last known unique crossing of cattle on the Snake River. My father moved 85 steers in the fashion, one at-a-time, with the 85 round trips totaling 510 miles. The "new" town of Rogersburg can be seen in the background. The old home ranch now is a sub-division of privately owned rural homes and cabins, thirty miles from the nearest town..
The reason for the crossing using the boat was due to the rugged nature of Hells Canyon. The canyon face reached several thousand feet above the river shore. The trailhead was at the top. He wanted the cattle to graze the lower reaches of the side canyons, and it would have required a large crew of cow punchers to move the cattle down the mountain slopes to the river’s edge. In this fashion, and by traveling 510 river miles, he was able to make the cattle crossing without help.
In these days, we enjoy the benefits of bridges, and an occasional ferry, without giving much thought to these comforts. Sixty years later, I can still recall the sound of the ice jam moving down river on that January night as it carried our bridge with it. I remember the fear of riding across the river in the cable car during the dark of night, with freezing water splashing in the bottom of the heavily loaded car as the cable sagged while over the middle of the river.
The Snake River at the confluence of the Grande Ronde River at Rogersburg. This part of the river is known as the entrance to Hells Canyon. The rugged mountains in the background is the grazing land my father moved cattle to by boat. For several years, dad built vacation cabins along a part of the Idaho shoreline he sub-divided. In 1976, the United States Congress created the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area that brought an end to sub-divisions and cattle ranching alike.
I still recall how anxious I felt when moving cows across the swollen Joseph Creek crossing in the late spring. Watching a cow cramp up and begin pawing at the air and then go down in the raging water is a memory that hangs on. It must have been a similar scene for Sylvia’s horse. And I still wonder, all these years later about Sylvia—who she was, and what she was like. I owe my life to Sylvia, and her drowning, for without her death, I would not be able to share this story with you.
The funeral card for Sylvia Tippett who drowned May 23, 1915, while crossing cattle on Joseph creek in south eastern Washington. Sylvia was my grandfather's first wife. They had been married less than a year at the time of her death.
[In 2015, Smoke sent this link to a newspaper report of Sylvia Tippett's death, www.wallowa.com/out_of_the_past/20150526/out-of-the-past-sylvia-tippett-drowns-in-creek.]
© 2009, Smoke Wade
The cowboy way of life is often romanticized. The cowboy is pictured riding his faithful horse across wide expanses of prairie beneath an endless sky. Perhaps his evening was spent sitting around a campfire, drinking coffee from a tin cup as he strummed on his guitar. Many folks yearned for the carefree lifestyle of the American Cowboy. Yet, cowboy life in the Hells Canyon region of the Snake River along the Idaho-Oregon border was not always that way.
The first settlers arrived in the area around 1876 and made their home with the Nez Perce people that lived there. The Nez Perce maintained large herds of cattle and horses that free-grazed upon the land. After the Nez Perce War of 1877, the land was open for the settlers to expand and they began building cattle ranches. Some of their initial stock of cattle was started from the herd the Nez Perce was forced to leave behind. The settlers soon learned that the harsh climate required that they raise hay to feed to the cattle during the long winter months. And from June through September, the lonesome, romantic cowboy became a field hand during haying season.
Our family ranch system, the Hashknife outfit, included four winter ranches deep in the valleys of the Hells Canyon region. Each of these ranches raised enough alfalfa and grass hay to sustain the cattle herds during the toughest of winters.
The 1936 haying crew at Basin Creek ranch, Oregon. My father is the fifth from the left.
The ranch system was isolated from the modern world, and we continued to use draft horses and mules during haying season until after World War II. The hay fields were flood-irrigated by a system of hand-built dams and ditches. This irrigating process allowed us to harvest three or more crops of hay each year.
The mature hay crop was mowed with horse-drawn hay mowing machines. Then it was gathered into "wind rows" by horse drawn dump rakes. After the hay had cured, crews of hay hands would load the hay with pitchforks onto horse drawn wagons. Beneath the hay, a "sling" was placed that would be drawn around the full load of hay when it reached the haystack. The sling was attached to a cable that ran through a pulley on the top of a boom that projected skyward from the top of an A-frame hay derrick. The cable continued down the backside of the derrick through a pulley at the bottom where it was connected to a team of horses or mules.
circa 1940—The mules would be driven away from the haystack thus drawing the sling full of hay into the air where it could be swung over the top of the haystack. The lead stacker would yell, "Dump ‘er," when the load of hay was in the correct position and a person on the ground would pull on a trip line that would release a clevis mechanism that dumped the hay onto the stack.
circa 1940—Loose hay was gathered by hand onto wagons pulled by mules or draft horses. A sling connected to a hay derrick carried the loose hay above the stack, then was dropped into place for the crew to "stack" in a fashion that would create a hay stack resembling a large loaf of bread.
As a side note, there were usually three distinct types of wood structures used in the western states for "putting up" hay. The "Beaver Slide" which was often found throughout western Montana, the A-Frame derrick that was used in the Pacific Northwest and the "Mormon" derrick found throughout the Utah area. The Mormon derrick differed by having a vertical mast with a swinging boom on top of the mast. The A-frame derrick had the swinging boom supported beneath the apex of the A-frame.
The stackers were skilled at their work and could build the haystacks in a manner that would prevent the stacks from falling over or being blown apart during windstorms. They often seasoned the hay with crushed rock salt to help it cure and to help prevent the hay from developing mold. Moldy hay was associated with miscarriages in the cowherd.
circa 1955 - Loose hay stored in the hay barn for winter feeding along the Grande Ronde River, Washington. My father built the barn in 1950 without the aid of a crane. The ridge was forty feet from the ground. In 2007, the barn was destroyed and all traces removed by the Washington State Game Department.
circa 1951—By the early fifties, machine had replaced the horses and mules during haying season, though the hay was still stacked loose. Wagons, trucks and pickups would often haul the hay to the stacking location. Ranch kids of all ages were enlisted to help during haying season. Smoke Wade, second from right, pictured with his cousins aboard a load of hay headed to the barn.
The use of horses and mules for haying gave way to tractors and trucks circa 1950. Much of the horse drawn haying equipment was modified to be drawn behind tractors, and an operator was still required to ride on the old dump rakes until baled hay came into the canyon in the late 1950’s.
circa 1955- Around 1950, tractors began to replace horse power in the hay fields. The Oliver "Farm All" wheel tractor used a hydraulic system that allowed the lifting of a load of hay twenty feet in the air for stacking. It was this tractor that replaced the hay derrick and beaver slide. Smoke Wade on tractor.
During this era, tractors equipped with "buck rakes"— long teeth resembling a fork lift—would scoop up the hay and transport it to the haystack. The buck rake tractors could lift the large loads of hay as high as twenty feet onto the haystack. Hay barns still maintained use of the sling that drew the hay up to a carriage that traveled along the peak of the barn via a small iron track. The hay could then be dumped in the desired location to be properly stacked. Mule teams gave way to jeeps that would pull the cable for the sling and carriage system.
circa 1955 - The "buck rake" was a home made device that fit on the front of the Oliver tractor. The tractor driver would drive the tractor across the hay field with the "teeth" or "tines" of the buck rake skimming the ground much like a fork lift. Loose hay from the wind rows would gather in the buck rake until a full load was returned to the hay stack. Smoke Wade poses with a vertically stored buck rake. The shop building in the back ground was originally the 1913 Rogersburg School house, Rogersburg, Washington.
circa 1955 - Sprinkler irrigation of hay crops replaced flood irrigation along many of the Hells Canyon ranches during the early 1950's. With river water readily available, pumps could irrigate large hay fields. Cowboys became irrigators as the sprinklers need to be moved twice daily.
The end result of haying season: feeding cows during the long winter months. Our ranch system had about 1000 head of cows and 45 bulls to feed each winter. Prior to the mid-1950's, market cattle—steers and heifers—were kept through the winter, which doubled the winter feeding operation. The need to be self sufficient with hay production was self evident.
As the 1960’s rolled in, hay-baling equipment invaded Hells Canyon, which greatly simplified the entire haying season process.
circa 1960—Hay balers came on to the scene in the Hells Canyon region by 1960, and the haying crews dwindled in size. Tractors would pull sleds or "slips" around the field while hay field hands would load the slip with the hay bales. Then the hay load was driven back to the hay stack to be loaded on a hay elevator which to carried the hay bales to the stackers on top of the stack. A crew of five men would stack 2000 bales a day in this fashion. Smoke Wade driving the tractor.
As hay balers replaced the stacking of loose hay by 1960, large loads of baled hay could easily be moved from one location to another. Photo is of my father's hay truck.
Today, the hay-baling system has become more sophisticated with the option of producing bales of many shapes and sizes including the round bale known as a "jelly roll." But even with modern haying equipment, every summer, our lonesome, romantic cowboy must give up riding his faithful horse across wide expanses of prairie beneath an endless sky, for it is haying season once again.
The Jim Creek ranch was one of the winter ranches maintained in our ranching system by my uncle, Biden Tippett. The ranch was almost four hours from the nearest small town via a seasonal rough dirt road. The hay fields produced enough hay to maintain a four-hundred head cow heard during the winter months. This ranch was the last privately owned ranch on the Oregon side of the Snake river in the Hells Canyon Recreation area. The buildings are now used as a "private" recreation area for U.S. Forest Service employees while they maintain a winter grazing operation for U. S. owned horses.
© 2008, Smoke Wade, all rights reserved
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One day in June of 1960, and without warning, my father told me to saddle my horse and load it in the truck. He also told me to pack a few belongings. for I would be gone awhile. We drove for hours up a winding dirt road that led from our home ranch to the high summer range above Hells Canyon. We drove along rivers and streams with colorful names such as the Grande Ronde River, Joseph Creek, Cottonwood Creek and Horse Creek. At the head of Horse Creek we took a side road to Downey Saddle where we could look thousands of feet below at the Snake River—shining like a silver thread at the bottom of Hells Canyon. Here he told me to unload my horse and belongings from the truck and wait.
"Wait until they come this way. This is your summer job," he said.
Smoke Wade, age 15, leading the pack string. By counting the shadows, one can tell there are seven mules in the pack string. The mules were large in stature, and they tend to dwarf the horse I was riding. As a side note, when a rider spends this much time with a horse, riding daily for weeks at a time, the horse and rider do become bonded very much as related in cowboy poetry and music. The two become as one, the rider and the horse—much like best of friends.
I sat in the shade of a large pine tree and watched as my father left to make the three-hour journey back to the ranch in his truck. I swallowed my fear and waited while watching the sun climb high in the sky. I was yet to celebrate my fifteenth birthday.
Two hours later they came over the brow of the ridge top. Sheep! Hundreds of noisy sheep guided along by two lone herders and their dogs. The sheep herd had been on the trail for three days making the uphill climb from the bottom of Hells Canyon to the ridge top five thousand feet above. Hells Canyon is known as the deepest gorge in North America. My summer job was to join this woolly apparition and follow in the footsteps of my father, for he had herded sheep along this same route in his youth.
The herders, Virgil Winters and Casey Jones, soon made me aware of my duties. I was to be the camp tender and the muleskinner. My job was to lead the pack string, load and unload the mules, set up the camp, haul water, gather wood, take down the camp and help herd sheep when I had time. There was a tent to set up for the two herders to sleep in. I slept on the ground under the stars. And this became my daily routine as we moved the sheep 75 miles from the winter ranch to summer pasture in the higher elevations of the snow capped Wallowa Mountains in north eastern Oregon, then back again.
Loading a mule as the sun comes up. Breakfast is over and the camp is packed. This photo shows the pack boxes that food and cooking ware were loaded in. The rope in the foreground is a tether line stretched between the trees. The mules were tied to the tether line at night so they would not wander. The horses were allowed more freedom by placing leather hobbles on their front legs. They could hop around at night but would not roam far away.
With over two thousand head of sheep, we moved in this fashion averaging less than six miles a day. By the third day I was comfortable leading the seven mules in the pack string. At night coyotes and mountain lions made their attacks on the sleeping band of sheep and the night herder would scare them off with a rifle shot. There is no sound more chilling that the scream of a cougar at 2:00 a.m.
The mules were a cantankerous bunch. Each had his order in the pack string and the order could never be changed without creating chaos. When properly packed with the correct weight and placed in the proper order, the pack string was peaceful and performed their duties without disruption. I can no longer recall most of their names. Pedro was the large white lead mule. He was a cross with a donkey and draft horse and was gentle to ride.
Pedro was the big white mule that was always the lead mule of the pack string. He was very gentle and broke to ride. One day, my parents visited where we were camped with the sheep close to a road. My three little sisters couldn't resist taking turns riding Pedro. Sitting on top of the pack boxes on Pedro's back was probably similar to riding a camel.
The small mule, Johnny, always brought up the rear for he liked to follow. Some where in the middle was Molly and she was never happy with any arrangement and she caused the most trouble. After two weeks or more on the trail, we came to the town of Enterprise, Oregon and trailed the sheep right down the main street of town. Leaving town, we began the steep ascent to the peaks of the Wallowa Mountains.
(circa 1955) Mules were often called upon to carry odd sized loads in the steep Hells Canyon country. The variety of loads ranged from heavy items such as cast iron cook stoves and dismantled farm equipment to bulky loads such as sacks of grain or bags of wool. In this photo, my uncle, on the left, and my father, on the right, secure a freshly slaughtered steer to the back of a mule. The mule's facial expression and pointed back ears indicate its displeasure with this load.
Somewhere in the dead center of town, a rope got tangled under the tail of one of the mules, which caused a disruption with the entire pack string. Before the problem was solved, the seven mules had created what we called a "spaghetti ball," a tangled mess of mules with my horse and me caught in the middle. The mules were bucking and kicking and trying to throw their packs. The town folk came out of their shops and watched and cheered. Apparently the tangled pack string was just the type of entertainment they had been waiting all summer for. After securing order with the pack string, I rode out of town hiding my embarrassment.
Leaving the town of Enterprise, Oregon for the high Wallowa Mountains. The diamond hitch can be seen on the top of the pack of the last mule. The lead rope or halter rope of each mule is tied to the pack saddle of the mule in front of it. The mule skinner holds the halter rope of the lead mule in his hand. Tying the lead rope off to the saddle horn could prove to be disastrous should the mules begin to act up.
Packing and leading a pack string of mules required learning several skills. I was already an accomplished horseman. I had packed and led a single mule before. The string of seven mules was a challenge to say the least. I learned to "throw" a diamond hitch to secure the loads on the packsaddle. Some of the mules carried pack boxes, which required a barrel hitch or box hitch to hold in place. And every knot had to be secure, for if a load came loose on a single mule, mutiny would develop through out the entire pack string. At times we rode along narrow trails with interesting names like "Eagles Nest" or "Suicide Trail." In these places, the slightest mishap could send mules, horse and rider over the steep trail edge to certain doom hundreds of feet below.
Often, we followed the "National Stock Drive Trail," a trail blazed through the wilderness government land by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930’s. The trails were marked with small yellow signs and blazing— removing a section of bark
—on the trees. It was the original intent that these trails would forever remain for stockmen to drive their herds from winter to summer pasture, or perhaps to market. All sign of these regional trails are now obliterated through neglect and forest fires.
(circa 1955) Some ranchers preferred pack horses to mules. In this photo, my father leads a mixed string of four horses and one mule. The animals are loaded with rock salt destined for the higher elevations of the canyon grazing country. Since both sheep and cattle required salt, the ranchers would often pool together to purchase a box car load of rock salt. Each allotment would eventually find its way to the home ranch for distribution to vastly scattered salt licks. The mule in this photo is the same mule, Johnny Mule, that brought up the rear of my sheep camp pack string.Somewhere along the trail at a remote campsite, we celebrated my 15th birthday around the evening campfire. The herders, Virgil and Casey, found a bottle of Silver Satin wine to celebrate with. We exchanged stories of our lives as the coyotes howled and the mules brayed. And it was in this manner in the summer of 1960, that a young cowboy began his rite of passage into manhood.
I never regretted the summer spent herding sheep and leading a pack string of mules, for I was always on horseback, and that was close to being a cowboy. Now, I alone remain from this event. The sheep, mules, sheepherders, horses, dogs, and owner of the sheep have all been gone for years. Only these photos and my memories remain. But what rich, rewarding memories there are. For I was once a muleskinner for the Cache Creek sheep ranch and only the loss of my memory will erase this event from history.
© 2008, Smoke Wade, all rights reserved
Seek permission before reprinting or reposting any part of this article
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