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February 18, 2008
Nevada poet, writer, and gathering organizer Smoke Wade shared photos "depicting the 1952 branding of the Hashknife calves at the Cactus Flat branding corral, which sets on a flat along the Grande Ronde River in Washington. The Grande Ronde is a tributary of the Snake River, and Cactus Flat is about a mile from the Snake." Smoke tells:It was my lot in life to be born the grandson of J.H. "Jidge" Tippett, a Hells Canyon area cattle baron. At the time of his death in 1963, he had pieced together a system of cattle ranches in SE Washington and NE Oregon that incorporated the use of over one hundred thousand acres of range land. This ranch system was comprised of five full time independent ranches, one seasonal ranch and at least one summer cow camp operation.
Jidge’s father’s family fell off the Oregon Trail some where around Butter Creek Oregon. By the time he was a young man, his family was living in Wallowa county, Oregon where he began building his empire. Jidge started out as a thirty-dollar-a-month sheepherder. The Hells Canyon of the Snake River region along the Idaho-Oregon border was well suited for sheep. The steep terrain and harsh climate made it difficult to raise cattle. There was little grass for gazing in the canyon during the hot summer months, and the steep canyon walls offered sparse feed at other times. Yet, Jidge was able to find a way to piece together his formula for success.
By splicing together a network of failed homesteads, he slowly began building an empire that would reach its heyday at the time of his death. By the early 1940s his children were becoming adults and he incorporated the ranch operation by placing each of his children on one of the ranches that he was accumulating. My mother was one of his children. This family partnership resulted in the Corporation brand, the Hashknife.
While each of the family partners was allowed to have their own brand and cattle, the bulk of the herd was of the Hashknife brand. Jidge owned one half of all cattle bearing the Hashknife brand, while the remaining half was divided equally between the partner family members. Some of Jidge’s children sold out of the partnership, and by 1952, there were four partners left in the Hashknife Corporation, my parents, two uncles and my grandparents.
To make the extensive ranch system work in such a harsh climate required the use of grazing land that could be used in the different seasons. Two ranches were for summer and fall pasture. Jidge acquired extensive grazing leases on Forest Service land where the summer Cold Springs cow camp operation was. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land was "free grazed." Four of the ranches were sheltered in Hells Canyon and its tributaries, and these ranches were the "home ranches" for my family members. The home ranches were suited for late fall and early spring pasture as well as winter feeding and calving sites.
And, so our life followed the seasons, far from towns, stores, telephones, and modern convinces. We were born to the saddle, we lived a self-sustaining wilderness life, and, on occasions, the outside world would come peeking in to see what life lived twenty years behind the times was like. 1952 was one of those years.
Spring branding of the calf crop took place on each of the home ranches. The Rogersburg ranch where I was raised always contained one of the largest winter herds due to the extensive winter range we had. The calf crop was sizable and each year the spring branding at Cactus Flat was a joint operation for all family members. Often folks from town or perhaps college students would come up and join with us at branding time. In 1952, a journalist from a local newspaper, Bonnie Butler, brought with her a journalist from France. The French lady created quite a stir amongst the Hells Canyon cowboys during the branding, and fortunately, someone recorded this branding event on camera.
It was spring branding time for the Hashknife cattle operation. The cattle were herded towards the Cactus Flat corral which was on a flat along the Grande Ronde River in Southeastern Washington.
The old corral on Cactus Flat was on a bench along the Grande Ronde river about one mile from its confluence with the Snake River. Ironically, French fur trappers had named the "Ronde" for the peculiar way that the river wound its way through the canyon in giant u-shaped loops. This coincidence bore special interest to the foreign journalist. Many of the calves were born on Cactus Flat. At branding time, the cattle were herded towards the corral and separated—calves on the inside, cows on the outside.
The cows and calves were herded into the corral gate. The visible brand, the "X Quarter Circle," was my grandfather's brand.
Once the corral was full, the gates were closed and the rest of the cows and calves were held on the flat near by. Besides the branding crew, a group of cowboys were required to hold the cattle outside the corral. Note several of the cows display the Hashknife brand (Bar-D).
Once the corral is full, it was time to cut out (separate) the cows from the calves. The Grande Ronde river can be seen in the background. The road on the other side of the river was the way to town. From the Cactus Flat corral, it was a long 30 mile drive to the nearest town of Asotin, Washington.
The calves mill about in the corral while the mother cows wait anxiously out side the fence. During this time the term "bawling" became self explanatory.
The branding fire was built and the irons were heated to red hot in preparation of marking the calves. The fire also would heat a pot of coffee and the coals would cook a fresh order of mountain oysters for midday snacks. Branding was required by law to show ownership of the cattle.
While the calves and cows were being separated in the corral, a pit was dug and a hot fire started to heat the branding irons to a red-hot condition. The branding irons in this photo from left to right are: "4 F Slash," my father's brand; "UN," my uncle Biden Tippett's brand; two "J Inverted J" irons, my uncle Jack Tippett's brand; and three "Hashknife" branding irons. Along the back row there are six branding irons that resemble pipes and two smaller irons with the number "2." The pipe-like irons were the de-horning irons used to sear the young horns on the calves to prevent horns from growing. The number "2" irons were jaw brands to indicate the year of the birth of the calf, in this case—1952.
The Hashknife was the most common used brand on our ranch and represented the partnership cattle belonging to my parents, my uncles and my grandfather, J.H. "Jidge" Tippett. Ironically, the Hashknife brand of my past greatly resembles the BAR-D brand of my present.
Often the team roping method was used to catch and hold a calf while the branding crew branded, de-horned, castrated and vaccinated the calf. The man on the horse with his back to the camera is my father. I am the youth in front of the horse.
The calves were roped, team roping style, and stretched out on the ground. Sometimes, the use of a snubbing post was incorporated in lieu of team roping. The calves would be branded, de-horned, vaccinated, steer calves castrated, and often a waddle or dewlap was cut into the animal’s skin for easy identification from a distance. We also incorporated the use of jaw brands with a number depicting the year the calves were born. This was important as we retained many heifers for brood cows and we needed to know how old they were. In 1952, it was common to hold the steers for market until they had been through two summers. We called them "two-year olds," and the jaw brand was a way of keeping the steer herds separate.
At branding time, everyone on the ranch helps out. In this photo, a young Smoke Wade handles the front leg tie down rope.
This Cactus Flat branding took place a few years prior to the branding of 1952. In the fore ground, one can see the use of a "snubbing post" in lieu of using the team roping method. As was common at our branding, several calves at a time were roped and branding to speed the process. The young people sitting on the corral fence are students from Washington State College now known as Washington State University, Pullman, Washington.
The use of the de-horning iron is well demonstrated in this photo. The young man doing the de-horning is Joe Thompson, a ranch hand that worked for our family operation for many years. The ranch hand was always an integral part of running a successful cattle operation. Joe later become a ranch owner in Idaho.
The Hashknife brand is being applied by my uncle Biden Tippett.My father, Don Fouste, carries the de-horning iron and a knife with a straight blade. Two types of knives were used in the branding process. While the castrating knife was a special blade often provided as an additional blade on most pocket knives in those days, a longer straight blade was used to cut the nub of the horn from the calf prior to using the de-horning iron.Others in the photo are uncle Jack Tippett on the left and neighboring rancher, Pete Edgemond on the right. It has always been a western ranching tradition for neighbors to help out during branding time.
This remarkable photo is of a calf with the freshly applied Hashknife brand, the number "2" jaw brand depicting that the branding took place in 1952, the de-horned marks on his head, and what was called a "dew-lap" cut on his neck skin. The dew-lap was a way of cutting a piece of skin that would permanently hang from the animal to make their ownership easily recognizable. This over cut dew-lap was used in conjunction with the Hashknife brand. Some brand owners used an under cut dew-lap, while still others would cut what was known as a "waddle" on the side of the animals face or perhaps on their rear quarters.The two ladies in the photograph are journalists covering the branding for an unknown publication. The lady with the sunglasses is from France.Note the braided rawhide rope on the saddle, and the always present rain slicker tied on behind the saddle.
At branding time, as was the custom then, the crew would take a long lunch break and large midday meals would be consumed followed by a nap. The afternoon work shift would often end at dark. And the next day would begin before sunrise.
Several of the Hashknife cowboys take a deserved rest break from the branding. My grandfather, J. H. "Jidge" Tippett, leans against the truck tire and appears to be entertaining the lady journalist from France with his stories about life in Hells Canyon.The photo records the authentic cowboy garb of the region and the era. Note the cuffed trouser legs of the reclining cowboy, uncle Biden Tippett. It was common for men to wear their new blue jeans un-washed for a time period and they often cuffed the legs of their pants. Eventually, repeated laundering would cause the jeans to shrink-to-fit and the cuffs would disappear. Many of the men also favored blue denim shirts, though my grandfather leaned preferred wool in all seasons.Hats were usually course straw or battered felt. And lace up work shoes were as common as pointy-toed cowboy boots. In the steep canyon country, a cowboy spent a great deal of time leading his horse, and shoes were often preferred to cowboy boots.When the branding was completed at Cactus Flat, the Grande Ronde cattle were herded up a side canyon to an elevation two-thousand feet above the river where they remained until it was time to move them on to the higher summer pasture which was closer to the five-thousand foot elevation. The short cattle drive up this canyon would start early in the morning and end after stars were twinkling in the sky. Remarkably, the calves survived the branding ordeal with few complications. My father always told me that the calves actually enjoyed the branding process because it felt so good when it was over.
The branding had come to an end and it was time to move the cow and calf herd towards late spring pasture. This herd would be trailed up the distant canyon to an elevation about 2000' feet higher than the Cactus Flat branding corral. Trailing this herd two miles up the canyon would begin in earnest at daylight the next day and the night sky would be blazing stars before the cattle reached the ridge top. The herd would remain there about a month and a half, then the spring roundup would bring them back down to the river and the long drive to higher, summer pasture would begin.And, again this photo depicts style and custom of the era. Cowgirls were often prone to wearing sleeveless shirts, and cowboys were not opposed to walking.As a result of the journalists attending the Hashknife branding of 1952, we gained some notoriety as Hells Canyon cowboys which later lead to a feature article about canyon cattle ranching in Popular Mechanics. Jidge became Cattleman of the Year in the state of Washington, and went on to visit cattle ranches in South America where he made lasting friendships with Argentine cattlemen. His empire began to crumble after his death. The ranches were divided to sole ownership of his children. In the 1970’s, the U.S. Congress passed the Hells Canyon National Recreation Act and cattle ranching in the canyon became a thing of the past. Cactus Flat is now owned by the Washington Game Department. they have subsequently torn down the corral and erased all evidence of its existence. Today, I still own, in partnership with my siblings, 160 acres of the old ranch that we keep for sentimental reasons.
This story of branding would be no different from hundreds of other branding stories experienced by cattlemen everywhere, except for one thing—the Hashknife brand. While the Hells Canyon way of cowboy life slipped away from me over the years, a similar brand surfaced and became a big part of my life—the Bar-D, the brand of CowboyPoetry.com.
Destiny is not for us to understand. It is for us to accept. It is my lot in life to live from beginning and, perhaps to the end, connected to the Brand. From cowboy to cowboy poet, the brand shaped like a Bar-D, that was then the Hashknife, is the common link that connects my past to the present.
I hope this story lends an insight to the reader as to what real cowboy life was like 56 years ago in the Hells Canyon region.
Previously, Smoke Wade shared a 1905 photo of the one-room school in Joseph Creek, Washington, which he attended for six years (and which his grandmother, mother, brother, cousins, aunt and uncles attended), more photos, and some history and recollections, which you can see here.
Smoke has also shared a circa 1915 photo of his grandfather, J. H. "Jidge" Tippett, taken at the Tippett home ranch on Joseph Creek in Asotin Country, Washington, and other photos of the area, which you can see here.
This story and photos are added to our Western Memories feature.
You can email Smoke Wade.
Read some of Smoke Wade's poetry here.
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