I’m Irene Smith and I live on Cottonwood Ranch in O’Neil Basin and have been here for almost 67 years.
I am now 89 years old and my main job on the ranch these days is baking cookies and watering flowers, so I’ll tell about my early days on Cottonwood Ranch.
My husband and I came to the ranch in 1952. Horace had served 4 years in the Naval Air Force during the Korean War. In 1952 his Grandfather Agee died and left the ranch to Horace and his brother so as soon as we got out of the service we headed for the ranch. We arrived in November of 1952 during a snow storm. I had never been to Cottonwood before and didn’t really know what to expect. I found a three room cabin with a tiny yard surrounded by lots of sagebrush. The current resident was a big black tom cat. We invited the cat to leave and moved in. It was pretty rustic but I loved it from the start. We were home!
There were no power lines into O’Neil Basin at that time so there was no electricity. There was a windmill that pumped water into the house so there was a tiny bathroom and a kitchen with running water. I felt lucky because that modern convenience hadn’t been there for too long. We soon acquired a gas refrigerator and replaced the old wood stove with a gas stove. Heaven! That first year we used kerosene lanterns to read at night. That winter I’m sure I read every copy of the “Little Golden Books” there was to our one year old son, Agee. I used a gas driven wringer washing machine to do our laundry. That was a major under-taking since the machine was a little tricky and Horace often had to work on it to keep it going. He didn’t love ‘laundry day’. In the summer I took the washing machine outdoors and did the laundry outside. Except for the horse flies that were drawn to the soapy water I kind of enjoyed that. It provided great entertainment for the kids as they made little rivers out of the water when I drained the tubs. I hung the laundry on a clothes line strung between two poles. It was great in the summer but in the winter there could be lines full of frozen diapers and clothes swinging stiffly in the wind. I improvised with a drying rack or hung the laundry on a line over the heating stove. It worked!
We soon bought a generator to provide some electricity when we needed it.
I don’t ride, brand or put up hay anymore, but I have memories of wonderful years spent building a ranch and raising kids.
One of the first things we had to do after we arrived at the ranch was get a horse. Horace owned a couple of horses that he had trained before he went in the service. His uncle had been using the horses on his ranch so we just had to gather them and bring them home. We also had two Thoroughbred mares that we bred to either a Thoroughbred stud or an Arabian stud, both standing on his uncle’s neighboring ranch. We soon got our own Thoroughbred stud and developed a great string of wonderful horses. Now there were colts to break and we spent most of our evenings (weather permitting) working with the horses. We later added a Quarter Horse stud. Some of our kids preferred working with the Quarter Horses, but Horace and I always loved the Thoroughbreds and Anglo-Arabs.
There was a lot of snow the first winter we spent on the ranch. All the weaned calves from his grandfather’s and uncle’s neighboring ranches were wintering on Cottonwood and they had to be fed. We had a team of work horses and sled that we used to feed the calves. I learned to drive the team as Horace fed the hay off the sled. Our one year old son Agee was tucked in the hay to keep him warm. That was the winter that they had to fly hay into the cattle on some ranches because the snow was too deep to get feed to them. We had our share of heavy snow and blizzard conditions but managed to get hay to the cattle with our hard-working work team.
In the 1950’s there were few fences so all the ranchers ran their cattle in common. This meant that it took a lot of cowboys from the ranches to gather the cattle from the range. There were huge brandings at each ranch. I learned to cook for lots of hungry cowboys when they gathered at Cottonwood. This was quite a challenge for a girl who had never cooked for more than two people at a time. I even mastered baking bread and churning butter. It was fun to listen to the stories told around the big table of the day’s adventures on the range.
In the 1960s the BLM and Forest service separated the range into allotments so fences were built to separate the allotments. We no longer had the huge gatherings and brandings; each ranch and family worked their own cattle. We raised Hereford cattle and had a yearling operation. In the spring we turned the cattle out in March. In June we gathered the cattle off the range and branded the calves. We had a small branding corral on the range so the herd had to be held while the calves were worked off. This job always fell to women and kids. (My how times have changed!) It was an exciting time as lots of friends would come out to help. It was also a chance for the kids to practice roping and learn to handle cattle. I always cooked a hot meal to take to the brandings. One time I put stew in what I thought was a container for hot food, but turned out to be for cold food, and the stew melted right through the bottom. We had a good laugh over my mistake and I rushed back to the ranch to rustle up something to feed the hungry crew.
In those early days we used horses to cut and stack our hay. My job was to drive the horse drawn dump rake that gathered the hay into windrows that were then bunched by the buck rakes. We used a beaver slide to stack the loose hay. It was a lot of work for the stackers but I loved my part of putting up hay.
We soon started to improve the ranch. Together we drug and burned sagebrush to clear the land. We leveled land and planted alfalfa and other grasses and soon had doubled the amount of productive meadow on the ranch. This took several years to accomplish and a lot of hard work. Now we are working toward making not only good meadow land but good habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife.
We also planted trees and lawn and I planted a vegetable garden every summer. Because of the short growing season and frosts every month growing anything was a challenge. I could only grow the hardiest vegetables. Beets and turnips were my best crop but nobody liked them very much. I never did manage to get a red tomato.
While we were growing the ranch we were also growing our family. By 1960 Agee had four little brothers and sisters for company. Several of our nieces and nephews were also on the ranch so there was no shortage of kids. Since our family had definitely out-grown the cabin, we built on an addition and created a comfortable home for all of us.
In 1953 we partnered with my father and started a hunting operation. We established a base camp on Camp Creek and a spike camp below Mary’s River Peak. Hunters from all over the country came to hunt the abundant mule deer that the Jarbidge Wilderness was famous for. We met many wonderful people and made life- long friends among the hunters. My mother and I did the cooking. My job was to cook much of the food that we sent to spike camp. I made huge stews to take ‘on the mountain’, and baked more cinnamon rolls and breads than I can count.
Horace was hunting from the spike camp so was gone for most of the season. Inevitably the generator would quit working or something would go wrong that I couldn’t fix. Although I enjoyed meeting the hunters and listening to the hunting stories, it was also sometimes a lonely time for me and the kids. We all missed their dad.
In 1955 we built a hunting lodge at lower camp. We cooked on a wood stove and carried water from the creek. It was rustic and a lot of work but it was in a beautiful setting among the quaking aspen trees and beside the creek. It served as a base for both the lower and upper camps. In the evening the big table in the dining hall was always filled with hunters exchanging great stories of the day’s hunt.
We moved the lodge to the ranch in 1964. That October my niece was getting married at the ranch so we were planning to use the lodge for wedding guests that would be staying overnight. A few days before the wedding everybody had gone hunting from spike camp and lower camp. Instead of cooking for hunters I had stayed home to get everything ready for the wedding. I was at the house when one of the kids came running in and said the lodge was on fire. By the time I got there the building was in flames and there was nothing I could do to save it. It was very heart-breaking to stand by and watch it burn. Luckily the hunters that had been staying there were gone so nobody was hurt. In spite of the fire it was a beautiful wedding. The following year we built a new lodge.
When the kids got old enough to go to school I drove them to the ‘one room school house’ at the Gibbs ranch. It was 25 miles, much of it through a rough canyon road. There was no home schooling at that time so I drove them to school in the morning and picked them up and drove them home when the school day was done. It was pretty challenging when the weather was bad. In the spring when the creek had washed part of the road away I would have the kids get out of the car and walk to the other side of the wash out while I gingerly drove through. We always made it safely and made the time in the car go by singing songs and watching for wildlife.
The kids all loved going to the O’Neil school. They made close friends with the Gibbs and Knudson children who were actually all related to them. They shared a great-great grandmother. The road was often closed because of snow in the winter so at those times I was their teacher at home. They didn’t seem to suffer from their country schooling. They all graduated high school and went on to college or established successful businesses.
In 1964 we celebrated our oldest son Agee’s 8th grade graduation with a roping and square dance. After that we continued having a ranch rodeo with roping and arena games for the kids on the 4th of July for the next 20 years. It grew from a few ranch families to over 200 folks from all over. We joked that some of our guests came for the 4th and stayed for several years. In the summer through the years that our kids were growing up, we had ropings every week-end. We were lucky that a couple that worked on a neighboring ranch were square dance callers so after the ropings and a barbecue we square danced. Everyone from the youngest child to the grandparents joined in and we had a great time.
Through the years most of our nieces and nephews spent the summers with us and some lived with us and went to the country school with their cousins. There were always other young people with us every summer. Most of them came just to be on the ranch and learn to ride horses and help out on the ranch. Later, as adults, many have said that the memories of their time at the ranch were the best time of their lives and that it made a positive impact on the rest of their lives.
I worked at the Humboldt National Forest office from 1991 through 1996. While I was there I was surprised at the negative feelings many people had about cattle on public lands. In fact I often heard the slogan ‘cattle free by 93”. As a rancher I found that very troubling. I heard about a program called Holistic Resource Management from one of the range cons and how well it was working for ranchers that were practicing it. My husband, son Agee and daughter Kim all took the HRM course that was offered and we decided it would be a great program for Cottonwood. In 1995 we formed a team consisting of many BLM, Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife representatives as well as other folks who were interested. The program includes the frequent movement of cattle over the range and requires a rider or riders checking and moving cattle almost every day. Over the years the improvement to the range and the streams has been phenomenal and Cottonwood Ranch has won several awards in recognition of our efforts.
My husband Horace passed away in November of 2014. We would have celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary in December. His passing left a hole in my life, our family’s life and the life of the ranch.
My son Agee and his wife Vicki, and my granddaughter McKenzie and her husband Jason are now managing and running the ranch. I spend my time visiting my other children in the winter, doing some traveling, working in the yard in the summer and enjoying my hobby of miniature painting. I also am happy to have two of my 17 great grandchildren living on the ranch. The two boys are a source of constant wonder and delight to me.
Ranch life isn’t always easy and often financially challenging, but it is always rewarding. Some of my wonderful memories are of riding down the mountain from below Mary’s River Peak in the moonlight and riding along the high trail under God’s Pocket Peak, watching Horace and the kids break and train horses, fishing the local streams, sharing our beautiful ranch with so many people from all over the world and so many more. I am proud of what the ranch has achieved in healing the land and streams on our range and on the ranch. I feel very fortunate that I was able to raise my family on this wonderful place. I also feel lucky to have shared this life with so many young people who are very dear to me.
My proudest accomplishment is raising my children and nieces and nephews and see them grow into good and kind adults. I have nine remarkable grandchildren and seventeen beautiful great grand- children. They are all my greatest joy.
I am truly blessed.