Building on Tradition

For nearly 150 years, the Spanish Ranch has been testing the mettle of its cowboys.
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For nearly 150 years, the Spanish Ranch has been testing the mettle of its cowboys.
The wooden entry sign has welcomed many cowboys to the Spanish Ranch over the years.

The wooden entry sign has welcomed many cowboys to the Spanish Ranch over the years.

The big round willow corral is surrounded by old stone buildings, new metal barns, acres of native hay meadows, and miles of sagebrush. The horizontal sticks that chink it together between the stout posts are gray and dead, but a few saplings have taken root, showing green new life. This corral has history; it has served as a branding trap for calves and colts alike; a catch pen for wrangling the cavvy; and a round pen for starting older horses. 

 Countless bronc rides have also taken place within the confines of that corral at the Spanish Ranch, located near tiny Tuscarora in remote northeastern Nevada. Scores of cowboys, called “buckaroos” out here, have hired on at the ranch during its 144 years to see if they were tough enough to ride the bad ones on a big Great Basin outfit.

The word “buckaroo” is from “vaquero,” the Spanish word for cowboy. More than just another word for cowboy, though, the term has come to embody the entire region’s horsemanship, type of gear, and style of clothing, which originated with the Spaniards. In fact, the Spanish Ranch was founded by two immigrant brothers who unknowingly followed the very same path of buckaroo traditions by starting in Spain, spending some time in Mexico, then winding up in Nevada. 

Like all of its neighbors, the Spanish Ranch is big by necessity. Raising cattle in the arid, high desert climate of the Great Basin, which spans most of Nevada and includes little slivers of Eastern Oregon, Southern Idaho and Western Utah, requires at least 10 acres per cow. The Spanish Ranch encompasses 76,000 deeded acres in addition to its leased public allotments to run 3,400 mother cows. 

Since a buckaroo might ride all day and only find six pairs, horses were traditionally started under saddle at 5 or 6 years of age. This way, the horses’ bodies were fully mature and strong enough to withstand the long days and big circles. Those mature-but-untouched animals contributed to the Spanish Ranch’s legendary reputation for having big, tough, broncy horses that were intimidating to saddle, much less ride. 

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The fall cavvy spends the off-season eating grass in the sagebrush a few miles south of headquarters.

The fall cavvy spends the off-season eating grass in the sagebrush a few miles south of headquarters.

The cavvy

Lifelong cowboy Jim Young served a tour of duty at “the Span,” as the locals call it, in 2002, and daily bronc rides were still pretty standard. He says there were plenty of good horses in the cavvy back then, but also a handful of “damn sure spooky horses.” One gelding named Twister was not only bad to buck, but then he’d turn around and hunt for the cowboy he’d thrown. An especially memorable ride on Twister stands out in Young’s memory: 

“We was test weighin’ calves, and Nate Patterson poked him with a willow out of the willow fence. We went over the hind end of Will Neal’s horse, and the first jump he made I twisted my ankle on the back of Will’s cantle. That was about the fourth time he’d bucked with me that day, but he was really serious that time. He was getting so high in the air they could see his feet comin’ up over the side of the fence. He did end up buckin’ me off, stuffin’ me on the head, and pawin’ me a few times. Bill Van Norman told me later there was no shame in gettin’ bucked off of him.” 

Looking back, he realizes how lucky he was to survive that wreck. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have met and married me, or been around to help raise our children on cowboy wages and bronco stories. There are fewer stories of riding the bad ones coming out of the Span these days, though; Twister and most of his kind are gone, and management has invested money and years into developing a modern ranch horse breeding program. 

“The horses here had a long-standing reputation for not being user-friendly. We’ve been trying to improve on that, but it is a slow process,” says Ira Wines, who’s been in charge of the Span’s buckaroo crew for the past 12 years. A sixth-generation Elko County cowboy, Wines shares his first and last names with another area rancher. To decrease confusion, he is known locally as “Ira T,” short for “Ira Tall,” as he stands well over 6 feet.

He explains that the cranky streak in the cavvy has been diluted, and now the ranch is looking to produce horses that are big and tough, but with a gentler mindset. To produce this type of horse, the ranch is breeding mostly Quarter Horses with a little Thoroughbred blood mixed in. Bloodlines of the ranch’s studs include Jackie Bee and Peppy San Badger. 

“Hopefully the reputation gets better about the horses, so guys aren’t just coming here to say they had a couple of bronc rides and then leave, just to say they worked at the Spanish Ranch,” says Span cowboy Jeremy Dohl. 

After serving in the Marine Corps for several years, Dohl hired on at the Span a year and a half ago. Like every other cowboy on the crew, he has six to eight company horses in his string. The ranch runs a spring and a fall cavvy, each consisting of about 70 head of horses. All of the horses in the cavvy are geldings, and none are less than 4 years old. Colts are raised and started at the nearby PX Ranch, which is owned by the same parent company. When the green-broke 4-year-olds arrive at the Span, they begin their working lives. 

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Buckaroos at branding time.

Buckaroos at branding time.

A day in the life

There is always plenty of work to do at the Span. During busy times, the buckaroo crew sometimes works seven days a week. 

“We try to work six days a week, but it doesn’t always happen like that,” shrugs Ira T.

As ranch work varies with the seasons, there is no “typical” day at the Span. January and February are the slowest months, and the busy season picks up in March. After eating hay on the meadows near headquarters all winter, cows are turned out with their calves onto desert allotments at the end of the month, a process that takes a couple weeks. 

“We’ve got to trail quite a ways. We try to get the cattle as far away from the ranch as we can in the spring, and then we work back toward the ranch so that we’re back here by fall,” explains Ira T.

In May, the spring branding wagon pulls out from headquarters for four to six weeks. The “wagon” is actually a revamped Army truck with a bright yellow moving truck container that serves as a mobile kitchen and cookhouse. The buckaroos camp out in canvas teepees, moving across the sagebrush and meadows of the high desert and branding calves until every critter is wearing a pitchfork brand on its left hip. 

In the summertime, the cowboys are responsible for changing allotments and keeping the cattle on good feed and plenty of water. The busy fall works start about the middle of September. 

“It takes all fall to get everything home and weaned and calves shipped off to various places. By then, it’s Christmastime and it starts all over again. Kind of a vicious circle,” chuckles Ira T. 

Being employed on the Spanish Ranch buckaroo crew means a “straight riding job.” There is no irrigating, haying, or other “rawzin jaw” (farmer) work done by the cowboys. Job descriptions like this are increasingly rare in the modern ranching industry, so it’s a big draw. Working at the Span is attractive to young cowboys and think-they-wanna-be-cowboys because the crew still gets horseback every day, eats three meals a day in the cookhouse, and goes out with the wagon in the spring. 

“To find out if you want to do this job, the wagon would be a great place to start,” says Dohl. “You’re up bright and early every morning, your horses are out on the desert eating that bright green grass. There’s no barn, no nothing. You just get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and trot off when the sun comes up.”

Pounding leather over the rough, high desert country and wearing out your jeans from the inseam out will also test a potential cowboy’s vocational goals very quickly.

“The terrain will definitely make a guy find out whether he wants to cowboy or not,” says Dohl. “The perception of sitting on the back of a horse with a fly rod in your hand and pine trees in the background is not what happens out here. It’s definitely not as romantic as you think when you first start.”

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The original willow corral is still used today. Behind it stands a large modern tin barn.

The original willow corral is still used today. Behind it stands a large modern tin barn.

The crew

Ira T currently has four guys on his crew, but he increases that number before spring branding, peaking at six or seven cowboys. That number typically dwindles down by the end of the summer, and he’ll get through the fall works with three or four.

“That’s all subject to change from day to day,” he says, acknowledging that cowboys are prone to change ranches more often than they wash the sheets in their bed rolls. He cites several factors for the high turnover at many Great Basin ranches: the long days of manual labor, the abundance of local gold mines with better pay, and the irresistible desire to see what’s over the next hill.

“You can’t really hold that against them. That’s just part of being young and growing up,” he says. 

A gold mining boom is centered in the former cowtown of Elko, located 70 miles south of the Spanish Ranch, and it has drastically changed the dynamics of many area cowboy crews. Many buckaroos have permanently left riding and roping for their living to drive haul trucks for the mines. A generation ago, most crews would have a couple kids and several older guys; now, many crews have a couple older guys and a bunch of kids. 

“I think it’s a good place to learn because Ira has a lot of patience,” says Dohl. “And the older guys rotate through here. If you possess the ability to say you don’t know anything, somebody’s going to be there to help you.” 

Dohl, a married man with four children, lives at the Andrae Ranch, a few miles up the Independence Valley from headquarters. Ira T lives at headquarters, and the rest of the cowboy crew lives in the south end of the bunkhouse, segregated from the rawzin jaw crew residing at the north end. The cowboys’ common room features a concrete floor, an ancient couch, and a questionable aroma. Someone tore a piece of cardboard off a beer box, wrote “You throw like a YP guy,” and hung it on a wall. The YP is another big ranch just north a ways. 

Just outside the door is a pile of shirts, jeans, wild rags (silk neck scarves), and saddle blankets. On top of the pile lies a single crutch. An outfit where cowboys bring their own medical equipment is hardly an advertisement for the gentleness of its livestock. Ira T did say they had a new stud with his first colt crop on the ground, though, so hopefully future Span-bound buckaroos can pack a little lighter. 

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History & Technology

The ranch was founded in 1871 by two Basque brothers, Pedro and Bernardo Altube. Born in the Pyrenees mountains of Spain, the brothers first immigrated to Central America, then eventually trailed a herd of cattle from Mexico to northeastern Nevada. 

With the help of local Shoshone Indians, the brothers built the bunkhouse, a blacksmith shop, storehouse, and a large house. The bunkhouse has been used continuously for nearly a century and a half. They made corrals (such as the large round one still standing today) out of native willows, fastening the sticks together with rawhide strips. They named the outfit Spanish Ranch, after their homeland. 

Today, nearby Tuscarora is barely a pinprick on the map with just a post office and a handful of homes surrounded by sagebrush and cattle ranches, but it was a booming mining town in the late 1800s. Located 60 miles north of Elko and about 10 miles from the Spanish Ranch, Tuscarora was then the destination for local cowboys to blow off steam and wages. On payday, Pedro Altube paid his hired men in gold and gave them the day off. The cowboys would race their horses into town to spend the day “chatting, shooting at glasses on the tables or mirrors on the walls,” according to Marie (Ellison) Kane’s book, A Special Place, A Special Work!: History of The Ellison Ranching Company. 

“Not all of the men made it back to the ranch in time for breakfast and usually a few of them had to spend that first day back to work with their heads aching. No one was ever hurt in these episodes as far as anyone knows, and it even seemed that the townspeople enjoyed the interruption of the usual pace,” wrote Kane. 

Legend has it that Pedro didn’t mind his rowdy cowboys, or even the bill he received for the damage they inflicted on the local saloons. He just said, “Now boys, don’t pistol the full bottles. The stuff is hard to get!” 

Life in the high desert of Northern Nevada wasn’t always payday parties and shooting escapades, though. It was—and still is—often severe and humbling. The harsh winter of 1889–1890 nearly wiped out the Altube brothers’ cow herd. They managed to hold on by a rawhide string, and both Pedro and Bernardo lived and worked at their ranch until they moved to California later in life to enjoy a warmer climate. When they left, Bernardo’s son Jules and his wife Amelia took over management of the ranch. 

By 1907, the Altubes’ land holdings included 400,000 acres, 20,000 sheep, 20,000 cattle, and 2,000 horses. After changing hands a few times, the ranch was bought by the Ellison family in 1925. It is still owned by the Ellison Ranching Company, along with several other ranches in the region. 

When Bill Hall was hired as general manager by the Ellisons in 2003, he implemented some changes to bring the ranch into the 21st century. Perhaps most significantly, Hall brought major positive changes to the cow herd. 

“Bill Hall has worked hard to change the genetics,” says Ira T. “The cow herd we have now is pretty reputable. Our cattle are sought after by feedlots. People now know that they will perform, so we’ve got a lot of repeat buyers.”

In centuries past, Spanish Ranch cattle were trailed for six days to the railroad depot at Iron Point to be sold, but today’s calf crop is marketed via video auction. Buyers from across the nation can bid on weaner calves from the historic ranch way out on the sagebrush sea simply by pressing a laptop key or tapping a smart phone button. 

“Ellison Ranching Company is run as a traditional ranch with modern technology,” says Hall.

The old willow corral stands next to the new tin horse barn with the even newer pipe hitching rails, blending centuries-old tradition with modern engineering. Even with new implementations in both the buildings and the cavvy, however, there are just some long-held ranch traditions that remain inescapable.

“We did have five on the ground that one morning,” says Hall of a recent rash of bronc riding. Then he looked away with an amused smile. 

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