Please, no cows in the cemetery

Tom Ross
A brown Swiss dairy cow, bred to produce high fat content in its milk, checks out a visitor to Moonhill Dairy in the lower Elk River Valley in August 2011. Dairy cattle were more commonplace in Routt County in the first half of the 20th century.
John Russell file photo

— Beef cattle are king in Routt County, but when C.J. Hale, Routt’s first-ever agriculture agent arrived on the scene in 1919, livestock producers in the Yampa Valley were doing their best to squeeze a little milk out of their beef cows and literally skimming the cream off the top for year-round cash.

In his annual report that year, Hale wrote that the cream checks cashed at Yampa Bank were averaging $4,000 monthly.

Farmers and ranchers here didn’t have any true dairy cattle but they were “milking whatever range cows were gentle enough to permit it,” Hale wrote.

The audience attending an Ag Appreciation Week panel discussion hosted by the Community Agriculture Alliance at Library Hall in Steamboat Springs earlier this week learned that right into the 1960s, dairy herds were a bigger part of the local agricultural scene.

It’s likely that Hale started the trend when he encouraged local farmers to bring three registered Guernsey cows into the Yampa area and a half dozen registered Ayrshires, including a bull, to the Hayden area.

Longtime Elk River Valley rancher Dean Look told the gathering his family was milking Holstein dairy cattle when he was a boy, and there were about six dairy operations in the Elk River Valley including the Moser and Bedell families.

It was when Sinton built a large dairy plant in Craig in 1963 or 1964 and required their producers to install modern equipment, including pipeline milking and refrigerated bulk tanks, that dairy farmers in the Elk River Valley said “no thanks.” They all got together and decided to trade in their Holsteins for beef cattle, Look said.

He recalled his teenage years when annual cattle drives to the railhead in Steamboat Springs began near the Wyoming line and grew in size as they continued south.

“They’d start out at Snake River, and by the time they got to our place, there were 5,000 or 6,000 head of cattle in the drive,” Look said. “The men spent a week sorting out brands and cattle at the stockyards.”

He recalled there were so many head of cattle that many got loose and headed for the lush grass of the cemetery where they ran wild. The boys were assigned to gather up the strays.

“The biggest problem was getting across the Yampa River,” Look recalled. “They finally put up the Stock Bridge. The Stock Bridge was where most of the teenage boys settled their disputes.”

Sam Haslem, who succeeded Bill Coffey as Colorado State University extension agent in 1970, grew up on a Moffat County cattle ranch where his family almost always had one foot in Utah.

Haslem told the Ag Appreciation audience it was a beef cow that put him through Colorado State University where he graduated with a degree in animal production.

“My dad bought a heifer calf for me and all of her progeny was to get me though college. And by golly, it did,” Haslem said. “Times were hard in those days, and that’s how we (funded) our education.”

Although the Haslem family ranched on Blue Mountain in Moffat, their deeded land ran right to the Utah line. They wintered 520 head of cattle in Utah, and young Sam went to school in Jensen, Utah.

Haslem told his audience a story about the days when cowboys in far western Moffat County drove their cattle at a leisurely pace all of the way to the railroad yards in Phippsburg. And like Look’s story about the Stock Bridge, Haslem’s yarn about a cow puncher named Guy McNurlin also involves a cemetery.

According to Haslem, McNurlin desperately wanted to be the night horse wrangler, requiring him to keep the remuda together. He fulfilled those duties, but the rest of the cowboys were mystified over how McNurlin managed to show up drunk every morning with the horses all together.

One night the rest of the cowboys visited the Steamboat suburb of Brooklyn for a night in the saloons and confirmed where their colleague had been making whoopee.

All the while, the horses had been pastured inside the fence of the local cemetery.

“It’s never been documented in any history books, but that really happened,” Haslem said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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