Two Albany County ranches were honored this summer by the State Historic Preservation Office’s Centennial Farm and Ranch Program, which recognizes agricultural operations that have remained in the same family for at least 100 years.
Arrowtail Ranch and Atkinson Sheep Creek Ranch were among 20 honorees for 2019, and they join a group of more than 300 ranches to be honored since 2006.
Renee Bovee, who coordinated the 2019 program, said families submit an application that includes a history of their ranch. Those who qualify are invited to a ceremony during the Wyoming State Fair that includes Wyoming’s congressional delegation and governor.
Bovee said Wyoming’s ranching families are keepers of the state’s history, its agricultural industry and much of its open space.
“These are the people that represent that cowboy image that we have,” she said.
The legacy of centennial ranches in Wyoming is more than that of just a family business. Each ranch has its own story, but they all include a century of families relying on one another, motivated by love for their land and love for the work.
A century of ranching includes good times, hard times and tough decisions, buoyed by the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and carry on.
The two Albany County ranch families honored this year share a deep respect for the generations that came before them. Both families look ahead to the next generations to continue their legacy.
Atkinson Sheep Creek Ranch
Felix Atkinson started the Atkinson Sheep Creek Ranch in 1895, the same year he married his wife, Lizzie. He was 29 at the time, having immigrated to the United States as a teenager 15 years earlier.
“My grandfather got to watching the country out where the home ranch is now and noticed that the wind blew the snow away and there was some open water there,” said grandson James Atkinson, who goes by Jim. “He was a sheep man.”
Jim’s father, Day Atkinson, was the middle child of Felix’s and Lizzie’s five sons, born in 1900 on the ranch, in a log home along Sheep Creek. Seventy-seven years later, after a lifetime of ranching, he would die in the same place.
“Not very many people are born and die in the same house,” Jim said.
The ranch sits about 80 miles north of Laramie, including 40 miles of dirt roads, near the community of Marshall. In the early days of the ranch, the range was open and ranchers grazed their sheep wherever they wanted.
Felix died in 1929, and Day established a homestead on a neighboring piece of land, where he and his wife, Connie, raised their three sons. Jim was the youngest, born in 1944.
During World War I, the ranch prospered as demand for wool was strong. A few years later, during the Great Depression, ranchers had a hard time, along with most everyone else.
“We think we have it rough now, but it wasn’t anything like what they went through,” Jim said.
Jim attended school in Wheatland while his older brothers were in high school. Then he was schooled on the ranch for a few years before attending high school in Laramie.
The drought of 1954 was hard, and Day trimmed the cattle herd to 15 head.
“Things got so dry that we didn’t raise any hay or grass,” Jim said.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming with a degree in ag business, Jim returned to ranching. Five of those 15 cows on the ranch were his, and during the last 60 years he’s grown that bunch into a herd of 400.
Jim married his wife, Cathy, in 1976. Over the next decade, they had two children and bought two neighboring ranches. Rising interest rates in the 1980s made things hard, and they scraped by on Cathy’s salary as a teacher.
By 1988, the Atkinsons sold their sheep herd, in part because it was hard to protect them from predation.
“We’d be short 100 lambs from predators,” he said.
Jim said he’s impressed at the tenacity of his father and grandfather, who didn’t have the technological advances that have made ranching more efficient today. They didn’t feed their cows in the winter, they didn’t have the opportunity to buy better stock, and they didn’t have any heavy machinery to make improvements on the land.
“The old-timers, they got by,” he said.
Jim’s and Cathy’s son, Colter Day, had planned to take over the home ranch, but he died mysteriously about three years ago. Daughter Kacy has moved home and is helping with the operation.
Jim, who admitted he can’t work as hard as he used to now that he’s 75, said his nephew and his nephew’s two sons might take over part of the ranch one day.
“I’d like to feel that it will still be in the Atkinson family 100 years from now, but time will tell,” he said.
Jim said the ranch depends on access to adjacent BLM land to remain viable, and he hopes that arrangement stays in place. Cows don’t have any predators around at the moment, but expects that wolves will move into the area soon.
Another challenge to ranching life is the attitude of people who don’t know what it takes to raise cattle and care for the land, he said.
“If we’ve been in business 100 years, we’re not trying to rape and destroy the land,” he said. “We’ve got to take care of it.”
For Jim, who never wanted to be anything but a cattle rancher, the Sheep Creek Ranch is a fine place to grow a herd and continue a family legacy.
“When I was kid, I didn’t realize how good it was,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a while for your brains to come in.”
George Smith started the Arrowtail Ranch in 1919, moving to Wyoming from Nebraska to do so. The ranch is located in the northern part of Albany County near Marshall.
One of George’s six children was Nat Smith, who was a year old when his father homesteaded and spent the rest of his 90 years on the ranch. Nat died in 2009.
Today, Nat’s daughter, Donna Newkirk, lives on the ranch and runs it with her son, Roger Newkirk, daughter-in-law Tammy and granddaughters Cassidy and Jacie.
Roger was 12 when his father, Ernest, died from leukemia at the age of 42, leaving him to run the ranch with his mother and grandfather, as his older brothers had moved away.
“I was out baling hay by myself when I was 13 years old,” he said.
He credits the continued existence of Arrowtail Ranch to his mother and grandfather, who persevered on the land.
“Albany County isn’t the easiest place in the world to do what we do,” he said. “The weather and the conditions — there are a lot of trials and tribulations.”
Nat was a sheep man, and he put together a band that stayed intact until just this year, when predator losses forced the family out of the sheep business after 75 years.
“We were the last band left in northern Albany County, but we just couldn’t take the predator losses anymore,” Roger said. “It was a sad thing.”
Between coyotes, eagles, ravens and bobcats, the Newkirks couldn’t keep their sheep safe, even with the help of guard dogs. When everyone in the county had sheep, the losses were spread out. With one sheep band left, the losses were concentrated.
“It was a sad thing to get out of the sheep end of it on our hundred-year anniversary,” Roger said. “It was a tough decision, but we had to make it.”
These days, they run a cow-calf operation, while Roger also works as a brand inspector. A brand inspection is required in Wyoming whenever cows are transported across a county line, to make sure the cows in question belong to the rancher who is transporting them.
“I’m a cow cop,” Roger joked.
The family summers about 1,000 head of cattle on the original homestead, and they keep about 200 over the winter on hay meadows just outside Rock River.
Roger’s work as a brand inspector takes him across the county, allowing him to know and appreciate Albany County’s ranching history. He can’t help but admire those who homesteaded and stuck it out, without any of the modern technology that makes ranch life a bit easier.
“To me, the reverence and respect that needs to be given, and I do, is for my great-granddad and my grandfather,” he said. “They’re the ones that homesteaded the ranch and built the ranch.”
The Arrowtail Ranch sits in one of the most remote locations in the country. A century ago, it was remoter still, and its occupants didn’t even have electricity.
“I just shake my head,” he said.
Roger said his wife is an equal partner in their work, and his two daughters help whenever they can. They’re the fifth generation on the Arrowtail Ranch.
“I’m a true believer that it has to be in your blood, and it is,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”