The Kiowa County Fair & Rodeo held on the second weekend in September each year has become the one time of the year that people who have moved away from Kiowa County come back to reminisce with old friends of days gone by. One of those special Fairs back in 1984, nearly 40 years ago, featured the presence of four legendary cowboys who were there at the Fairgrounds in Eads to tell their story about the 40 cowboys who experienced an astounding three-month cattle drive that started in September back in 1929 and is still one for the record books.
The four cowboys who came to the Kiowa County Fair in 1984 were all elderly at the time. But the four of the “Original 40” talked the cattle drive over once again. The stories were spun by James O. Baxter, chuckwagon cook; and cowpunchers Harry Owen and Slim Barr of Kiowa County; and Cecil Guthrie of Gig Harbor, Washington.
The four men told the story of how the forty cowboys and the legendary trail boss, lawman and author, Mat Ennis Jones, took part in that memorable, three-month long cattle drive back in 1929. It stretched from the Fort Lyon Canal and the Missouri-Pacific Railroad tracks all the way into Kansas.
The stories were told to the legendary editor of the Lamar Daily News C.V. Mills who wrote the following piece about that day at the Kiowa County Fair and the stories the men told:
By C.V. Mills special to the Lamar Daily News, September 19, 1984
It was a mild and balmy mid-September day back in 1929 when the 40 cowboys and wranglers mounted up on the shores of Sweetwater Lake in Kiowa County.
“It was just a little bit colder than hell,” when the last of the area’s great cattle drives terminated at the dipping vats seven miles north of Eads some 75 days and thousands of miles later on Dec. 1.
The drive, under legendary Trail Boss Mat Ennis Jones, was to stretch from the Front Range foothills as far east as Lakin, Kansas.
It would see the cowboys work thousands of steers.
One vast herd alone numbered 5,000 head.
“We worked all the land between the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Fort Lyon Canal and would try to keep the steers about midway between the two points,” Harry Owen, one of four of the original 40, told us during a recent visit.
“Those steers,” Owen remembers, “didn’t have to move near as far as we did.”
Owen, James O. Baxter, the roundup cook, both of Eads, Slim Barr, of Chivington, and Cecil Guthrie of Gig Harbor, Wash., four of the original 40 cowboys who made the drive, got together with this reporter at the recent Kiowa County Fair to relate their years.
The four have been holding something of a “roundup reunion” at the Fair these many years but only this year did they decide their story should be told.
Guthrie who, during his lifetime, trailed cattle all the way from Texas into the Dakotas and Montana, is, at 76, the youngest of the quartet. The other three are all 78.
The enthusiasm these still practicing cowboys demonstrated in reflecting the minute details of the drive was contagious to the point their listener, “a mere younger,” felt he’d been part of the event.
The enthusiasm and excitement with which the 40 cowboys launched this drive had waned considerably at its conclusion.
They’d endured extreme fall heat. They, their horses and the Swift & Company steers had survived a 7-inch gully washer which ruptured the Fort Lyon Canal in many places and turned the usually dry prairies into a quagmire.
The quartet remembers vividly the anxiety created by the deafening claps of thunder and brilliant bolts of lightning which turned the violent rainstorm into a High Plains nightmare.
They endured a pre-winter blizzard which caught them unawares and saw their huge sleeping tent fold in a soggy, frozen heap of useless canvas forcing them to seek shelter in a long-abandoned and weather-deteriorated dance hall.
It was immediately following this blizzard that tragedy struck. The men were “rounding up frozen-footed cattle” when one of the cowboys was killed.
Oliver Lusk, brother of nationally famous rodeo star, Cooty Lusk, was killed in a roping mishap.
“Oliver,” the quartet agreed, “had roped a steer when his mount spun, and the rope caught Lusk and jerked him to the ground. He died about 36 hours later of a broken neck.”
“It was a shame,” the men agreed, “because he was in the prime of life. He was only 22 or 23 and ironically, he died on his birthday and the day he was to have been married.”
The drovers had been employed by Swift and Company which owned a string of ranches across western Kansas and eastern Colorado, in Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. It was on these huge spreads the then giant of the packing industry grass-fattened their steers for slaughter at their packing houses in Kansas City.
The steers involved in this particular roundup were owned by the Eads Livestock Company, a subsidiary of Swift and Company.
The older prime steers were rounded up from the vast prairies with all the lesser animals, cut from the huge herds and placed in holding pens. They were then trailed northward to Kit Carson where special Swift trains would transport the animals to finishing pens or direct to packing houses.
“We’d drive those cattle right through downtown Eads,” the cowboys laughed.
The year 1929 saw only 1,000 big steers shipped from one phase of the Colorado roundup in which some 10,000 head in all were worked. These “big steers,” the cowboys said, “would weigh from 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, but they were four or five years old,” they reminded their listener.
“Worked,” meant dipping, doctoring, etc.
Those steers not shipped were trailed northwestward to a Swift Ranch near Aroya or on to Wyoming or Kansas to attain further growth.
Swift originated its herds from across the United States and Mexico, Guthrie said, explaining, “Swift would buy young steers from all over the country and Old Mexico. They’d ship the animals to Pueblo where the roundup cowboys would unload and brand them. After the critters were branded, they’d load them up again and ship them down to McClave where they’d be unloaded. The cowboys would pick them up at McClave and trail them to various pastures about eastern Colorado and western Kansas.”
“Swift,” Guthrie said, “finished many of their 4 and 5-year-old steers on the King Brothers Ranch north of Lakin, Kansas, and we trailed these animals directly to Tribune for shipment.”
“They’d have up to 5,000 head in a holding pasture at one time and we’d sort them here. The smaller ones would go back to pasture, the bigger ones to slaughter.”
“We cut 1,700 head of horned steers from a herd in one day for shipment to pasture in Laramie, Wyoming,” he continued.
Both Baxter and Guthrie were to work at one time or another on Swift’s Laramie ranch.
Roundup life was sometimes exciting, more often than not, tiring, but eternally rugged.
Baxter, as cook was the highest paid of the bunch and at one time was paid $75 a month, had breakfast of pancakes, bacon and coffee already prepared by daylight. “We didn’t try to carry eggs on the chuckwagon,” Baxter explained, “they’d spoil too fast in the heat.”
Quite frequently, the drovers wouldn’t get another meal until they were served beef, beans and Baxter made bread near or after sundown. Huge quantities of non-perishable supplies were purchased periodically in the nearest towns. A beef would be killed about every two weeks on the trail, wrapped in canvas and transported on a freight wagon. Spices, flour, sugar and water were carried on the chuck wagon, the heavier utensils and kitchen-related items, on heavier wagons.
And, it should be noted, the cowboys didn’t languish during these long between-meal breaks.
“We’d ride an average of 35 to 40 miles a day,” Owen remembered.
“A good horse,” he continued, “could travel up to 70 miles a day but we’d usually change horses as often as possible, three or four times a day depending on what we were doing.”
Each rider had his own string of mounts and no one, not even the trail boss, would ride another cowboy’s horse. Those horses not being ridden were left in rope corrals near the chuck wagon unless the wagon was moving. During those times, a wrangler tended the animals.
“One day,” Harry all but moaned, “three of us started out a 3 a.m., and rode all the way from Arlington to the lakes and back. We got back to camp at 3 a.m., the next day.”
“But,” he laughed as the others joined in, “the pay was good—We got $35 to $40 a month plus board and all the room we needed.”
Barr and Guthrie remembers, “Baxter got kid glove treatment. He was a good cook and no one else wanted the job.”
“Yeah,” Baxter interjected, “one month they even paid me $75 because I went back to work early after having my appendix out.”
The colorful quartet will never forget one memorable November evening.
“The weather had been nice when all of a sudden the wind came up—Minutes later a blizzard hit.”
“We were camped 16 miles southwest of Eads and the wind blew our sleeping tent down and we moved into an old dance hall. It was nothing but a thin-shelled shed and we were stuck there for 10 days.”
The building in its heyday was known as the Langman Dance Hall.
“We lost very few animals,” Owen recalled, “but some other cowboys from another camp were supposed to come down from Aroya to meet us. It was a warm day when they left so they took no coats. When the storm hit, they peeled tar paper from an old shack, cut holes in it for their arms and converted it to storm vests. They were nearly frozen when they got to our camp.”
Despite all the discomforts and the fact all the men were large and healthy, they got along great and “never had any fights. We all did our best to outwork the others,” Barr said.
“How often did you guys bath?” the reporter asked.
Barr doubled up in laughter.
“We didn’t,” he replied.
“We were the sweetest smelling bunch you ever saw. But, one thing about it, we all smelled the same.”
To which Owens responded, “We’d wear the same clothes for days then change back into the others. We’d wear these ‘till the originals looked good by comparison then change back into them.”
Barr then modified his earlier statement, “During warm weather, as long as they didn’t have ice on them, we’d swim in the lakes. We’d do this until we had to crack ice.”
Slim and Mrs. Barr have lived in Kiowa County since 1909 and still have “a cow or two” on their spread near Chivington.
Owen has lived in Kiowa County since 1928 but grew up between old Prowers and Hasty.
Baxter has lived in Kiowa County since 1914. Born in Colorado Springs, he moved to Kiowa County with his parents at age 8.
Guthrie lived in Kiowa County from 1929 until 1936 when he moved to Wyoming. He moved to Gig Harbor, Washington, about 60 miles north of Mount Saint Helens in 1941.
He flies to Colorado Springs each fall then drives on to Eads where the longtime buddies, “Four of the Original 40,” verbally retrace the historic roundup during the Kiowa County Fair.