100 YEARS YOUNG: N.D. rancher celebrates centennial milestone

Carrie Stadheim
Western North Dakota rancher Les Fritz will celebrate his 100th birthday Sunday March 15, surrounded by friends and family. At age 98 he enjoyed the Deadwood to Medora wagon train, pictured here with daughter Connie Weishaar. Photo by Odermann Communications Company Collection, James Odermann, artist

He mined his own coal to keep his family warm through the bitter North Dakota winters.

“We called it lignite coal but my neighbor Vern Smith said it was lug-night coal. We lugged it day and night,” Les Fritz of Dickinson, North Dakota, recalls. Finding the coal was easy for someone with a sharp eye. “We found it on Third Creek. It just stuck out of the bank, looking at you,” he said.

Les, who raised cattle, draft horses, saddle horses and even pigs for a time, on the southeastern edge of the Badlands, will stay warm and let someone else worry about the heat source, as he celebrates 100 years of life March 15, in Dickinson, at Evergreen Assisted Living where he now spends his days.

Les was born in a maternity ward to Joe and Lucy Fritz, in Belfield and went home to the family homestead near “the old Fairfield,” about 20 miles north of Belfield.

The middle child of five, with two older sisters and two younger brothers, Les accepted responsibility of farm and ranch work at a young age.

Needing some extra income in 1932, Les’s father Joe ran for sheriff of Billings County in 1932 and was elected. He served in that position for four years, serving two, 2-year terms. Two future sherrifs served as his deputies – Barney Commell and Slim Kunkel.

Joe then worked contruction and served as a gravel inspector for a few years.

In 1940 the family moved south of Belfield about 20 miles, and it is in this community that Les remained. Joe took a job as chief of police. Les and younger brother Hank ran the ranch while Joe carried out law enforcement duties. Joe bought the place for “tax title.”

Les recalls a calf being worth about $35 in 1940.

Married life and a new ranch

Les married Ollie Smedley, Sept. 20, 1945. Raised on Fox Island, Washington, his young bride had grown up raising chickens, goats, picking berries, and “doing what they needed to survive,” said Les’s daughter Connie Weishaar.

“She fit right in,” Les said of his new wife.

Connie remembers, “Mom would buy a loaf of bread and a package of bologna, load us in the car, and off we’d go,” to visit family most every summer. “But she often said she’d never want to move back to Washington,” Connie said.

Les credits Ollie for operating haying equipment, “She rode that swather a lot of miles,” cultivating corn and handling the books.

Marriage came with another perk for Les. Shortly after the two were wed, when a neighboring place they knew as the “church ranch,” became available in 1945, he and his brother Hank checked into the deal. While they were “hard pressed for a renter,” they were still picky. “They said they wouldn’t lease to a bachelor. Nobody knew I was married.”

Les said when he told them he was married, “They gave me a chance.”

Hank remained on the family place and Les and Ollie moved on to the “church ranch,” owned by the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

“We ran Hereford cattle,” he said. Four-year-old bulls were shipped from Montana, from the Delaney family who had just moved off the church ranch.

Les branded an N/L on the left rib, representing the Norweigan Lutheran Church, and the Fritz family maintains ownership of that brand today.

Calves were sold each fall private treaty to Central Livestock. A representative from Minnesota would stop by to assess the calves, then the calves were loaded on trucks and hauled to the stockyards in Dickinson for weighing, then on to Minnesota or to a feeder farther east.

A neighbor once told Les that when he came across a lousy critter, to leave it alone and treat it. “You don’t bring them in. Even if they look like they are in good shape, they might not make the trip home.” Treatment involved pouring a mixture of kerosene and lard on the animal to kill the lice.

Feeding cattle in the winter involved pitching hay onto the sled and then off again, all the while managing a team.

One year in particular when “the water gave out,” in the winter pasture, the cattle had to be trailed home to feed. “I remember, it took three loads of hay to fill them up. One load worked in the winter pasture, but it took three loads once we got them home.”

He sometimes had to travel quite a ways for hay but Les doesn’t recall selling cattle for lack of hay.

The family also raised horses, keeping a draft stud and mares, as well as a good using quarter horse stallion around.

“Dempsey and Chummy,” is one team Les recalls fondly, and he tells of his mother-in-law coming for visits and driving “Dick and Girlie.”

When tractors became the machinery of choice, Les made two trips to Dickinson, trailing draft horses to the market.

Once or twice a year Ollie and the “field man,” who represented the church, would sit down and pore over her books. “She did a good job,” Les said. “I didn’t want to do the bookwork.”

The Fritzes were paid with a portion of the calves each year, so good management was key to their survival.

In 1946 the couple welcome daughter Connie to the family, then in 1947 Larry was born, followed by baby Rocky in 1952.

The family worked as a team throughout the seasons.

Connie recalls riding horseback “into the northwest wind” to Rocky Ridge country school every day. “Dad trusted the horses to bring us home. And they did,” she said.

Les remembers 6-year-old Rocky getting on his horse and heading home in the middle of the day. “He’d had enough of school,” Les laughed.

In 1965 the church liquidated their holdings when they consolidated several Lutheran church factions and the Fritz family was able to buy the place.

Les “stayed until he moved to make room for the younger generation,” he said.

Tough times but good times

The 1930s were “hard years,” Les remembers.

A neighbor once said, “a dollar’s as big as a wagon wheel,” meaning it seemed impossible to come by one, Les said.

The spring of 1935 was a wet one, but the rain quit the 4th of July. One hot Sunday the temperature reached 117 degrees and “cooked the wheat,” Les said.

Grasshoppers, heat and drought were the trademarks of the thirties, and 1934 and 1936 were two of the toughest years, he said.

In those years some ranchers shipped livestock that didn’t pay the freight, Les said.

To help relieve an over-supply situation believed to be depressing the market, the federal government bought cattle in 1934, shot them and buried them.

They paid $40 for a cow “no matter what kind of shape she was in,” Les said, and $8 for a calf. “It was a sorry day,” Les said. “My dad said, ‘we’ll sell enough cattle take care of the seed loan.’ We had to sell quite a few.”

He remembers a neighbor who chose not to participate. “He said ‘There is no point in me selling. They won’t pay the mortgage anyway.’

“We had an open winter that year, so he turned his cattle out and they made it. By the following spring, they were back up in price. He took quite a chance but he came out of that.”

A late October blizzard surprised Les and his brother-in-law once after they headed out on a 3-day cattle trail.

The weather started out nice. Then the blizzard hit. “Ed had chaps. I didn’t.” They stayed the night at two different ranch headquarters on the way to their destination and eventually made it home to safety.

“It was the coldest I’d ever been,” Les recalls.

Clothing and footwear to combat the cold were not readily available. “I had overshoes,” Les said, of his regular winter attire.

He remembers filling the barn with hay using a sling – first with a team of horses, later with a tractor. The 100-foot horse barn with stalls for the teams and pens for cattle burned the day Connie brought her future in-laws to the ranch to meet her parents.

Les said no animals died on the fire. “I went in to save a filly colt. I pushed and pushed on her. She didn’t want to leave but I got her out.” Connie was riding the colt’s mother at the time, so the young horse was confused and looking for the mare.

The “poor pigs” made their nightly trek back to the barn but that night they were surprised. “They would jump over that sill but there was no barn there.”

Another fire involved pigs. Les was hauling hogs to the market in Dickinson one day when some hay on the truck caught fire between the cab and the stock rack.

Luckily a traveler from New York stopped with a bottle of water and put the fire out.

Les spoke highly of Bill Hamann, the operator of one of the two Dickinson auction barns during that era. “He wanted those pigs 180 to 200 pounds. He’d look at ours and even if one was a little small, he’d take them. He never did turn one back.”

Les had planned to raise pigs to pay the taxes on the place. “We ran the pigs kind of like cattle,” he explained, “they would go out to pasture and we’d bring them in, in the fall.” But the pigs “had a habit of not staying home.” So three years into it, the family went out of the pig business.

Les milked four or five cows every morning, selling the cream, and bringing milk to the house. Once in a while he’d raise a bum calf on the milk cow.

“He was a really good dad and I’m so blessed that he was a part of my life. We spent a lot of time outside with Dad in any kind of weather. He just took it all in stride,” Connie, who ranches with her husband Lynn near Reva, South Dakota, said. She remembers him making pancakes when her mother was gone, and teaching her to care for livestock, no matter how much effort it took.

One of Les’s positive qualities has been passed down to son Larry. “Don’t shirk your duties and fulfill your job. Have stay-ability, stick with it. Those are some of the things he taught us,” said Larry, who ranched on the home place for much of his life and now lives with his wife in Hermosa, South Dakota.

Integrity is a cornerstone of the hardworking man’s life. “‘Family means everything. Be honest,’ those are some of the things I remember him saying,’” said Rocky, who also ranched on the home place with his wife. “And he always said that ‘a dishonest person will never win in the long run.’”

It all seemed pretty simple to Les.

“Things have a way of taking care of themselves,” he said.