4W Ranch on the Cheyenne River Combines rich history and smart management
for Tri-State Livestock News
Despite being located in the most rural part of the continental U.S., the 4W Ranch has a long and rich history, filled with interesting people and events. Started in approximately 1879, the ranch was purchased by Jean Harshbarger’s grandparents in 1924 and has remained in her family since. Today Jean and her husband Bob run the ranch with their grandson, Michael Chad Sears, and his family.
“The ranch itself was likely started in 1879 by a businessman out of Cheyenne named JW Hammond. There is a map in the Douglas, WY, museum showing the state of Wyoming, and it’s dated 1880. On the Cheyenne River, the only ranch it shows is the Hammond Ranch,” explained Bob of the reasoning used to deduct that the ranch was started in 1879 or before.
“The history of the 4W brand itself is perplexing, and we’re always being asked what it means. We really don’t know, despite researching it. It was originally Hammond’s horse brand he used in Cheyenne, and when he started this ranch he put that brand on his cattle. Consequently, in the 1880s, the operation became known as the 4W,” Bob continued.
It is unknown how many people owned the 4W between Hammond and Jean’s family, with best guesses coming in at one or two people.
Jean’s grandfather, Len Sherwin, purchased the ranch in 1924 from an Omaha bank in a bankruptcy sale. He already owned two ranches in Sterling, CO, and is described as an entrepreneur by Jean.
“On he and my grandmother Hilma ‘Molly’s’ honeymoon, he bought a flock of horses up at Glendive, MT. He and another guy picked up these unbroke horses and were bringing them down to Moorcroft to put on the train. Everyday, Len would grab one of these horses that had never been worked, and he would ride that thing all day, and by the time they got to Moorcroft, most of them were broke horses. Meanwhile, my grandmother had to drive the cook wagon and do all those chores. She never liked picnics after that,” remembered Jean of one family favorite story.
Len and Molly had seven children: four girls and three boys. Len passed away in 1929 from an infection received as the result of a heart operation, leaving Molly to run his three ranches.
“My grandmother Molly had never done any of the ranch work. I mean, let’s face it, she had seven kids. She went to visit him in the hospital, and he told her to sell all the cattle. Don’t part with the land, but sell every head of cattle. He also said not to sell the Buffalo, which he had been collecting since the early 1900s, or the horses.
“So she did, and soon after that we went into a really bad depression and the government was paying $5 a head and just shooting cattle and putting them in piles because they didn’t have any place to dispose of them. She came out of it in pretty good shape, and must have been a real quick learner because she got on the stick and learned how to manage the ranches and took care of them and never lost any of them,” recalled Jean.
In 1935, Jean’s family returned to the operation from Colorado, and her father and uncle eventually took over the reins of the operation for their mother.
“My dad had a little dairy in Colorado before he came up here. My mother is from Ohio, and she and my father met in Alabama, which is another whole story. But, my grandmother wrote a letter to my mother’s family, saying, ‘the kids think they want to be on a ranch, and we’ve looked at two or three. We have this one in Wyoming, but it’s entirely unsuitable for a young couple.’ And, of course, my parents got married a few years later and were up here,” Jean stated.
From the beginning the 4W has been a cattle outfit. It was briefly leased to Bill Eastman, who ran sheep on it after Molly sold the cattle in the early 1930s. But, upon the return of Jean’s father, the ranch was no longer leased, and restocked with cattle.
“We started with Hereford cattle like everyone else because that’s all there were. The only person in the country with some black ones was Joe O’Brian. My parents just kind of built the cattle herd up like ranchers do. There was a lot of hard work and always two or three hired men, until after Pearl Harbor. Then the hired men were off in the service and my dad and uncle did all the work,” Jean noted.
Her uncle gradually took an interest in construction work, and purchased a couple cats to build dams and oil rig sites with. Upon Jean’s father’s death, her mother and uncle split the ranch, with her uncle taking the western half and adding it to the Fiddleback Ranch. At that time, the 4W Ranch was 36,000 acres in size, and each half received 18,000 acres. Just over a decade ago, Jean and Bob were able to purchase back part of the Fiddleback, expanding with land that had been a part of the original operation.
“Jean’s father was a visionary, very innovative, and ahead of his time in many ways. We still use many of his ideas, and he created a sound operation that has remained that way through all these years,” Bob noted.
Jean attended University High School in Laramie, WY, then went through the University of Wyoming. She was the first woman to graduate from the college with a degree in range management, and has been practicing what she learned since her return to the operation.
“We’ve been very successful with our range management, and have been following the same rotational grazing system for years. We’re very skeptical when we’re told by federal people that we should be doing something different. We argue vehemently that no, we are doing something right because we have survived,” Bob said.
The present day operation is comprised of a cow-calf herd with a Red Angus mother cow base. Cows are bred Red Angus for their first two calves, then may be bred Charolais after that. Special attention is paid to genetic selection, with birthweight being an important component of any bull purchased. Calves are marketed at weaning, with replacement heifers kept and raised on the ranch.
“Jean’s father had purchased six Charolais bulls before he passed away in 1964, and that’s when they were introduced on the place,” Bob explained of the ranches history with the breed, adding that Jean is who made the transition to a red mother cow base.
“And boy, were they exotic,” added Jean of those first six Charolais bulls with a chuckle.
In addition to their livestock, the Harshbargers are also very active in the management of a major prairie nuisance; the prairie dog. They worked for nine years with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to produce a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) that dictates how, and at what levels, they can manage their prairie dog populations, regardless of whether they are ever listed on the Endangered Species List.
As the operation moves forward, Chad is taking an increasingly active role. With a comprehensive estate transfer plan in place, all family members are confident the 4W will remain in Jean’s family for several more generations.
“Basically we feel it’s going to be in good hands. We’re all very proud to be a part of it, and really appreciate what we have, and work hard to keep it,” Bob concluded.
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