A C Land and Cattle Company: The Grand River Ranch | TSLN.com

A C Land and Cattle Company: The Grand River Ranch

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News

Perched on the hill overlooking the confluence of the Grand and Missouri Rivers just west of Mobridge, South Dakota, Darrel and Francie Smith’s home has a view that’s the envy of many. The ‘house on the hill’ was built by Darrel’s dad, Art (A. C.) Smith for his wife Hilda in the 1970s and served as an area landmark before the Grand River Casino was built. Darrel and Francie raised their four children, Shawn, Sherry, Corinna and Amber on the ranch where Darrel and his siblings grew up.

Art Smith grew up on the Knife River in North Dakota, and as a teenager worked for a neighbor breaking colts.

“They did it the old-fashioned way,” Darrel said. “They’d rope them, put a blindfold on, get a saddle on their backs, crawl on, pull off the blindfold, and buck them out. He learned to stay on because in that environment if you got bucked off not only did you hit the ground you got your ego ripped by the other guys too. I never saw Dad even close to getting bucked off. I’m pretty sure that if he had wanted to he could have been a national champion bronc rider.”

Art didn’t like the name Arthur Clarence, so he asked to be called ‘A. C.’ When he registered a South Dakota brand, he chose his initials: A over C on the right rib of his cattle.

Art married Hilda Rypkema in 1930. They farmed near Gettysburg for a short time, then purchased a gas station at La Plant, South Dakota. World War II made it difficult to get the supplies needed to run their business, so in 1944, the year Darrel was born, Art partnered with W. J. Foxley to run the Horseshoe Bend Ranch north of Glenham, South Dakota.

Art wanted to learn to fly, but in those post war days it was hard for someone who had not served in the military to get flying lessons. Undaunted, Art bought a plane, and hired a man to teach him to fly it. Things went awry one warm day when they were flying over some cottonwood trees and the plane stalled out. The plane crashed, leaving Art with a broken back. His doctor told him he might walk but he would never ride a horse again.

Art had fired all the hired help just before the accident, so Hilda stepped up to manage the ranch and get the work done.

“There was always a tone of pride in her voice when she spoke of that,” Corinna remembered.

Determined to prove the doctor wrong, Art would crawl to the warm flowing waters of the artesian well on the ranch and soak in it. Within six months he was on a horse again.

After a shipment of cattle going to market lost weight standing on a train all night and the next day, and Art lost money, he decided it was time to venture out on his own. Art purchased the Scott place west of Mobridge from a banker whose wife didn’t like to live out there, bought some Hereford cows from Foxley, and trailed them home; this meant convincing them to cross the old Highway 12 bridge that spanned the Missouri River.

“One of my earliest memories is of seeing the cattle at the bridge just before they crossed the river,” Darrel said. “I was in the car with Mom and she was saying, ‘I hope they go, I hope they go.’ I would have been not quite two years old.”

Their calves had just been weaned, so the first thing Art’s cows did was scatter to the four winds trying to find their calves.

Darrel’s other early memory was of his Dad learning to fly. After the crash he got the plane fixed, but now he didn’t have anyone to teach him to fly it. That hadn’t worked out too well anyway, so he got in the plane and taxied back and forth on the alfalfa field that served as a runway. One day he just took off. Hilda was watching out the window, and when she saw the plane leave the ground, she said, “Oh my goodness!” and ran to the next window so she could see Art as he flew past. She went from window to window as Art made a circle around the house, saying “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” at each one. Art landed on the field, took off again, and Hilda repeated her journey from window to window.

“My sister says that mom wasn’t saying ‘Oh my goodness!’” Darrel chuckled.

The ranch headquarters sat where Claymore Creek met the Grand River, just west of where the Grand River flowed into the Missouri. Today the site lies beneath the waters of Lake Oahe, but through Darrel’s childhood the cottonwood trees on the river towered over fertile fields and hay ground. The house sat about one hundred yards off the Yellowstone Trail, the first intercontinental road built across the United States. The Fort Pierre to Fort Yates wagon trail also crossed the ranch, as did Old Highway 12.

Art and Hilda raised three daughters and two sons on the ranch: Frankie, Charlotte, Claude, Darrel and Margaret. The children grew up handling cattle horseback with their parents.

“One time we were bringing the cows down the hill into the yard and they didn’t really want to come,” Darrel remembered. “Mom came out of the house to see if she could help, but Dad waved her back, so she turned around and trotted toward the house. Just then a cow took off at a dead run after her. Mom didn’t see the cow and had no idea she needed to hustle. We were all sitting there watching this ‘race’ unable to do anything. We didn’t dare holler or we knew Mom would turn around and then for sure the cow would get her. Mom got to the house and went in the door, and the cow came to a sliding stop in the mud next to the porch, all four feet making tracks in the wet gumbo. Mom looked out the window and saw the tracks. ‘What happened?’ She asked!”

“Dad was an early riser,” Darrel said. “He always liked to be up early. When it came to branding day he would get up about three o’clock in the morning. I suppose he was nervous about how things would go and couldn’t sleep. He would get us up and we’d go get the horses in and saddled in the dark. Then we’d go to the house and eat breakfast. We would leave to gather the cattle while it was still dark. I can remember riding along and it was so dark I couldn’t see my horse’s ears. By the time we rode to the far end of the pasture to start gathering it would be just barely light.”

Art went to a horse sale in Mobridge one time to buy a horse for his youngest daughter, Margaret. He purchased a really pretty horse that was well known to be an outlaw.

“Dad took him home and saddled him up in the barn,” Darrel said. “He was just as quiet as can be. Dad said, ‘This horse isn’t going to buck.’ Dad got on him in the corral and he broke in two. He bucked so hard that he finally fell on his side and hurt Dad’s leg a little. Dad rode him till he had him bucked out and then he said, ‘Open the gate,’ and we rode out to get the milk cows. There was a steep hill behind the house and as we were bringing the cows back down the hill that horse decided this would be a good place to buck again. He bucked all the way down that hill. Dad stayed with him. He got him to where he was really a pretty good horse, and Margaret rode him for years. But every now and then he would give a big jump about fifteen feet sideways and come down doubled up and bucking. He would buck Margaret off, and then just stand there and wait for her to get back on and away they’d go.”

In the late 1950s the U.S. Corps of Engineers approached Art about buying his land along the river. They were preparing to build the Oahe Dam across the Missouri River near Pierre, and also planning to rebuild Highway 12 right across the Smith’s ranch.

“They wanted to buy the land without appraising it,” Darrel said. “Dad said no. The Corps ended up with three different appraisers because they didn’t want to pay what the land was worth. Dad finally got his own appraiser; he actually hired the appraiser who had trained the other three. It turned out that the Corps’ original offer was half the amount Dad’s appraiser valued the land at. The Corps still wanted to buy at half price, so Dad took them to court. They ended up settling on the steps of the courthouse for eighty-five dollars per acre, about seventy-five percent of the appraised value of the land. If Dad had won the case and gotten the full price he would have had to pay the court costs and would have ended up with about seventy-five percent of the money after costs, so he felt this was as good as he could expect.”

Art also traded land north of the new Highway 12 for land to the south so that he could keep a more contiguous unit. Art and Hilda moved the ranch house and headquarters up Claymore Creek about two miles south of the original location.

“The water of Lake Oahe came here in 1962, the same year I graduated from High School,” Darrel said. He spent most of the next two decades away from the ranch.

Darrel earned a Bachelor’s Degree in in Agricultrual Operations from South Dakota State University, graduating in 1966. He also got his pilot’s license while studying at SDSU. In the fall of 1967 he went to Montana State University in Bozeman to get a Master’s Degree in Range Management. While attending Montana State he met Francie Ahern. The couple married in 1969, just a few hours before boarding a plane to Germany where Darrel was stationed with the U.S. Army for two years.

“In ROTC training we were told to pick from the top three branches and pick our top three location choices. One of the branches was required to be combat. I picked armored tanks and chose Europe,” Darrel said. “This was during the Vietnam War, and everybody ended up in Vietnam. I was the only one in my Fort Knox class who went to Europe. I was stationed at Fulda, right on a major East/West invasion route, with an Armored Tank Cavalry Unit. It just might be a miracle that I was not sent to Vietnam.”

When Darrel and Francie returned from Germany in 1971 they returned to the ranch for a year but ended up leaving and going back to Bozeman.

“Claude, Margaret and I each came back to the ranch at different times with the idea of staying, but Dad wasn’t ready to let it go,” Darrel said.

Darrel went back to school at Montana State, earning a degree in Accounting and Finance, and taught there as a lecturer for ten years. Meanwhile he also bought a hardware store in Dillon, Montana, and bought his father-in-law’s business of supplying concessions to Yellowstone Park.

“Basically I sold potato chips in Yellowstone for the summer. June twentieth through August twentieth was the peak season,” Darrel said.

In 1981 Darrel got a call from Art.

“Are you interested in coming back to the ranch?” Art asked.

Darrel flew from Bozeman to Bismarck where his folks picked him up. Over the weekend they came up with a deal.

“I think Dad knew his health was not good,” Darrel said. “That was probably why it worked.”

Darrel and Francie moved their young family back to South Dakota, and Art passed away later that year.

Changes have come over the years, and Darrel noted two individuals whose influences have transformed the ranch: Allen Savory and Bud Williams.

“When I came back, the ranch was divided into about six pastures,” Darrel said, “And it was managed seasonally as was typical: one pasture for the summer, one for the winter, and so forth. Then I started learning about ways to increase productivity of the grassland.”

After hearing Allen Savory speak about intensive grazing management and rotational grazing practices, Darrel completely rearranged the fences. Water was the main challenge.

“We put a submarine in Lake Oahe to pump water to the ranch,” Darrel said. “We put in miles of pipeline. Initially we put in three major tanks.”

The pastures were split into a ‘pie shaped’ grazing system with about twenty pastures. The efforts paid off as Darrel saw both increased productivity and range improvement.

“We managed this way for years,” Darrel said. “Then I heard a guy speak who was doing the same thing we were doing only more of it. We had basically doubled our production, but he had quadrupled his.”

Darrel wondered what the difference was.

“I decided it involved work,” he said. “We put in more waterlines and started using a single electric wire and pigtail posts to split the pastures further for more intensive grazing. I’m amazed at how well it works. We now split things up into about eighty pastures, and we’re going to start putting in some more permanent fences using fiberglass posts and high-tensile wire.”

Bud Williams’ low stress livestock handling techniques also changed life on the ranch drastically.

“I grew up with a lot of ‘whoop and holler’ and high stress involved in working cattle,” Corinna remembered. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Darrel has AI’d his cattle for years, and AI’ing the heifers was always a particularly wild situation.

“After we learned to be on the edge of their flight zone it was totally different,” Darrel said. “The heifers were so relaxed they would just lie down and we could ride through them.”

There were still adventures along the way.

“We were just learning Bud Williams’ methods,” Darrel remembered, “When a heifer got out. She was in with some cattle across the highway.”

Darrel saddled a horse they called Boots, got a helper, and they rode out to get her. They quietly worked the heifer out using the new techniques.

‘Man, that worked slick!’ Darrel thought, as they trailed her down the ditch toward their gate and her herd mates. Just then a cattle pot came down the hill, and as he went past the driver laid hard on his horn.

“Boom! That heifer was back across the highway and over the fence,” Darrel remembered.

It quickly became obvious that gently bumping the edge of her flight zone was not going to work a second time.

“We went back to doing things the ‘cowboy’ way,” Darrel said. He roped the heifer, and Boots pulled her toward the highway while the others prodded her from behind. The heifer kept all four legs stiff and unwillingly followed in a series of stubborn jumps. They got about half way to the fence and Boots decided he was tired of the whole process.

“Boots was just done,” Darrel said, “So I turned him around to hold the heifer. Then the heifer turned around and decided it was time to go back to the herd. Now things were reversed; the heifer was dragging Boots back toward the other cattle. Pretty soon the heifer decided that she really needed to be in the Oahe Reservoir.”

“Boots had this trick where he would put his head down and narrow his shoulders when he was bucking,” Corinna interjected. “The saddle would slip over his shoulders. I remember seeing dad ride the saddle right to the ground!”

As the heifer headed into the water, Boots pulled his trick. Darrel quickly let go of his dally, the heifer headed into the water with his rope, and Darrel was left sitting on the saddle in the mud while Boots stood back with not a stitch on him. Even the bridle had come off!

When asked how they finally got the heifer back, Darrel just shook his head.

“We won’t tell that part of the story,” he said. “We went back another day.”

Today the cattle are mainly handled with four-wheelers, although ranch Foreman David Dagley still uses and trains horses and also trains some talented cattle dogs. Recently, a video of David’s dog ‘Annie’ gathering Darrel’s heifers went viral after being shared online.

“We’re pretty thankful for David,” Darrel said. “He does an exceptional job for us.”

Darrel and Francie’s children have all pursued other interests. Shawn followed his passion for computers and currently works on huge corporations’ computer systems. He and his wife Ivetta live in Sydney, Australia, with their daughters Alyssa and Milana. Sherry worked on the ranch for eight years before venturing further afield; spending time working on a dude ranch in Hawaii, guiding fishermen in Alaska, and caring for her grandmother in Montana. She and her husband Chris Mamaril now live and work at a resort on Little Cayman Island. Corinna and Amber both live in Lynchburg, Virginia. Corinna taught piano lessons for twenty years and also did in-home care for several elderly relatives and completed an internship in Biblical Counselling. Her husband, Marcus Ross, has taught at Liberty University in Lynchburg since 2005, and the couple has four children: Katriella, Micah, Daniel, and Sienna. Amber went to Romania after graduating from high school, then worked on two of John Thune’s campaigns before getting a degree at Patrick Henry College in Virginia. She currently works for Liberty Counsel (and her husband Mark is an administrator and teaches at Liberty University). The couple has three children, Hannah, Luke and Zachary.

Life on the ranch has been a wild ride at times, but these days the family traditions are being passed on to Smith’s grandchildren. Darrel and Francie recently celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and with family home to throw a party, Darrel took time to give his grandchildren some shooting lessons with his old .22 rifle. The children all got to ride horseback and explore the ranch, soaking in the scenery and the fresh air. Even though they are not a part of daily life on the ranch any more, Corinna and Amber want their children to know and appreciate what it’s like.

Darrel also stays involved with the South Dakota Family Policy Council, an organization he has supported since it’s inception. He is also active with the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance on Federal Indian Policy issues, a topic that very much hits home since the Smiths live on the Standing Rock Reservation in Corson County.

While Darrel and Francie are less active in the day to day operations of the ranch than they used to be, they still are grateful to call such a beautiful place home.

“I often pull into the yard and think, ‘Wow, what a hard place to live,’” Darrel said. F