Castle Rock Butte and the Wendts: 121 years together
Nerve and perseverance are critical qualities in folks who ranch or farm for a living. No rancher or farmer ever had more nerve and perseverance than those who came to the western plains of South Dakota and made a life before roads, towns and other conveniences were commonplace.
C. Henry Wendt was born in 1866 in Laemforde, Germany and came to the United States at the age of 15 in 1881. Henry lived in the St. Louis, Missouri area for several years before moving to the Black Hills where he became a naturalized citizen in 1890. He worked construction in the Deadwood area for Abe Jones before joining his Uncle, William Wendt, on his ranch near present day Nisland, SD on the Belle Fourche River.
During the winter of 1888-89, he rode 90 head of Flying V saddle horses at Abe Jones’ Castle Rock camp. Henry must have liked the area, for when Jones offered to sell him the camp and an old wagon, in about 1892, for $75, Henry accepted. The legacy of the Wendt Ranch had begun, with a modest dugout for a home and a horse corral located in a deep draw on the southeast slope of Castle Rock Butte.
Also in that draw and in another draw just to the north, was a good spring. With little water to be found closer than the Moreau River to the north or Owl Creek or the Belle Fourche River to the south, the ranch became a stopping place for travelers and later, area homesteaders who hauled water from the springs.
In 1899, Henry married Elizabeth Bohn in Rapid City, SD. Elizabeth was born in 1874 at Worms On The Rhine, Germany and came to America in 1892 at age 18. She had worked in Rapid City and Deadwood before marrying Henry and making her home at Castle Rock.
In the early years on the ranch, the closest post office was at Whitewood, and mail was retrieved by horseback about twice a month. Supplies and groceries for the ranch were also bought at Whitewood and a team and wagon made the long trek about twice a year.
Henry and Elizabeth had nine children and they all worked hard at the various ranch enterprises. Besides the horses, they also built a herd of Hereford cattle and ran sheep. He suffered through the drought of 1911 with the sheep, having two bands that he located along the Moreau River to graze. During that summer there were 21 sheep wagons camped along the river. He then dispersed the sheep in 1911.
In 1918, Henry sold the horses to the U.S. Government Remount for the Cavalry and focused on the other livestock.
Besides livestock, Henry Wendt was one of the biggest farmers in the area. They farmed a section of land, raising barley, oats, wheat and alfalfa. He owned good equipment and had one of the first tractors and the very first threshing machine in the area.
In 1922, Henry and Elizabeth sold the remainder of their cattle and moved to Whitewood to retire. In 1923, the ranch was turned over to the two oldest boys, Bill, 18, and Frank, 16. During the winter, Bill and Frank went to Whitewood and cut pitch posts near Deadwood and hauled them to the ranch for use there.
Bill married in 1935, and by 1938, it was just Frank and his brother Glen on the ranch. Frank married Alda Lyons in 1938 and they were in partnership with Glen. The Dirty Thirties were a hard stretch of years and they put up thistles to feed the stock. Frank also worked on the county road projects in the area to help support the ranch.
Frank, Alda and Glen ran mostly sheep on the ranch, which required constant herding – a job they had to manage on their own. The country was mostly open range at that time and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the country started getting fenced.
Frank and Alda had one son, Gary, who was born in 1947. Gary grew up on the ranch and came back after his school years were completed. The ranch was still primarily sheep at that time, and besides the usual ranch work, Gary also sheared sheep. He started when he was in high school and continued to do so for over 30 years.
Besides the hard work of ranching, Gary remembers the good times growing up in the community, “When I was growing up, there were neighborhood card parties and dances all winter,” he explained, “People got together a lot more then. It seems like we’re too busy these days or something.”
“We get together with the neighbors during branding season though,” Gary said, “We also help each other out when there’s other cow work going on. It’s always fun to visit with everyone.”
In 1972, Gary married Marlene Simons and they made their home on the ranch with his folks. Sons J.D. and Rory came along in 1979 and 1982, and they grew up working alongside their folks. J.D. is married to Lisa (Hauk) and they have two daughters, Jaelyn, 7, and Macey, 4. Rory is married to Tracey (Walker) and they have daughter Whitley, 20 months and son Weston, 4 months. They all live and work on the ranch.
“We got out of the sheep when the wool incentive went off. We couldn’t make it work so went to cattle,” Gary said. “J.D. got back into the sheep a few years ago but that’s him and Lisa’s deal.” Lambing is in full swing for J.D. and Lisa, as they started the end of April.
The Wendt cowherd is Angus-based with a few baldies in the bunch. Calving starts with the heifers the end of February and the cows at the end of March. The cows calve in the rough pastures at the base of Castle Rock Butte. Deep draws have brush and trees for protection from the wind and storms.
“It can be storming pretty bad but we won’t even know it,” said Gary, looking off into the deep draw where the ranch buildings, the original house and Gary and Marlene’s home are. “We about have to get out on top here before we even know it’s blowing.”
Rory, Tracey and their family live in the modernized original ranch house. That house was built after Henry and Elizabeth married and was added on to as the family grew. Other original ranch buildings include a small shop that is built into the side of the draw and a large hip roofed barn that is also built into the bank. The original dugout and cellar have long since caved in.
J.D. and Lisa and their daughters live in a modular just over the ridge to the southwest from the headquarters. To the south, across Highway 168, is the indoor arena and sheep corrals.
Besides the ranch and livestock, the Wendts also stay busy with the three semis they operate. “J.D. got the first one and then it just grew from there,” Gary said. “It’s not full-time for any of us. If something comes up, somebody calls, then one of us can usually go.” They haul livestock, hay, and water with the trucks.
“We hauled a lot of hay in here this winter for ourselves,” Gary said. “It was nice having our own trucks to do that with. We hauled for other folks too.”
Hauling hay all winter and the fact that they are still feeding, is because of the tough drought year of 2012 and into 2013. “I’ve never seen it so dry as last year. It just never rained,” explained Gary, looking off across the pasture. “I don’t think I’ve ever had to feed this much, this late either. Usually they’ll walk off the hay to go graze the green grass, but it’s had a hard time coming. We’re still caking too.”
The green haze of new grass is the result of a snowstorm the end of April. “If we hadn’t had that, we’d be in real trouble. We still need lots of rain and for it to warm up to get this grass going,” said Wendt.
Fortunately water isn’t a huge concern as the Wendt Ranch isn’t entirely dependent on dams for stock water. “Neil Smeenk, Kenny Carlson and us went together and drilled a deep well a couple of years ago. It’s 3900 feet deep and runs 200 gallons a minute. It’s good water too,” Gary said. “We put in a 30,000 gallon storage tank up here in our pasture and then laid pipeline that gravity flows to our pastures, even the summer pastures down on North Willow Creek.” The water is artesian and hot, so the tanks stay open pretty well in the winter.
Keeping the ranch in the Wendt family in this day and age is a large concern to Gary and Marlene. “We have the ranch in a family corporation. That should keep it in the family whenever Marlene and I are gone,” said Gary. “I hope that someone wants to keep on with it and that they can. J.D.’s girls really like it. ‘Course they’re older, so they can get out and do more stuff.” Gary grinned, adding, “J.D.’s oldest, Jaelyn, went to a branding with her Uncle Rory today. She just craves it. Both girls have been riding since they were really little.”
Gary Wendt stopped the pickup and got out on a high shoulder of a ridge that comes off of Castle Rock Butte. “I think this is the prettiest place in the country,” he said, gazing out over the vast distance. To the north, close by, is Square Top Butte, and many miles north are the Slim Buttes. In the distance the Moreau River is visible in spots. To the east is Deers Ears Buttes, while faintly, in the southeast, Owl Butte shows. Bear Butte and the Black Hills grace the southern horizon and to the west are the Center of the Nation and Two Top buttes. Far to the southwest is the Bear Lodge of Wyoming and Sundance Mountain in Wyoming. The centerpiece though, raring up high into the clear blue sky, is Castle Rock Butte.
As the scene of many battles between Crow and Sioux Indians, the Castle Rock Butte landmark has guided travelers from Indian bands and Cavalry units, to homesteaders and sheepherders, to cowboys and truck drivers, on their journeys.
Cows graze up onto the shoulders of the butte, deer and wild turkey live in the draws at its feet, and eagles soar over its crest. Gary Wendt, who has spent his lifetime at its side, feels a deep attachment to the butte and the land. The hopes and dreams of young German emigrants started a ranch that after 121 years, is now home to the fifth generation of Wendts. With their hearts firmly planted in the land, hopefully many more generations will live there as well. F