Erk Ranch: 100 years of sheep and cattle
Northern Butte County of South Dakota is a land of sweeping vistas, tall buttes, draws choked with chokecherry and buffalo berry thickets, and prairie grasses of many varieties. Imagine the country when Ludwig Erk first arrived in 1912 – many homesteaders, no fences, abundant grass and great opportunity for someone determined to succeed.
Born in Germany in 1890, Ludwig immigrated to the U.S. in 1906. He worked for six years on the farm of an uncle in Iowa, saving his money, attending school and learning English. In 1912, he traveled to Newell, SD on the train with his $1,000 savings, caught the mail stage to Hoover, SD, and from there, rented an Indian pony to travel to the Deermont area, where he staked his homestead. He bought a team of horses and a wagon, then built a homestead shack into the side of a hill. Ludwig was on his way to being a landowner.
Anna Jestl was born in 1887 in Austria. By age 22, with both parents deceased, she headed for America. In 1909, she arrived in South Dakota. She worked as a housekeeper and lived with her married sister. In 1910, she filed on a homestead about two miles east of Castle Rock, just south of her sister and brother-in-law.
Priests traveled by horseback in those days and held services at the homes of the homesteaders. Ludwig and Anna met at one of those services. After many letters back and forth between the two, they married in 1919.
Anna moved to Ludwig’s homestead, which had been improved upon by planting grain, digging wells, and building a barn. Ludwig and Anna went into the cattle business after marriage, but a March blizzard in 1919 claimed their cattle, which perished for miles along Sulphur Creek. The newlyweds worked side by side that spring, dragging the cattle out of the creek and pulling the hides off with the team of horses. With the sale of the hides, they had enough money to purchase more cattle.
Their five children were born in the years between 1920 and 1930. Ida, who became Sister Celine, was born in 1920; Joe in 1922; George in 1924; John in 1925; and Elizabeth in 1930.
In 1925, Ludwig proved up on another 160 acres east of the original homestead, and due to there being a better well there, moved his growing family to the new location. This is the present location of the Erk Ranch. John was born on the new homestead. The first sheep were also brought onto the ranch in 1925.
By 1936, the sheep herd had grown to 600 ewes. That year was very dry and the grasshoppers were terrible, so they were forced to sell their ewe/lamb pairs for $6.00. In 1937, it turned off wet and they bought 277 ewes for $27 a head. Those ewes were the foundation band of the Erk commercial herd today.
The family worked hard, breaking sod, planting crops and running livestock. Blizzards and drought came, as did years of abundance and relative prosperity. Through it all, the Erk family held steadfastly to their faith, the land and the livestock.
Ludwig and Anna continued to expand the land holdings as the children grew big enough to help with the work. The three boys herded sheep and worked alongside their father, while the girls helped their mother with the endless work to be done in the home.
More land was added over the years to make room for the sons who wanted to ranch with their father. George and his wife Helen and family eventually ranched to the north of the home place. Joe moved to a place on the south side of the Belle Fourche River near Vale, and later married Violet. John lived on the home place with Ludwig and Anna until they moved to Newell in 1952, upon retirement. John married in 1954 and he and Mary raised their five children on the ranch.
When John and Mary’s children were growing up, the ranch ran Hereford cattle, commercial Rambouillet sheep, and registered Rambouillet sheep known throughout the nation for their quality and fine wool.
Currently, the third generation is ranching on the original Erk Ranch. Paul and Elizabeth Erk still run both commercial and registered sheep. They show registered Rambouillets at select shows around the country when time allows. Cattle still graze alongside the sheep.
“We’ve changed over to mostly Angus cattle and upped the number to use the grazing more efficiently,” Paul said. “I like to leave a lot of grass behind.”
“I feel honored that I have been allowed to be here. To be entrusted to continue on the ranch, with all the hard times and adversity that my grandparents and folks had to go through to hold on to it, is an honor,” Erk added. “We’ve used the land so it can continue into the fourth generation and beyond.”
The ranch and its grasslands show the evidence of people who love the land and respect it. Even during a dry year, there is ample grass left from the previous growing season. A new well and extensive pipelines water the ranch, better utilizing the grass and keeping livestock distributed. The cattle are fleshy and the lambs fat.
In the distance to the west is the towering butte called Castle Rock. To the north the Slim Buttes rim the horizon, to the east are the double peaks of Deer’s Ears Butte, and to the south the blue of the Black Hills draws the eye. It’s the land in the midst of those landmarks though, that has held the hearts and dreams of the Erk family since 1912.
The original homestead site is still evident, though grass has taken over the fields and the dugout is only a dish in the edge of the draw. The machinery that helped to shape the land and build the ranch is sitting in the grass on a flat that once raised crops, slowly being claimed by sun, wind and rain. Next to the aging implements are the rocks of a teepee ring, evidence that others also appreciated the good grazing.
After 100 years, new machinery and technology have come again and again, but what has stayed the same is the desire of the Erk family to live on the land, taking care of it and being stewards of it in order that the next generation, and the one after, will have a home.
Cloud shadows drift across the ridges and small, rock covered buttes, while the breeze ripples the grasses. A stone Johnny, built by young sheepherders while tending their father Ludwig’s bands, stands sentinel over the prairie. A monument to the hard work, heartache, labor and love that has gone into the ranch for 100 years, it stands solid on the ridge, much like the Erk family remains solidly on the land.
Editor’s Note: This “Ranching Legacy” depicts individuals, families and businesses that have survived the ups and downs of agriculture and continue to contribute to their community. Know someone that should be featured? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News