FRANK SHEPPERSON, COWBOY
His name was called . . . but not to ride in the box behind a steer. The tall, weathered cowboy rose and walked away from a banquet table overflowing family, friends and neighbors from Wyoming. He’d led many a livestock gather at dawn, across all kinds of country, in all kinds of weather. But now . . . he was expected to navigate the North side of the 16,500 square foot Sam Noble Events Center, through a sellout crowd ‘dressed to the nines’ and dining on prime rib, surrounded and dwarfed by five of America’s largest Western landscape triptychs! Definitely new country to this cowboy, who may have longed for his best horse before Miss Rodeo Oklahoma met him beside the stairs, escorting him onstage to emcees Dave Appleton and Pam Minnick.
Pam’s enthusiastic introduction was overwhelmed by waves of loud applause and cowboy whoops. Hesitantly accepting the mic she pushed toward him, the cowboy just stood there . . . head down, trembling a little. After while, in silent ovation to his sincere humility, people across the huge gallery rose from their tables . . . then more and more stood, applauding in waves. Finally this big, tough World Champion bulldogger looked up and tried speaking into the mic; but his voice quavered. His chin tipped down again, through more moments of weeping silence . . . and again, the ovation rose….
Raised by good cowboys in rugged country, six decades ago this handsome cowboy claimed Wyoming High School Rodeo All-Around and National High School Rodeo Bronc Riding championships. As a freshman on the University of Wyoming rodeo team, Frank competed in every event but the bareback riding at the National College Finals Rodeo – helping UW become 1961 National Team Champions. In the mid ‘70’s, contesting on the 6th Floor of Madison Square Garden in New York City, he beat the world’s best and won the bulldogging! A 6-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier in Steer Wrestling, he finished all but one of those NFR’s in the top 4; and claimed the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) World Championship in 1975! Frank was inducted into the Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame with the Class of 2016.
More than a century earlier, his paternal grandfather Bax Taylor brought cattle up the Chisolm Trail. Frank’s mother Billie Jean was the first woman inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame, with the Premier Class of 2014. Granddaughter to Chisolm Trail drover Ed Covington, whose saddle and pistol are enshrined in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, she had Frank a’horseback early as he can remember, or before . . . she’d naturally pass the torch her son! He carried it well, joining her in the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of fame in 2018.
Looking across that sea of fans, about to be named a 2019 Honoree to ‘Rodeo Hall’ in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, words failed Frank Shepperson . . . a commendable failure according to the ancient wisdom of Confucius. “A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions,” the seer said; again he proclaimed, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” Two standing ovations proved Shepperson’s Oklahoma City audience’s agreement with Confucius!
Finally finding his voice the cowboy said “I’m humbled and honored to join a lot of my heroes and friends honored here . . . a lot of good ones.” Frank further lauded NCHOF for their stellar efforts toward “preserving and promoting the customs and future of our Western lifestyle.”
Born in Casper in 1942, Frank grew up on the family ranch between Midwest and Casper, at the south end of the Bighorn Mountains near Teapot Divide. He explains, “Grandad homesteaded a ways below here about 1900 – then the oilfield started all around him.”
Disliking everything about oil and its’ production, the elder Shepperson was quick to acquire the holdings and move when a homesteader further upstream gave up. That got him out of the oilfield, but he didn’t continue to pick up relinquished homesteads. Frank explains, “He was a good man . . . things were different then, and the reason this place ended up so small is he believed, in those days, it was cheaper to run on government land than it was on private land because of the taxes and stuff. So, a lot of these homesteaders that left offered [their land] to my granddad for less than a dollar an acre, and he said, ‘No, it’s cheaper for the government to own them.’ That’s one reason why there’s quite a bit of government land around here . . . he didn’t foresee that someday that would really make a difference.”
The next generation grew up ranching there, then hard times hit. Frank relates, “My parents went through the Depression here and my granddad . . . everybody . . . went broke. Then, in ’49, my dad leased some country and the ’49 blizzard wiped out our cattle. We went broke again.”
In such times, under such conditions, kids worked like adults. Frank says, “When we went broke in ’49, ’50 . . . we [trapped and] did our hunting to survive. This range was not fenced . . . no fences anywhere. So, when we’d run livestock, wherever the livestock were, we’d take the sheep wagon or if there was a line camp up there, we just moved up there where we summered our cattle . . . every day horseback [to] keep them back from the neighbors. You know . . . over this big ridge . . . we’d try to keep our cattle on that side of the ridge, every day . . . horseback, we weren’t at the house very much.”
No better training ground could’ve been found for rodeo cowboys. They took their daily work for ‘play’, honing essential skills without even realizing it. “We trained and broke horses and stuff like that and, you know, the rodeo part . . . the horses were most of our entertainment. We never even went to town in the summertime. Things were very, very tough and we had to work off of the ranch quite a bit, you know, to make ends meet,” Frank explains.
Based on his dislike for that lifestyle, the cowboy admits, “My biggest goal in life was being able to ranch without having to work off the ranch to make a living . . . when dad died in ’69, we weren’t solvent. In other words, we owed more than it was worth. But, I taught school, worked in an oil field, and then went rodeoing.” Rodeo was large in Frank’s life from high school through college; becoming totally dominant during the years he “went down the road” in pursuit of the PRCA’s payoffs and honors. His plan worked.
“When I came back from rodeoing, I put the livestock money and my money back into getting everything paid off,” Frank explains. “We’re pretty frugal. But you know, you’ve got to be, to make a living ranching this country . . . tough times . . . ups and downs in agriculture all the way through. But, since then, I’ve never had to go off the ranch to get a job . . . you know, one of the secrets is tighten your belt. Spend less than you make.”
“When I came back in the late ’70s and built this place, I was debt-free,” Frank grins. “Then, the early ’80s hit and all the ranchers had a really, really tough time. We were sitting here debt-free at that time, because I had been off rodeoing instead of spending money. So, that’s when we started accumulating a lot more land. Of course, my kids were born about then and they were my labor force. So they became owners, part of the outfit, right to begin with.”
Ownership means work on that outfit, and Frank’s proud to say, “The whole family has [broke horses] their whole life . . . one of the things we do is train a lot of horses. You know, with Les rodeoing — won the National Finals Rodeo in the steer wrestling . . . in 2012, horses we trained. Amy was the national champion roper in college on a horse we trained. The whole family has [broke horses] their whole life. That’s one of the things we do is train a lot of horses.” Good arena horses thrive on big country and plenty of outside work; always available on the Shepperson ranch.
Asked to name the most meaningful principle or quality absorbed through family heritage, Frank says, “They came here with livestock in the 1880’s, and the sustainability of us bein’ able to stay on this land and survive is the big thing. It’s hard work, but it makes us better . . . it’s honest work, and keeps us close to God.”
The continuation of that lifestyle and family credo is important to Frank. “I want my kids and grandkids to experience and pass on the pride, joy, and satisfaction in maintaining and improving this land, water, wildlife, livestock and community, as our niche in society,” he says.
Although they’ve run some sheep, bought when they leased ranches the sheep were already on, the ranch is primarily a cow/calf outfit – once Hereford, now strongly black. Moving cattle to their summer range on the Bighorn Mountain’s involves a roughly 35 mile trail . . . in some of the most beautiful country God made. It must seem natural, given both sides of Frank’s family arrived in Wyoming horseback, driving cattle up the Chisolm Trail!