Brand-inspecting man |

Brand-inspecting man

Jim Reed has seen many changes in the cattle industry throughout the decades. Photos by Dianna Palmer

Ask where “Cow Country” is and you’ll hear Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado… the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma

One quiet, unassuming, elder-statesman-type cowboy, now making his home at Belle Fourche, South Dakota, has covered (often on horseback) much of that country; while giving close consideration to a lot of the cattle there. Miles and decades of memories sparkle in the eyes of retired brand inspector Jim Reed, lending that far-seeing-eagle quality. Not unlike the dozens of pairs of handsome handmade boots lining the walls of his room, Jim wears the well-earned patina comfortably.

Born to a couple young outlaws on Blue Creek in the famous “Sandhills” cow country, just after the hellish drought, dustbowl, Depression era, this venerable man-of-the-law actually sprung from wild and wooly stock! Of course the “outlaw” handle was carelessly applied in those days – and only sincerely determined romance was to blame as John Reed and his 16-year-young sweetheart Edna Anderson eloped on horseback from Oskhosh, Nebraska to catch a train in Julesburg, Colorado, rushing to Raton, New Mexico for their wedding…hotly pursued by a Nebraska Sheriff. An official Colorado marriage certificate set things straight, and the couple’s ranch on Blue Creek north of Oshkosh became Jim’s earliest home.

Within a few years the family settled on Indian Creek in the Wyoming-Montana borderlands, not far from the Belle Fourche River Jim now dwells near. John moved his family again in the 1940s, this time to ranch and work the sale barn Brand Inspector’s job at Lusk, Wyoming. Visiting his Dad’s office there introduced young Jim to that part of his life’s work. Everywhere they lived he’d already been steeped in the other necessities — savvying cattle, horses and country; riding, roping and working with cattle.

“I got home in September of 1960 and in December I started Brand Inspecting, pulled into the field by Jim Holloway, Sr.” Jim Reed, brand inspector

A return to the Sandhills of his birth came in 1951, where Jim started high school at Cody and got into breaking and training horses. He recalls a huge November blizzard there, when even the mail didn’t get delivered for six weeks, tractors wouldn’t start so they fed with teams, and mother Edna and sisters Kate and June fled to grandmother’s California home until spring!

South Dakota’s capitol, Fort Pierre is where Jim received his high school diploma, still absorbing continuing education in his father’s consuming work of Brand Inspection. Jim’s 1956 enlistment in the US Navy took him to see where those waters rushing down the Big Muddy had gone, and brought him totally different educational opportunities. North Island, San Diego; aircraft carrier USS Bennington; Hawaii, Japan, Philippines, China, Okinawa, and Formosa (now Taiwan) all became familiar before his service ended in 1960.

Thankful to have survived some close calls at sea, Jim willingly gave up live torpedoes as bunkmates, returning to Nebraska’s Sandhills and a job with Allen Kime south of Merriman. Before long he followed his Dad’s boot tracks into brand inspecting. “I got home in September of 1960 and in December I started Brand Inspecting, pulled into the field by Jim Holloway, Sr.,” Jim recalls. He worked around Brule in 1960 and out of Chamberlain until 1963, then put in a stint at Winner.

By the spring of 1964 Jim was in Wyoming, in charge of livestock inspection at both Stockmen’s and Torrington Livestock barns. He cherishes a decade of happy times with good workplaces, clientele and friends — recalling Torrington as a place he truly enjoyed. “We had a better system there,” Jim relates, “Clearing cattle out by pens…re-branding at the sale barn, it all worked well.”

Jim Holloway, Sr. stole him back in 1974, moving him to the open market Sioux Falls Stockyards in South Dakota. Livestock owners from any state can ship their cattle to Open Market stockyards like Chicago, Denver, Omaha, Minneapolis and Sioux Falls – as long as their state employs a Brand Inspector there. Jim became Sioux Falls Stockyards’ last brand inspector, working until the inspection program ended there in 1976. He remembers it as tough duty, “Five days a week, nine Commission Companies operating there. We tallied and inspected, pens were not cleared out, so we might finish at daylight and lock the gates on the pens. I inspected 2000 head there one June 26th,” Jim grins, recalling the exhaustion such days left behind.

Sioux Falls reminded Jim of his dad taking him to the huge open market Kansas City Stockyards soon after the Great Flood of 1951. They traveled there from Nebraska with a couple rail carloads of 2-year-old steers John was representing for sale, stepping out of the caboose to water everywhere! Jim remembers, “Cattle had been moved 2 decks high into the hog houses . . . we could see hay hanging on the highline wires!” The historic West Bottoms, home to the Stockyards, lie near the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and were deeply submerged after that historic deluge.

Jim was next employed at the St Onge, Sturgis and Belle Fourche livestock auction markets. Early years of stock raising experience with his Dad gave him a strong desire to ranch for himself, so when Mike Madden opened a door in 1978 to manage several leased ranches in the area and start his own herd, Jim was ready. After a time there, his next job was with the S Bar B Ranch at Chinook, Montana, where he remembers, “They raised good black cattle, kept their steers over to yearlings, and probably had around 4,000 head.”

Ranch and feedlot management again lured Jim to Nebraska in 1984, but couldn’t hold him against his homing instinct for Belle Fourche, where he returned in 1985. This move was permanent as he brand inspected the three Black Hills markets and in 1990, bought his own cows, which he ran for more than a decade in the Belle Fourche area. Even when tagged to replace retiring Mert Glover as Chief Brand Inspector for the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association in 1992, Jim wouldn’t leave Belle Fourche, commuting to Rapid City instead.

He hardly noticed, used to the lengthy brand inspection trail that follows no schedule. A letter the Executive Director of South Dakota StockGrowers wrote to the Central States Fair Board in 2006, touting Jim for the honor of 2007 Agri-Business Person of the Year, highlighted that factor. Naming Jim an “unsung hero” and pointing out that he and his late father John Reed already claimed 90 combined years of livestock inspection, the writer said Jim had, for years, “. . . kept inspections running like clockwork at rodeos, cattle shows, horse shows, bull sales and other livestock events to ensure that rodeo contractors, sale consignors, horse showmen and competitors can be on the road as quickly as possible. Never one to unnecessarily rush the process, Jim and the inspectors he has trained are sure to provide thorough inspection so everyone at the livestock event can feel comfortable that someone else isn’t hauling away their animal,” Jim’s advocate wrote. “Jim oversees the state’s 14 full time, 21 part time and 122 local brand inspectors. Brand inspection is meant to deter and prevent theft and Jim Reed and his inspectors do everything within their power to protect the brand owner and prevent wrongdoing,” the letter informed, continuing, “. . . last year alone, over 30,000 head of livestock were held for proof of ownership before being returned to their rightful owners, thanks to Jim’s conscientious and persistent investigations . . . Jim isn’t done working at 5:00 or on Friday night. He takes calls from brand owners at all hours, helping them determine the owner of a stray; and jumps in his car to inspect cattle in the early morning hours or late evening hours – whenever a cattle owner needs him.”

Innumerable people who know Jim’s work ethic, along with many letters of reference including Pennington County Sheriff and Governor of Montana assured the 2007 Agri-Business Person of the Year award was Jim’s. Such recognition is sweet, yet daily experiences and interaction with good ranch and livestock people highlight Jim’s life. His longtime pursuit of justice, and advocating the continuation of a working system to insure that, are priorities – and Jim’s always been willing to stick his neck out to defend them.

Upon the South Dakota Brand Board’s move to take over brand inspection in July 2008, Jim wrote from the heart: “In my opinion this all started after the Governor fired four of the Brand Board members, Dean Strong, Pete Longbrake, Richard Meier and Ken Halligan. All good men who ran the Brand Board with some common sense…Then came the D.C.I. Report with the Brand board Investigator’s help …This report, without any substantial evidence, smeared the brand inspectors, this office and the SD Stockgrowers Most of the brand inspectors are very loyal…all do good work. I have defended them since 1992 and will continue to do so…Board member, Tom Conger, was very critical about the inspectors…at one meeting he said the reason there was so many holds, was because the inspectors couldn’t read brands. Mr. Conger should tell that to the hundreds of folks that got their cattle back.” Ending his letter, Jim extended thanks and said “I have worked for the best organization, the S.D.S.G.A. and the best brand inspectors in the world…My last quote is, ‘I was riding for the brand and feel like I drawed Tipperary.’”

His concern for the system continues, as Jim says, “The whole state of South Dakota ought to have Brand Inspection, but the people have voted for it only back to the Missouri River. Another current problem is that South Dakota does not recognize freeze brands on cattle, while Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota do.”

Times Jim’s work deterred theft and lawbreaking and possibly saved good people from bad mistakes that could’ve landed them in prison make it all worthwhile. Finding evidence in time is crucial and Jim’s been good at that — hides of stolen cattle in butcher plants …foiled state-line-crossing con games intended to result in unpaid feedlot charges…even baby calves illegally passed through sale barns, then mothered-up – through the remarkable, honorable work of a canny, savvy brand inspector.

Many fine memories and a good dog keep Jim company in his comfortable Belle Fourche home, while his talented craftsman’s hands remain busy creating beautifully useful woodwork. Tables, benches and innumerable varied picture frames decorate his environment and please anyone lucky enough to own some.

On sale days you’ll find Jim happily writing tickets in the brand inspector’s shack alongside Belle Fourche Livestock’s pens, grinning “It gets me out of the house, and I see a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time.”

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