Memories from the Besler Kitchen
“When I was little I always heard Dad and Grandpa talk about feeding and putting up hay with a team – that’s how I got interested. They didn’t get a tractor on the place till 1946. I started with a team of Shetlands and in ‘78 got a four-hitch team of Palominos.” Brad Besler says, “They were all sisters. What sweethearts. They were as good a team as I’ve ever been around and great to learn on.”
As a result of Besler’s passion for team horses, he has also amassed quite a collection of antique equipment. A few of his treasures include: an Amish two-seat buggy, and a turn-of-the-last-century Dray wagon from the East Coast that sports axle springs pitted by salty sea air. These are not simply museum pieces. Besler first used the Dray wagon in 1979 during his family’s big cattle drive, and he keeps several of these wagons in working order.
Another wagon that has seen quite a bit of action features a body purchased by friend and fellow rancher Herb Kolb (now deceased) more than half a century ago, from the Western Cattle Company in Harding County. Kolb bought the wagon to drive in 1968 at Bison’s 50th Anniversary parade. Fifty years later, Brad and his father, Wayne, drove the wagon down Main Street again for the centennial celebration.
In the interim, Kolb and the Beslers added bows, seats, and a chuck box. Most of the hardware and lumber they added were pieces Besler and Kolb had collected over the years, though Kolb handbuilt the chuck box. Once completed, the “new” chuck wagon made it’s debut in the Centennial Wagon Train in 1989, and then was driven again from Ft. Pierre to Deadwood in 2008. For Brad, that trip was one of the highlights of his life. “When I was a boy, we’d go to the Days of ‘76 in Deadwood. It was my dream to drive down Main Street in a wagon myself. I got to do it in that chuck wagon.”
Besler still likes to get behind the lines when he can. This fall he will be making a trip from White Butte to Coal Springs. The organizers of this wagon train hope to keep it as a biannual event, but, as Besler says, “We’re all getting older and I’m not sure if the next generation has much interest.” He continues, “But I hope they do! Everyone should have a chance to relive our history, and it’s good therapy. When you are driving down the road in an outfit, you go so fast, you miss a lot. Traveling in the wagon gives you a greater appreciation for things you might otherwise miss.”
“If you could change one thing about this ranch, what would it be?” Fern Besler asks her eldest daughter Melinda. Melinda looks around. “Make the kitchen bigger,” Melinda says. Fern laughs, “That’s just what I said! It doesn’t matter if you have two people over, or twenty, everybody wants to hang out in the kitchen.”
They have the opportunity to test this theory often at the Besler Ranch. Fern and her husband Brad are third generation ranchers on both sides, with two more generations below them (son, Tanner; daughter Bridget and her husband Khayen, plus their two boys Burke and Krew) already living and working on the land.
The original Besler homestead is located at the base of Rabbit Butte, southwest of Bison, S.D. It was first settled by Samuel and Elizabeth Besler, German immigrants from Russia, who acquired the land through the Homestead Act. After only a few years they passed the land, as well as the sod house they’d built on it, to their son Christian. Trailing cattle from North Dakota to his new homestead, Christian Besler met Julia Wolfe and three months later, in December of 1920, they were married. Their first three children were born in the soddie, and the next ten in the wood frame house they built to replace it. In 1945, Julia and Christian moved down from the butte, purchasing more land and a new home from Earl Nelson. Middle son Wayne and his wife Barbara bought the house and land from his parents in the ’50s, and it is where they still live, just a stone’s throw from where Wayne was born, and a few miles from Fern and Brad’s home. Looking out Brad and Fern’s kitchen window, you can see green hills rolling to where the butte rises, still standing sentinel over the Beslers’ land.
Back in the kitchen, the cushioned booth that serves as family’s table is more full than usual; Melinda, her husband, Erik, and their two boys, are visiting from England. Shelly, the second daughter, a teacher and musician, is also home visiting from Livingston, Mont. Son Will, an RN, wife Emilee and daughters Cora and Lila are missing – and missed – from the family gathering.
Suddenly, a little blond head pops up in the kitchen’s southern windows. “Gram!” Four year-old Burke shouts from the other side of the screen. He wants Fern to come help him find a missing dog.
“In a minute, honey,” she replies from her post stirring a pot on the stovetop, and the little head zips back out of sight.
The kitchen is the hub of most homes, and it is especially so on busy ranches like the Beslers’. It is a rare day the kitchen doesn’t serve a visiting family member, a hungry ranch hand, a hunter passing through, or more likely, all three. With over 15,000 acres of grassland between the families, they run mostly commercial Red Angus cattle, some sheep, and a few goats. Fern makes use of the latter and their milk to create Fergo’s Goat Milk Soaps with her cousin and business partner, Margo Kronberg. Their land is also managed in collaboration with the South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish, and Parks Cooperation Access Program; and, according to literature, represents an effort to “improve the quality and quantity of wildlife while continuing to support a working ranch.”
It’s late afternoon now, and Grandma Barb has dropped by for coffee. At 82, she still puts on pink lipstick when she comes for a visit. “I moved to this land – it will be 64 years ago in October – when I was first married,” she says, taking a sip from her cooling cup. “We shared a house with Wayne’s brother, Elmer. We only lived there a little while, then we moved a tiny trailer up to the homeplace by Rabbit Butte – it looked like one of those old Airstreams – we got it from my father. It didn’t have running water, my darlings, but it was a palace to us! We were just so happy to have our own place. We heated it with an oil burner and that’s what we cooked on too.”
“What kind of things did you cook on it, Grandma?” Melinda asks. She and her younger son Eli are seated beside Barb in the booth, sipping from their own mugs.
“Well, once I cooked a chocolate cake in a frying pan. Of course, it was terrible. But we ate it anyway. Back then we just ate everything, you know.” Barb smiles.
Shelly, Brad and Tanner come in from haying to drink iced tea, a neighbor stops by to borrow a tool, and pretty soon Fern’s brother Blane and his wife Doreen have pulled up with a cooler full of food to add to the delicious smells already rising from the stove. There are 16 people in the house, and sure enough, they are all in the kitchen.
With over one hundred years on this land, the Beslers’ have faced hard times like any family, but even the hard times have made good memories. As people file in and out of the kitchen, chatting and laughing, Melinda turns to Barb and Fern. “You know what I remember,” she says, “Whenever we had crews here working there’d always be three or four extra people straggling in at meal time. One of you would add a can of cream of mushroom soup at the last minute, trying to stretch it out. Somehow, you always made it work – you always had enough.”
“You know, we just take things as they come. That’s the ranch way.” Barb says. “It’s what we know.”
It’s also the ranch way to work together and to work hard. Grandpa Wayne still helps with the haying, and Fern suspects it’ll be the same for Brad in twenty more years. “I don’t think we’ll ever leave,” she says. “I think he’ll be out there haying just like his dad.” That will mean a lot more family meals served around the booth as well.
What’s next for the ranch? “Well, it’s amazing how much hasn’t changed in all these years,” Fern says. “There’s a lot more modern equipment now, of course, that’s probably the biggest difference. But the work is the same. No matter how the world changes around you, you have the same goals – you birth as many babies as you can, you feed them, you try to keep them healthy.”
Fern gazes out across her busy kitchen. Just outside the window her grandsons play in the dusty gravel and behind them slopes the rocky hillside of Rabbit Creek, bright with grass and sweet clover. “We get to enjoy the little things here,” Fern says, “The seasons, watching them change, it’s our livelihood and it’s necessary.”
Shelly gets up to drive Grandma Barb home and they stop by the door to kiss baby Krew who’s just arrived with his parents. A cool breeze sets the kitchen’s red gingham curtains flapping. It’s early evening, the kitchen is bustling, and outside there is green quiet for a long, long way. It’s just another day on the Besler Ranch. It’s the life they know, it’s the life they love, and other than a bigger kitchen, they wouldn’t change a thing.
3 kind baked beans
One of Fern’s favorite recipes. “It came from Mabel Veal, who lived in old Chance (now a ghost town). I use this recipe lots and it’s a family favorite. The more bacon and browned onions, the better it gets.”
1 can green, baby lima beans, drained
1 can kidney or navy beans, half of juice drained off
1 can pork and beans not drained
1/2 lb bacon
1/2 lb hamburger
1 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup ketchup
little squirt of mustard
1 T vinegar
Brown hamburger and onions. add rest of ingredients except bacon and bake for 1 hour at 350.
Stir in cooked crumbled bacon before serving.
I always add a little of the bacon grease too.
Don’t over do the mustard and don’t forget the vinegar.
You can substitute any kind of beans but in the combination, you must always use the undrained pork and beans.