Still going strong: Fourth generation being raised on Maher Ranch
April 19, 2018
Albert Rost, son of German immigrants grew up in Chicago. He came to the Dakotas at the age of 18. He worked on farms in the Reliance and Chamberlain, South Dakota areas. In 1910 he took up a homestead 10 miles southwest of present day Isabel, South Dakota, in Ziebach County.
On December 12, 1912 he married Frieda Drafahl who had a homestead near Reliance. She traded it for one adjoining Albert's in Ziebach County. In the spring of 1913 they moved to their new home, each one driving a team and wagon and bringing along some farm machinery and livestock. They made the cross country trip in five days, by just heading in the general direction since there were no roads at the time.
On the new homestead they lived in a claim shack. Eventually a couple of additional small buildings were attached to create the family home. They had two sons, Fred who moved to Chicago and John who stayed on to work the ranch after graduating from high school. He helped his father build up a herd of cattle and farm the land. John married a school teacher Violet Ochsner on Oct. 12, 1940. Albert died in 1945 so John took over. His mother Frieda stayed on at the ranch until her death in 1966.
John and Violet had three sons: Kenneth, Curtis and Denver were all born in the original family house. Their youngest, a daughter, Marcia came along later after the new house was built in 1952, where she still lives with her husband. John and Violet moved to Isabel in 1980, where Violet taught grade school for years. Before that she taught country school, retiring after more than fifty years teaching. She is 97 now and still going strong. John died in 1986.
“It’s not an easy life. If you don’t enjoy it there is no use doing it.” Marcia Maher
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Music has long been a part of the family, when Frieda loaded her wagon she brought with her a pump organ, which granddaughter Marcia recently had fully restored. John and his sons played for community dances for years and Marcia also played with the family group. They all played by ear, John played the accordion and banjo, Kenneth the saxophone, Curtis the guitar, Denver the accordion, piano and drums, and Marcia the accordion and piano.
Violet Rost remembers growing up north and west of Isabel during the Dirty Thirties. When they would wake up in the morning the bed would be covered with sand and they would have to shake off the covers and sweep the floor. Also anything you wanted to use, the table, chairs, dishes was all full of sand. She remembers having to wear rags over her mouth and nose when she went outside to keep from breathing the sand. John Rost and another man shipped all their cattle by rail to eastern South Dakota in 1936 since they had no feed at home. John traveled back and forth to care for the cows, and left them there for a couple of years until things improved at home.
The winter of 1949 was tough for everyone, the snow was so deep it covered up the haystacks and they couldn't feed the cows. The cows would climb up on the snow banks and eat the bark off of trees; they had everything gnawed off six foot high. When an old cow would get too weak and went down, they would roll her onto a stone boat and haul her to the barn and try to get some feed into her. The Rosts lost a lot of cattle before the National Guard came through with Weasels and dug out the tops of the haystacks. Of course the wind blew the road shut again once they left. Marcia's brother remembers that they had hundreds of pheasants and after each storm they would go pick up and pile the dead birds. By spring they had a pile five foot high and after that they didn't have pheasants again. He also remembered taking a shovel when they went out horseback to check the cows, and using it to dig the horse out when it got stuck.
The winter and spring of 1966 was hard, John had calved early and when a blizzard hit the first part of March the pairs were in a south pasture along a creek. The blowing snow covered the creek and the water holes and the cattle drifted. Curtis Rost, who was about 21 years old, was helping his dad at the time and went out horseback to check the pairs. He found a bunch of calves in the creek, so after tying his rope to the saddle horn and the other end around his waist, he went into the water and started throwing the live calves up on the bank. It was a mess as cows were on both sides and nothing was paired up. Curtis managed to get back on his horse but by the time he made it home he was froze to the saddle and couldn't get off. He finally broke the zipper on his coveralls and got off. After putting his horse away, he soaked in a hot bath to warm up then went out and did it all over again.
Marcia Rost met a young man from Morristown, South Dakota at a dance; Mike Maher was working near Isabel at the time. Mike was the descendant of homesteaders who lived near Sioux Falls and Morristown. The two married in February of 1974, and in 1976 they moved to the Rost ranch. Marcia's brothers had health problems, so an opportunity was given to the young couple as they partnered with her parents, eventually buying the ranch.
"It's not an easy life, if you don't enjoy it there is no use doing it," said Marcia, of ranch life.
The ranch has always been a cow/calf outfit, Mike and Marcia ran sheep for years as well until the predator problem grew too bad. They also raise hay and rent out their farm ground when the land is out of rotation for growing hay. The family has been building up the ranch for years and Mike and Marcia have purchased land when possible. They run black Angus cattle and use Angus and Hereford bulls. They calve in late April, a little later than some. The calves are weaned in October selling right off the cow, and marketed through Faith Livestock Market. The black heifers are kept for replacements. They have combined both old and new management practices, using both horses and four-wheelers.
"We have withstood drought, and have tried to work with, not against, Mother Nature," said Mike. A piece of advice for those getting started in the business: "If you don't make it, you don't spend it."
An outside job can help keep the wheels turning. "Marcia working as the Postmaster in Isabel has helped with both income and insurance."
Under Mike and Marcia, the ranch has weathered some hard times. The summer of 1979 was so dry they didn't have any winter feed so the Mahers along with three other families went together and hauled all their cattle to Nebraska and wintered them on cornstalks. One of the neighbor's sons stayed to take care of the cattle, which were brought home to calve. "The winter of 1995-96 was bad, it was a real wet fall so a lot of guys couldn't get their hay hauled and winter lasted from October through April. What survived the winter was hit hard by April storms. We had just started calving so the cows were alright but we had sheep at the time and were about done lambing. The blizzards killed a bunch of ewes and lambs, and what lived the coyotes took care of during the summer. That was the end of our running sheep." Mike said.
Too much or the lack of moisture is always an issue in agriculture. "In agriculture you pay for your moisture one way or another." Mike said. "This spring most everyone is running short on hay after last year's dry summer. Late summer rain saved us and we were able to purchase some hay fairly close."
Mike and Marcia have two sons and a daughter. They all graduated from Isabel High School and went on to college. Ryan lives in Isabel and owns the bar and grill, is an insurance agent, serves as a state Senator and owns cattle as well. Ann is a dietitian in Eagle Butte, who spends most of her weekends on the ranch working where she also runs her own cattle.
Youngest son Wade Maher and his wife Jolene have a daughter Brelan who is 11 and a son Brady who is 9. Wade moved back to the ranch with his family in 2015 after a career working for a coal mine contractor. "I felt like it was time to come back and I wanted this life to raise my family." Wade said. "I've owned cattle since grade school and I recently purchased some more land."
Mike Maher is very involved in many cattle organizations. He is the South Dakota Stockgrowers Region 1 Vice-President. A member of U.S. Cattlemen and R-CALF USA and is on the board of directors of the South Dakota Beef Industry Council representing the South Dakota Farmers Union. "I think the cattle market for 2018 will be very similar to what we saw last year. I don't think it will be like 2015. I've been doing this for over 40 years and that was the highest market we have ever seen. When we sold calves in 1974 they didn't bring a hundred dollars. I feel like we need to change some of the trade agreements with neighboring countries. We don't need free trade we need fair trade. Curb imports and implement Country of Origin Labeling. Things need to be made friendlier towards our producers instead of other countries. We will have to watch and wait on how things will turn out with China and the tariffs."
The Maher Ranch four generations strong is raising the fifth in rural Ziebach County.