From the Little Missouri to Powder River and back: North Dakota’s Brown Ranch
August 26, 2013
New York-born Albert Pearce "A.P." Brown came west in 1872, joining a federal survey party running township lines in what is now South Dakota and laying the trail between Yankton and Bismarck, Dakota Territory. In 1876, A.P. joined gold seekers bound for the Black Hills. Homesteading on Rapid Creek, he laid out the Rapid City, S.D. town site using an ordinary pocket compass. In 1883, A.P. and his wife, Hannah, homesteaded five miles from Camp Crook, S.D., near the Little Missouri River. Nine children tended crops and livestock before setting up their own households.
Today, 130 years later, the Browns are still ranching along the Little Missouri. A.P.'s great-grandson John and his wife, Nikki, and their two sons make their homes on a ranch in Slope County, N.D. John's mother, Mary Lee, widow of the late Clyde V. "Bud" Brown, also lives there.
The family left the area for a time. Clyde O., A.P.'s third child and John's grandfather – who cowboyed for some of the big ranches in the Marmarth, N.D. area, including the CY – thought the country was getting too crowded with homesteaders. His brother Harry worked as a cowboy east of Miles City, Mont., homesteading along Powder River. In 1912, Clyde O. and Nora sold their place and moved with their children, Sylvia, Bud, Harold, and Anna, to a ranch near Harry's.
Heifers were bred to calve at three years of age. Grass-fat steers of Spanish Durham descent were marketed in Chicago as 3-to-4-year-olds. Shipping meant trailing the cattle to railroad corrals at Ismay or Miles City, Mont.
“In ’78-’79, the National Guard dropped hay to our cattle with Huey helicopters because the snow was so deep. The cattle ran the first day. The second day, the cattle were waiting for them.”
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A dry summer in 1919 left the ranch short on feed. They resorted to chopping down cottonwood trees. The cattle would come to the sound of the ax and the falling trees, eating branches, leaves, bark, and all.
Following high school graduation, Bud attended Portland Business College. He returned home and worked with his parents. Nora was the bookkeeper, maintaining a detailed set of ledgers which John and Nikki have.
Clyde O.'s health was not good. A newspaper article tells of a 1941 real estate transfer to John McNeirney, who bought the 200-section ranch – part owned, part leased – 2,000 head of cattle, and the hay. It was one of several ranches McNeirney purchased, which he stocked with cattle shipped in via rail from Texas. Clyde O. and Nora retired, albeit briefly, to Miles City.
Bud was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was a sergeant under General Patton, serving as a tank commander in the 10th Armored Division. His sister Sylvia saved letters sent from the European Theater of Operations in which he acknowledged the difficulty of finding hired help back home. While reading from one of the letters, John said, "He was thinking of ranching the whole time he was fighting a war."
In October of 1944, Clyde O. and Nora purchased the current Little Missouri ranch for Bud to run when he returned. They bought a place on Powder River for son Harold and his wife, Adele, however Adele didn't like it there. She and Harold moved to the Little Missouri, which left Clyde, Nora, and daughter Anna – whose husband was in the service – to run the place on Powder River.
In January 1945, with Bud still away at war, Clyde O. died of a heart attack while feeding hay. Daughter Sylvia's husband, Colin Gilman, helped Nora and Anna as much as he could, but the day-to-day care of 108 head of cattle fell to the women. They farmed, calved out heifers, rode line on the cattle, looked after reservoirs, and put up windmills – 62 miles from Miles City. When Bud returned that fall, Nora sold the ranch and retired for good.
Bud bought into the Little Missouri ranch, which included the 777 Ranch, once owned by the Berry-Boyce Cattle Company of Texas. Two prints by frontier photographer L.A. Huffman adorn the Brown living room: an undated shot of a cowboy dragging a calf to the fire and a haying scene dated 1890.
The brothers expanded their holdings through a veterans' program that allowed Bud to buy land at 25 cents an acre. Even at that price, many of the neighbors told him it was a dumb idea. They also bought out homesteaders who found the badlands ill-suited for farming.
"Every rancher married a school teacher," John said by way of telling how his parents met. Mary Lee Beardsley taught the one-room school located in the Browns' yard. She and Bud married in 1950 and had three children: Kathy, John, and Cindy. Five years later, Clyde bought out Harold. When John graduated from Montana State University, he joined the family operation.
The Browns purchased their first Angus bulls in the late '70s. Today their herd is 70 percent black or black-white-faced. They pasture breed using AI-sired Angus and Hereford bulls.
Since 1989, they have finished their calves in feedlots in North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. They sell through US Premium Beef, a marketing company. They like seeing the carcass data on the animals, which shows 70-to-95 percent of the animals grade choice by 14 months of age.
Both John and Vern have served on the Little Missouri Grazing Association (LMGA). Vern completed a six-year term on the board in May 2013, during which they finalized a 10-year management plan. The association currently represents 107 ranches, down from 130 when John served.
With 5,200 total AUMs (animal unit month), they farm about 1,000 acres, mostly to rotate a native grass mix with alfalfa. Hay barley is planted to break up the sod, producing top-quality hay that reduces the need for cake.
Living 102 miles from the county seat and 30 miles from school, transportation is a challenge. John relates this about the winter of '77-'78: "Our daughter Erin was a baby, my folks were next door, and we had Doug Bruha and Doug Dahl working for us. We couldn't get out for four solid months. We were heating with wood and keeping the power going with a 1-cylinder generator.
"In '78-'79, the National Guard dropped hay to our cattle with Huey helicopters because the snow was so deep. The cattle ran the first day. The second day, the cattle were waiting for them."
John got his pilot's license during his time on the LMGA board so he could travel to meetings more quickly. Besides reducing travel times, the plane makes it possible to get to Vern's when the river is high.
Daughter Erin is married to Roy Lutts; they ranch north of Baker, Mont. Vern, who is married to Rachel, is a diesel mechanic. Nicholas, a welder, is married to Maria.
Besides the obvious benefits of having two sons on the place, John says their skills help keep costs down. They can change out transmissions and have put up new steel corrals. "It's great to see them doing it," John said. "If Vern and Nicholas hadn't come back, we'd be down to 20 acres. We couldn't hire the help we'd need."
Looking out from the century-old ranch house where he and Nikki live, John says the time is coming rapidly for the boys to take over. "There's 132 years between the Clydes' birthdays. (Vern and Rachel named their youngest Clyde R.). There are four grandkids on the place and another on the way. We're floating off into the sunset and glad to be doing it."
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