Olson Double O Ranch
Darrell and Vicki Olson’s Double O Ranch south of Malta, MT, has been in the family several generations. “My grandmother and her brother came from Pennsylvania to homestead,” Vicki said. “My grandmother came in 1916 and was probably one of the first women in Montana to prove up on a homestead.”
She married the man down the road who also had a homestead. With those three pieces, and two more that her husband and brother filed on, there were five homesteads in the family. “We still have that land,” Vicki says.
“The place we run now is 20,000 acres of private land and leased BLM. On that land there were 56 homesteads, total. Some of them didn’t make it and reverted back to the government. Many people don’t understand these checkerboard lands. We’re working with the BLM now on a management plan and people don’t understand that it’s intermingled. They want to do something with the water but don’t understand that it’s on the private property where the homesteaders could actually make a living. Those pieces are not public land,” she says.
Her grandfather on the other side came to America as a Basque sheepherder at age 16 from the Pyrenees Mountains in France. He worked on a sheep outfit and took his wages in sheep. “He and my grandmother, whose family comes from Iowa, met when she was very young. They were living on the Missouri River when the Fort Peck dam was built. The place they owned was flooded and they had to move. This was during the 1930’s and they moved up here to what we call the home ranch,” Vicki says.
Her grandfather bought out people who had to sell during the Depression. “Some of them sold their land for only $1 an acre, but they were walking away from unpaid taxes (her grandfather paid the taxes) and received some money from their land. That’s better than the people who had to leave their land with nothing,” says Vicki.
Her grandfather built up the family ranch over the years and more land was added. “Then my dad and uncle bought it from my grandfather. They ran it together then split it in 1979 and made two separate operations. That’s when my husband and I came back to the ranch, after ten years working for other people,” she says. Her parents are both gone.
The Double O Ranch runs mostly black cattle and uses Charolais bulls as a terminal cross. “We use Angus bulls on heifers and keep our replacements from those calves. People can’t believe we calve as late as we do and still wean 600 pound calves by November. This area has good grass. Some people don’t think it amounts to much because it’s not lush and green, but this native grass has more potency than tame pastures,” she explains.
The family does most of their cattle work horseback, and raises most of their own horses. “We’ve bought a few, but we break our own. We still have big community brandings where we all help each other. Calves are roped and dragged to the fire, with a crew vaccinating, tagging, castrating, and such. At shipping time we also help each other. We have good relationships with our neighbors and that means a lot out here.”
Vicki and Darrell are in buesiness with her sister and husband. “They have one daughter on the ranch, with her family. The next generation is coming on, so it’s now five generations.”
The local museum has detailed history of the area, and the homesteads. A map was created with all of the original homesteads, names of the people and the year they proved up on the homesteads. “If someone has family who homesteaded here, they can find out exactly where it was. We’ve had people contact us, and we’ve taken them to where their ancestors homesteaded. There are three graves next to our ranch, and we took one man to show him where his great uncle was buried. We showed another fellow where his family was. The irises the family planted on the graves are still there.”
Olsons hope they can eventually pass their land to the next generation. “We’re having a tour here in late May, on ranching sustainability, trying to educate people about what we do, and how ranchers try to do what’s best for the environment and still feed the world. The NCBA and World Wildlife Fund are involved with this tour. They are hoping to have some bigwigs here from Costco, Sams, Walmart and K-Mart. The tour is to get these large companies to see that we are good at what we do. My part will be to express the fact that we as ranchers have been here this long, and we have learned what works and what doesn’t, on this land,” says Vicki.
“Some people tell us we should just sell out and go somewhere else, but we are determined that no one is going to push us off. Sure, we could sell the land for a lot of money, but it’s not about the money. This is home, and it has history that goes back a long ways,” she says.
“When Darrell and I came back to the ranch, our son and daughter were two and four. I was amused at my parents because they were so different with the grandkids than with their own kids. My son loved to find everything when he was out riding. He was too small to get on and off his horse, so he’d ride in a little circle up on the hill, and his grandpa would come pick up whatever it was he found. My dad would keep an eye on him,” says Vicki.
“I laughed about that, because I was the oldest of my sisters and was put in charge of them because the guys were too busy. When my kids were small I just took them with me a lot, and my mom being here at the ranch made it easier for me. When they were in school she was here to go pick them up after school so that I could go with Dad and Darrell to do the outdoor work. Our kids went to the same country school that I did, and my parents did. It was five miles down the road and mom would drive down and get them.”
Their son Jason rode bulls when he was young. He is now 35 and sells work boots. “For awhile he also sold medical equipment, and he’d go into the operating room and tell them how to put in hips and things. People would scratch their heads and say, ‘Jason? The bull rider?’ and I’d tell them, yes, but he also has a degree in psychology and counseling and has done a little bit of everything.”
This is the big advantage for kids who grow up on ranches. They are innovative because they’ve dealt with so many things, and have a good work ethic. “World Wildlife Fund has been telling everyone in Washington D.C. for years that the ranchers here are all broke and can’t wait to sell our ranches and get the hell out of here and that our kids don’t want to come back. The first time we met with some of the D.C. WWF people, we told them that not only do we not want to leave, but even if our kids can’t come back, the rest of the world is better off, just having them, because they have the best work ethic, and so much more to offer than most kids. They know how to take care of themselves and how to get out of a mess or solve a problem.” F
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