The Barlow family, 135 years of cattle production in western Wyoming
Eight generations strong, the Barlow family’s ranching roots in the Upper Green River Valley in western Wyoming run deeper than most. Started in 1878 by Ed Swan when he brought some of the first cattle to Big Piney, the ranch has been successfully transferred numerous times, surviving 135 years in the commercial cattle business.
“Ed Swan farmed in Ohio, Iowa and Kansas before coming west. In 1870, he moved his family to the Galletin Valley in Montana and started in the cattle business. Then, in 1876, the family moved again to Swan Valley, Idaho, in hopes of discovering better cattle country. They only remained there for about two years because the snow was too deep and the area too overstocked for his liking. So, Ed came to Big Piney and homesteaded just west of the city limits, where the winters weren’t as harsh and he was located between two creeks that he didn’t have to worry about cattle falling into while crossing during the winters,” explained Kailey Barlow of the early history of her family’s operation.
The Big Piney area wasn’t highly settled at that time, and while Ed’s closest white neighbor was 40 miles away, Indians were frequently nearby during the summer months. Kailey noted that in years to come the smaller, less established operators would have serious issues with local Indians, but that Ed was able to make a bond with them and didn’t have many problems.
“In 1886 a big winter storm hit the plains but missed the Green River Valley, and the demand for cattle shot up due to such a decrease in numbers. The Swans noticed this change and took advantage of the Desert Land Act of 1877, through which they purchased 640 acres for 25 cents an acre,” explained Kailey of the operation’s first expansion.
However, while the 1886 storm missed the Swans, the storm of 1889 hit them hard.
“In November of 1889 a big storm came through the Green River Valley that was the worst ever recorded. They said the temperature was 70 degrees below zero and some cattle drifted as far as 100 miles looking for something to eat. Over half the livestock in the area perished as a result of the storm and a lot of ranchers went under that year because they lost so many head,” recalled Kailey.
As a result of the storm, the following summer Ed began putting up hay to provide a winter feed base for his livestock. He and several other area ranchers also formed the Big Piney Roundup Association, through which local ranchers would gather everyone’s marketable livestock each fall and trail them 80 miles to the closest train station in Opal.
“Another big change in 1890 was the ability to formally apply for homesteads following a survey of western lands. Ed and his family all applied at this point, with Ed officially being granted his own land in 1898,” explained Kailey.
Among Ed’s family that had made the journey west was his son Esdras, who also filed for a homestead, and married Kailey’s ancestor Minnie in 1882.
“Esdras died young in 1907, prompting Minnie to sell the ranch to her sister and brother-in-law, John and Daisy Curtis. Minnie moved back to Omaha with the wish that she be brought back to Big Piney and buried beside her husband upon her death,” noted Kailey, adding that her wish was fulfilled.
John came to Big Piney with the Budd and McKay outfit as a winter cow boss. Upon marrying Minnie’s sister, he acquired what the Barlow’s call the “Mountain Home” in exchange for 20 head of horses, and established the Open AT brand the family still uses today.
John and Daisy passed the operation to their daughter Lillian, who married George Milleg of Austria. George first came to the area to work in the oil field, and filed his own homestead on land bordering that of John and Daisy Curtis.
“When Ed began the operation he had Shorthorn cattle, and by the time George took over they were running straight Herefords. At this point they were still trailing the cattle 80 miles to the train with the Big Piney Roundup Association, and marketing two- and three-year-old steers,” noted Kailey.
George and Lillian passed the operation to their son Bill, or “Pa,” marking the first time it was passed through the male side of the family. Pa and his wife Helen ran the operation until their son, and Kailey’s grandfather, also named Bill, was old enough to start contributing and make a few changes.
With his inheritance from both George and Lillian, and John and Daisy, Bill became the first generation to run all three parcels of land that comprise the modern operation: George’s homestead, the Mountain Home, and Ed Swan’s homestead.
“When my grandpa got old enough to start making decisions on the ranch, he began incorporating some black cows during the time when they were gaining in popularity and marketability. But, it was a bit of a sore subject, and George was not pleased to have black showing up in the herd at all,” noted Kailey.
Bill fully took over the reins of the operation in 1997, upon his father’s death. Between the two of them, Pa and Bill guided the ranch through a lot of changes, including the modernization of agriculture that resulted in more engine power and less horse power.
“It was during Pa and Bill’s time that they transitioned the use of the Big Piney Roundup Association from gathering and trailing to the train to gathering and sorting at one operation’s corrals, then loading onto trucks,” explained Kailey of one example of modernization that had reached western Wyoming by the 1970s.
With the transition also came a new form of marketing. Kailey noted her grandfather sold yearlings, versus two- and three-year-olds, every September to a cattle buyer for decades, prior to the family trying a video auction, which is how they market their cattle today.
“We’ve always worked together as a family, but it was still a big adjustment when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly two years ago and my dad Wayne Barlow jumped in and took over the day-to-day tasks, with help from family when needed. Dad had worked in the oil field for many years, as a lot of our family has over the generations, but is full-time on the ranch today,” explained Kailey of the most recent transition in management the ranch has underwent.
Wayne, his wife Marsha, Kailey and her sister Logan still utilize all three parcels of the ranch, managing a grazing system that includes summering their cattle on the Mountain Home parcel and George Milleg’s homestead, then bringing everything down to Ed Swan’s original homestead for the winter.
“We have always worked to improve the quality of our cattle and how we operate. For example, we have been branding with a table since the 1980s, when my great-grandpa and grandpa tried it and decided it was easier on the cattle and the people in our situation, and that we were able to do a better job and obtain cleaner brands,” noted Kailey.
Careful genetic selection on bulls and replacement heifers is another way the Barlow’s are working to continually improve their herd, and Kailey said obtaining high-quality seedstock is one challenge of the ranch’s location.
“To get into quality bulls we have to drive a long way to a sale, and our yearlings have to be trucked a long way to find a feedlot from our location,” she continued.
Furthermore, she listed the long winters, which can result in feeding hay from November through May, putting up enough hay in the summer to meet that demand, and the constantly increasing predator issues as additional challenges faced where her family ranches.
“But, we have very nice summers and don’t have to worry about working our cattle in extreme heat, dealing with tornados, or any other wild summer weather. This area also has a lot of history and ranching families that make for good neighbors. Overall I would say the advantages outweigh the challenges,” commented Kailey.
Of working as a family on such a historic operation and being able to make a living in the agriculture industry, Kailey said it is a highlight in life.
“I think it’s really wonderful to do this as a family on a place that has been in existence for so many generations, and I think that is something we all strive to continue for future generations. When necessary, my entire family, including my grandma, uncle and cousin, work together to complete ranching tasks, and that has made us a lot closer than most families.
“This has always been where my interests lie and I’ve never considered doing anything else,” concluded Kailey of her hope to be involved with the operation for life and continue the long-standing tradition in her family of raising cattle in the Upper Green River Valley.
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