Remembering Alonzo ‘Lon’ Stepp and family
Alonzo Stepp was an anomaly in America in the late 17th century, and, alongside his three sons, is a 2020 inductee into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Lon, as he was better known, was a black man and the son of former slaves. He not only had a college education, but owned property in Kentucky, his home state, before coming to Wyoming in 1893, where he homesteaded and built a large successful ranch.
The son of Archie Stepp and Anne Blythe Stepp, he was born September 20, 1874 in Berea, Kentucky. At a young age, Lon realized the value of education and worked hard, learning to read and write and do “sums”, asking for help, begging books and paper, and studying whenever he had time. He went through the Berea College educational system, which included elementary grades through college, earning a degree.
While in college, he met Esther Jane Yates, the daughter of Harrison Yates, a former lieutenant in the Union Army. They married in 1894 and had three sons and four daughters; three of them born in Kentucky and the last four in Wyoming.
While in college, Lon became close friends with Howard Embree. Embree’s oldest sister and her husband, Charlie and Nellie Rathbun, lived on Fontenelle Creek in Wyoming. Howard asked Lon if he’d like to travel to Wyoming in 1893, for the two young men to spend the summer on the Rathbun ranch, learning ranching skills.
Lon took to ranch work and became so good at the job of cowboying that he decided to stay on at the ranch. He became a top hand and was responsible for the day-to-day operations at the Rathbun Ranch, which ran cattle and sheep.
His goal was to set aside enough money to send for Esther and their children and return to “The Fontenelle.” Old Man Rathbun told Lon he’d help him with livestock and money, to start his own ranch.
In 1898, Esther and their first three children came west, living at Opal. Lon resumed work at the Rathbun Ranch and as a barber in Opal.
He decided to homestead just south of the confluence of Fontenelle Creek and the Green River, but he did not prove up on his homestead, giving it to his dad instead. His parents moved to Wyoming, and Archie Stepp, a former slave, had the proud distinction of becoming a landowner. Archie filed for his 156.28 acre homestead on June 25, 1900 and received a patent for it on December 5, 1907. Lon filed for his own land, 69.8 acres, receiving a patent in 1908.
He continued to work for Rathbun, riding fifteen miles horseback from his home to the ranch. When Old Man Rathbun purchased more sheep and needed to graze them in the Montpelier, Idaho area, Lon was hired to go “on trail” for him, leaving his own sheep and land in the care of his older boys, John and Bill.
Slowly, Stepp added to his ranch, purchasing his father’s ground and another 750 acres owned by Daniel and Alice Robertson in 1922. Nine years later he added another 789 acres, bought from Stayer and Jenny Richards.
But there were thin years, too. He took his wages from Rathbun’s in cash and livestock, starting with a small herd of sheep. For extra money, he was a brand inspector in the early 1900s, hired out with his teams of horses to maintain county roads, was assistant Lincoln County assessor and served as postmaster of Fontenelle. For a while, he belonged to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, its first African-American member.
His granddaughter Eleanor Johnston was two years old when her granddad died in 1941, and she has very few memories of him. But she’s heard stories from family members and friends, and recounts them like old treasures.
She thinks about the culture shock it must have been for Lon, and later his family, to come to Wyoming. “He came out here, as a black man with more education than a lot of the people here had. And they respected him for that,” she said.
Johnston surmises that his education in part was due to a friend of the family, a white man whose last name was Fee, who risked helping black youth go to school at Berea College. Lon’s oldest son’s middle name was Fee; Johnston says in those days, children were often named after influential friends, and that’s why Lon and Esther named him John Fee.
She remembers hearing stories about baseball games amongst ranchers and townspeople. It was usually the single men versus the married men, and Lon was always the referee. “Nobody argued with Lon,” a neighbor told Johnston. “We always trusted Lon to be a fair judge.” The losers had to bring sage chickens for the next ball game, to be cooked over a Dutch oven.
When Johnston was in college, she met people who had known her grandparents and uncles and heard more memories of them. The story was told that a family was traveling in a buggy when it broke down. It was a cold night, and they stayed at their buggy, building a fire to stay warm. Lon saw the fire in the distance and drove down to see what it was. He took them home, where they stayed several nights till the buggy was fixed.
While Lon was a brand inspector, men who were rustling horses passed through, stopping at the Stepp Ranch, where they were welcomed. They traveled on to Star Valley and when Lon found out the horses were stolen, he went after them, saying “nobody steals horses and comes through my place.” He rode after them, catching them in Star Valley, arresting them, and returning the horses to their owners.
Lon personally knew Butch Cassidy, the outlaw, sometimes riding to his camp in the evening for a meal.
Religion was important to Lon and Esther; church was held at their house on Sundays. Education was also important, and when the family first moved to Wyoming, they taught their kids at home. Later, Lon built the Stepp-Olson Schoolhouse, halfway between the Stepp and Churndash ranches.
His sons: John Fee (1896-1983); William (1898-1980) and Horace “Dutch” (1912-1989) ranched along with their dad. Sisters Helen McGaughey (born in 1894), Nellie Johnson (born in 1904), Ruth Steward (born in 1906) and Grace Martinez Ilames (born in 1908) rounded out the family.
As kids, they worked for Lyon Rathbun, running cattle on summer range. They were also good at breaking horses, being paid $15 a head to break other ranchers’ horses. John had a ranch horse that would buck and could not be used. He would lead the horse, called Step and a Half, to the rodeo grounds in Big Piney, where they would buck him at the rodeo. When the horse was done bucking, John would step into the arena, catch him, and lead him home.
The Stepps loved music and played for dances throughout the Green River Valley. Their band was known as the Stepp Family Jazz Band. When they were joined by Ralph Armstrong, they became the Stepp and Armstrong Band. Dutch played the organ, piano, and occasionally the violin; John played guitar and sang, and Bill played the drums.
The Stepp Ranch came to a tragic end in 1963 when the federal government forced the Stepps, along with five other ranches, to sell, in order to create the Fontenelle Reservoir. The family had 500 Herefords on nearly 2,000 acres before it was disbanded.
The brothers scattered; John and his family moved to Los Angeles, California. Bill and his family moved to Denver. Dutch and his wife, Johnston’s parents, went to LaBarge, Wyo.
Johnston remembers her dad taking a job as custodian at the LaBarge school. It could have been construed as a lowly occupation, but not to her dad. “For him, it wasn’t,” she recalled. “He did a marvelous job, and the kids loved him and followed him around.”
Dutch and his wife Carolyn had six children: Johnston, who lives in LaBarge, Gary, Larry, Brad, Mary Helen Redington, and the late Jean Brone. All of them have gone on to successful careers in their various occupations.
Johnston never heard stories about Lon and his family facing racism in Wyoming, noting that the community judged Lon and Esther on their sterling characters and abilities. “No one ever put them down,” she said. “They were just classy people.” She recalls an old timer who told her the story that Lon was asked to help the county assessor. Lon’s reply was that he probably could do that. “The man was laughing,” Johnston said. “Of course Lon could do that. He had more education than anyone in the whole area.”
She recalls another time when an old timer observed Eleanor and her children and grandchildren, who numbered about fifty total, at a family gathering. “Just like ol’ Lon and Esther, taking care of each other,” he mused.
Her granddad and grandma were kind people, known for their hospitality, Johnston said, and highly respected in the community. “The old people in the area loved telling me stories about the ranch, the family, going to brandings at the Stepps, the good food they had, and how welcome they always felt at the Stepps,” she said. Lon was often called upon to be a pallbearer at funerals, with Esther singing. “They earned a lot of people’s respect.”
Lon was humble but confident. “He never felt inferior to anybody and he never treated anybody in a way that they felt he was above them. That was just how God made him, and I imagine a lot of that had to do with his upbringing,” she said.
“He was a marvelous man.”