Seim Family: Decades down and more to go
Lifelong rancher Wilford Seim was surrounded by friends and family as he celebrated his 100th birthday, Sept. 23, 2018 in Lemmon, South Dakota.
Wilford is one of many in the family who have dedicated their lives to raising good quality cattle in northwestern South Dakota.
The first Seims to arrive in America were choosy. They didn’t settle where everyone else did, but forged their own trails.
Tim Seim, great grandson of first settler Hans Seim, ranched with his uncles Wilford and Horace most of his life, on the original homestead, which has been added to multiple times.
“Hans was a true pioneer,” says Tim.
“He left Norway and traveled to America – twice. He lived here for several years and worked different jobs. He visited a sister in Decorah, Iowa, went to Wisconsin and then on to Chicago, Illinois, where he worked as a coachman for a wealthy family and then later as a surveyor’s helper.”
He ended up in Washington state where he helped survey the Northern Pacific railroad. After several years he traveled back to Norway, serving as interpreter on the ship. At the time, the trip required a boat ride around the tip of South America. He later returned to America, this time for good.
In 1874, he married Kari Brekke, from Granvins Sogn, Hardanger, Norway, where he had been raised. He found her in Iowa. They traveled together to Nebraska, then Capitol, Montana, eventually settling on the South Grand River in northwestern South Dakota, where they “squatted” before the Homestead Act was passed. In 1903 they homesteaded on the same property, in what is now Perkins County.
Tim’s uncle Horace remembers stories about Montana life. “They had a bull branded with the HS brand that they had brought with them from Nebraska. He disappeared after they had been in Capitol for a while, and they figured he had gone back south, toward Nebraska so they set out to look for him. After a couple days, they heard that he had headed west up the Little Missouri River further into Montana.” Because he was branded, they were able to easily recover the bull and trail him home.
While in Capitol, the Seims and neighboring families built a fort to protect themselves from Indian attacks. Legend tells that they spent many long days in the fort and entertained themselves with music and dancing. After spending a couple of years in Montana, Hans set his sights on the unsettled grasslands of the Grand River region, and he worked all summer building a house, sheds, chicken house and milk cellar. He then returned to Montana for the winter. In the spring when the family packed up and headed 100 miles east to their new home, they were surprised to see lush green range after a widespread prairie fire the previous fall. As they crested the hill at the rear of their new ranch, they could see only ashes where the new buildings had been built. They pitched a tent and began to build a new dugout and then another story-and-a-half home. Hans later gained a contract to plow fireguards for neighboring cowmen.
Hans and his wife Kari were blessed with 10 children.
Kari died at the age of 41 after her tenth child was delivered.
Hans was killed the next year, 1896, on the way home from a supply run to Dickinson, North Dakota, when the wagon team spooked and he was thrown in front of the wagon and then run over.
Some of the children headed to Spearfish to attend school. A neighbor lady cared for Lena, the baby, and the older brothers stayed to tend to the homestead.
Eleven years later, one of the older sisters, Bessie, had move back and was living on her own homestead and teaching sister Lena. One clear February morning the two set out to visit their brother Henry who had been sick. A howling blizzard hit and their brothers and neighbors searched in the blinding wind and snow for the girls. They discovered Bessie’s crocheting, then an overshoe, and another overshoe, but not the young women. The sisters perished, buried in snow, and were finally uncovered ten days later, just yards from their home.
Wilford said that they year Hans was killed, he had contracted with the Turkey Track, to winter cattle. The Turkey Track was a big cow outfit running on open range. Hans’s boys Nels, 16 and Willie, 13, took responsibility for the care of those cattle, as well as their own. After several years of ranching together, the brothers parted ways and Willie – Wilford and Horace’s father – took over the Turkey Track horse camp. Willie sold his cows when the Turkey Track moved to Canada in 1900 and bought a small herd of registered Hereford cattle from a neighbor. Wilford said the Seim cows are descendants of that herd.
In order to maintain their herd during one particularly dry year of the “dirty thirties,” Wilford said they trailed a bunch of their cows and two-year-old steers to come reservation land around Fort Berthold, North Dakota, for the winter. “Someone talked my dad and a neighbor into sending some of our cattle up there in 1936. It was a pretty dry year,” said Wilford.
Although the cows were able to graze all winter, they were supplemented with cake.
Wilford not only rode the 14 day trail, arriving on Labor Day, but he stayed the winter with them. He remembers that another rancher trailing with them had bought a five gallon jar of sauerkraut which they ate the entire trip. Finally, several days into the trip, someone asked if he knew how to cook and when Wilford answered, “yes,” he was appointed to make pancakes from that point on. Wilford never did re-acquire a taste for sauerkraut.
The cattle and Wilford remained in the area through the winter, spring and summer. In early fall, the three-year-old steers were shipped out of Halliday, North Dakota, on the train. In November, the cows were trailed home.
Wilford and Horace both recall trailing three-year-old steers to the railroad at White Butte, South Dakota, at shipping time each fall. “We would ship at the same time as the Longwoods,” said Horace, adding that they would trail with the neighbors to the railroad.. “If we had cull cows or bulls to sell, they would go along, too. The bulls had to be tied up in the railcar,” he remembers.
According to Wilford, anyone sending cattle on the train was required to rent an entire car- room for 24,000 pounds, whether they had the cattle to fill it or not. Because most of the cattle were at least three years old, their horns were quite long, creating a need for substantial space in each railcar. Wilford estimated that the steers weighed around 1,350 to 1,400 pounds at shipping time.
Wilford was asked to travel with the steers on the train to Chicago once. “I rode in the passenger car located in the caboose with the other folks shipping cattle,” he said. “I was 21 years old (in 1939) and I didn’t know a darn soul. There was a guy from Baker, Montana, who took me under his wing. He knew I was a greenhorn,” he said.
“If the train began picking up cattle in Roundup, Montana, then it would stop in Aberdeen and all the cattle were unloaded, fed, and loaded again for the rest of the trip,” said Wilford. “If they started loading cattle around Miles City, Montana, then they could make it to Brighton, Minnesota, before they stopped to feed the cattle.”
Either way, it was a three day trip, culminating with a stop at the Chicago Stockyards, which covered over a section of land, Wilford remembers.
Wilford said he “absolutely did not” haggle with the buyers. “We had already consigned them to a firm that leased space in the Stockyards. The firm would represent the cattle to buyers,” he said. “They told me what price we had gotten and handed me the check and I headed for home.”
He thinks they may have gotten 3.5 or 4 cents per pound for their steers that year. He wasn’t sure if was true but the rumor was that a lot of the cattle traveled to Boston, where they were slaughtered.
The Seims last trailed cattle to the railroad in 1944.
They sent their two-year-old steers and spayed heifers to Lake Preston, South Dakota, a few times to be fed. Wilford said one year his dad decided he would start selling calves off the cow. That year, he sold his three-year-old steers, two-year old steers and his yearlings.
From those early days of caring for his dad’s cattle, Wilford, who brands a 4W on the right rib, developed a passion for Hereford cattle. “Prince Domino is my favorite bloodline,” he said.
He likes the same kind of cattle his dad did – deep bodied, easy fleshing Herefords with a mild temperament.
He also likes them to have a “good head” on them. “Some people say it doesn’t matter what the head looks like because you don’t eat the head, but the head is the first thing you see.”
He often bought bulls via private treaty from neighbors. Although he jokingly said he raised Herefords all of his life because “he couldn’t afford to quit,” a quick glance around his living room reveals his love for the breed. Photos of favorite bulls, calves at weaning time and Wilford standing with his cattle fill the shelves of his and Delores’s home.
One framed photo shows Wilford with a favorite bull who he bought as an eight-year-old from friends. Wilford went on to use the bull until he was 15 years old.
Tim’s nephew Jed (son of Tim’s brother Scott) now ranches on the old Shelby and Bonnie (Foster) Seim ranch where Tim was raised, on Thunder Butte Creek near Meadow, South Dakota. The blood of those first Herefords runs through the veins of Jed’s cattle, too. Tim’s father Shelby was a brother to Wilford and Horace. Shelby made a home on his wife’s family ranch, where they raised five sons – Rod, Scott, Tim, Todd and Gregg. The family has lost both Todd and Gregg.
Tim joined his uncles in the family business in 1975. “I’ve never been afraid to drive a used pickup or a used staple,” he said.
“We don’t take real good care of our cows. They take care of us,” said Tim, who brands a JT connected. The cows graze mostly native pasture. The cows are not eartagged and maintain their horns because “if you take the horns off, you take the brains out,” says Tim.
Today, all of the calves are sold off the cow except replacement heifers that are grown on a light ration of oats.
Tim said he looks at EPDs, but is more interested in the look of a bull, he said – something he learned from his uncles.
Up until a couple of years ago, Wilford and Delores (who wed when Wilford was 75) lived on the east end of the ranch. Horace still lives on the ranch, two miles via a trail from Tim and his wife JoAnne.
Tim and JoAnne’s son Justin, his wife Joanna and their young boys Jacob and Tristan now live and work on the ranch. Daughter Kelly, her husband Danny, and their sons Owen and Ketchum live in Utah but travel home to enjoy ranch life as much as they can.
As is custom for the Seims at any kind of gathering, they celebrated Wilford’s recent birthday with music. Horace and another brother, Norman, played acoustic and steel guitar at the birthday party. Tim and Justin also got the musical gene and often join their relatives in entertaining family and friends and more.
This story originally appeared in Hereford America.
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Many students around the state of North Dakota will soon have the chance to try beef produced in their own backyard.