Smith still riding, reading
February 24, 2014
It's a typical western South Dakota ranch. There are lots full of black calves and pastures full of black cattle, fed in the winter with tractor and feed mixer wagon. There's the insulated shop put up about twenty years ago, and the recently acquired skid-steer loader. Hunters come in the spring and fall from as far away as Virginia to harvest deer and turkeys. There was the heartache of holding cattle through the recent drought at some expense, only to lose a portion of them in the October blizzard. And there's never enough time to get everything done.
But one thing is different from the norm. It's owned and operated by a man who turns 90 this week.
"I was born on February 16th, 1924," says George Smith of rural Milesville, "in Doc Ramsey's house on the Bad River in Philip. After about two weeks they moved me up to the Cheyenne River." The original house on the Cheyenne River burnt down in 1941, and the Smiths built a new house on the flat south of the the river, where the man has lived with one exception ever since. "I went to college in Spearfish for a year, played football and got on the honor roll."
Smith has a little help, in the form of one full-time hired man, and his daughter Kris, who works two days a week in sales for Bristol Meyers Squibb. "She's my right hand man," he said. The ranch also employs day labor as needed, mostly in the summer.
A tape-recorded, one-on-one interview with Smith is unfamiliar territory for him, but he gradually recounts a typical western South Dakota life of that era. He had one brother and one sister, and recalls a childhood spent working. The Smith family sold two-year-old steers when Smith was a boy, which they trailed some fifty miles to the depot at Powell S.D., "just the hired man and us two boys, and Dad in the truck. When Dad drove to Philip, there was sixteen gates to go through, but trailing across country, I don't remember how many there was." When the steers were loaded on the train, the hired man and two boys trailed the saddlehorses home with or without their dad, who sometimes rode to Sioux City, Iowa, with the cattle. "One year we had a cow and a calf that had been down by Interior (South Dakota) for three years. We went and found 'em and Ted Hertelson from Philip trucked 'em to Bill Welfel's place. We trailed 'em home from there with the saddlehorses, just me and the hired man. I was, let's see, ten years old. We got 'em in the pasture at one o'clock at night and there was sixteen inches of snow on the ground."
In 1934 the Smiths trailed their cattle to Philip, where they sold some because of the drought, and trailed the rest to the Sandhills of Nebraska along the Niobrara River, where the cattle spent a year in the care of a hired man. In May of 1935, they went to trail them back. "Dad bought a set of wagon wheels, and they made a covered wagon for us in Merriman, Neb. We were supposed to start the first of June but it rained for two weeks and we camped in a section line. We got home the third of July.
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Smith competed in saddlebronc riding as a young man, and had some success. "I won the saddlebronc riding up at Faith in 1949. Irwin Thompson, he seen me at the dance that night and he says 'I can set you up with a guy and you can go all the way.' I says 'I gotta go home and work.' Guess who he was gonna set me up with? Casey Tibbs. So I thought that was an honor."
But Smith hung up the bronc spurs to focus on ranching. His dad was killed in an accident in 1958, and Smith took over the management of the place then, marrying Loretta in 1964. "We tried a bunch of different breeds, Charolais, Limousin, Hereford. My wife and I got our first Angus heifers in 1966. We got our first Angus bull from Lawrence Ingalls." In 1972 they sold the Hereford cows.
Smith was an early adopter of AI technology, which he uses on all his heifers. "You can build your herd that way," he says. His cows are pasture-bred to some of the top bloodlines in the industry, and he gives a lot of credit to his daughter Kris for the power of his bull battery. "She can really pick a bull." Both Smith and Kris are quietly proud of their cowherd.
In every bunch of the Smith's cows, there are a few black and white spotted ones, holdovers from a time when they bred their heifers to longhorn bulls. They intentionally keep a few of these as "markers," noting that in a summer herd with a few of these, they can tell at a glance whether they have them all gathered. "We take the horns off the ones that still have 'em, and they're just as good mothers as the black ones," says Smith.
A small herd of fall calvers was "about half and half" a management decision and an accident, calving fairly trouble free in September and providing a welcome off-season check.
Midway through the interview, Kris returns from a convention in Deadwood and with an audience, even of two, Smith warms up. Previously he had remembered going to school first in a log cabin built by his dad and hired men near the house, and then riding horseback to the Riverview School about two miles away. Now he recollects attending school in Sioux City, Iowa, through the second grade while his dad helped manage his uncle's packing plant. "My cousin took us to a movie at the Orpheum Theater and there was a black Cadillac limousine on the street corner with bulletproof glass and machine guns in the corners. Guess who's car it was?" he asks, using a favored storytelling device. "It was Al Capone's car. I might be the only guy alive who could tell that story, 'cause I was seven at the time."
Asked what the secret was to living a long active life Smith says "oh I don't know, I drink milk three times a day."
"You forgot these," says Kris, pulling a case of Hershey bars out of the cupboard. "I bet I spend seventy dollars on Hershey bars every time I go to town."
"I drink a little of this, not much" says Smith, indicating the can of Diet Mountain Dew in front of him. "He bought Diet Mountain Dew by accident last week, so we've got to drink it up" says Kris. What will Smith do for his 90th birthday? "Feed cows, I guess."
"Dad's a voracious reader. He reads all the cattle publications" says Kris. "Somebody asked me how long I've been reading the Tri-State Livestock News," says Smith, "and I said 'since before it was.' I read Morris Halleck's publication out of Philip before he sold it. I've bought bulls from (auctions conducted by) Lynn Weishar, Pat Goggins, Joe Goggins, Roger Jacobs, Dale McPherson, Dan Piroutek, Sonny Booth, and others. That's really something."
In mid February, the Smith ranch steers wearing the Quarter Circle Diamond Dot, one of the oldest registered brands in South Dakota, will sell in Ft. Pierre. The last week in February, the Smith ranch bred heifers will be moved to camp about four miles from the headquarters on the Cheyenne river bottom, where Smith will look after them through calving. "Just me, my dog, and my horse."