One Hundred One Years in Wyoming Coal Country: Cat Creek Ranch and the Ligocki Family’s History
Robert and Joan Ligocki and their family were recognized as a Wyoming Centennial Farm & Ranch in 2018. Robert represents the third generation on the Cat Creek Ranch near Sheridan, and he traces his family roots to Poland, where his grandparents Joseph and Anna Ligocki married in 1909.
Life was tough for the young couple. Jobs were scarce and poverty was rampant. By 1911, they had two children, Francis and Joseph Jr. Somehow word crossed two continents and an ocean, and Joseph Sr. learned through word of mouth that there was work to be had in the coal mines of Wyoming. It was an emotional parting when he sailed for America on the steamship Main, leaving his wife and babies behind. After five or six days at sea, he arrived at Ellis Island and made his way to coal country in Wyoming.
Mining was very dangerous work in those days, with frequent cave-ins and explosions that would leave miners trapped or dead. There were no safety regulations as there are today, and many of these early miners were buried in the Carneyville Cemetery near Acme, Wyoming. When the mines were at full production there were fifty head of horses and mules at work every day pulling the coal cars in and out of the mines.
“There was child labor used to keep the mines going also,” Robert shared. “Fourteen and fifteen year old boys were in charge of taking care of the horses and leading them in and out of the mines.”
It was into this treacherous environment that Joseph Ligocki, Sr., ventured to make a living and support his family that was still on another continent. Joseph was paid two dollars and fifty cents for two weeks’ dangerous, back breaking work in the mines, and he faithfully sent money back to Anna in Poland.
In 1914, Anna had saved enough money to come to America—enough, that is, for her own passage. There was not enough to cover the expense of the trip across the Atlantic for little Francis and Joseph, Jr. Anna left her two young children with her parents and left Poland to come to Joseph, Sr. in America. It was another emotional and heart-wrenching parting.
Once in Wyoming, Anna got a job in Acme working and cooking for the miners. By 1915, Joseph and Anna were doing well enough to lease a ranch on Cat Creek. Anna had a garden, chickens, and a cow. She sold eggs for fifteen to twenty-four cents a dozen, and sold cream for $2.50 per five gallon can.
Joseph continued to work in the mine, a distance of twenty-four miles from the ranch. He worked all week and went home to the ranch on the weekends. He had no transportation, so he would leave home Sunday afternoon and walk the twenty-four miles back to the mine to be there for work Monday morning.
Money was still scarce in spite of Joseph’s steady job and Anna’s income from milk and eggs. For a while, they tried to make a little extra money by making moonshine.
“I have their still,” Robert said. “They used barley, plums, rye: whatever they could get hold of that would ferment. They made it at night, hence the name, ‘Moonshine.’ A gallon of their 200 proof concoction was worth two to four dollars.”
Compared to $2.50 for two weeks work in the mines, this must have seemed like pretty good money!
In 1917, Joseph had an opportunity to buy a hundred sixty acres on Cat Creek. The price was $8.25/acre, and he borrowed all the money. This was the start of the Cat Creek Ranch for the Ligocki family.
Joseph became an American citizen in 1922. He still wanted to bring his two children to the United States but finding the finances to do so was difficult. In 1924 they had finally saved enough money and sent for Francis and Joseph, Jr.
“It must have been terrible for the children,” Robert empathized. “They were leaving their home with their grandparents—-the only home they knew. They didn’t remember their parents at all. They were put on a ship full of strangers with an ID tag on their wrists.”
In 1925, Joseph, Sr., and Anna got a telegram saying that their children had arrived in New York City. When Francis and Joseph, Jr., got to the ranch in Wyoming, they were strangers to their own parents. They were fifteen and fourteen, respectively, and had not seen their father in nearly fifteen years.
“Dad didn’t want to stay,” Robert remembers of Joseph, Jr., “But there was no money for him to go back to Poland.”
In spite of the trauma of leaving the only home and family he remembered, Joseph, Jr., quickly adapted to life in Wyoming’s coal country. He liked animals, especially horses, and that made the transition a little easier for the homesick teenager.
During these years there were many single men who were highly skilled in various trades who traveled around the country looking for work in exchange for room and board. They would stay in one place for a year or two working simply for sustenance and shelter.
“My grandfolks would take them in and put them to work,” Robert said. “One of these men was a carpenter. His name was ‘Grzybec’ which is Polish for ‘mushroom.’ At this time there were five people living in my grandparents one room house. He helped them build on two rooms.” This is the same house that Robert and Joan call home today. Joseph Sr., and Anna’s younger children—three more daughters—were all born in this home.
One travelling tradesman who came to stay with the Ligocki family was a teamster, and another was a blacksmith. In 1930 Joseph, Sr. opened a mine on the ranch with the help of his son and these travelling laborers.
“They dug a hundred fifty feet into the hillside. How they knew to keep going, that they would find coal, I don’t know,” Robert said. “But somehow they seemed to know. All that work paid off, and they hit a twenty foot vein of coal. They did all that digging with a slip; a big shovel pulled by a team with handles so that a man could flip it and empty the dirt it held. From this mine, they had coal for themselves and sold coal to their neighbors for a dollar per wagon load.”
In the 1930’s the depression hit, along with drought and a severe infestation of grasshoppers and crickets.
“The cattle were starving,” Robert said. “All there was for them to eat was a little slough grass. The grasshoppers ate everything else. The government paid people $4-5 per head for their cattle but they still had to be put down. They tried to salvage what meat they could but they had no refrigeration. The government also supplied arsenic dust to kill the pestiferous grasshoppers and crickets, which my dad and granddad spread with a hand spreader. It probably caused a lot of people to die of cancer.”
Through all these hardships, somehow the Ligocki’s managed to stay on the ranch and keep food on the table for their family.
“I’ve often wondered why my grandparents survived when so many didn’t,” Robert mused. “I attribute it to their strong faith in the Lord and the fact that they were already seasoned to going without. I’m thankful they were able to survive the ‘30’s and stay on the ranch.’
In 1935, Joseph, Jr., married Mary Legerski, a woman he met in the coal camps. They leased the neighboring Takach place from Mr. and Mrs. Louis Takach. There was no electricity and no plumbing in the house, and they did not have electricity there until 1949. After a time of leasing the place was up for sale. Mrs. Takach was now a widow and had moved to Great Falls, Montana. Not knowing exactly where to find her and only speaking Polish, Joseph, Jr., and his mother drove to Great Falls. They managed to make a deal on the place in spite of these obstacles, putting some earnest money down with an agreement to pay the rest later.
There were no schools near this home, so young Robert and his sister were sent to stay with their grandmother, Anna Legerski in the coal camps at Monarch, so they could attend the Kooi School.
“I had a hard time in school,” Robert admitted. “My Grandmother only spoke Polish, so there was no one at home to help me with English. My sister was my security.”
Grandmother Legerski’s house was on the Tongue river, across from the mine tipple where the railroad ran to carry away the coal.
“I would listen, at night, to the sounds of the whistle, the steam engines, and the coal train leaving,” Robert reminisced, “And I wished I was old enough to go on the train.”
Grandmother’s house had electricity, but no telephone and no indoor plumbing. They hauled water from the Tongue River for washing and drinking, and heated bath and wash water in the reservoir on the wood cook stove.
“Christmas Eve my Grandmother had a tradition to invite someone in need,” Robert remembered. “Hobos and gypsies knew she would feed them without any questions. On Sunday we always went to the Monarch Church.”
During the winter of ’49 a couple took shelter in the church during a blizzard. They found coal and wood and lit the stove. “They burned all the coal in the shed,” Robert said, “But they survived.”
Today St. Thomas Catholic Church is the only building still standing in the ghost town of Monarch. Two previous churches in the area had burned down, so the members used stone for this structure. It bears silent testament to the life and faith of the mining community in years gone by.
By third grade, Robert went to a different school eight miles west of his parents’ place. The children rode in a jeep to school, and the ruts on the road were so deep the driver could let go of the wheel and the vehicle would stay on the road! It was very cold in the school; their teacher would put a pot of soup to cook on the coal heating stove in the room.
Other adventures happened at home. Robert’s brother was helping his dad hay on the Takach place, and he saw a man down on the creek. The place was very remote, so it was unusual to see anyone there. When the two went to investigate, they could see that he held a revolver wrapped in a handkerchief. The man was later apprehended by the law, and the Ligockis learned that he had escaped from the Rawlins Prison!
One neighbor Robert remembers was John Matzek. He came to Wyoming in 1909 from the Polish/German border and homesteaded in the hills.
“The remains of his dugout are still there,” Robert said. “Back then he lived in a shack on the hill. Everybody wondered why he would live on a hill. They didn’t know that eighty years later everybody would want to live on a hill! There were record low temperatures in the thirties, and I always wondered how he survived in that little shack.”
Matzek left a legacy in the neighborhood. During the 1918-19 Influenza epidemic he walked thirteen miles to town and took medicine to sick people on Dutch Creek. His efforts saved many lives.
At one point, Matzek was delinquent on his taxes by $75.76. At the tax sale, a neighbor bought John’s place and told him to go home, and whenever he could pay him back that was fine.
At one point, the Dutch Creek Church near Cat Creek Ranch needed painting but no one had money to get it done. One day a painter showed up and began the work, but he would not say who had hired him. It was a mystery for many years, but at John’s funeral it was learned that he was the mysterious source of the three hundred dollars needed to get the church painted. His will gave a fourth of his estate to the Orphan’s home in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a fourth to the Wyoming Children’s Home, a fourth to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, and the remaining fourth to his sister who still lived in Germany.
Twenty-five years after Robert’s grandfather had opened the mine on Cat Creek, Joseph, Jr. was still working it. Robert described the process.
“The tunnel was timbered to hold up the roof, but the coal vein was hard enough to support itself. They dug an air shaft up through the hill from the coal. It was very dusty in the mine. We used carbide lamps for light. You’d put a little water in the top so it would drip into the carbide, forming carbide gas. When the gas was formed then you would light the lamp. My dad’s job was to undercut the coal with a big chain saw that had a seven or eight-foot blade. They would drill into the coal for blasting with a hand auger. They used black powder to blast the coal away.
“They had two methods of blasting. One with a fuse, and one without. When they used a fuse, they ran it through the center of the powder charges, and then light it. It would take three or four minutes for the fuse to burn to the powder. They would go halfway out of the mine and lean against the timbers, waiting to feel the tremor of the blast. The mine would be full of white smoke when the black powder went off.
“When they didn’t use a fuse they would place the powder charges, lay a rod called a ‘needle’ at the bottom of the hole they drilled, and then plug the hole behind the powder with rolls of paper filled with damp soil. These would be tamped tightly in place with a stick. The ‘needle’ would leave a groove. When it was pulled out, they would light a ‘squib’ which propelled the flame along itself to the powder through the hole.
“Sometimes the powder didn’t go off for some reason, and my dad would always wait till the next day to go in and try again.”
The mine site is still visible today at the Cat Creek Ranch, and Robert has preserved some of the tools used by his father and grandfather in the mine. “You can still see the coal slag on the ground near the entrance,” Robert said.
Life was not all work for the Ligocki family, though.
“Music was a great thing in our family,” Robert shared. “In 1959 my brother-in-law and a friend and I started a country western and polka band. We performed all over the area in community halls and bars. Folks had no TV then, and little access to radio so live music and dances were a regular form of entertainment.
“We were playing out at the Kearny Hall and this attractive lady walked in…”
The rest was history, as they say. Robert and Joan married in 1966. They raised three sons on the ranch where Robert’s grandparents carved out a living a century ago. Robert and Joan also served as foster parents for over twenty years, sharing their hearts and home with over thirty children ranging from infants to teenagers.
“The ranch environment is the best therapy for troubled children,” Robert believes. “The jobs they learned to do gave them self-worth.”
Today, Robert and Joan still live in the same house that Joseph, Sr. and Anna Ligocki lived in. It has been added onto a few times, but the original structure is still home to the Ligocki family.
Despite all the changes that have come and gone over a century, Robert preserves the tradition of feeding with a team of draft horses.
“We’re one of the last ranches in the area to use a team for feeding,” Robert said. “A lot of ranches aren’t set up for teams because there’s a long distance between the feed and where the cattle are. When we get snow and mud, a team works well for us. They don’t tear up the ground and they can get places you couldn’t go otherwise. My grandfolks used teams. I find it relaxing to feed with a team; that’s my enjoyment.”
Robert shares his passion with his community, taking his Belgians to parades and funerals, and helping to educate local school children by giving them wagon rides, explaining how beef is produced on the ranch, showing them an old chuck wagon, and explaining brands and how to read them.
“I have so many good memories of the place,” Robert said. “A farm or ranch is not a commodity, it is a treasure. My son comes out every day to feed, and he’s always asking questions about how to do things on the ranch. I try to pass on what I know to make it easier for him, just as my dad slowly let me take over. He was always there to help. I’m pretty proud of the fact that our ranch is being passed down to the fourth generation. Statistics show that only about three percent of family business stay in the family and survive to the fourth generation. The credit goes to my grandfolks and my parents for their hard work and the hardships they endured to stay here. They kept the family strong and had a good work ethic.”
As Robert makes the transition from actively ranching to turning the reins over to son Merle, he is working to get his family’s history documented for the next generation. Robert travelled to Poland in 2006 to see where his grandparents and his father came from. He also visited Auschwitz. As he travelled, Robert was struck by the names on the tombstones in the small church cemeteries.
It was easy to see that if his grandparents had not braved the risk of emigrating to Wyoming, and then working so hard to bring his father over from Poland, that his family’s story would have likely been far, far different, living through two World Wars, the Nazi Holocaust, and the period when Communists controlled Poland.
“They were the same names as people here in Wyoming,” Robert said. “It’s unbelievable what happened there. We are so lucky to be in the United States. Our freedom is something we should treasure.”