Tornado, then fire, then tornado: Wyoming’s Lay family thankful for help from friends, neighbors
For the second time in forty years the Lay family is rebuilding after a tornado. The Torrington, Wyoming family that also watched 5,000 acres of their grassland burn last fall is now focused on putting their ranch headquarters back together after an F2 tornado went through on June 12.
“We were out in the front yard and my dog took off down the road and wouldn’t come back,” said Gene Lay, the patriarch of the Lay Ranch, which was homesteaded north of Torrington in 1896.
Gene’s wife, Linda, said it looked like the clouds were kind of swirling, so they headed to the basement.
As they started down the stairs the wind jerked a big tree out of the ground next to the house.
“We were down there maybe five minutes and we cautiously decided to come upstairs. Linda was ahead of me. I heard her say, ‘Oh my goodness.’ The tornado had sucked all the doors off and blew them down the hallway. All the papers out of my office were strewn all over the place. It broke all but two windows out of the house, and those were in the basement. It took part of the roof off the house.”
They’d parked three pickups in their 40×60 shop, to keep them from getting hailed on. The shop was destroyed.
The roof was gone from their stud barn, and one of their stallions had been taken out past the corrals and slid under and H-brace, with his hind legs against the post. He was cut and bruised, but okay.
The kids and grandkids were nearby and had seen the tornado, so they pulled in the driveway within minutes, scared to death. They estimated the tornado cut a swath 500 yards wide.
Their son, Randall, is a partner on the ranch and their daughters are active with the horses and agriculture—Brandi Halls has run barrels the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo four times, Bambi Robb is a team roper and drives for Trevor Brazile, and Burgundy Hort farms south of Torrington with her husband and family. Gene and Linda also have six grandchildren who stay busy in agriculture, and showed up to help.
“They’re a good outfit; I wouldn’t trade them for a box of rocks,” Gene said. “It kind of got to the kids because this is where they grew up. Seeing it all gone, kind of bothers them. Everyone’s here, picking up the pieces. We did it once, we can do it twice.”
In July of 1977 a tornado went through their place, nearly destroying their home.
Gene and Linda have lived in that spot, which Gene picked out for his headquarters because it was his favorite place on the ranch while he was growing up, for 49 years. They’d planted evergreen, elm and cottonwood trees and built a stud barn, shop and foaling barn.
“My first tree was a piece of bark of an elm tree with a little limb sticking out of it,” Gene said. “I stuck it in the dirt and pampered it. It was about 40 feet tall. Now it’s about 10 feet tall. Everyone made fun of me because I Miracle Grow-ed my trees all the time. I’ve got a picture of my grandson on his little John Deere pedal tractor with his straw hat on, and I’d just planted those trees. He’s 20 now. Those trees were 20 feet tall.
“We lost all but two trees,” Gene said. “You can’t even tell the foaling barn was ever there.”
The Lay family has been producing ranch and performance horses for decades, and the latest catastrophe isn’t going to stop them. They lost three horses, one a two-year-old stud prospect that was a son of Real Easy Jet and one of their mares who had produced a horse who had gone to the WNFR. “We found him a quarter mile north of the house with a broken leg,” Gene said. They also lost a baby colt that looked like a piece of wood had gone clear through her heart.
The tornado went through on Monday afternoon and by Tuesday morning word had spread and all the family and neighbors showed up. “We started picking up trash, getting that collected and sent to town. We had a semi hauling scraps to town. We were piling up wood that was destroyed. We are rebuilding, starting with our house. A boy that went to school with our son has a roofing and siding company, so he came out and did the finish work on the roof. The Torrington and Prairie Center fire departments went together and got us covered up on Tuesday morning so we wouldn’t have any water damage.”
They were just in the process of rebuilding fences on the 5,000 acres that burned last fall, plus haying and getting cows out to grass, but surprisingly, it didn’t destory the hay field. It did, however, tip over the tractor and baler.
But the damage isn’t what they’re focused on.
“I’ve got a really good friend who lives about 20 miles north and just got out of the hospital after he fell off a roof,” Gene said. “He stopped on the hill for a while—I saw the car up there. He came in here and I could see he’d been crying. He said, ‘Man, I’m so sorry.’ That’s the kind of friends we’ve got. His dad helped me build my basement. I lost my leg in a hunting accident and his dad and him helped me get back on my feet. Three of them helped me build my house and wouldn’t take a dime for helping me. That’s a pretty good friend. This is the third time they’ll have helped me build my house.
“I’ve got good neighbors and good friends. The prairie fire proved I did. And this proved they’re still around. God bless and thank them.”