Friday, May 1, 2009

Wyoming Legends


By Jean Henry Mead

My freelance writing career began early one fall morning in 1978. I left home at 4:30 a.m. to drive some 80-miles into the Wyoming outback where I was planning to interview two sheepherding sisters: 78-year-old Amy Chubb, and Elsie Lloyd, 81. The women had worked as cowboys from an early age in the Wyoming interior.

They were still active on their 2,400-acre ranch where they raised Colombian sheep. The black-faced sheep had pink wool because red sandstone bluffs surrounded the range, and the ever-present Wyoming wind coated them with dust. The ranch is located in the Barnum-Mayoworth area, not far from Butch Cassidy’s former Hole in the Wall hideout in the beautiful Big Horn Mountain range.

My reason for leaving so early was to arrive at the ranch before the antelope hunt began. The sisters guided Eastern hunters each fall, hoping to avoid getting shot, themselves. One year, an excited hunter shot through the cab of the pickup, narrowly missing Elsie, who was driving. While we sat in the truck watching the "yahoos" try their hunting skills, I interviewed the two women. When I asked why they were still raising sheep, Amy said, "So we don’t have to sit around the house just looking at each other."

They kept their pampered flock to 70, with an average annual lamb crop of 100 because by then it was just a hobby. "We’ve always done the work," Elsie said, "but it’s a little harder now that we’re older.”

Hard work had always been a part of their lives, even as children. Born in England, their father taught them to ride at the age of four. When the family migrated to Pennsylvania in 1906, the Cooksley sisters continued to ride. They also helped their father milk 35 cows for his dairy route. Amy’s job at age six was to strip the cows of their remaining milk.

When they moved to Wyoming in 1914, their parents homesteaded a ranch and acquired some cattle. It wasn’t long before their lively, blond daughters were riding with the roundup wagon for U.S. Senator J. B. Kendrick.

Elsie said that cowboys were scarce during the First World War, “and the roundup bosses were left with a bunch of punk kids from Sheridan (northern Wyoming) who didn’t know the front end of the horse from the back. One day, Tug Wilson—we called him ‘Old Father Tug’—came riding into our place and told Dad, ’I need your girls.’

“Dad said, ‘Fine. So do I.’” Soon a temporary deal was struck to swap Elsie and Amy for some of Wilson’s “green” cowboys. Tug gave the girls their choice of horses, but they had to “nursemaid” the young, inexperienced cowhands. “We had to catch horses for most of those kids,” Elsie said laughing. “Some of the boys got bucked off every morning and soon left because they couldn’t take all those hours in the saddle.”

The inseparable sisters played as hard as they worked. Amy said, “All there was to do in those days was dance, break and race horses.” She recalled a dance they attended at Spotted Horse in the northeastern part of the state. During a lull in a roundup, one of the boys suggested they attend a dance. It was a 12-mile horseback ride in 18 below zero weather. The sisters borrowed dresses from the wagon cook, but there were no shoes to fit Elsie, so she danced in her work boots. They danced all night and worked all the next day. “That’s when we were young and tough.”

The 105-and 109-pound, straight-as-arrow sisters continued to ride their spirited horses, a Tennessee Walker and Fox Trotter, well into their 80s as well as guide a multitude of hunters on their land. They used .250-3000 Savage rifles, a relatively small bore, to knock down anything from a moose to a mule deer. It’s not the size of the gun, they said, but where you place the bullet.

I sold that first freelance article to the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine as well as to Bladenkampt, a Norwegian Western magazine and Thomas Jeier's Western magazine in Germany. A Sydney, Australia newspaper then picked up the story. Some thirty years later, Elsie and Amy served as models for the sheepherding sisters in my novel, Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel.

So they were not only Wyoming legends, they had received fan mail from around the world.

3 comments:

Mark W. Danielson said...

I enjoyed the read, Jean. It's difficult to create characters as robust as these two women "cowboys".

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Mark. I'll always remember the sisters fondly, not only because my first freelance article outsold anything I've done since, but because Elsie and Amy taught me that anything's possible if you work hard enough. The Sydney newspaper called them "redoubtable."

Pat Browning said...

Jean,

What a great post, and a great photo. Those two gals look like they belonged in a movie.

The world is full of interesting people most of us never meet and never know about. Thanks for spotlighting these two.

Pat Browning