A fabulous, ancient rock house on a creek bank about 23 miles southwest of Gillette is owned today by the family of Art Nisselius, who combined two newspapers in 1925 to form the News Record.
But in the early 1930s, it was the site of several rowdy card parties hosted by a bachelor who eventually returned to his home in Scotland.
In those days, a frequent guest was a tall, dark German named “Dutch” Geis. He rode horseback everywhere, and on his 10-mile ride home from the party one night, his bronc pitched a fit. Geis lost his spurs in the melee, but not his seat, and rode on home.
“He knew if he got off his horse to get those spurs that he’d never be able to get back on,” said his grandson, Mickey Geis.
Thirty years later, a young rancher named Dick Mankin ambled west of his house to clean up two piles of dead rabbits. He’d shot the hares to feed all winter to his bobcat-hunting hounds. Remarkably, under each pile he found an antique spur.
Ironically, the elderly Dutch Geis came for a visit soon after.
“Look at the set of spurs I found,” said Mankin, who showed him the relics.
“Those are mine,” replied Geis, then around 70.
“Sure they are,” countered Mankin. But he was convinced when Geis described exactly where the spurs had landed three decades before. Mankin returned the spurs, but shortly thereafter, was given them back.
“You should have these,” Geis told him.
The spurs were undoubtedly a jackpot for any devotee of Campbell County history. They represent one of the area’s most well-loved pioneers.
Dutch’s uncle, Edward Geis, was the first to arrive in Gillette from Iowa in 1916 with his wife, Elizabeth McCann Geis. Edward and Lizzie didn’t remain (although their children did), but Lizzie’s cousin, Bede McCann, came to Gillette a decade later to homestead in the same area — amid the gently rolling hills near the intersection of Highway 50 and Clarkelen Road.
In 1936, Bede and a portly Englishman named Red Wearne founded Red’s Ice House in Gillette, from which they sold ice they’d hauled from South Dakota. They also established the Elite Bar (now the Center Bar).
In 1946, Bede and his wife, Lela, bought the 400-acre Roy Hardy farm, which in the 1960s was split into quarters by Interstate 90 crossing the Douglas Highway (the land had been a country club in the 1920s). On this land is McCann Heights, and just to the north is the McCann Center, which their son, former City Councilman Toddy McCann, began building in 1964.
Edward’s brother, Frank Geis, also homesteaded 15 miles southwest of town in 1917 with his wife, Catherine (“Kate”). They departed for Kansas just four years later and, of their six mostly-grown children, only Dutch — whose real name was the same as his father’s — stuck around. He was 17.
Ranching with character
In 1920, Dutch married the only daughter of his neighbors, Harry and Della Casteel. Harry, born in 1872 in Illinois, was one of Campbell County’s earliest residents. His grandfather, the Rev. John Casteel, had been a potter and fur trader in Ohio and Indiana before sticking to farming.
By the time Naomi Casteel was 19, her parents were well-to-do, thanks either to Harry’s farm machinery business or to family money. In fact, the June 1920 wedding of Dutch and Naomi (a college graduate and accomplished musician), was the most lavish affair of the year in Gillette.
The event included the ceremony, a four-course wedding breakfast served at the Montgomery Hotel, an elaborate five-course dinner, a reception and a dance. According to the Gillette News, Naomi was dressed in “a gown of blue charmeuse with Dolly Varden cream gloves and sleeves, plus a hat to match, elaborately trimmed in crushed flowers and ostrich feather band.”
And in 1928, the family built the first house south of Gillette with electricity, running water and a full basement. Nearly two miles down Clarkelen Road off Highway 50, the house was 30 by 40 feet and boasted three bedrooms.
Dutch homesteaded west of Highway 50, and over the years he and his father-in-law, Harry Casteel, built the ranch into what it is today, including finally buying the school section upon which the headquarters had been built. Harry’s homestead was on the west side of the Clarkelen Road, upon which most of the ranch resides.
From saddles to cylinders
Dutch went everywhere horseback well into the 1950s, preferring to dismount and lead his horse through several gates rather than simply drive up the highway. He was famous as someone who would help with anything, and always lightened the mood while doing so.
“If you went around town, people would tell you stories about Granddad,” said his grandson, Gerry. “He was one of those guys who didn’t know a stranger. Everybody got along with him.”
Dutch and Naomi raised two girls and a boy and, after 37 years, retired into town. Their son, Gerald William (“Bill”) Geis, took over the ranch, which was running Hereford cattle and sheep.
Bill married New York native Barbara Ryan, whose sister, Mary, had married John Ostlund, a prominent Campbell County businessman and state senator who lost the 1978 gubernatorial election by 1 percentage point.
Bill hated being a cowboy as much as Dutch had adored it. Upon his father’s 1984 death, he sold all the horses and continued working Herefords with motorcycles and ATVs.
“Dad had been in high school before he knew you could drive to the neighbor’s place instead of ride,” Gerry said. “He never sat a horse in my lifetime.”
Bill, a longtime school board member, and Barbara had six children in seven years, then a seventh. In 1972, they were forced to remodel and add on to the old house.
“Growing up, people may have thought we were deprived because we didn’t go anywhere,” Gerry said. “But try to pack nine people in a car and go somewhere — it’s a chore. Walk into a restaurant and get a table for nine.”
It was an era none of the siblings would take back, however. Everything was done as a family, especially considering the television only had one channel and parents were the school bus.
“We’d go to school on Monday and other kids were talking about the fun they had at the dance that weekend,” said Mickey, 53. “And we had built two miles of fence.”
Gerry, 49, and his wife, Gwen (Thrush), remained on the ranch for years, helping Bill before cancer took his life in 1998.
“That’s how I wanted to raise my kids — on a ranch,” Gerry said. “We sure didn’t stick around for the money.”
Gwen remembers her first days working cows with Gerry and Bill.
“I had grown up helping with ranch chores, but it was kind of different in Gerry’s household,” she said. “Girls didn’t go out. Bill would ask Gerry, ‘Are you bringing your wiffey?’ I jumped right in and went to work.”
Bill was no talker, and because both he and Barbara died young, at 62 and 56, respectively, the fourth generation knows little about their forebears. But they love the ranch just the same.
Bill’s surviving widow, Carol, still lives in the old ranch house.
“I’m pretty attached,” said Carol, almost 70. “I know it sounds stupid, but it’s like still being a part of Bill. I wouldn’t be out here if the boys weren’t here to help.”
In a house nearby lives youngest son Kevin, 40, with his wife, Bobbi, and four kids. Gerry’s family is about a mile to the northwest, across Blue Gate Creek. The brothers lease the ranch from the rest of the family.
Bill had left the place to all nine survivors, including Carol and his children — Mickey Geis, the late Sue Mamula, Laura Ostrem, Eric Geis, and Carol Blackburn — and their families, plus his two step-daughters, Michelle Wallace and Jennifer Erisman.
“Dad was always a fair man,” said Mickey, who lives in Gillette with his family and works at Cordero mine.
Brothers forge on
Gerry and Kevin started over after their father’s death with a mixed herd of black and Hereford cows and calves, leasing most of the original ranch from the trust.
“We make a pretty good pair in a lot of ways,” Gerry said. “There are things he’s good at and vice versa. When I’m with my grandchildren, he’s getting things done and when he’s with his kids, I can get things done.”
To continue running the 95-year-old ranch, both men and their wives have worked full-time; Gerry for a methane company in Gillette and Kevin as a civil engineer.
“There were times it got tiring,” Gerry said. “It got to the point where Kevin and I were both working 70 hours a week and we were getting in at 11 p.m. every night. We’ve gotten smarter as we’ve gotten older and learned to do things to make it easier.”
Gerry and Gwen hope the ranch stays in the family for decades, and there’s a sixth generation now who might concur. Gerry and Gwen’s three children (Rory, Kahla and Byron) each have kids of their own.
In fact Byron, 26, has an architectural engineering degree but instead chooses to manage ranches on Powder River, where he lives with his family.
“He takes after Dutch,” Gerry said. “He’s horsey. He does some roping, and he never got it from me.”
Gerry has never gotten rid of the old mule-driven buggy in which Dutch squired his old friend, Thelma Chaney, during parades. And there might be remnants of his old wagon around.
“I’m amazed at the toughness of people like Dutch,” Mickey said. “This generation could not haul a load of wool to town in a wagon if their life depended on it.”
Nor would they ride a bronc 10 miles home from a card party. But those who did are the people who built Campbell County — by helping each other. And their stories live on.
“That colt went to bucking and Dutch blew both spurs off about 100 yards apart,” marvels Jimmy Mankin, son of the late Dick Mankin.
The infamous spurs now hang on his wall with a bobcat skin and a rawhide riata made by local cowboy hero Mexican John.
—Julie Mankin is a contributing reporter to the News Record. She spent more than two decades of her life on a Campbell County ranch. Dick Mankin, who is mentioned in the story, and her father are first cousins.