Exactly 100 years ago, a Danish teenager and a middle-aged Scottish bachelor didn’t realize they would eventually merge into one family and amass four sprawling ranches – or become leaders of a spanking-new Campbell County.
Little Buffalo Ranch
It started with the father of a man named Jens Vogensen, who trained horses for the king of Denmark. The man made a deal with the king to train without pay if the king would ship his boys to America.
That’s how Jens and Olene Vogensen ended up in tiny Ruskin, Neb., where they became owners of a livery stable and promptly changed their name to Wagensen. Their son, Fred Soren Wagensen, was born in 1895.
Elsewhere in Nebraska that year, a 16-year-old named Ted Marquiss was readying to attend Broken Bow Business College. He worked as a cashier after graduation but felt confined. Filled with wanderlust, he set out for the gold fields of South Dakota.
But a flood had the mines shut down, so he went to Gillette in 1903 with $1.50 in his pocket and had to go to work for his brother-in-law, Bill Wright. For herding sheep, breaking horses, cooking and freighting he was paid $35 a month and 100 head of sheep.
“In those five years,” he later told his daughter, Rachel, “Bill Wright taught me what’s required to become a prosperous rancher.”
Still, Marquiss couldn’t make up his mind. He sold the sheep to dabble in picture shows and real estate, then in 1911 bought a place 42 miles south of town on the Belle Fourche River. At that point he went back to being a cashier at Stockmens Bank, where he worked his way up to director. Finally in 1918, a teacher at the Reno Ranch named Olive Spencer made the decision for him.
“Would you rather be the wife of a rancher or a banker?” he asked his fiancée.
She chose the ranch, so Ted bought back into sheep. His hero was Buffalo Bill Cody, and in 1922 Ted also decided to bring bison back. He purchased a heifer and bull out of Fort Pierre, S.D., and named them Hazel and Andy.
The Marquisses dubbed their expanding holdings the Little Buffalo Ranch and settled in along the river, raising Quentin, Don and Rachel (Fulkerson). They accumulated 25,000 acres and a French/Indian/Spanish herder who stayed 43 years. The headquarters still boasts the old blacksmith shop and a home built in 1915.
About the time Ted and Olive Marquiss were settling on the river, Fred Wagensen was staking a claim 30 miles south of Gillette, also on the Belle Fourche. After a couple of years of fighting in World War I, he returned with a bride, Mary Jacobsen.
The two raised a son, Don, and daughter, Opal, and built up the ranch along the river. The diminutive, sharp-dressed Opal, who would marry Quentin Marquiss, has always been called “Toots.”
“My parents are to blame,” the petite 88-year-old said of her nickname. “I’m not really an Opal type, but I don’t think I’m a Toots either.”
Her father helped bring the first telephone system to the county and was one of the original members of the board of First National Bank. Her father-in-law was a policy shaper, too. As a Campbell County commissioner, Marquiss helped create the first courthouse in town when he spearheaded the purchase and remodel of the Daly house on Gillette’s Main Street for $40,000.
He also served on the local school board and spent five terms representing Campbell County in the state Legislature. In 1941, Marquiss was one of the founders of the Columbia Sheep Breeders Association of America.
But it was Fred’s contributions to the county that spurred Gillette to declare “Fred Wagensen Day” in 1982. Wagensen loved negotiating business deals and, to Mary’s consternation, was constantly borrowing money to buy ranches. She finally accused him of trying to buy everything he could see.
“No,” he quipped, “I just want what adjoins me.”
That wasn’t quite the case with the Little Rawhide Ranch. Situated north of Gillette, it was owned for years by the colorful William Pendleton Ricketts. Chairman of the first board of Campbell County Commissioners in 1911, Ricketts had commanded the open range north of Gillette for more than a decade. In 1898, the Little Rawhide became part of his sprawling Sunnyside Ranch.
When Wagensen bought it, his young son, Donald, moved in with his wife, Doris. They raised Mickey, Lexi (Ballard), Mary Kyle (Coltrane) and Jan (Fisher), after which Mickey took it over and raised a daughter named Cori (Busenitz).
“For years inside the old barn was a sign nailed up that said, ‘Keep Order,’ signed W.P. Ricketts,” remembered Lexi.
The South Place
Fred’s next purchase was the historic G Bar M on the Belle Fourche. Its headquarters three miles east of his own had been a stage stop between Fort Reno and Deadwood, and was home to the enormous Morton Sheep Company.
When John Morton died in 1916, he’d grown so fond of his foreman of 18 years, Bill Bishop, that he basically left Bishop the land and headquarters. The buildings can still be seen just east of Highway 59 at Wagensen Road.
“When Bishops had the ranch, they’d ship 3,000 horses a year,” said Trigg Marquiss, who was born to Quentin and Toots in 1949. “They trailed them all to Omaha. Two weeks later, they’d trail the cattle and two weeks after that they’d set out with the sheep, and the sheep were always the first to arrive.”
Bishop sold the ranch two years later to his half-brother, George Brandner, who with his wife, Adelaine, stayed 25 years and raised five daughters. In 1947, a few years after George died of a heart attack, Dent Floyd bought the G Bar M. But he soon fielded an offer from his buddy Fred Wagensen.
“They both wanted the old cook stove,” recounted Trigg. “Dent said it goes; Fred said it stays or the deal is off. Fred ended up with the ranch and the stove.”
Fred was a tough bargainer and very frugal man, and throughout his long lifetime, the only source of heat at the G Bar M was that wood-burning stove. He also retained the outdoor toilet and no hot running water.
“That makes us sound old, but it really wasn’t that long ago,” said Jan, who was hosted by her grandparents with the other six grandchildren every branding and lambing season.
The house itself had its own ballroom and an ancient bunkhouse with what were once dirt floors. More a community than a ranch, the G Bar M had boasted an open pit coal mine and school in its old clubhouse where Toots recalled dancing “a million miles.”
Meanwhile, up the river at the Little Buffalo Ranch, Quentin and Toots had settled on the home place and raised Gary, Trigg and Glo (Clark). Donald and Bonnie got the other half of that ranch and raised four of their five kids there before selling to Jimmy Anderson, who unsuccessfully tried farming it. The land is now owned by Fred Oedekoven.
Ted Marquiss was so inventive and fearless (he purposely obtained the number 13 for his license plates) that he and a buddy once built their own plane.
“It did fly, but then something broke and it crashed into a haystack,” Gary said. “Grandpa never got to try it out.”
Ted’s love of flying was passed to Quentin, who was a former Navy flight instructor and equally cool-headed.
“I’d as soon walk to Wyoming as fly,” Toots said from her home in Arizona, where she’s spent most of the past 30 winters. “But Quentin had no nerves at all. He was so easygoing that back when we were building our house, he was using a cutting torch while his friend Bob was around the outside painting. “He said, ‘Hey Bob,’ and Bob came around the corner to find Quentin patting out fire on his body. Bob asked, ‘Why didn’t you say something sooner?’ Quentin said, ‘I wasn’t burning very fast.’”
Gary doesn’t remember a time he didn’t crave flying. He recalled a story his grandfather once told of not being able to afford a hot-air balloon ride in the old days, but of watching when a balloon came untethered and wrapped around a child’s leg, lifting him screaming into the air.
“I wanted to be that kid so bad,” recalled Gary.
He was in Tulsa learning to be an aircraft mechanic when he got the news about his father. On a February day in 1964 while running antelope for a film crew, Quentin’s small plane crashed, killing the 42-year-old.
With the help of her father, Fred, and 15-year-old Trigg, plus hired hand Clark Reynolds, Toots kept the ranch afloat and eventually Gary raised his own two boys on the home place, both of whom also fly, as do Glo’s husband and son.
Gary found airplanes useful for spotting sheep that were stuck in the river, and for simple enjoyment. He has 9,500 hours in the air and still has three aircraft in the hangar – a Beech Bonanza, a Cessna 180 and a Supercub.
With his wife, Millie, Gary also runs some 85 head of buffalo to sell for meat or hunting.
In 1973, the Little Rawhide Ranch went to Kiewitt, who opened the Buckskin coal mine on it in 1981. In exchange, Fred Wagensen became owner of the Napier Ranch on Beaver Creek southwest of Gillette, and later the former Baumgartner ranch on the Powder River near Arvada.
The 40,000-acre Napier Ranch went half to Toots’ family and half to Donald’s family. Trigg Marquiss raised two daughters and a son there, while Jan (Wagensen) Fisher raised a son and daughter on the Powder River place. Cattle owned by Jan and Frank Fisher continue to graze cattle on the west end of the Napier Ranch while Trigg’s son, Tait Marquiss, and his family run horses and cattle to the east.
The old G Bar M still belongs to the families of Fred Wagensen’s seven grandchildren. Don’s daughters graze or lease the land east of Highway 59 and Toots’ sons graze or lease the other side.
“Fred wanted to buy Bill and Ollie (Marquiss) Wright’s ranch, too, but Mary wouldn’t let him,” said Trigg, who lives with his wife, Joann, in Story.
Donald Wagensen and his nephew, Trigg Marquiss, inherited a passion for horses going all the way back to Denmark. Donald sold large bands of horses at sales in Nebraska, where the extended Wagensen clan would travel to ride in the Ruskin parade, and his daughter, Jan, trains barrel horses.
Trigg once held his own production sale annually. Today he still runs 35 mares and two stallions of Leo and Sonny Dee Bar breeding. His son, Tait, feeds livestock on the Napier Ranch with a team, and just last week Trigg was headed to an Amish auction to buy some horse-drawn equipment and another team.
Ted Marquiss was an educated, imaginative man. On the 100th anniversary of the Little Buffalo Ranch, he’d no doubt be proud of his descendants’ varied vocations from bartender to attorney; veterinarian to accountant and professor to sculptor.
As for Fred Wagensen, a man who worked so hard he couldn’t find time to take up smoking and who led the way through the deaths of his son and son-in-law, he’d surely smile to know five young great-great-grandchildren are still growing up on horseback.
—Julie Mankin is a contributing reporter to the News Record. She spent more than two decades of her life on a Campbell County ranch.