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Campbell County Historic Ranches: the Bishop ranch - Gillette News Record: News

Campbell County Historic Ranches: the Bishop ranch

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Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 2:32 pm, Tue Nov 5, 2013.

The Sundance Kid encountered Butch Cassidy while working for what’s now Bishop Land and Livestock, but plenty more illustrious characters have inhabited the Campbell County ranch over the past century.

Hit men and outlaws

In 1881, a group of Boston businessmen organized Standard Cattle Company, which soon became king along the Belle Fourche River west of Moorcroft. The company grazed up to 60,000 head of steers and drove large herds into Montana. In 1885, 11,000 calves were marked with its 101 brand, and it helped Moorcroft become the largest shipping point of cattle in the United States.

Cattle baron Elias W. Whitcomb, who established the Bar FS Ranch almost 13 miles south of what’s now Rozet, was a stock detective for Standard and rode with the invaders to Johnson County in 1892 to assassinate “rustlers.”

Range detective Tom Horn named his favorite horse “EW” after Whitcomb, so it’s ironic that members of the future Wild Bunch gang worked for him at the Bar FS.

Tom Richardson, in his memoir of life working cattle roundups for the Union Cattle Company in 1887, recalled that “Old Ginger” (so called because he was red-headed and bad tempered) was the cook of the Bar FS.

“The boys would make some remark about his cooking and then Ginger would take after them with a butcher knife and run them around the mess wagon,” Richardson wrote. “He had a deck of cards and was continually persuading the boys to play Monte with him and of course he always fleeced them good and proper.”

As settlers encroached and fences appeared on the open range, Whitcomb decided to keep three permanent ranches along the river (between Rozet and Devils Tower) for his three daughters with his Sioux wife. By 1896 when Standard sold out, Whitcomb’s three riverbank properties were the Bar FS Ranch, the OR Ranch and Standard’s old Shipwheel Ranch near Moorcroft.

He gave the OR to Lizabeth, the Shipwheel to May, and the Bar FS to Ida. She’d married Doc Sweeney, and later married renowned bit and spur maker Rex Schnitger.

Sometime after 81-year-old Whitcomb was killed by a bolt of lightning while on horseback on the Bar FS, the ranch was sold to Metcalf & Neely with Joe Lucas as foreman. Schnitgers moved to California where Rex made spurs with Edward Bohlin in Hollywood. A pair of Schnitger spurs today is worth up to $25,000.

First car in Gillette

William O. Bishop was born in 1877 to a German couple from Chicago named John and Wilhelmina Bischoff. His father died when he was 2, after which his mother married August Brandner and added five more children to her previous five.

In 1891 at 14, Bill came to Wyoming, changing his name along the way to the more American-sounding Bishop. He herded sheep near Lusk before a three-year stint with the Ogallala Cattle Company.

In 1898, he was hired away by John Morton, who’d grown up in the same German community in Illinois and moved to Douglas to run sheep in 1880. Morton took Bishop under his wing and made him foreman of the G Bar M Ranch south of Gillette (owned today by the Wagensen and Marquiss families).

The G Bar M and its sheep were situated between the Keelines’ two open-range holdings – the 4J and the 21. Like Whitcomb, George Keeline wasn’t a fan of sheepmen or homesteaders. One day, a gunman was stationed at the gap south of town where Highway 59 makes the turn, aiming to shoot Bishop as he came to town. Bishop survived, and family lore says George Keeline admitted to hiring the hit man years later when he and Bishop became friends.

In 1915, 38-year-old Bishop met Lew Jenne’s housekeeper, Willia Arnett, who’d arrived in Gillette five years earlier with a friend who was a mail-order bride.

“I came for the wedding,” said Willia, who remembered Gillette’s one street as having three blocks. “She and her husband didn’t get along, though, so she went home.”

Bill and Willia spent two years living in the remodeled mess hall of the G Bar M. Willia cooked for up to 26 people regularly, and as the passenger when Bill drove Gillette’s first car to town, got out to open 16 gates throughout the 28 miles to town.

Wool fortunes

John Morton had amassed a fortune in the sheep business by the time he died in 1916. He left the land and buildings of the G Bar M to Bishop, whom he called “the best range foreman he’d ever known” despite their loss of 11,000 head of sheep during the winter of 1911.

John and Sara Morton had three children, and the main Morton Ranch still exists today northwest of Douglas.

In 1918, Bill sold part of the G Bar M to Bill Wright and a few years later gave the rest to his half-brother, George Brandner. He purchased the Bar FS from Metcalf & Neely and stocked it with thousands of sheep, as well as a small herd of Lazy B-branded cows and hundreds of horses he’d picked up from L.H. Barlow.

“Bill Underwood told me that back when Bill Bishop brought 300 horses here, everyone thought it was a losing proposition,” said Bill’s grandson, Blair, 61. “But he broke them and had 150 teams to sell. You had to have a lot of cowboys to do that.”

Bishop had chosen the Bar FS because of the breaks in the south end that offered stock protection. He replaced Lucas’ old shed with a large three-story shearing shed featuring a drive shaft running the full length of the building.

Bill and Willia had lost their 9-year-old son, John Bill, to spinal meningitis in 1928, and Jim was born 10 months later. Jim didn’t have a close relationship with his father, who was 50 when he was born, but did pick up a love of sports from him.

His father had had helped create Gillette’s first basketball team, the “Hall Room Boys,” in 1907. The athleticism didn’t just come from the Bischoff side, however. While waiting out the rain during a 1904 baseball game in Seneca, Mo., Willia’s father had been murdered in a billiard room gunfight.

Jim, a multi-sport athlete who went to UW on a football scholarship, eventually became a state champion golfer.

His father, who often wore a bow tie, was on the first high school board of trustees in Gillette in 1925 along with ranchers Dick and William Wright, Burt Reno, and W.P. Parks. Bishop also spent 14 years as a county commissioner beginning in 1931.

Innovative personalities

In the early sheep days, Bill Underwood recalled that Bishop set up flatbed wagons end-to-end across the Belle Fourche and drove sheep across the makeshift bridge. Blair Bishop recalled his grandfather’s efficient supply system in which longtime camp tender George Daniels would fill huge bins in the commissary with supplies so each herder’s needs were individually met. In 1943, with all available herders off at war, the Bishops sold their sheep and began raising cattle.

Blair recalled as a kid trailing cattle to Moorcroft alongside the Keelines and staying in sleeping bags on the river overnight before pushing them on into the stockyards for shipment to Omaha.

One of the ranch’s main cowboys was a scrappy little guy named Fleet McSparren.

“For several years, Fleet had a pet skunk he named Stinky that lived in the bunkhouse with him,” remembered a neighbor. “Fleet took great delight in scaring strangers with Stinky because even though he was descented and neutered, he would threaten people with his tail lifted, especially if Fleet would stomp his feet fast.”

Fleet’s small ranch up the river from the Lazy B eventually would be owned by Bishops. In fact, by the time 20-year-old Jim came home from college to take over the ranch in 1949, it came to 50,000 acres, running west along the river to the coal mines and south to the Rochelle Hills. Remarkably, it still was all one pasture.

Jim, tired of “rounding up the whole county,” built miles of fence to section off the 600 Hereford mother cows he raised. He and his wife, Betty, also raised Blair, Lindy and Boyd. The ranch had plenty of water to go with its shelter, and for that Jim credits the original founder.

“Whitcomb was smart,” Jim said. “In Cheyenne, he got on a legislative committee that controlled water rights on state land, so he kept homesteaders off the creeks by leasing all the state land around Rozet.”

Bill Bishop was just as smart to choose a ranch with the kind of protection that means no feeding of hay in the winter, all for a better bottom line.

“He made a good choice,” Jim said. “It’s been a good ranch. We were forced to sell some to Pickrels, but we still have 36,000 acres.”

Role reversals

Bill Bishop died in 1962 at age 84, but Willia celebrated her centennial with the state of Wyoming and died the next year in 1991. In 1979, Blair’s gift to his 90-year-old grandmother was a helicopter tour of the ranch.

The eldest grandchild had attended the one-room OR school until moving to town in junior high. He was drafted into the Vietnam War right out of college and upon returning, moved with his wife to work in the oil fields near Casper while Boyd helped manage the ranch.

“I had changed quite a bit in the service,” Blair said. “I did come back to help, though. We did everything horseback and still do today.”

In the early 1970s, freshly divorced and on vacation in Aspen, Jim met a New York City sculptress named Michi Raphael. They married, but Gillette “wasn’t for her” and in 1976, tired of digging post holes and pitching hay, Jim moved with Michi to Snowmass, Colo., with instructions for Blair to take control of the ranch.

Four or five years later, with Blair in the midst of a divorce and other personal problems, Boyd took back the reins. Where his father had kept to straight Herefords, Boyd began cross-breeding Angus cows. For more than 30 years, Boyd, 56, has managed the family corporation at ranch headquarters, where he built a home with his wife “Brigitte” and raised two girls.

While the original Bar FS ranch house blew up in a gas explosion in the 1960s, the barn built by Dutch Henry Thar in 1897 is still there, as is a large rock in which someone scratched “Bar FS” a century ago.

“I still live here but don’t have anything to do with operating the ranch,” said Blair, whose two kids have moved away from Gillette. With his wife, Tami, Blair lives in a 53-year-old bunkhouse just a few hundred yards from Boyd. In a month, he’ll finally retire from working in the oil fields.

Resembling her father and with his same cheery humor, 57-year-old Lindy is a self-professed city girl who couldn’t wait to leave Wyoming for places unseen. She lives in Ozark, Mo., with her husband, Bob Kenagy, just 60 miles from where her grandmother Willia was raised. Her son, Trevor Fuhrman, lives in Tulsa.

Jim’s sculptress returned to New York. In 2001, he and his current wife, Bonnie, moved to north Phoenix on the heels of selling for $1.2 million the Aspen home he had purchased for $145,000 decades earlier.

“That was a great business deal,” he smiled. “I made a lot of bad ones, too.”

Now 83, Jim doesn’t miss range lambing and still hasn’t met a horse he didn’t hate. Instead, he keeps his tan playing golf at one of the six courses in his development and retains his deadpan humor, remarking that he “used to go back to the ranch twice a year just to make sure the kids hadn’t sold it or something.”

Jim is still one-third of Bishop Land and Livestock, and carries on the ranch’s history of colorful personalities. His conversation is sprinkled with wry jokes and, on a whim, he’ll blurt out his grandmother’s name, Wilhelmina Hess Bischoff, with an overemphasized German accent and a wink.

—Julie Mankin is a contributing reporter to the News Record. She spent more than two decades of her life on a Campbell County ranch.

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