“Do you know why they’re called the “Pumpkin Buttes?’” asks Bob Christensen as he rumbles up the side of a ridge near one of Campbell County’s famous flat-topped buttes in his 1980 Dodge pickup.
The Sioux had named the Buttes “Wa-ga-ma Pa-ha,” meaning Gourd Hills, which most people think refers to a tribal ceremony using gourds.
But the answer can be found on a ridge at the foot of the North Butte. In the bottom of a sandy wash lie hundreds of orange-tinted, cylindrical rocks identical to pumpkins.
“These were created from wind eroding the sand,” he says. “The whole ridge is full of these things. They’ve been here thousands of years.”
In fact, it would be hard to find a century-old ranch in Campbell County richer in landmarks than the adjacent Christensen Ranches, owned by cousins Bob and John Christensen 35 and 51 miles south on Highway 50. Situated just three miles east of the Powder River as the crow flies and almost completely surrounding the northernmost Pumpkin Butte, they are a historian’s – and geologist’s – dream.
Started and saved by wool
One of the first to herd sheep over this land was Fred Christensen, born in Michigan to European immigrant parents. Determined not to milk cows at the family dairy the rest of his life, he left Michigan to go West and got a job at the Two Bar Ranch.
Cowboying at the Two Bar near Chugwater was every Easterner’s dream job. It was headquarters for Swan Land and Cattle Co., which in its 1880s heyday controlled 3.25 million acres and ran 50,000 to 90,000 head of cattle. It had switched to sheep, however, by the time Christensen happened by.
In 1905, Christensen hired on with the Young Brothers, a Scotch sheep outfit in Johnson County. Two years later, he homesteaded on Pumpkin Creek near the north Pumpkin Butte, partnering on sheep first with Charles Hall and later with Hugh Auld.
“He told me that he was driving a team over the divide and looked down on this place and just decided this was it,” said his son, Bud, who turns 90 on St. Patrick’s Day.
In 1918 when Fred was 38, he married a 32-year-old teacher named Ellen Brown, whose father had established the T-Chair Ranch on Willow Creek off the southwestern side of the North Butte. Fred, who later served as a Campbell County commissioner from 1930-34, and Ellen had sons Bud and Jack.
When Ellen’s brother, John Brown, died in 1936, the Christensens bought that part of the old Brown Ranch, where they moved and built a home. Ellen never owned a driver’s license, finally taking driving lessons in her 70s.
Not long after graduation and as a new second lieutenant in Cavalry for the U.S. Army, Jack married an army nurse from Iowa named Margaret Mathiasen.
“My dad was a tank commander, and a few weeks after D-Day, the Germans hit his tank,” said his son John, 61. “Two men were killed and Dad was shot seven times through the ankle. The other survivor was killed the next day and they captured Dad.”
After six weeks as prisoner, in which he lost 40 pounds, Jack was able to recover in England. He earned a Purple Heart and Silver Star medal for his valor before settling with his wife and two children (John and Judy) on the old Brown homestead on Willow Creek.
Little brother Bud and his wife, Alice Lee Mankin, were married in 1949. They began living on Pumpkin Creek where Fred first filed for land in 1907, and set about raising their kids, Bob and Janet.
The eventual land holdings, including part of the Pfister Ranch acquired in 1940, came to about 70,000 acres and was dubbed the “Horseshoe Bar Hereford Mill” because of Fred’s brand.
“They started out with Panama sheep and raised Hereford cattle,” John said. “Grandfather went broke three times in the livestock business, and it was always sheep that brought him out of it.”
In 1961, Fred Christensen and Sons was split between Jack and Bud, with Jack winning the coin toss for the Horseshoe Bar brand and Bud getting Franklin Brown’s old N Bar V brand.
Landmarks and learning
Since Fred began pursuing a business degree in Michigan 108 years ago, higher learning has been of utmost importance on the ranch.
He sent both Jack and Bud to a military boarding school in California and both obtained business degrees from the University of Wyoming in 1941. Bud’s wife has a Ph.D.; his two children obtained degrees, and Bob and Marilyn’s oldest son, Mark, has a master’s degree. Every other Christensen child of college age is obtaining a degree, too. Jack’s kids both obtained college degrees, with John becoming a doctor of veterinary medicine in 1974 and his nephew, Jay Mortensen, getting a juris doctorate.
“Grandfather was pretty shrewd,” John said. “People said you rarely got the best of Fred Christensen. I think he was a pretty astute businessman.”
In fact, nearly 100 years ago, Fred had helped a man named Hartzog homestead out near the Buttes, and three years later bought the land. In 1975, surveyors discovered a major sandstone oil reservoir underneath it. At the time, the 20-mile “Hartzog Draw” oil field, boasting more than 200 million barrels, was one of the largest discovered in the Rocky Mountain area.
Over on John Christensen’s ranch is another oil field, and he remembers the November day in 1955 when they opened the Buttes up for uranium exploration.
“It was my 6th birthday, and I remember we had 16 Jeeps out front with people wanting to stake mining claims,” said John, whose Christensen Ranch Uranium Mine had 13 rigs operating last fall.
Other landmarks on the ranch are man-made but noteworthy. Distinct stacks of red rocks dot the breaks around the Butte — monuments engineered by 19th century sheepherders to mark territory.
And lower on the banks of Pumpkin Creek, Bob reveals an ancient dipping vat nearly hidden by prairie grass. Cattle were jumped one by one into the deep well of pesticide a century ago to combat hoof-and-mouth disease. Finally, an old haystack sits curiously on the lip of a canyon over in the rough country.
“In 1949, they were snowed in for six weeks without being able to feed,” Bob recounted of his father and hired men. “So they built slips and in later storms they’d come over here with a horse and load a few bales. They learned to stack hay out in the breaks.”
From a point near the North Butte, Bob’s family can see west to Kaycee’s famous Hole In The Wall area and east to the Pine Ridge. And on John’s land, the Butte rises 6,049 feet above sea level, making it Campbell County’s highest point. Before coal mining created a haze in the air, it lent views of Wheatland’s Laramie Peak and the Missouri Hills surrounding Devils Tower.
As boys, John and Bob camped on the Butte with Gary and Trigg Marquiss and their cousin, Mickey Wagensen.
“Being boys, we’d always look for the lost gold brick,” John said. “Apparently two robbers held up a stage and got away with four bars of gold. But their saddlebags were old and had holes in them and they lost three of the bars as they galloped away.
“When the posse caught up with the last robber, he said he’d buried the gold on the Butte before they’d caught him,” John remembered. “Mark Bundy told me the robber died in 1943 and never did tell anyone the precise location. But we always looked for it.”
The two cousins continue to live on their grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s homesteads just off the northwest southwest slopes of the North Butte.
John’s sister, Judy, lives in Dallas, but he continues to make his home near the site where old Frank Brown stopped for the winter in 1896 on his way to Oregon. John likes to say that because the patriarch lost 200 of his 229 head of stock that season and was too broke to continue, the family is still around. John hasn’t married.
“I just was always stuck out here,” he said. “Too far from town and didn’t have time to socialize. I read the story on the Floyds, and I guess one of them was an old bachelor, too.”
He can’t compete with the mineral industry for good help, John said, so he’s retired from raising livestock.
“I plan to stay here till I die,” he said. “I’m not retiring in Arizona or something. I enjoy living here.”
John maintains fences, roads and hay meadows and leases pasture to Bob, who lives to the north in Fred’s original bunkhouse, although quite rebuilt and expanded today. Bob and his wife, Marilyn, have five children, ages 15 to 28. Although Bob, 57, still uses horses in the breaks, both Christensen families have used motorized vehicles for ranch work since the 1960s.
Bud didn’t believe in horseback sports and felt motorcycles were useful in terms of time management. He also believed in running sheep, which can get by on sparse grass where cattle cannot. Bud bought back into sheep in the 1950s after his father had sold out in 1931, and Bob is one of the few ranchers still harvesting sheep along with cattle.
John sold out in the 1970s because they were difficult to fence in and had a tendency to get drifted under snowbanks.
“I remember Judy once had a date for the prom in Midwest, and we had a bad blizzard in April 1967,” John said. “My father took her and my mother as far as he could on an old tractor, which was about 2 miles. Then they walked almost 14 miles to the Taylor Ranch before I came from Midwest and picked them up. The snow was pretty deep and as they were walking, they could hear sheep bleating underneath the drifts.”
If not a love of sheep, one thing the cousins do share is a love of flying. Both Bob and John continue to pilot their small planes around the ranches.
“My dad bought a 1950 Supercub off the Taylor Ranch when it was sold, so I’m its third owner,” said John. “It’s six months younger than I am.”
Bob also takes to the air frequently, and even travels via plane to visit his family’s other ranches in Glendo, Miles City, Mont., and Broken Bow, Neb. – all purchased in the 1970s and ’80s with income off the original Christensen ranch.
“They started with the oil out here tearing the place to pieces,” Bud said. “We needed to get out and do something different.”
Janet, 59, lives on the family’s Beaver Slide Ranch in Montana, where the scenery is untouched by oil rigs and Miles City is the cowtown Gillette hasn’t been for 50 years. They calve on the irrigated ranch near Glendo, and they pasture yearlings in Nebraska.
“Our goal has always been to develop a good herd of cattle,” said Janet, just before going out to check pregnant Angus/Salers heifers. “We have an AI [artificial insemination] program in Nebraska. In the fall, all of our heifer calves from Wyoming and Montana go there. We sort the best of the best to keep, and eventually they go back to their home ranches.”
It might seem curious that Bud’s family would invest in a rather tough way of life instead of in stocks or other types of real estate.
“Well, it’s the one thing we know how to do,” Bob said. “I find myself looking this direction because with ranching, we have control and we can run it on our own.”
The love of ranching is so alive in Bud that he doesn’t consider retiring. He still pays the bills and keeps the books, and says the unique landmarks of the Christensen holdings make him feel like the luckiest guy in the world.
“North of Miles City, you get too much winter,” he says. “East of Nebraska, you get into tornado country. South of Cheyenne, it gets too dry. And to the west, you’re in the mountains. We’re in the best location in the whole damn country. What more could you ask for?”