BARBWIRE BOB – Ramblin’ Around the Corral with Bob Sweeney

Some Early Day History

We can be thankful that 2021 is behind us and if you’re reading this column be glad that both you, and I, have survived the pandemic, at least for now.  I’m fully vaccinated by Pfizer with a recent booster.  It gives me a sense of security, although I keep hearing and reading about people who have been fully vaccinated  contacting the malady, but it seems with less severe impact.  It appears that there are now fewer deaths and no doubt our wonderful medical community has learned how to treat the symptoms better.  I  don’t hear much about patients on ventilators anymore.  Anyway, it’s onward into 2022 and feeling that American ingenuity, courage, and guts will prevail.  We look forward to a busy year covering community events.  

There’s an old newspaper joke that goes like this,  “Everyone in the community knows about the news, they read the newspaper to see if we found out about it.”  There probably is some truth to that tale.

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I think you faithful readers know by now that I’m a small-town boy born and raised on a ranch near Craig, located in the remote Northwest corner of Colorado.  -20 below zero was standard weather decades ago and I noticed that it was -5 recently, making me homesick…ha!  

We would be snowed in on the ranch and my dad would harness up “Wally” and “Dolly,” his venerable  team of horses hitched to a sled to feed the hungry cattle.  It was amazing that the Hereford cattle could survive the cold, but they are surviving on the vital hay.  Home from CSU, one Christmas, I helped my Dad feed with the temperature recorded at  -50 below zero and the wagon just cracked as it rolled through the frozen snow.  That particular breed of cattle was widespread, prior the introduction of angus and other breeds in later years.

Moffat County became home to large herds of sheep that followed some early day sheep/cattle confrontations in the last century. The sheep could graze on the vast open space between Craig, flowing to Utah some 90 miles to the West containing the Dinosaur National Monument and the famous outlaw team of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  

The early day Greek immigrants migrated to the United States and became sheepherders and eventually owners of vast acres of land where they would graze the sheep on the sagebrush and wild grasses in the desert areas extending to Utah  and then drive the flocks of sheep to the higher country mountains beyond Steamboat Springs and the Vail Valley.  I  remember trips to Denver through Glenwood Canyon and there was nothing but a stream and wild bushes along the highway passing through the small town of Eagle that was home to  a small newspaper called the Eagle Valley Enterprise published by Marilla McCain.  Today, the Vail Valley is home to vast ski runs and thousands of residents and a major U.S. and world tourist destination.

Our ranch was located at one of the few river bridges crossing the mighty Yampa River, so all of the sheep herds migrating from the lower county winter pasture would pass by our ranch on a county road with our fenced  pastures on both sides of the road.   The bands of sheep had one black sheep for every100 white sheep and if they missed a black sheep the herders  would know that they were missing stray sheep from upwards of 100 animals.  The several herders lived with the sheep herds in  sheep wagons where they had a bunk bed and small cooking stove and a few dogs.  The sheep owners knew my parents and would stop for an early morning breakfast with Henry and June Sweeney. I can remember as a youth the names of Urie, Visintainer, and Kourlis, hearing them laughing and visiting in the ranch kitchen at an early morning hour.

Sheep were an excellent animal for the cold climate and short growing season in Northwest Colorado, faring better than cattle in the harsh environment.  They also had a dual value with the wool along with the mutton and “leg of lamb.” Craig had a huge wool warehouse and was once the largest wool shipping center in the United States.  Shearing crews from Mexico would come through the county in the spring and shear the thick wool from the ewes placing the wool in huge burlap bags then hauled to the Craig  wool warehouse and railroad yard for shipment to major mills across America.  The Denver and Rio Grande railroad hauled the wool through the famed Moffat Tunnel, passing through Gilpin County and Rollinsville to Denver and beyond.   

As we know, the demand for wool declined and the warehouse  is gone.  I haven’t worn a warm wool Pendleton  shirt since I left Craig 42 years ago.  Many Greek livestock owners still ranch in the Craig area and made small fortunes from their high-country grazing properties that became prime mountain real estate.  Mining and vast cattle ranches made up the early day history of Colorado prior to the arrival of homesteaders and barb wire fences as the prairie was dotted with small sod cabins.

I attended Colorado A&M to become a veterinarian but eventually became a newspaper publisher.  Along the way A&M  became CSU;  I changed majors and took 65 hours of history and received an A-plus in Colorado history from professor Dr. David Furniss.  The final exam  question was to write about the history of the Colorado cattle industry.  I had that nailed, as my ancestors were part of the history dating back to 1885 and the early day Homestead Act.  My grandfather homestead on 160 acres, fenced the property, and lived in a tiny log cabin for three years, “proving up” on the homesteaded land.  Patrick Sweeney immigrated to America from Ireland at age 19 with nothing, eventually  owning a  piece of land on the American frontier.

What a blessing to come to America.