MONTANA RANCHER ELLEN COTTON
We were on a van trip from Cape Cod to California via Yellowstone, back the southern route to Louisiana, and north through the Appalachians returning to the Cape. Along the way, we met Montana rancher Ellen Cotton.
West of Chicago, we picked up three hitchhikers going to St. Paul, Minnesota. One of them told us that if we were going through Sheridan, Wyoming, we should check out Ellen Cotton, who had a ranch and lived just across the Montana border. She would probably let us stay a night, maybe more. He gave us the directions to her place.
We decided to go see her. Upon leaving Sheridan, we were soon into Montana, and after a few dozen dirt road miles, and crossroad signs pointing to this ranch, and to that ranch, we arrived at Ellen’s 4-Mile Ranch just after dark.
The road down to the ranch house, about a quarter mile distant, still held snow (it was early Spring) and just steep enough that I thought it better to stay up top. That proved a good decision as the road was highly questionable, even for a four-wheel drive. If we made it down, we might have been there a while waiting for the road to dry up enough to drive out.
Lights were on at the house, and smoke was coming out of the chimney. We bedded down for the night, and walked down in the morning.
Nearing the house, a man was pulling hay bales off a flatbed pickup for cows in the pasture. We hailed him and he waved us in. All bundled up in the morning cold and wearing a cowboy hat, walking behind the truck set in low gear, was Ellen Cotton. I was surprised and impressed. She was immediately likable.
After introductions, I stayed to help Ellen, and Bette went into the house, meeting another young gal, a student, and they prepared breakfast. Eggs, biscuits and gravy, hashbrowns, toast, and thick slices of bacon from a ranch pig that until recently lived at the ranch. I can still taste it.
The cows were in the calving pasture. There were fifty-nine Moms-to-be. A few had already calved, with the rest of them due at any time. It may take few weeks. The job now was to protect the new-born calves from coyotes, and the cold if they were rejected by the mother, and provide help during birth if needed, and possible.
It meant keeping a constant watch. We checked up on them every three to four hours. A few cows and/or calves not making it was to be expected. It was an important, and trying time for ranchers.
Ellen was a character. I learned later that she was a great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that the ranch house was built by Buffalo Bill Cody. She brought it from a nearby town and renovated it. It was in disarray when we were there, but warm and cozy. Bette and the young gal spent their day rearranging things.
Born into the upper class in New England, she fell in love with ranching when on a trip out west as a child. She married young and moved west despite family misgivings. They divorced, and having three small sons, she stayed on. She wanted to be a rancher. She remarried becoming Ellen Cotton. They accumulated land and cattle. That marriage also failed, but she still stayed.
She took on ranch hands, and during school vacations, students would come in, camping out behind the house on a rise set up as a camp. They would move the cattle to different pastures as the seasons passed and do what was needed in the ranching life. There was one large tepee still set up, banners blowing in the wind from the tepee top, standing in the snow drifts.
In the brief time we were there, she talked about community programs she was involved in. She had become quite the advocate for many of the rancher’s concerns. Their way of life, was threatened on many fronts. Civilization was closing in.
She had become an outspoken critic of the coal mining in the area. It was the strip mining that was the problem. Coal dust was affecting visibility; mountains in the distance could hardly be seen now.
Her main concern, though, was that strip mining cut into the aquifers, interfering with the underground water flow, threatening the water supply of ranchers and farmers throughout Montana, Wyoming, and the neighboring states.
She believed that digging tunnels to extract the coal would solve most problems. But that was expensive. It was a difficult problem for all concerned.
As it happened, things went smoothly while we were there. No new calves and no drama with the cows. Tired from interrupted sleep checking on the herd throughout the cold night filled with a jillion stars and swirling snow squalls, we got up again to load the pickup with hay for the morning feed.
Doing this routine day after day would take its toll. It was hard not to be impressed with those who chose this way of life. With sun-up coming on the new day, my drowsiness departed.
It was time for us to go, but Ellen insisted we stay for another breakfast. We felt awkward having to leave, but was assured that more help was on the way. Ellen invited us back when we could spend more time.
Walking up the hill to our van, I was certain we wouldn’t have made it in the van. Snow, mud, and ice covered much of the roadway. We were soon on our way to Yellowstone.
This short time on Ellen’s ranch, our arrival on the cliffs above the beach in northern California, and the tornado in West Virginia, were the highlights of this trip.
Image by Alexander Ermakov at pexels.com
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