This past week-end (September 28-October 1, 2017) was the 26th annual Old West Days in Valentine, Nebraska. As always, it was a fun time with opportunity to enjoy lots of excellent cowboy music and poetry. The noted Texas entertainer Red Steagall performed to a sold-out crowd at the Saturday night performance. He is a wonderful musician, story-teller, and cowboy historian, and his show was a definite success.
One of his poems is entitled “The Fence That Me and Shorty Built,” and the last stanzas go like this:
Come mornin' let's re-dig those holes
And get that fence in line.
And you and I will save two jobs,
Those bein' yours and mine.
And someday you'll come ridin' through
And look across this land,
And see a fence that's laid out straight
And know you had a hand,
In something that's withstood the years.
Then proud and free from guilt,
You'll smile and say, 'Boys, that's the fence
That me and Shorty built."
This conjured up a fencing memory of my own.
As a kid, I despised fixing or building fence, and resented every moment spent doing it. My dear old dad had a talk with me one day. He asked, “Do you like ranching?” My reply was that I enjoyed the horseback part of it. He went on to say, “If you are going to be a rancher, fixing fence is a big part of our occupation. A person can either do a slip-shod job of it, or you can take just a little bit of extra time, do it well, and look back on your efforts with pride.” I kind of took his words to heart, and have tried to do a decent job of fencing ever since.
In the summer of 1970, I was 18 years old and had just recently graduated from Gordon High School in Nebraska. My summer employment was as a dude wrangler on Moose Head Ranch, in the heart of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a foggy Monday afternoon on the 8th of June when I reported for duty. The fog and drizzling rain didn’t lift for quite a while, and it was about three days later when I got my first look at the majestic Tetons to the west. Steve Taylor was a young man from Illinois with similar dude-wrangling aspirations, and he had arrived about an hour before I did. We were both shown the ranch and allowed to get settled in on the first day.
The next day was again foggy with a slight drizzle. The first guests wouldn’t arrive until the following Sunday, and visibility was not good enough to attempt to gather the 65 horses that were still out on the big government range between the ranch headquarters and the Snake River. Another task would be given us until we could gather horses and start getting them in order for trail rides.
John Mettler was owner of the Moose Head Ranch, which he had purchased just three years previous. He had built several new cabins to accommodate guests, and these rustic but modern structures were in an area that was previously part of the horse pasture. He desired to make a fenced lane to run between the cabins, so horses could be trailed to the corrals without bothering automobiles owned by guests. The country was very rocky, and post holes were nearly impossible to dig. Lots of timber was on hand, and there was a big supply of newly-cut lodge-pole pine rails with which to build a fence.
Mr. Mettler took Steve Taylor and me to the location, and instructed us to build a “buck fence” which would require no digging. Upright A-frames were positioned about fourteen feet apart, and rails sixteen feet long were nailed horizontally into place. There were four horizontal rails between each upright, and about every fourth joint an angled rail was nailed into place to keep the fence from falling like a stack of dominoes. Mr. Mettler told us to curve the fence through the trees.
Steve and I had a nice start on our fence, and we were working diligently when Al Kleeman came along to inspect. Mr. Kleeman was manager of the ranch, and he and his wife lived there year-round to take care of the place and feed hay to the horses during the winter. Mr. Mettler and his family only spent the summers in Wyoming, and returned to their home in Tallahassee, Florida to spend the rest of each year. Al Kleeman looked at our fence which was “curving through the trees,” and emphatically told us to start over, do it right, and make the fence look good and straight.
Steve Taylor and I meekly complied with our new orders and tackled our job with vigor. Once again we had made quite a bit of progress, with a good feeling of accomplishment, when out of the fog emerged Mr. Mettler. He took one look at our efforts, and said, “I thought I told you boys to make this fence curve through the trees.” We explained our dilemma, and the fact that Al had not approved of what we had done. Mr. Mettler was diplomatic enough, but he let it be known in no uncertain terms that he wrote the checks that paid Al Kleeman’s wages and would be writing the checks that paid ours, and that if he said we were to curve the fence through the trees, we were to do exactly that. We did, and as they say, “The third time is the charm.”