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Feb 11, 2005
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northern Nebraska Sandhills

By Steve Moreland – June 13, 2021

In the summer of 1970, I had an enjoyable job as a wrangler on the Moose Head Ranch in the heart of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This lovely guest ranch was 120-acres of deeded land, with the distinction of being the only privately owned land within the confines of Grand Teton National Park. It also had access to many miles of riding trails in the Park and on the adjoining Bridger-Teton National forest. Earlier that spring I had graduated from Gordon High School in northern Nebraska. Compared to growing up on a Nebraska Sandhills working ranch that ran Hereford cattle, this new dude-wrangler occupation in the mountains seemed like a paid vacation.

Moose Head Ranch took in guests from about the tenth of June through Labor Day week-end each summer. At any given time, there were about 60 paying guests and a support crew of about 20. The owners and managers of this fine ranch were Mr. and Mrs. John W. Mettler from Florida. They had spent 30 summers being paying dude-ranch guests before buying the Moose Head from Eva Topping in 1967. Eva and her husband Fred had homesteaded the property, and chose not to sell to the “Park” when many others did. After Fred Topping died, Eva sold to Mettlers, and she moved into Jackson.

John W. Mettler was a successful lawyer, and he also owned a thousand-cow ranch running Charolais cattle, near Tallahassee, Florida. The Mettler family spent the summers operating the dude ranch in Jackson Hole, and the rest of the year resided in the sunny south. John and Eleo were wealthy but hard working people, gracious hosts, and wonderful employers. During the week, Mr. Mettler wore a denim shirt and denim “pliers-pocket” pants. On Sundays he wore the same attire, but would put on a tie because it was Sunday. Mrs. Mettler was a pleasant but businesslike unpretentious lady, who had a somewhat gruff gravelly voice compliments of a lifetime of smoking.

The usual stay of guests was a week, though some stayed for two weeks, and some were even there for three weeks. Sunday was the normal “turn-over” day. The current visitors would leave in the morning, and the new guests would arrive during the afternoon. A Sunday evening cook-out, where hamburgers and hot dogs were grilled and beer flowed, was the “get-acquainted” session. It was held in a grassy park next to a bubbling brook, not too far from the main lodge. Guests stayed in several cabins scattered far enough apart to afford privacy. All in all, it was a top-of-the-line place to stay and enjoy life.

Even though the Sunday evening cook-outs were enjoyable events, they seemed rather tame for a “rootin’-tootin’” wild-west ranch experience. I suggested that a horse-drawn hay ride would add spice and adventure to the whole deal. The powers-that-be asked how that could be accomplished. I said that a perfectly good rubber-tired wagon running gear was on the premises, and that there looked to be a set of usable harness in the barn. A couple of the bigger gentler horses could be persuaded to pull the wagon, if some sort of platform could be built above the wheels. Small square bales of hay could provide seats for the guests. My idea caught hold, and things started to progress.

A couple of the handy-men were supplied with lumber, and assigned the task of building a flat platform to go on the wagon running gear. I was allowed to pick a couple horses and train them to wear harness and pull a load. Things started to fall into place, and another wrangler Gary Clark was available to help me. We put collars and harness on Chief and Molly, and started driving them around the corral. Chief was a big paint 1500-pound gelding that we used to tote around the bigger heavier touristy types. Molly was a bay mare who was almost as big as Chief. The team learned quickly. The wagon-bed was completed in a couple days, and soon Gary and I were hooking it to the two horses.

Chief and Molly were a bit rambunctious to start with, but for about a week Gary and I would drive them a couple miles to the Snake River and back in the afternoons. The cabin girls, who also served the meals, had from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. “off” each day, until they were needed to help with supper. Several of the girls would ride with Gary and me, when we would drive the team to the river. And to think, this was all done in the line of duty and work, and may be why I considered the job a “paid vacation.” Of course, my wage at the time was $150 per month including room and board, plus a dollar per day bonus if you stayed the whole season (no problem doing that). The crew also split gratuities. The charge for guests to stay on the ranch was $25 per person per day, plus an added 15 percent, which was the gratuity charge which the crew later shared. I did get one extra five dollar tip, and another for ten dollars, which was a pretty big deal at the time.

The Sunday rolled around when the first hayride to the cookout was to take place. A new area for the festivity was selected, about a mile west of the ranch toward the Snake River. Lots of buckbrush and trees were along the route. I would drive the team pulling the wagon, and Gary Clark would sit on the seat beside me “riding shotgun.” He and I were both decked out with white shirts, gold vests, and red string bowties. We both wore our blue jeans tucked into our tall top cowboy boots, and we kind of thought we were hot stuff.

Many of the other young folks on the crew saddled their horses and decked themselves out to be Indians and outlaws. They did this in secret, and were hid out in the buckbrush to ambush the hayride as it progressed to the picnic area. When the designated departure time arrived, I drove the wagon to the lodge, and the new guests found places to sit on the hay bales. All was in order, and off we drove.

Right on cue, the “bad guys and gals” rode out of the bushes to hold up the hayride. Several cap guns were shooting noisily, and lots of whooping and hollering was happening. I tried for as much authenticity as possible, and persuaded the team into a trot, and then a slow gallop to “outrun” the bad guys. The horses got right into the spirit of the excitement, and the slow gallop was becoming faster and faster. I had all I could do to keep it from becoming a full-fledged runaway, but finally got the outfit slowed down and stopped, to face our adversaries. The holdup was pulled off to everyone’s satisfaction, and then the hoodlums allowed us to progress to the waiting picnic cookout. After supper, and a sing-along, we loaded up the wagon for a more sedate ride back to the ranch. All in all, our endeavor was considered a success, and plans were made to do it the same way the next week.

When the next Sunday came along, the crew and cast all excitedly contemplated that everything would be pulled off as before. Mrs. Mettler though, had pondered all week, and decided to issue a few modifications to the way things would happen. Her more common sense and conservative ideas threatened to put a damper on the fun of the whole deal. She was quite adamant that this time there would be no wild shouting, shooting of cap guns, or fast running of horses. It was to be a much more subdued situation, all with safety in mind. She would be escorting us fairly closely, driving in her big station wagon car, to see that her proclamations would be obeyed.

Even though it was like a wet towel had been tossed on the whole endeavor, we all agreed to do as instructed. Once again the wagon was loaded with guests, and I was driving the team while Gary Clark rode shotgun. All was transpiring according to plan, and soon the hooligans darted out of the bushes to hold up the hayride. I coaxed the team into just a trot, to act like we were outrunning the bad guys. Right in the heat of the holdup, a loud blasting boom sounded like a cannon went off. It took us all by surprise, and Mrs. Mettler drove up rapidly in her car, quite disgusted and ready to fire the whole crew. She was about to read us the riot act, when I pointed down and explained, “But Mrs. Mettler, the tire just blew out.” Sure enough, the tire was in many pieces, and the rubber had met the road. The loud noise of the tire explosion couldn’t have been more perfectly timed to be in the heat of the battle. Mrs. Mettler surveyed the situation, and a slow smile crossed her face. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief, as she forgave us, and let us off the hook.

The passengers of the wagon had to walk the remaining distance to the picnic area. After supper, a ranch straight truck was driven to the site to haul the guests back to their cabins.
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With the hay rack tire beyond repair, and the novelty of the hayride cookout having run its course, the remaining Sunday suppers of the summer were held in the original serene setting, close to the main lodge. At least memories were made, and it was fun while it lasted.

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