Historical Details

Willson Ranch Established 1880

Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 05/24/1956

Eugene Bigelow Willson was born October 18, 1852 at Como, Illinois. He came to Wyoming in 1870 and for ten years the story of his life in the southern part of the state along the Union Pacific is a fascinating tale of a historical period.

When he was in his 27th year he finally came to the Running Water in 1880, selected a site for a sheep ranch, and became permanently located. The ranch is still in the family name with the second and third generations in charge.

He told the story and incidents of his life to his wife Isabel, and it has been preserved in writing. It is a tale of the heroic beginning of the live stock industry north of the Platte River; the observation of the life and customs of the time and vivid comment on the various incidents and happenings of the time just after the Sioux Indians were taken to reservations east of the Black Hills.

In the spring of 1880, along with his brother George, he started on a long trip to answer a question: Where shall we locate! They had decided to go into the sheep business. A young Dane, Thor Rassmussen, had joined the two brothers as a silent partner. They came north to the Silver Cliff, and on to Jenney’s Stockade, to Belle Fourche and across country toward Fort Phil Kearney, to Fort McKinney, to Fort Fetterman, and back to the starting point, Cheyenne. This is a great story in itself. They loaded up with supplies and returned to the Running Water. He tells about locating the squatters’ claims.

“We came up the creek this far (and) found logs set, marking a claim at the spring on the ‘spring branch.’ (Later they learned they were set by Mr. Woldjen, (perhaps Wulfjen) who later abandoned the claim.) We liked the location so well, we would have settled there had not someone been ahead of us. We went up the creek a mile and a half, where I filed a squatter’s claim until the land could be surveyed, when I filed a homestead claim, and began to build a cabin. That summer we erected what was afterwards the kitchen part of the building. Later on we enlarged our home to three comfortable size rooms”. (This is the log cabin located in the George Washington Memorial Park in Lusk, and is owned by the local DAR chapter.)

“About the first of September 1880, the three of us, George, Thor and I, started with our teams and saddle horses for the Meadow Springs ranch in northeastern Colorado. . . . to buy 1500 head of 2-year old Mexican ewes and some Merino bucks from Vermont . . . We gave $1.75 a head for ewes and $10.00 each for 15 bucks (the incidents of bringing the sheep to the ranch are very interesting) We topped the bluffs south of the cabin just after dusk, November 1, 1880, and landed the first band of sheep to graze in what is now Niobrara County . . . .We were in the sheep business continuously until 1916, when, owing to the settling up of the country and curtailment of the open range, we sold our flock for $12.50 a head, and went into the cattle industry exclusively”.

In 1881-1882, many parts of the country were swarming with great herds of cattle belonging to the renown “Cattle Kings”’ who were wealthy men, most of them citizens of New York City, Boston, London, Edinburg, or elsewhere, except the territory of Wyoming.

Vast numbers of Southern cattle were brought north to various ranches belonging to these companies, and turned loose after the branding to fend for themselves until spring when they would be rounded up, the calves branded, beeves shipped to market, and the rest turned out again. Simple! A few cowpunchers stayed at the ranch through the winter to look after the horses, etc., and the cattle shifted for themselves.

“From time to time a number of small bands of sheep, like our own, were coming in and locating in favorable places. Rivalry sprang up between the cattlemen and sheepmen, and at times there was a bitter feeling between them. The cattlemen claimed all the country north of the ‘brakes’. . . .That was the deadline and, and no sheep, they asserted, should pass it. That was all right, if the cattle did not overstep, either. There was more or less cat-and-dog attitude. The heads of cattle ranches seldom or never set foot on their ranches, while sheep owners in nearly every case, lived, worked and when necessary suffered with their flocks of sheep. They were almost without exception, pioneer residents of the Territory. That was more than fifty years ago (when this was written) and the hostility has died out. The livestock business drifted this way and that, from cattle to sheep, and from sheep to cattle, and back. The Willsons were inclined to be reasonable, they liked people in general, and were hospitable and neighborly, and had no trouble at all over the noted ‘deadline.’”

Mr. Willson tells of Walter Newton who stayed with them on the ranch for two winters, 1881-1882, guided Englishmen through Yellowstone Park for $5 a day when there were no roads, and “just as nature made her”. Then he bought the Jack Madden ranch south of Silver Cliff mining hill, bought a log house, put up a large shed and a good ditch to irrigate his meadow. He intended to go into the sheep business and suddenly he sold the place and left. He told Eugene he had no intention of selling, that a man had come along and made him an offer for the ranch, they talked a little, and the man gave him a dollar which Walter accepted, not realizing it bound the bargain. He almost cried, E.B. said when he found out what he had done. So he went back to his old home to work for the Bay State Company, as the elder Newton had planned. (Frank Lusk tells in his memoirs about buying the Newton place).

Speaking of Walter Newton reminds one of an earlier pioneer, Jack Madden, whose ranch holdings Walter purchased. Jack was quite a character. He was all of six and a half feet tall, rugged, decisive, and he feared nothing on earth or anywhere else. He had a mower and made hay on his meadow in summer. The Indians were bad around there most of the time and used to hang around behind the hill and take a “peck” at him now and then. He always carried his rifle on the mower with him and when they let fly at him, he would just shoot back and keep on mowing. He put up the stone barn near the Silver Cliff hill and for a time ran a roadhouse to accommodate the miners, traveler, stage drivers and bullwhackers passing that way.

Images & Attachments

The Cabin 1880
Friends taking time out for a portrait. Thor Rasmussen at left next to Eugene Willson. Photos courtesy of Anne Willson Whitehead, author of Willson Brothers Running Water Ranch,The Homestead Cabin Story

Related/Linked Records

Record Type Name
Obituary Lusk, Frank (04/27/1857 - 08/06/1930) View Record