Alter Ranch History
As told by Jim Downing and used with permission
All photos courtesy of Jim Downing.
The Alter Homestead was claimed by Boynton (Bunt) Alter in 1914.
Bunt was born in Wayland, Iowa in September 1879. In 1900, at age 21, he began working on the railroad and moved westward, eventually stopping in Lusk, where he worked on several ranches, drove horses to Montana, trapped wolves in the Harney Buttes and helped mark the grave of Mother Featherlegs. He worked as a surveyor for the Copper Belt and Michigan mines. Then he traveled and worked extensively, ranging as far as Alaska and northwest Canada, where he worked for the Whitehorse-Yukon Telegraph Company. After these adventures, he returned to Lusk and looked for a place to settle down. He selected a spot 17 miles south of Lusk and homesteaded there on 320 acres.
Anna Hanson, born in 1887, also had an adventurous spirit. After growing up in Norway, she traveled to New York, then moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where she worked for a year. In 1908, she and a friend traveled by train to Lusk. Both women took jobs as waitresses at the Northwestern Hotel, where Anna worked for several years. She claimed her own homestead east of Lusk and later sold it. She and Bunt were married on April 15, 1915 and moved to the Alter Homestead.
In 1917 Bunt and Anna’s daughter, Ione, was born in the homestead house. Ione spent her entire life ranching on and around her parents’ homestead.
Bunt and Anna built the house and the outbuildings and started raising cattle and dry farming. Droughts,hail and grasshoppers were hazards that made them decide to stop farming, buy grain, and shift to raising sheep along with a few cattle. In 1920, they added another 320 acres to their ranch. During the 1930’s and 1940’s they raised turkeys in addition to sheep.
In the late 1920’s, neighbors, being discouraged by winters and economics, began to leave the area. One family that stayed and made a go of it along with the Alters was the Josie and Walter (Happy) Tyrrel family, whose land was just north of the Alter homestead. The two families became close friends and frequently visited each other and worked together. Subsequent generations have remained close.
Descendants of the Josie and Happy Tyrrel family are still running their original ranch, and fourth generation Tyrrel descendants are leasing and nurturing the Alter pastures today. The strong friendship continues.
Many stories have been passed down about life on the homestead. Raising turkeys on the prairie was a challenge. The turkeys were herded like sheep so they could feed on grasshoppers. During a big grasshopper year they would range a mile from home. Anna usually herded them, and one summer she killed 75 rattlesnakes with a hoe. The turkeys would find the snakes and circle around them. When it was time to market the turkeys, neighbors would get together and go from grower to grower and have a turkey plucking. They plucked hundreds of turkeys, enjoyed each other’s company and always had a huge delicious meal.
The homestead house was small and very basic but this did not stop Bunt and Anna from hosting frequent gatherings of friends and neighbors. They were known for their hospitality and Anna’s good cooking.
Sometimes the gatherings were work related, when neighbors gathered for tasks such as sheep shearing or turkey plucking, but at other times, people were invited just for a meal and a visit.
The blizzard of 1949 was almost fatal for Bunt and Anna because they were caught out in the sheep pasture on foot. The storm came on suddenly and they were not able to get to the house before the blizzard almost overcame them. Almost all their sheep died in the storm.
They bought more sheep in the spring of 1949 and continued every year to run the ranch, raise a large vegetable garden, raise fruit trees, preserve large stores of homegrown food, help families with child care,and keep in close touch with neighbors. Bunt enjoyed playing the fiddle and had a collection of violins,and he often recited poetry and sang while he worked. Anna was an avid reader, and she enjoyed embroidery and crocheting.
Bunt and Anna sold the sheep and semi-retired in 1960. They stayed in the homestead house until 1967 when they purchased a mobile home and moved two miles away to their daughter’s house. Ione looked after them there for many years. They finally moved to the Niobrara County Nursing home, living there until their deaths in 1981; Anna was 96 and Bunt was 101.
In 1941 Ione married Raymond Hoy, the son of Josie and Stanley Hoy, neighbors who also stayed and met the challenges of life on the prairie.Raymond and Ione grew up knowing each other and attended Rawhide School and Lusk High School.
In 1942 their daughter, Jo Ann was born. Ione, Raymond and Jo Ann settled on and later purchased the Marie Porter ranch, which joins the Alter homestead. In 1952, Raymond died in an airplane accident. Ione stayed on the ranch, having acquired the skills and expertise
necessary to successfully run a sheep raising operation. In 1957, Ione married Roy Turnbull, a rancher from east of Lusk. Roy moved in and became a valued and beloved new member of the Jay Em area community until his death in 1984. Ione again stayed on the ranch on her own until 1996 when she moved to Lusk. She leased the pastures and continued to help with decision-making on the ranch until her death in 2015.
In 1964, Jo Ann married Tom Downing, a Wyoming native from Cheyenne, and they eventually settled near San Francisco in Lafayette, California. In 2007, Ione passed the ranch, including the homestead which she had purchased from Bunt and Anna, to Jo Ann and Tom Downing’s family trust.
In 2016, Jo Ann and Tom passed the ranch and the homestead to their son, Jim Downing.
The Homestead, which provided a comfortable living for Bunt and Anna, is now used for pasturing red angus cattle owned by Pat and Jo Ann Wade (Jo Ann is the great-granddaughter of homestead neighbors Josie and Happy Tyrrel). A new well, a solar pump, new water tanks and a water pipe line were installed in 2007. In 2012, a prairie fire destroyed the original homestead buildings and burned large portions of the pastures. The grass has recovered and is improving because of careful range management, and continues to support wildlife as well as cattle. Jo Ann and Tom, and Jim and his family, maintain Ione’s house and spend as much time as possible on the ranch.
Images & Attachments
|Obituary||Alter, Anna (09/20/1886 - 03/31/1981)||View Record||Obituary||Porter, Marie (10/14/1884 - 12/25/1968)||View Record||Obituary||Turnbull, Roy (09/01/1898 - 06/24/1984)||View Record||Obituary||Alter, Boynton (09/17/1879 - 07/12/1981)||View Record||Obituary||Porter, Rolla (11/30/1884 - 12/14/1942)||View Record||Obituary||Turnbull, Ione (08/29/1917 - 03/17/2015)||View Record||Historical||Tyrrel Ranch History||View Record||Obituary||Hoy, Robert (09/05/1919 - 06/22/1952)||View Record|