Ranch house, barn, sheep shed, corrals, and outbuildings. Photo courtesy of Anne Willson Whitehead
Last updated: September 17, 2018
September 14, 2018
Established 1880 in the Niobrara River Valley of Wyoming Territory
By Anne Willson Whitehead, Manville, Wyoming, November 2018
John Willson, a great-great grandfather of Eugene Bigelow Willson and George Luther Willson, came with his wife, Jane from Ireland to Massachusetts in 1729. A fourth generation later, Eugene’s and George’s father and mother made a westward move from Massachusetts in 1837 with a colony group settling at Como, Illinois, then the nation’s western frontier. Here they lived their married life and, with the exception of Juliana, their children, William Parkhurst, Juliana, Helen, George Luther, Eugene Bigelow and Edmund Brooks, grew to adulthood.
The brothers George Luther Willson and Eugene Bigelow Willson and later, Edmund Brooks Willson, continued the Westward trek of Willsons. Eugene left a promising job with the McCormick Harvester Company in Davenport, Iowa and headed for California, but his money ran out at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, where he arrived by train September 8, 1870. Three years before Union Pacific had laid railroad tracks through Cheyenne, which prospered after the railroad builders moved on and for several years was a roaring, booming town with a well-deserved Wild West reputation.
Eugene still aimed for California but recognized opportunity in Cheyenne for jobs and getting ahead. Within a few months George joined him, and they worked at a variety of jobs ranging from “biscuit shooting,” also known as “mutton lugging” (which was waiting tables at the Hotel Simmons), coal hauling, shoveling snow to clear railroad tracks, and sheep herding. Eventually, their mainstay occupation was surveying on crews with government contracts to map the southeast corner of the Territory.
Thoughts of California faded; their goal became to establish a place of their own or, as George put it, “Get on their own dung hill.” In summer 1879, Gene and George with Thor Rasmussen, a friend from sheep-herding days at the Valley Ranch south of Cheyenne joined the as partner in the enterprise and they made an exploratory horseback journey through eastern Wyoming Territory to find a good ranch site. North from Cheyenne, beyond Fort Laramie they arrived at Silver Cliff, near present day Lusk, where they stopped a few days to explore prospects along the Running Water (Niobrara) Valley. Their first-choice place there was already occupied as a squatter’s claim by Mr. Wulfjen, a miner working in the Rawhide Buttes to the south.
Continuing their search, they went on to Deadwood in Dakotah Territory where Edmund Willson, their younger brother who had come from Illinois, was working. From Deadwood they rode west and north as far as Lake DeSmet, near present-day Buffalo. There they turned south following the Bozeman Trail road into Fort Laramie, then onward returning to Cheyenne. After their long excursion the Niobrara Valley was the place they remembered.
That winter a windfall job came their way when Heck Reel, one of their first employers when they came to Wyoming Territory and later mayor of Cheyenne, contracted with George and Gene to haul 2,000 logs from Laramie Peak to his new ranch north of Wheatland near the base of the Peak. Wages from this job added to their savings, faithfully deposited for ten years in a Cheyenne bank, were at last enough to launch their dream.
Early in Spring 1880, the partners departed Cheyenne for the Niobrara Valley intending to claim the best available ranch location they could find there. A pleasant surprise was waiting for them. Mr. Wulfjen wanted to move on and agreed to surrender his land claim to the Willson brothers and Thor Rasmussen. The place they wanted from first sight was now theirs.
Running Water Ranch, named for its beautiful valley location, was established in 1880 by Eugene and George Willson and Thor Rasmussen with an initial flock of 1,500 ewes and 10 rams. This flock would eventually increase to many bands and 20,000 head at times. Thor left the partnership in 1889 to live in Chicago near his two sisters. Willson Brothers began building up a registered Hereford herd before 1900 and in 1916 sold all their sheep continuing in the cattle business exclusively from that time.
The nucleus of Willson Brothers Running Water Ranch, Inc. continues in operation (2018) by Anne Willson Whitehead, Eugene Bigelow Willson’s granddaughter, whose home on the ranch was built in 1890 by George Luther Willson, her great-uncle. Manville Ranch, Inc. was first honored in 1990 by the State of Wyoming during its Centennial Year and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association as a Centennial Ranch having been in continuous operation by the same family for one hundred or more years. Manville Ranch, Inc., now celebrating one hundred thirty-eight years of operation, was honored once again in August 2014 by Wyoming State Parks & Cultural Resources Historic Preservation Office in August 2014 as a Centennial Ranch.
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