At the turn of the 20th century, ranching was the challenge of a lifetime. It was an opportunity to tame the West, reside atop the prairie while working hard to feed, clothe and live in a country where dangers were around every turn in the dusty road.
Between cold winters, inadequate water supply and outlaws, the risk was life and death for the early Converse County homesteaders.
Now, 15 years into the 21st century, times have changed and opportunity in ranching is no longer what it once was. The risk has changed from fighting day in and day out for survival to striving to maintain the same lifestyle.
New challenges have made it nearly impossible to establish the same roots that homesteaders did 100 years ago.
Land prices, industrial stagnation, government involvement and general lack of interest by new generations are some major roadblocks that have changed the role of traditional ranching.
But ranching as a lifestyle will never go away so long as there is land to graze and people who need to be fed.
That is just what the Robinson Ranch of Converse County has been doing for 100 years.
Wyoming had just been a state for 25 years when Tom and Nettie Robinson decided to leave Nebraska and head west in 1915. Tom left for Colorado, then sent word for Nettie to join him. Nettie came on the train with their three children, Helen, 6, Tom Jr., who was a toddler, and Merle, who was a baby.
Tom Sr. met them in April at the Nebraska-Colorado border with a covered wagon, a team of horses and a milk cow.
They traveled for several months, gradually making their way north toward Wyoming.
Later, Tom said that Nettie was getting a little “cranky,” so he felt that they needed to find a place to stay before winter.
Tom Sr. found work on a ranch near Glenrock. As part of his salary, he was given a saddle horse.
Tom went off looking for homestead land. He rode his horse 15 miles north of Douglas and decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life on the land. He filed the papers on his new land and immediately started building a little three-room house for his family.
Many other homesteaders were also moving into the area. Tom soon realized that this land was not like Nebraska, Kansas or other places where the homesteaders had lived. Wyoming did not receive enough rain to grow crops, which led Tom to acquire a well drilling rig.
He instantly started drilling water wells to make a living.
“I’m not sure how he got the driller,” Dorothy Robinson Butler said. “I’m sure it wasn’t cheap, but he realized the need for it.”
Tom also decided to raise sheep instead of trying to farm the land. As his neighbors became discouraged and decided to sell their homestead farms, Tom would buy their land.
The Robinsons had only lived on their land for six years when Nettie was killed as she attempted to pour kerosene on a fire in the stove. Six months later, the youngest Robinson child, Merle, died of pneumonia.
Times were tough, but Tom Sr. or “T.P.” as he was sometimes called, continued to keep a positive outlook on life and worked extremely hard.
Dorothy said that the neighbors would always say that T.P. had Tom Jr. riding a horse almost before he could walk.
By the early ‘30s, Tom had acquired enough land that he could raise almost 2,800 sheep on it.
In 1934, Tom Jr. and Ella Edwards eloped. Ella’s parents had homesteaded just four miles from the Robinson Ranch. Since Tom Sr. was living alone, Tom Jr. and Ella moved into the little homestead house with him.
Tom Sr. continued to live on his ranch and work until he died at the age of 83 in 1964. He left half of his ranch to his daughter, Helen Eberspecher, and the other half to Tom Sr.
When Helen died in 1982, her seven children inherited their mother’s half of the ranch. Tom Jr. had a dream of putting the ranch back together again. Since Helen’s children all loved the ranch, they too wanted all the land to continue to stay in the family for generations. They were happy to let their uncle buy their share of the ranch.
Tom Jr., like his dad, never knew what “retirement” meant, Dorothy said of her dad.
Tom and Ella both continued to work extremely hard and truly loved the ranch. Besides being known for his great work ethic, Tom was famous for his funny stories. Ella’s good coking and lovely garden won praise from all.
“Dad had an amazing memory, and mom kept miraculous books on the ranch and was a great cook,” Dorothy said. “When dad was 77 years old, he trailed cattle 18 miles to market and if you asked him why he did it, he said, ‘Just to prove I can.”
Tom died at age 91 and Ella died at age 97 1/2 in 2013. In 2003, the couple received the cooperator of the year award from the Converse County Conservation District for their exemplary ranching practices. Ella was particularly proud that the Robinson Ranch had been in the family for 97 years and both had hoped and were looking forward to celebrating the centennial of ranching operations there.
Today, the Robinson Ranch is owned by the Robinsons’ only child, Dorothy Robinson Butler, and their grandson, Jay Butler.
It’s like stepping back into a simpler time when you come to the homestead house.
Dorothy recently had the little homestead house on the prairie restored. When asked why she did this, she replied, “That little homestead house has been in our family for 100 years. Our ranch has been in our family for 100 years, and I hope and pray that it will continue to stay in the family for another 100 years. We are honored to be one of Wyoming’s centennial ranch families.”
The Robinson Ranch is being honored this Saturday, Aug. 15, in Douglas at a private ceremony by Gov. Matt Mead.
“I just love the ranch. It’s very near and dear to my heart, and I get really emotional when I think about when my granddad rode a horse out here to homestead our property . . . I know that he rode here and said this is where I want to live the rest of my life, and he did,” Dorothy said with a small tear in her eye.