When Major Stephen H. Long explored the area which later became Nebraska and Oklahoma in 1820, he called the region “the Great American Desert.” He considered the area “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” It was flat, treeless, and arid.
Fast forward fifty years and “the Great American Desert” would then be called “the Great Plains.” This territory consists of that region east of the Rockies and west of the 100th meridian (Witten, one of only a few towns sits exactly on the 100th meridian).
Those early pioneers did not view the Great Plains as an obstacle to westward expansion. They rapidly transformed the plains into America’s breadbasket. The railroad made it profitable to raise cattle on the plains and ship the product east.
When ready for market, the beef could be shipped east for slaughter or in refrigerated rail cars. This resulted in thousands of Texas longhorn cattle being driven as far north as southern Canada to feed on the lush grass which the buffalo had been eating for hundreds of years.
The first cattle to come into what would later become Dakota Territory did not come from the large Texas cattle drives. Manual Lisa, who founded Fort Manuel on the west side of the Missouri River just below the North Dakota border, brought cattle up the river from St. Louis. In the spring of 1812, he left St. Louis with two large barges and about seventy men. On the barges were cattle, hogs, cats, and supplies for the fort.
Perhaps no other activity has so well defined the character of the Great Plains in the minds of Americans and literature as cattle ranching. As ranching developed on the Plains, it adapted to the physical environment.
The open-range cattle industry was the first important agricultural industry to be established on the northern Great Plains region. Beginning with the arrival of the first trail herds in the 1860’s, the industry developed during the next few years until at the close of 1885 practically the whole northern Great Plains region was fully stocked and in some areas overstocked, as later years and events proved.
The open range was the foundation of the cattle industry on the Great Plains during its period of early expansion. The cattle industry as organized prior to 1885 was one of large scale operations. A few large operators controlled the industry, and because it was highly profitable, it was well financed. Overgrazing and the disastrous winter of 1886 – 87 led to the collapse of ranching as it was then practiced
This led to a complete reorganization of the industry. A few down-sized large operations remained; however, the majority of ranchers were small independent operations. They acquired land and stored hay during the summer for winter feed. Ranching on the northern plains began to resemble the industry as it is practiced today.
Bill Mack was the WBAP (Fort Worth) radio’s “Midnight Cowboy” for 32 years. He also hosted a syndicated gospel-program, “Country Crossroads,” each week that was heard all across America. On a Sunday in the mid 1960’s he shared with his radio audience the “Definition of a Cow.”
A copy of that selection, which included an illustration of a “prim and proud” cow was mailed to listeners who wanted a copy to share with others. It was one of the most popular stories used on his program of many years. The following is that story, “Definition of a Cow,” written by an unknown author:
“A cow is a completely automatic milk manufacturing machine. It is encased in untanned leather and mounted on four vertical, movable supports, one on each corner.
The front end contains the cutting and grinding mechanism, as well as light sensors, an air inlet and exhaust, a bumper and a foghorn.
At the rear is the dispensing apparatus and automatic fly swatter.
The central portion houses a hydro chemical conversion plant. This consists of four fermentation and storage tanks connected in series by an intricate network of flexible plumbing. The section also contains the heating plant complete with automatic temperature controls, pumping station and main ventilating system. The waste disposal apparatus is located at the rear of this central section.
In brief, the externally visible features are: two lookers, two hookers, four stand-uppers, four hanger-downers and a swishy-wishy.
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1: 25.”
For those individuals who during an earlier time had to milk those critters by hand in the morning and evening each day, we all especially remember that “swishy-wishy.” That cow knew exactly when and where to unleash that instrument. Suddenly, without warning, you would feel a sharp pain across the back of your neck and right cheek. It seems as though she always utilized that weapon just after it had come into contact with some of that fresh “you know what.” If you have never had that experience, you might not fully comprehend the situation!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on October 19, 2022