Horses,  North Dakota Horizons magazine,  Tales of the Ranch

The Last Cattle Drive II

This story was written and posted with many pictures in Writin’ for the Brnd’s Tales of the Ranch in 2022. North Dakota Horizons magazine has published an edited version in their last summer issue; sadly this is the last year of the magazines publication. I am grateful for the numerous times they published a story of mine. They always brought my articles to life with beautiful layouts. It’s fitting that my last article for them is The Last Cattle Drive.

Author note: This story was told to me by Lloyd Lester in 2017. He typed the original story and in subsequent conversations added details. Lloyd worked on the Martell ranch until 1957 when he turned 18. While employed by Martell, he lived with Math Koch and his young family. Lloyd’s fondness for his time on the ranch never faded. He and the Koch and Martell families remain close.

Lloyd began working on old man Franklin’s ranch when he was 14 years old. He loved it there, back
in the hills along Charbonneau Creek. The work was hard but not discouraging. His wages were his own and he was treated more fairly than ever before. He had done just about every job on the place over the past few years, except one. Every summer, the cattle were driven to the sales ring in town. With the advent of roads and semi-trucks most ranchers, by the late 1950s, were loading cattle up for a quick day trip to town. Not the old man, he was still driving his cattle to town over the hills, through the coulees, along the river, and down back roads.

Changes were transforming the way of life in the late 1950s in western North Dakota. It had been a half century since Franklin came west from New York, leaving established towns for the vast openness of western North Dakota. He was 23 years old when he made his claim and built that first primitive log cabin by the creek. There were few towns, no roads, no electricity, or modern amenities. He was there before the railroad was built that would connect the small, isolated communities dotting the prairie. Now, people were connected like never before and products were moved with relative ease.

Franklin had a great affection for Lloyd. He knew life was hard and wanted to give him a chance at having a better life. He appreciated the young man’s determination, willingness to work hard and loyalty. Franklin knew the cattle drives were a thing of the past. He knew this would be his last year to drive the cattle to town. Lloyd was young, just 17, and even though he had worked with the cattle, he had never been on the drive to market. If he did not go this year, he never would. So, in July 1956, Lloyd was off with the men on the last cattle drive.

They set out right after the fourth of July early in the morning. The closest sales ring was in Sidney, Mont., a little over 30 miles away. The trip would only take two and a half days, but to Lloyd, with all the preparation and excitement, it seemed “as if they were going all the way to Texas.” There were five of them on horseback herding the 100 or so steers, five old cows and one calf. They went out the back through the government pasture and up along Middle Creek. Up ahead, Lloyd saw a rattler taking in the morning sun.

Rattlesnakes were common out here in the summer so you “listened real close” for the rattles when you were out in the pasture. The Prairie Rattler may be smaller than other rattlesnakes, but it maintains a nasty disposition none the less. Here they were, about ready to cross one’s path with over 100 head of cattle and five men on horseback. Before he could say a word out came another rider, Oliver’s, lariat with a snap, catching the rattler and Lloyd by surprise. Oliver finished off the snake and gave Lloyd the rattles. What a day, and it had only just begun!

After the rattler was dispatched in a way befitting a cattle drive, they continued over and down Broadhead Ridge and onto a gravel road leading to their stop for the night, the Reidle Ranch. When the cattle were settled, they all went home. This was not a sleep under the stars alongside your animals’ type of cattle drive. No need with a modern vehicle that could get you home in a decent amount of time.

They were back out and got the cattle going early the second morning, passing through Estes Coulee, one of the many ravines that wound through the badlands. They came out along the main road by the Yellowstone River. Greeting them was the “Martell chuck wagon.” Franklin had gone ahead and was waiting at noon time with the fire going, coffee brewing and beans in a pot. This cook wagon was Franklin’s modern-day version; a 1942 Ford with everything he needed to cook dinner in the back of the car. Franklin made sure he fed the men well; hamburgers, steaks and mashed potatoes, bread, the kind of meal to keep hard working cowboys going. The afternoon found them going along the river road, taking their time to let the cattle graze along the way.

Lloyd’s sister Elsie did this painting of the Martell Ranch in 1956 from an old photograph and Lloyd’s description for the details.

Things were going well until they got to Benny Pierre Creek, sometimes called Benny Peer Creek, where an old wooden bridge was the crossing. The cattle were not going to have any part of that; they would not budge. Not to be outmaneuvered, a couple of the men roped the biggest steer and dragged him across the bridge. Once they got him across, the rest followed with Lloyd and the other men giving them a “little encouragement from behind.” Things went fine the rest of the way as they followed the river road
to the night’s stop at Alex Rau’s place. The Rau’s was near the Sidney Bridge and left them with just a half day journey to get to the sales ring.

On the last day of the drive, Franklin wanted the steers to the sales barn in Sidney right after the noon meal. The final challenge was getting the cattle across the bridge over the Yellowstone River. Men from the Rau place and cowboys from the sales ring came out to help. “It took a little persuasion to get them across but nothing severe,” Lloyd described. After crossing the bridge, they let the cattle take their time getting to town; one last chance to eat along the road before being weighed for sale. Down the main street of Sidney they went, reminiscent of a common sight in days gone by, to the other side of town where the rail yard and sales ring were located. They made it by 1:00 p.m. exactly as planned. Franklin was satisfied with how everything went. It was time for Lloyd and the others to return to the ranch where there was always work to be done.

From the James Family archives, courtesy of Kathy Jess James.
Main street Sidney MT 1954 Cattle arriving
Lloyd and his older brother Tom on the Martell Ranch in the late 1940’s.

More pictures with the original story


  • Jill Escobar

    Mary Pat, you took me on the last cattle drive with all the fellows in your story. I enjoyed learning how it was done. Thanks for the ride!

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