Tales of the Ranch

The Last Cattle Drive

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 hundred head of cattle and men on horseback. Before he could say a word out came 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!

Prairie Rattler: the only venomous snake
in North Dakota

Lloyd began working on the old man’s ranch when he was fourteen 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. This was a chance for a better life, and he appreciated the opportunity, happily making his home with Math and Anne Koch and their young family who also lived and worked out there. 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 1950’s were loading the cattle up for a quick day trip to town. It was becoming harder and harder to keep the cattle out of fields and drive them down the roads that were more and more well-traveled. Why would you when a semi could haul 25 head or so! 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 1950’s 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 twenty-three 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. 

The Martell Ranch in 1956. This original painting was done in 2012 by Lloyd’s sister Elsie from a back and white photograph. Lloyd gave her the details she needed to paint an accurate representation of what the ranch yard looked like in those days.

The year Franklin was born, his uncle Andrew Nohle, was establishing a ranch along the Mouse River becoming the first permanent white settler in the area. Two of Andrew’s brothers followed, and Franklin grew up hearing stories from his mother about his uncles’ adventures out west. As the oldest of eight children he quit school when his father died to devote full time to the family dairy farm in upstate New York. There you could see him “herding” the dairy cattle on horseback – quite an unusual and humorous site. Franklin fancied himself a cowboy!

Over the years Franklin had seen a lot of changes, many resulting from his contributions to the area. He was a forward-thinking man and worked hard to establish roads, postal service and several businesses in his community of Charbonneau. His ranch was the first in the county to have electricity and a phone.  Ironically, the expansion of roads and automobiles that he had been so in favor of were now closing down this little town. Rural North Dakota may not have been on the fast track, but the change was inevitable. 

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.  The mystique of the cowboy was still a powerful thing, but the reality was the old ways were impractical.  He knew this would be his last year to drive the cattle to town and that he too would hire the trucks to haul them in. Lloyd was young, just seventeen now, 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.

Lloyd, on the tractor, and his brother Tom who occasionally worked on the Martell Ranch, in the late 1940’s.

They set out right after the fourth of July early in the morning.  The closest sales ring was in Sidney MT, a little over thirty 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. There was Lloyd, Math who lived and worked with his young family out on the ranch, Lloyd’s cousin August and a couple of cowboys that worked when extra hands were needed; Oliver being one of them, and a  range rider for the Grazing Association. They went out the back through the government pasture and up along Middle Creek. It was near here the rattler made his appearance.  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.  Some of the hired men came out and helped pen up the cattle. 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. Franklin may have a special place in his heart for the old days, but he had also grown accustomed to the comforts of a modern home.

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 noontime like always 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. He waited two years during the war for it, and it was still serving him well. Tradition on these trips was a shot of Scotch before the noon meal.  Lloyd figured he would not be offered a drink, but he got a shot along with the “old guys”. Franklin made sure he fed the men well; hamburgers, steaks and mashed potatoes, bread, the kind of meal to keep hard working cowboys going. Franklin did not make the men wait either; he watched the clock close and had the food ready.  

While they were enjoying their break and noon meal the calf decided this would be a good time to make a run for it. Once the men ran him down, his legs were tied and he was put in the chuck wagon with Franklin for the rest of the day’s trip. Now that was a picture – an old man driving a fifteen-year-old Ford sedan with a baby calf as his passenger!

The afternoon found them going along the river road, taking their time to let the cattle graze along the way.  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 nearby the Sidney Bridge and left them with just a half day journey to get to the sales ring. It was time to get the animals corralled for the night.

Now, Franklin had been quite the cowboy and horseman in his day.  As August would say, “his rope never missed.” He ran a prosperous horse business in the early 1900’s and was known for his expertise. Even though he was a man of progress there was a part of him that longed for the times of his youth. He was getting old now, but he could still sit a horse and work the cattle with the best of them. So, he took one of the men’s horses and got to work. The horse got jumpy with all the commotion and Franklin ended up catching his pant leg on the saddle horn and tearing the seam from the crotch to the hem. This did not faze him any; he got the horse to settle down and the cattle were corralled for the night. He did not pay any mind to that torn up pant leg that was now more like a skirt.  Lloyd always remembered the sight of him working the cattle with his pants flapping about.  It still brought a smile to his face and a shake to his head.

On the third and 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. As Lloyd described, “it took a little persuasion to get them across but nothing severe”. Those were the days of challenges met with calmness, understatement, and certainty. 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.  The dust and unmistakable sounds of an approaching herd forewarned some of the workers at the sales ring who alerted the rest by yelling “herd coming in!” They made it by 1:00pm exactly as planned.  The big steers topped the market at about 1300 pounds and brought in $.13 a pound. 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. Franklin made a stop at the old Mint Café as he often did before heading back. He was in a good mood and took a turn across the dance floor with the barmaid; his pant legs unrepaired and still swirling around his legs.

Those few days had been interesting and exciting for a young man; more fun than work really. It gave him a glimpse into how things once were. Now over sixty years later, Lloyd held on to his memories along with the rattles given to the young man he once was, ready to go with excitement on that first day of the last cattle drive.  

Lloyd’s original story
In the mid 1950’s many western North Dakota ranchers drove their cattle to market, including the James, Crighton and Cornell families. Fred James began homesteading in 1905. The James family continues ranching in the North Dakota Badlands today.  Photos  from a circa 1954 cattle drive by the James, Crighton and Cornell ranches to the market in Sidney, Montana. Pictures courtesy of: Kathy Jess James and the James family

Main Street Sidney, Montana on the way to the stockyards, 1954

This story was told to me by Lloyd Lester in 2017. Lloyd typed the basic story and in subsequent conversations added details and more information. Lloyd turned 18 in 1957 and left employment at the Martell Ranch.  His fondness for his time at the ranch did not fade. He and the Koch and Martell families remain close.

Lloyd with Anne Koch,
Cynthia Koch Vitt, Patricia Koch Rau and Mary Pat Martell Jones


  • Lois Croy Vanidestine

    Excited to read this amazing history of an endearing family from my childhood. Thank you so much for keeping that history alive! Cynthia was a dear friend growing up in Cartwright, spent a lot of time at Matt and Anne’s home on the Martell Ranch.

  • Tess Howie

    Wonderful story and photos, Mary Pat. Thank you for your steadfast dedication to sharing the history of North Dakota with humor and heartstring-tugging sentiment.

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