John Finley continues family’s ranch a century later
Dubois – “My grandfather Duncan, who was my mother’s dad, came to Wyoming in 1891 when he was 19. One of his three brothers came in 1893 and they worked down by Point of Rocks, where they learned the sheep and cattle business. Then, in the late 1800s they bought two bands of sheep in Idaho and trailed them up the Sweetwater trail past Lander. They camped down by Crowheart Butte the winter of 1900-1901, then came on up into the East Fork Basin in 1901,” explains John Finley of how his family first arrived in the East Fork area.
From his home, John can see across the creek to where his family originally settled. “All four brothers came in and settled it from here up. My home sits within the boundaries of the original reservation, which opened for white settlement in 1906. Right where I sit was settled in 1906, but the other side of the creek was settled in 1901,” adds Finley.
He says the area was referred to as “Little Scotland” because so many Scots settled there, and most were related or in-laws. “Everyone that lived here was from Scotland,” he comments.
“They started with sheep, but eventually converted completely to cattle. From what I’ve read, my grandfather didn’t like sheep very well – he found them too mundane – but he did like the two incomes they provided with wool in the spring and lambs in the fall,” notes Finley.
The conversion of forest permits from sheep to cattle also influenced the switch. The family used to lease 27,000 acres from the reservation, and when those were taken away the Finley family sold their sheep.
“When I was a kid I can remember the sheep being shorn by Indian shearers. It was about the mid-1950s when they got rid of the sheep,” explains Finley.
Both registered and commercial Herefords comprised the family’s original herd. Finley says registered bulls and some females were sold around Fremont County and into Teton County.
Today Finley continues running a small herd of Hereford cross cattle on the original place and through a grazing association on the forest.
“Dad sold most of the place in the 1970s and I just have the bottom ground today. All my cows are composites, but they all still have a Hereford look, just with more red necks. The buyers seem to like the black/white faces best, but I don’t necessarily like black cattle, so I stick with Hereford-looking cattle,” explains Finley.
During the summer months his cattle run with three other producers’ pairs on the forest through the Bitterroot Grazing Association, and Finley does rangeland monitoring and other work with the Forest Service.
“Practically since they’ve introduced the wolf we’ve experienced some losses, and lately we’ve had losses occur every year. We never know for sure until we come off what we’ve lost,” says Finley of the predator issues on the forest permits. “It’s hard to predict the future with predators. It’s not easy for somebody to keep up with the losses. The government trappers have been fairly good to work with, but getting paid from Defenders of Wildlife is questionable. They claim to pay, but when it comes down to it, that’s not always the case.”
Finley winters his cows on his home place and also puts up hay. “Usually I can put up enough hay to feed my cattle, but lately I’ve had to buy some hay. Hopefully we’re coming out of the drought, last spring was pretty good and so was this spring, but then about the middle of June it just quit,” notes Finley.
In addition to running cattle, Finley is also an artist. “I do a little bit of everything. I’ve mostly done scrimshaw work in the past, but do more watercolors and sculptures now. I also make antler jewelry and a variety of other things,” says Finley of his artwork.
He adds he can remember attending a small country schoolhouse where the teacher would encourage him and another boy to do art. “We were the only two first graders, and she would let us sit outside and draw, or give us clay. Then when I went to Dubois I had a really good art teacher there,” says Finley of how he became interested in art.
Today his work is featured and sold at the Silver Sage Gallery in Dubois. He primarily focuses on small watercolors, as they are more profitable and easier to sell to tourists than larger pieces. The Two Ocean’s Bookstore sells some of his scrimshaw work.
Finley has also published a children’s book and is currently working on a pictorial history book of his family. “My grandfather took pictures when he first came here and so has everyone since. I have over 3,000 pictures on my computer I am going through. I have a coffee table book in mind,” he says of the project.
“When I started working on this book I realized that 100 years ago there were more people on the East Fork than there are now. Most places the population just keeps growing, but here there are fewer people than a century ago,” comments Finley.
Among the first white people to show up were Finley’s ancestors. The family has lived and ranched on the East Fork ever since and continue to do so today in addition to following other interests. “I always tell people I’m a rancher and an artist, and that I’m sure to slowly starve to death between the two,” notes Finley with a smile.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.