Historic ranch makes its mark: Mason-Lovell influences Big Horn Basin cattle
Lovell – The history of Big Horn Basin cattle ranching is incomplete without the story of the Mason-Lovell Ranch. Now under the care of the National Park Service, the Mason-Lovell Ranch is only a ghost of what it once was.
The Mason-Lovell Ranch, known by many as the ML, is frequently described as being one of the most prominent ranches in the Big Horn Basin and an important part of the history of ranching in Big Horn County.
At one time the Mason-Lovell Ranch extended from Thermopolis all the way to the Crow Reservation in Montana and ran up to 25,000 cattle on open range in the area.
According to the National Park Service, the Mason-Lovell Ranch is the only historic ranch in Big Horn County, but was one of many in the Big Horn Basin.
The history of the ML Ranch starts in 1838 in Battle Creek, Mich., when Henry Clay Lovell was born.
Lovell left home at the age of 14 and began his journey to the southwest U.S., where he operated a mail train between Fort Dodge, Kan. and Mexico City, Mexico.
Lovell met Anthony Mason of Kansas City, Mo. and decided to start a cattle ranch, with financial support from Mason. Lovell’s sole responsibility was to run the ranch.
In 1880 Lovell trailed two herds of cattle from Kansas to the Big Horn Basin. Two years later, when he trailed an additional 12,000 head from Oregon, the ML Ranch was running about 25,000 head of cattle.
According to Rosa Vida Bischoff Black and the National Park Service, the Mason-Lovell was the largest ranch on the east side of the Big Horn Basin.
The open range cattle ranch grazed animals over the entirety of the property, from Thermopolis to Montana, and started a second ranch on Shell Creek. The Shell Creek property would later become a horse ranch. The Trapper Creek camp, as it was called, maintained 600 horses, according to Black.
Lovell married Bertha Clara Collins, a schoolteacher from Missouri, in the early 1880s and built a beautiful house on the ML’s headquarters to accommodate her needs.
One account of the main house on the Mason-Lovell Ranch says it was lavishly furnished, and had the first indoor toilet she had ever seen. Lettie Rubble, housekeeper and cook, cared for the house and Lovell’s only son Willard Tatum. Bertha Clara Collins died only three years after Willard was born, leaving Lovell as a widower.
By 1886 the Mason-Lovell was prospering. That winter, however, the harsh reality of winter changed the landscape of the Big Horn Basin and dramatically impacted the ML Ranch. That winter, blizzards described as having hurricane force and “unceasing bitter cold” froze everything. Cattle were unable to find water and perished across the basin.
The Mason-Lovell faced devastating death loss that winter, with losses estimated at greater than 10,000 head. According to the National Park Service, the average Wyoming ranch lost 75 percent of their herds that winter.
In the following year, Lovell restocked the ranch, bringing cattle from eastern Washington to the Big Horn Basin.
When his partner Mason died in 1892, Lovell maintained the ML Ranch until after the year 1900. However, his health began to fail, and the harsh ranch work took a toll on his body. He died March 2, 1903 at the age of 64.
The Mason-Lovell Ranch’s days of prosperity were all but over at that point. The value of the ranch was estimated at $73,000, which translates to $1.7 million today. While Willard was willed the property, by 1909 it had been sold to other ranchers, and the Mason-Lovell ceased to exist.
The beautiful ranch house Lovell had built for his wife was lost to a devastating fire in the 1930s and was never rebuilt.
However, Lovell’s impact on the Big Horn Basin was profound.
Jordan Smith’s account, documented by Black, references Lovell’s influence in the Big Horn Basin, saying, “He could stick a plow in the ground and build fences without the threat of violence by the other cattle barons.”
Lovell is also credited for bringing the first “high grade” cattle to the Big Horn Basin in 1890 when he purchased Hereford bulls for $450 each and some Hereford heifers for $300 each, according to Black.
Despite his success, Lovell was also regarded as a kind man with integrity.
“Henry C. Lovell at the old ML Ranch was always doing something kind and generous for anyone he knew was having hard luck,” said Roxie Cook, a resident of a nearby ranch.
Today, the Mason-Lovell Ranch has but a few buildings remaining. The bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, and south cabin are the last reminders of the cattle empire. The old corral system has been reconstructed according to aerial photos taken before they were destroyed. Ongoing restoration projects to those buildings will restore their historical accuracy.
“We’re making the buildings historically correct and putting the sod roofs back on them,” says Tyler Ennis of the National Park Service. “The structures that are completely gone won’t be replaced. I could build a structure, but it wouldn’t be even close to historically accurate.”
To guide visitors through the history of the property, visitors to the ranch can enjoy a cell phone tour with seven stops across the property.
In the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, the Mason-Lovell Ranch remains to remind Big Horn County cattle producers of the great history of ranching in the area and the empire that Henry Lovell and Anthony Mason created.
Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.