Wild fortune: Glenrock’s Frank Robbins becomes wild horse legend
In the fall of 1935, Frank Robbins arrived in the desert north of Wamsutter with a broken axle on his Model A car and, as he put it, “a saddle even a junkman wouldn’t want.”
That’s according to Jack Price’s book Wild Horse Robbins. “I had to catch a horse before I had one to ride,” said Robbins of his arrival.
Robbins had traveled to the Red Desert from the family ranch near Glenrock in Converse County to try his hand at rounding up wild horses on the Red Desert, an endeavor that would continue through World War II when demand for horses increased nationally. Many estimate that Robbins eventually captured 30,000 wild horses, using light planes in his roundups in later years.
“From all the stories I heard, he was quite a guy, a sort of combination Buffalo Bill, Paul Bunyan and Will Rogers,” wrote Clifton Abbott in his True Magazine article entitled “Wild Fortune.”
Frank, born Nov. 7, 1894, was the son of Benjamin “Skinny” Frank and Susie May Stephenson Robbins. His brother Charles E “Doc” Robbins also ranched in the Glenrock area and another brother, Roy “Skeeter Bill” Robbins, was a bronc rider and went on to star in some Hollywood films. Frank was the youngest of eight children, and his father passed away a couple of months before he was born. His mother remarried William “Bill” Kimball when he was quite young.
After he started to capture wild horses, which averaged $18 per head, Robbins hauled the best wild roan and buckskin mares to his Glenrock ranch, where he developed the breed called “Robbins Roans” by turning Quarter Horse stallions in with wild roan mares.
According to Price, the idea to use a plane to gather the horses came after a nearly successful gather was ruined by a friendly mail plane that always came through the area above Robbins’s camp.
“If the horses were afraid of that plane, why not use one to round them up,” says Price in Wild Horse Robbins. “It would take a special type of pilot, one with super flying skills, a little on the daredevil side, and who knew something about horses.”
After making the rounds in Rock Springs, Rawlins and Casper, Robbins found Everette Hogan, who had a single-engine tandem Piper Cub. On one of his trips to Wamsutter, when Clyde Ice was his pilot, Frank was asked how his wild horse roundup was coming. The reply came, “We’re at a standstill right now. That daredevil pilot got too close to an old stud and got the propeller caught in his tail. When that old horse runs down and we get the plane back, we’ll go at it again.”
Robbins’s most famous capture was the horse that would become known as Desert Dust.
“Word of the stallion’s capture brought swarms of interested people to the ranch. Newspaper reporters, freelance photographers and Hollywood producers arrived to photograph him and gather information about the stallion,” says Tom Cullen in his book Roamin’ Wyomin’: Circlin’ Great Divide Basin.
On the day the palomino stallion was captured, photographer Verne Wood was riding along with Frank to take photos of the event.
“With long, white mane and tail against against the rugged background of the corral, Mr. Wood’s picture showed the stallion as it turned his head. All of the beauty, wildness and alertness was caught,” reported the Rawlins Republican-Bulletin in describing on of Wood’s photos.
A few weeks later, Wood’s picture was featured in the rotogravure section of the Denver Post. Wood had already enlarged, tinted and sold several photos of the stallion, but after the photo appeared in the Post the inquiries began to roll in. National Geographic, Western Natural Life, and Eastman Kodak all secured prints of the stallion.
In April of 1946, Wood announced a 40- by 50-inch oil color print of the stallion, which by that time had acquired the name “Desert Dust,” would be hung in the capitol in Cheyenne. A second enlargement was given to Sen. Joseph C. O’Mahoney for presentation to the national capitol.
According to the Rawlins paper, “Prints of the original photo have gone throughout the world and it has become one of the most famous wildlife pictures ever snapped. The May issue of Wyoming Wildlife will feature the picture on its cover and carry a story of the wild horse chase that trapped Desert Dust. The feature article will be illustrated with other pictures of wild horses taken by Wood.”
It was estimated at that time that about 20 oil paintings of the horse by different artists had already been completed.
In 1946, Universal Studios made a film called Fight of the Wild Stallions that featured a staged fight between a domestic and a wild stallion. The film was centered on Frank’s annual horse roundup, and it featured his use of an airplane. Afterwards, Frank and his wife Christina flew to New York City for a related radio interview on We, The People.
Desert Dust met a sad end. In 1952 the stallion was gunned down in a drive-by shooting incident at the corral at Frank’s Glenrock ranch, presumably by someone who had a score to settle with him.
Frank produced 16 of his famous “Robbins Wild Horse Rodeos,” which were held annually at the ranch near Glenrock. Most of the stock used was right off the desert.
Frank and Christina continued ranching until he died on July 2, 1984.
“There are only four things Frank really likes to do. He likes to chase wild horses, catch wild horses, ride wild horses and watch wild horses eating oats in his stable during a hard Wyoming winter,” wrote Abbott in his article. “For the first 20-odd years of his adult life he didn’t have a stable, and if we could have afforded oats he would have eaten them himself.”
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.