Early cattle influence continues: Driskill family draws in history toward future
Devils Tower – While many in the West today look back on “Lonesome Dove” as a great story to share with their children about how cattle came to the region, the Driskill family tells a similar story of their history.
“The first Driskill that we know of brought cattle to Cheyenne in 1868 when the railroad was coming through,” says Ogden Driskill, the current generation on the ranch. “The Driskills started in the 1840s gathering wild cattle in Texas. They evolved into one of the major suppliers of cattle.”
Through the Civil War, Driskills supplied both the Union and Confederate armies, and Jess Driskill – Ogden’s great-great-great grandfather – was an honorary Colonel in the Army.
“Our family were huge cattle barons. They built the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas,” Ogden says. “They took Confederate money, and after the war, they were broke, so they started to gather cattle and go north.”
Trails first led to Kansas and Oklahoma, but the Driskill family longed for open spaces and freedom from neighbors.
“In 1878 when Custer came through, Jess Driskill headed towards the Black Hills,” Ogden says. “He was an old man by then. We’ve still got a handwritten letter that said he was looking for a place that didn’t have a house within 30 miles.”
In 1879, he arrived in Moorcroft, and Jess continued following buffalo trails to the D Ranch, which was their first place.
After picking the ranch location in the area, Jess returned to Texas.
“Between the 1860s and 1910s, they trailed around 1 million head of cattle to Wyoming,” Ogden says.
Before the winter of 1886-87, they were huge players in the cattle business, says Ogden, but the devastating blizzard that winter resulted in the death of over 50,000 head of cattle.
“That storm broke them, and they never ran on the same scale again,” Ogden says. “They continued to raise cattle, though. We know they shipped the most cattle to Omaha, Neb. to the stockyards of any producer at least one year.”
“Our family also had the first grazing permit from the U.S. Forest Service,” he continues. “The permit was for a minimum of 5,000 head. We held those permits until 1985. Today, we run all on private land.”
Moving the ranch
“We lost the D Ranch in the 1930s during the Great Depression,” says Ogden, noting that the ranch they operate on today was acquired in the first decade of the 1900s. “The Campstool Ranch where we’re at now was a series of about 70 homesteads owned by the MacKenzie family, who were wealthy Scottish nobility. The MacKenzies went broke in 1910, and the Driskill family bought their ranch off the courthouse steps.”
Early documents of the ranch dictated that the range of the Driskill’s operation was the Upper Belle Fourche River tributaries.
“Until the turn of the century, we ran roughly from the edge of Gillette to Bear Lodge to Alzada, Mont.,” Ogden says. “That doesn’t mean that other people weren’t in the area, but if it wasn’t homesteaded, we ran on the land.”
Generations of Driskills
To date, eight generations of Driskills have been on the ranch.
“Eight generations have ranched in Wyoming since Jess Driskill picked our headquarters and took herds of cattle from Texas,” Ogden says, noting that the family history is rich with colorful stories of the Old West.
Ogden, wife Zannie, brother Tobe, son Lincoln and daughter-in-law Ashley live and work on the ranch. They are also helped by Matt and Andrea Driskill Wood who ranch nearby. They run a highly diversified cow/calf operation. Brother Tobe has retired to the ranch from a job in Arizona.
“All in all, Lincoln runs the ranch now,” Ogden says. “I was given the opportunity to start running the ranch when I was in my 20s, and I think that’s important for Lincoln, too. He’ll have pretty much full control of decision-making by the time he’s 30.”
As challenges exist for transitioning the ranch from generation to generation, Ogden says it’s important to make sure the ranch is operational for the future.
“We want Lincoln to have the experience to operate the ranch today, so we know he has the knowledge to run it when we’re gone,” Ogden says.
On the ranch
The cattle on Driskills operation are black.
“We try to raise a 1,000-pound cow, and we want her to wean a 550-pound calf,” says Lincoln. “They do well.”
Ogden explains that, in their challenging winter country, larger cows go through a lot of feed, so by raising smaller cows, they can be more efficient.
Over the last 20 years, they have fenced enough winter feed to run on pasture until early January each year without worrying about pine trees. They supplement pasture with hay raised in both irrigated and dryland settings.
“The irrigated ground is phenomenally productive, and it has kept us out a wreck during the drought years,” Ogden says. “Lincoln has done a really good job with our farm ground.”
In addition to the traditional ranch, the Driskill family built a campground and café at the foot of Devils Tower following Steven Spielberg’s film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
“Tourism has been a big part of our family through the years,” Ogden says. “Our family has been involved with tourism for three or four generations, and it goes hand-in-hand with the ag part of the operation. After Spielberg came in, my mom, Ellen, built the campground.”
Ogden’s brother Matt ran the campground until his untimely death six years ago.
The ranch and campground run hand-in-hand. Today, Zannie runs the campground, and Ashley oversees the café.
“It’s an important part of our operation,” Ogden says.
For the Driskills, Odgen says diversification means that day-to-day work is never the same.
Ogden comments, “It’s pretty fun, and it keeps life interesting on the ranch.”
Looking to the future
Today, the Driskill family is working to stabilize the operation and continue to improve the land on the ranch.
“We’re working to continue building a solid base that is profitable,” Ogden says. “That is key. We have to maintain a system that works.”
He adds, “We’ve been here for eight generations, and we’re always looking at how we can keep it for the next eight generations.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.