Cattlemen’s Days and five generations of ranching
For over a century, Gunnison, Colo., has hosted Cattlemen’s Days to celebrate its local ranching heritage with a parade, rodeo and other festivities.
In 2009, Phyllis and Richard Guerrieri were given the honor of being parade marshals. Phyllis is a fourth-generation rancher in the Gunnison River valley. Their son, Burt, who along with his wife Sandy operate Mill Creek Ranch, is the fifth generation. Sandy recently served as president of the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association for two years, continuing a family tradition of women involved in ranching.
Phyllis, the daughter of Aubrey and Ernestine Spann, was born in 1932 just north of Gunnison in a house still standing today. As children and teenagers she and her sisters helped their father with the summer haying operation. One of the meadows she helped harvest is northeast of the junction of Ohio Creek Road and Highway 135.
It, like hundreds of hayfields in the valley, is flood irrigated to produce over 2 tons of timothy and red top hay per acre. The confluence of the East and Taylor Rivers form the Gunnison River, which along with its tributaries – Tomichi Creek, Ohio Creek, Mill Creek and others – supply an ample source of irrigation water for meadows in this picturesque valley. Production of hay is very basic to ranching in the area.
In about 1942, during World War II with many of the local young men in the military, Aubrey Spann was in dire need of labor for his haying crew. Phyllis, age 10, and her sister Gerrie Lou, age 12, were recruited. Phyllis shares this childhood memory: “One day Gerrie Lou was operating a dump rake when Shortie, the saddle horse pulling it, ran away. She fell into the rake but escaped when the rake went over a small ditch. However, one of the rake tines left a gash in her scalp. Right then my dad decided horses were too dangerous for his daughters and got tractors.”
Aubrey bought two used John Deere Hs and a new John Deere A. Phyllis recollects: “Mowing with one of the Hs was my job. I mowed from dawn till dusk. I liked it because there was no one around telling me what to do. I’m still rather independent.” With its 7-foot mower bar and a fast third gear, the little H and Phyllis were able to keep up with those doing the raking and stacking.
“One day I almost killed myself. I had jumped off the H (ahead of the rear wheel) to clean the sickle bar and my shirt tail caught on the hand clutch. The clutch engaged and the tractor started moving. I had a scary time staying ahead of the tire, disentangling my shirt, and pushing the clutch back. From that day on I made sure to work with my shirt tail tucked in.”
Even though she enjoyed haying Phyllis confesses with a wry smile, “When I was a teenager, my sisters and I always hoped it would rain on Friday or Saturday so we could go home early and get ready for Saturday night dances.”
In all, about nine or 10 people worked on each year’s crew: one mowing, two operating side delivery rakes, two running horse-drawn sweeps, two stacking behind an overshot stacker, one pulling up the stacker with a team of horses (later a truck), and one operating a dump rake picking up the scatterings of hay.
Besides family members, the haying crews were made up of hired hands. Because of the war effort, men from Gunnison would often help out evenings and weekends. Aubrey also hired some American Indians. “They came from New Mexico. I think they were Navajos. Early in WWII Indians weren’t allowed to serve in the military.” Phyllis remembers, “My dad always had a good working relationship with them and, since they were skilled with horses, he would have them work with the younger animals on rainy days. They would bring us girls little sacks of candy when they went into town on Saturday night.”
She tells about a troubling incident with one of the better young horses. “The Indians put the horse in a working chute unaware of a hornet’s nest. As the hornets began to sting the horse it thrashed around and the more it thrashed the more the hornets stung. The poor horse was so traumatized it could never be used and had to be sold.”
Phyllis recalls, “After haying was over each fall we would have to build fences around the 20-ton stacks of hay to keep the cattle away from them. When snow covered the ground the men would load hay onto large horse-drawn sleds with pitchforks, transport it to the cattle, then pitch it off again. It was a lot of work.”
She’s also quick to point out that Burt has continued the family tradition of mechanization. He cuts hay with two mower-conditioners with disc cutters – not sickle bars. One covers a 9-foot swath, the other, 12. In addition, he has a rake and two round balers, and does his hay harvesting with a crew of five. Some local ranchers use self-propelled swathers to cut, condition, and windrow their hay. Big round bales, which now are almost universal, have replaced a lot of pitchforks.
Today Phyllis still likes to show off her 1939 John Deere H – the one with which she mowed a lot of hay as a youngster. Both Phyllis and the Deere are retired from haying, but she is still a vital member of the community. She’s active in the Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, League of Women Voters and Gunnison Valley Cattlewomen.
Phyllis figures she’s taken part in more Cattlemen’s Days parades than she’s watched – for years having ridden side saddle or on one of the floats. As she has for the last 79 years, Phyllis plans to be in attendance this year, July 9-18.