Darlington family: Ranching in Wyoming since 1909
for Tri-State Livestock News
Oley Darlington left southwest Missouri’s Cedar County in an emigrant car at the age of 11. The train carried his parents, David and Sarah Edna Darlington, seven younger siblings, and everything they owned. Among the family’s household goods and a comforting cache of home-canned food, the dog — aptly named Trip — kept watch on kids, cattle, horses, chickens and what farm machinery they had.
Whistling to a stop in Upton, Wyo., on April Fool’s Day 1909, the Darlington family and all their earthly possessions de-trained and lit out for a homestead site David Darlington had chosen, some 20 miles south on Hay Creek. A home must be built immediately because summers were short and winters could be vicious.
Family lore recalls a more immediate threat — another homesteader had already chosen that land parcel. The ensuing horse race from Upton to the Crook County Court House in Sundance found the well-mounted usurper actually preceding David Darlington into the offices only to be rebuffed for incorrect paperwork, but Darlington’s forms were approved.
Drought in 1910-1911 made farming in Wyoming nearly impossible. R.A. Watt of Buffalo hired David and Oley to build roads with horse-drawn fresnos and slips. Their wages bought groceries to survive. The winter of 1911-1912 was a killer of livestock, with snow so deep teams couldn’t navigate. Neighbors banded together to fetch supplies, two teams on each wagon, men packing shovels to assist.
Young Oley was soon hired to herd and help shear the sheep of Weston County stockman Valentine Kirk, whose range stretched into the Rochelle Hills 40-some miles southwest of Upton. Oley quickly became familiar with miles of rugged grass, sage and grease-wood covered range where trees grew only along the few streams.
Oley signed up for the U.S. Army in 1918. The very next day a treaty ending World War I was signed. He chose never to cash the $1 check the government sent him for his enlistment, and grandson Jim still has it.
Turning 21 and not going to war, Oley decided to take advantage of the new 640-acre provision and file on a homestead. At a picturesque site between the Rochelle Hills and the post office of Clareton he chose wisely for available stock water — about a mile north of the confluence of Rock Creek and Black Thunder Creek. Hard work completed the homestead house and some corrals and, when the trees leafed out and the wildflowers blossomed the following June, Oley married his sweetheart Gail Cummings, and brought her there to live. Gail was the schoolteaching daughter of a widowed blacksmith turned homesteader, a man who regularly walked a 50-mile round trip from the Cambria mines to his homestead on weekends while proving up on it.
The Darlingtons made good neighbors, the hospitality of their happy home blessing each passer-by. Oley’s conversation and memorable leg-slapping laugh were welcomed at community picnics, dances and gatherings. Oley’s brother Walter Darlington filed his homestead adjoining, then father David filed his additional homestead next to them, having sold his original Hay Creek homestead to his sister Vina and husband Bill Braley.
Five young Darlingtons arrived — Mae Edna, 1921; Wayne Raymond, 1924; George Wilbur, 1928; Glen Gordon, 1931 and Bette Gail, 1939. That was enough for a school to be built in 1928. The Darlington School once grew to 22 students, Oley and Gail’s kids attending over a span of 25 years. His schooling sparse, Oley envisioned better for the next generation and served lifelong on the school board.
Another community service was stalking and killing one of the last three wolves that terrorized the region’s livestock producers. Along with homegrown good citizens, Oley and Gail raised Hereford cattle, trailed to the Upton railyards for shipping to market. The family worked hard haying the meadows along Rock Creek, supplementing their high-protein short grass pasture through tough winters.
PLAGUE OF SCABIES
Wyoming’s arid prairies rarely yielded lucrative ranch income, and in the drought, the grasshopper-Mormon cricket-infested Depression of the 1930s, times grew desperate. Bad turned to good as southern cattle carrying the plague of Scabies into the region offered a lifeline Oley grabbed — a job helping the state veterinarian. He hired onto a crew which identified, gathered and trailed infected herds to scattered dipping vats, processed them by dunking each under the chemical dip until all hide and hair were wet, then trailed them home.
This procedure encompassed parts of Weston, Campbell and Converse counties, making for long horseback days stretching 50, 70, or more miles — a boon to horsemen with horses to break. Oley, Eben Spencer, Art Montgomery and other neighbors had gathered large bands of wild and feral horses which had run free in the Rochelle Hills for decades — goosey, colorful, horseflesh of little value unless turned into using horses. Oley saw ample opportunity and wet saddle blankets to accomplish just that through his government job. Sons Wayne and George were growing into good enough cowboys to help break the horses and make them saleable. Young folk always want to go some place, and Oley was happy to let them ride those horses on 60-mile round trips to Upton or 80-mile round trips to Newcastle for ranch supplies or social events.
Through diligence, good management, chickens, large gardens and prolific canning by Gail, plus the sale of broke horses and Oley’s wage for state vet work, the Darlingtons kept their ranch going and survived those lean, hard-bitten times.
After Oley died in 1964 Gail continued keeping house on the ranch for her unmarried son Glen. He and Kris Thorson wed in a 1965 ceremony with a wagon train encamped overnight at the ranch. The following year Gail sold Glen the place, dwelling in Newcastle until her passing in 1975. Glen later sold the ranch to a neighboring family who continue ranching there.
Gail and Oley’s eldest son Wayne Raymond grew up on the ranch, graduated from Newcastle High school in 1942, and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In August of 1946, he married Betty Margrette Bergstrom, the musically talented, schoolteaching daughter of Clareton-area homesteaders Floyd and Katherine “Kate” Bergstrom. Kate was crippled and wore leather pads on her legs as she crawled. She’d actually crawled up many hills as their overburdened teams struggled to move them from Nebraska to Wyoming to homestead. Once established there she had several milk cows, crawling to the barn twice a day to milk, then selling cream and butter.
Wayne and Betty soon bought her parent’s place, dwelling in the two-room sod homestead house their first six years of marriage. A funny school experience shows Betty shared her mother’s determination. She sometimes boarded with Ben and Tillie Fields when teaching their school, and their son Foster normally harnessed the team and hooked up the buggy for school. Once, mad at Betty’s school discipline, Foster informed her he “wasn’t going to do that.” Betty calmly caught, harnessed and hooked up the team herself, ordered the recalcitrant student into the buggy, and drove him to school.
Wayne and Betty raised son Jim and daughters Dorothy and Doris on the ranch. Graduating from Newcastle High School in 1972, Jim enrolled at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he met ranch-reared Lisa Clay. Graduating from UW in 1978 Jim went to work for the Bureau of Land Management in Worland. He and Lisa were married in 1979, and after three years in Worland he said, “I got the chance to escape and return home, and still use my education.”
Betty died in 1969, and Wayne continued raising the kids and ranching alone after they left. More than two decades later Jim and Lisa came alongside as health forced Wayne into retirement. They took over the reins of the ranch in 1994. Dorothy and Doris both live in South Dakota.
Jim supplements ranch income with the job he’s held for 36 years for Inyan Kara Grazing Association in Newcastle. Lisa manages the daily ranch work, ably assisted by daughter Erin, who lives a couple miles away. Erin works for the Weston County Sheriff’s Office in Newcastle and is an accomplished artist and photographer. She’s also an accomplished horsewoman, actively involved with the ranch and cattle. Her elder sister, Sara, earned a master’s in architecture and now lives at Seattle.
Prolific and acclaimed cowboy poet/satirical humorist with several published books, Jim jokes about his 36 years with Inyan Kara and the tightrope walk to “keep 100 ranchers and the Forest Service happy.” He said, “I haven’t got shot or fired yet. Luckily the Forest Service office is way over in Douglas.”
“I offered to trade places with the boss so she could find a job in town,” Jim quiped, “but she wanted me to keep on workin’.” It’s over a 50-mile round trip daily to manage his office, but the Grazing Association Board finds Jim pretty handy to have around.
Artistically talented skilled seamstress and cook, Lisa is active with Weston County Cowbells, but the ranch demands most of her time. She and Jim mark their cattle with the Lazy Y2, which is great-grandfather David Darlington’s sister Vina and husband Bill Braley’s original early 1900s brand. Though they reside on the Bergstrom homestead and no longer own Oley’s homestead, Darlington Ranch was named a Wyoming Centennial Ranch in 2016. The original and current family ranches are in the same county, within 20 miles of each other, operated by Darlingtons for over a century.
The honor means a lot to Jim who said, “I’m grateful that I was standing on the shoulders of giants that allowed us to be around this long, and we try to stick with the values that got us this far. The lessons of the Depression were passed on, and we still try to live that way, being thrifty.”
Both Darlington and Bergstrom families chose Herefords to improve their original mottled herds, and Jim and Lisa introduced Angus for crossbred vigor and growth. “We breed for thrifty cattle and calving ease, looking for nice straight backs, good butts, at least one brown eye if they’re Hereford, plus good dispositions,” Jim said. “Most of the herd eats cake out of our hands and a lot have names, so anything with a high-headed attitude gets sold.”
Jim and Lisa agree, “We love ranching and hope to one day pass on the ranch and lengthy Darlington livestock legacy.”