Resourcefulness key to 140-year-old Eatinger Cattle Co. ranching legacy
November 1, 2017
Nearly 140 years ago, dairyman Charles Henry Eatinger decided to try his hand with beef cattle. He left his family in Dundee, Ill., and traveled to Abilene, Kan. He purchased 1,000 head of "sorry steers" — the light ones that hadn't weathered the trail as well, for $5 each.
He hired a few hands and headed north, having heard of free grass and water in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Just north of Ogallala, Neb., the herd was stopped by a group of riders who informed them there was no room for another herd in the Hyannis area, but there was grass farther east. Wisely, Charles altered course, arriving near Seneca, Neb., An area rancher, Mr. Rankin told them where they could find meadows not burned off by the Indians and water about 15 miles north of present-day Thedford, Neb., and south of Brownlee.
It was October and winter was coming, so they took the wagon off the running gear and piled sod around it for a shelter. A Texas trail hand was left in charge of the cattle and after gathering buffalo chips for fuel and supplies, Charles went home just before Christmas. Come spring he came back to find only half the herd he had left. Wolves and the hard winter had taken a heavy toll, as well as hungry Indians. Charles didn't hold any ill will toward the Indians as they only took what they needed and wasted nothing, using even the horns and tail switch. The remnants of his herd did well and when he shipped them to Chicago, the steers brought $25 a head. "The most money he ever made on a transaction." said Byron Eatinger, Charles' great-grandson.
Charles took some of the profits and bought another herd in Ogallala. He bought a herd of heifers in Omaha the following year and that was the start of the cow herd. They continued buying and fattening steers for many years. Charles' family started trickling out to Nebraska and took up homesteads as they built up the ranch.
The blizzard in the spring of 1913 was one of the most violent storms remembered, heavy snow and lightning and thunder. The children at school barely made it home and the snow even covered the sod house. The fledgling cow herd was decimated by the storm and "skinners" were employed to collect the hides, for at that time the hide was the most valuable part of a cow. Charles Henry's adult children worked hard to rebuild the herd.
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In 1918, the Eatingers loaded an entire train-load of steers in Thedford and headed for Chicago. Sons John and Charlie accompanied the cattle and when they reached Omaha, they heard the news of the quarantine and closure of the Chicago Stockyards due to the flu epidemic. They couldn't unload at Omaha and were forced to go on. By the time they arrived in Chicago, Charlie was sick and John was forced to try and sell the steers. Charlie was the businessman and "wheeler-dealer" of the pair so he always felt that he could have got more money for the cattle. John was over a barrel and pretty much had to give the cattle away. The brothers made it home before John sickened; he died at the ranch leaving a wife and six children. His wife went back to Illinois, but John's brothers continued to financially support them.
The ranch flourished in the 1920s and in the late '20s Charlie's son Ralph sent away for a Russian wolf hound for hunting coyotes and to use as a stud dog. When the Great Depression hit, the money from selling hound pups and coyote hides kept the ranch afloat. Charlie died in 1937 and the ranch was in a lot of upheaval and strife with all the extended family and everyone wanting their share. Ralph borrowed money to pay off all the creditors and eventually was able to get the land all in his name. Grandson Wayne Eatinger remembers visiting with Ralph while they hunted coyotes. "Granddad said, I had to get down on my nose and root like a pig to make those first few payments."
The '40s and '50s were good years and through hard work, Ralph, his wife Norma, and his three sons built up the ranch and made it prosper. In 1960, his son Byron and wife Mary took over management and continued to improve the operation through AIing the cows, installing pivots and buying land. They have raised horses for generations and Byron has been breeding Quarter horses for over 50 years. They had three children Wayne, Marie and Dale. In 2017, Byron was inducted into the Sandhills Cowboy Hall of Fame. "I'm 84 and have lived on this ranch longer than anyone else ever has," Byron said.
Byron continues to help with some of the day-to-day ranch work and, like his father, is an avid coyote hunter, going hunting almost every day in the wintertime with his hounds.
Today, Wayne and his wife Roxanne are running the ranch, along with their son Miles and a few long-time employees. Their goal is to improve the land and increase profitability.
From running steers in the 1870s, the operation made a lot of changes to adapt to the changing times. The current business is no different, as they have embraced the latest technology, primarily raising embryo calves on a custom basis for seedstock producers, through a relationship with the American Breeders Service. "They are their genetics but our calves, and it is a relationship built out of trust." Wayne said. "We wean the calves early and background them here on the ranch, which gives us the ability to run more cows. The calves are sold back to the seedstock producers when they are about 10 months old. This year we placed over 800 embryos, all from the Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland, Kan."
The land is improving as each generation becomes better stewards. Back in the 1870s, fires were frequent and now are infrequent, the bare sandy hills have grassed over and large blowouts have healed. Windmills supply water and the wet meadows are grazed and also cut for hay. Years of hard work, determination and perseverance through the hard times have paid off and Charles Henry Eatinger would be proud of what his descendants have accomplished. ❖