BUFFALO — A barn owl calls into the night, with no care at all for human visitors traipsing about late at night at the TA Ranch.
The flustered momma is teaching her nestlings to fly, Katy Giles told Cowboy State Daily, as she personally walked her latest guest to the Nate Champion room in the TA Ranch’s Bunk House.
From the screeches, it seemed as if the babies were probably being admonished rather than praised. But, with every step toward the Bunk House, the racket somehow seemed to fade into the stars and the night.
The sounds belonged there, amid the night and the stars, as much a part of the night as the, for now, soft and gentle breeze.
Barn owls aren’t the only creatures on the ranch that pull guests out of modern-day mindsets.
There are goats who will come and greet you like a long-lost friend — even if you have no carrots to feed them. Just pat the silly billies on the head, and they will happily satisfy themselves with the petunias in the planter instead.
There are sly horses, too, quite willing to spray anyone nearby with water as they play. Or to take a nip of that appetizing cowboy hat, to see if the straw tastes as appealing as it looks.
Somehow, none of this is annoying.
It’s all part of something special. Something that takes guests out of their usual hurry, worry, super scurry mindsets, and reminds them there should be more to life than hustle and bustle.
Three Generations Helping Preserve A Priceless History
Three generations are helping to run the TA Guest Ranch operation, which includes a first-rate cookhouse that recently entertained none other than the Mayor of Flavortown himself, Guy Fierri.
The ranch, however, didn’t always look as beautiful as it does today.
Old pictures of the ranch at the National Park Service show dilapidated, sagging structures that are giving way to weather and Wyoming wind.
Katy Giles is part of the multi-generational team that’s running the TA Ranch, today. It was her grandparents who restored the ranch to its present state, in 1992.
“My grandparents (Barb and Earl Madsen) bought the ranch 30 years ago,” Giles told Cowboy State Daily. “And my grandma has a degree in restoration and interior design. So, when my grandpa bought the ranch, she said, ‘We have to restore this ranch. It’s a piece of Wyoming history.’ So that is their legacy, preserving this piece of history.”
The restoration didn’t alter anything that’s historic, Barbara Madsen told Cowboy State Daily during a tour of the ranch, which includes an up-close look at many historic artifacts, including some of the ranch’s original buildings.
The ranch would become the center of one of Wyoming’s most infamous incidents during the cattle baron years. The Johnson County War, which is the subject of the 1953 movie, “Shane.”
In those days, rich, absentee cattle barons were letting their cattle roam free across the range. As homesteaders moved in, however, tensions began to rise, Madsen told Cowboy State Daily.
Meanwhile, market forces, which were driving cattle prices downward, had many cattle barons trying to solve their cash-flow problems by raising even more livestock — on land that was already beyond its capacity.
The situation came to a head in 1886, 1887, when a drought was followed by one of the worst winter storms anyone living then could recall. Many of the weakened cattle succumbed to the elements, wiping out entire fortunes.
“Nobody bailed hay, or fed hay, or really took care of the cattle the way that we do now,” Madsen said. “And so there they were, in the spring trying to find the cattle who had perished over the winter.”
The cattle barons, advised by their open range managers, decided that what must have happened was that cattle rustlers were stealing all the cattle. But, in 1889, Johnson County juries acquitted suspects in five cattle theft cases.
Despite the fact the cases were actually deeply flawed, the ruling infuriated the cattle barons. They were determined to have their justice anyway. Former Johnson County Sheriff Frank Canton compiled of “known” cattle rustlers, and the cattle barons hired gunmen from Texas to come and deliver summary judgment to each and every one on the list.
The gunmen were shipped in on a train from Texas to Cheyenne before eventually making their way to Buffalo. Telegraph wires were snipped before they left for Buffalo, Madsen said, to prevent anyone from warning relatives of the coming onslaught.
ad To A Game-Changing Mistake
All appeared to be going to plan for the wealthy cattle barons’ plan to rid Johnson County of thieving cattle rustlers once and for all.
But some large egos came into play during the journey to Buffalo.
Nate Champion, on the list as the “king of cattle thieves” was reportedly holed up in a cabin with just one other guy. That’s when Wolcott made a fateful decision.
The posse would stop along the way and quickly take care of Mr. Champion and his friend, Nick Ray, first.
Frank Canton, who had been a sheriff in those parts, warned Wolcott against this idea. He knew that Champion was a formidable fighter.
But Wolcott wouldn’t be dissuaded, and he was the boss.
“Two guys, how hard can it be?” he asked.
Canton, it turned out, had been right. Champion held off the much larger force, fighting the 50 men off for hours, wounding three of them. Finally, the invaders torched the cabin, forcing Champion and his friend, Nick Ray out. Both men were shot down.
In the midst of that, a wagon rider saw what was going on, and realized what was happening. Ditching his wagon, he rode back to Buffalo to warn the townspeople.
Wolcott Refuses To Turn Back
Not long after the murder of Champion and Ray, a rider from Buffalo, who was a friend of the cattle barons, came to warn Wolcott and his men off, urging them to turn back.
“You guys are in one boatload of trouble,” Madsen said the rider told them. “There’s a group waiting for you and you will not survive. You can’t even imagine how many people are there waiting or you.”
Wolcott, though wasn’t ready to give up. So he and the gunmen rode to the TA Ranch to fortify it for a battle.
Photographs of the ranch at that time period hang on the walls of the cookhouse where Madsen starts her tour, retelling the story of the Johnson County War and the ranch’s place in that history. Included is a photo of all the men involved in Wolcott’s invasion.
Bullet holes that remain in the original buildings where Wolcott and his men holed up are also part of Madsen’s tale, as are the large, almost cloverleaf-like holes that were cut into the barn and other buildings to accommodate shotguns.
Neither shotgun holes nor the bullet holes have been repaired or plastered over. They’re carefully preserved, along with other marks from the past.
Three of the breastworks surrounding the ranch, are also still visible. In one of them, 95 townspeople were held off by 20 Texas gunmen, Madsen said.
There are also brands on the stable door in the barn, along with dates and names, carved down through the years on the solid wood. It’s captured history that is now priceless.
“One of the men who was in the invading party was sitting with his foot up against this door,” Madsen told Cowboy State Daily, pointing to a back-side door at the ranch house. “In those years, it was not a glass door, of course. He came back in and told the family, ‘I was sitting there and had my toe shot off. I had my foot against the door and somebody shot my toe off from way over there.’”
Gesturing toward the foothills in the distance, Madsen has a far-off look in her eye.
“That’s where they were,” she said. “So, I’m thinking, that was quite a shot. And I’m thinking he was lucky it was just his toe.”
The Ending Of The War
Ultimately, then President Benjamin Harrison was convinced to intervene in what then Republican Governor Amos Barber, friendly to the cattle barons, described as an “insurrection” in Johnson County.
Charges were brought against those involved in the deaths of Champion and Ray, but Johnson County did not have enough money to keep up with the cattle barons. It could not keep up with paying the expenses of seating a jury to prosecute the wrongdoers. The charges were dismissed.
Voters, though, had the last word on the entire spectacle. The subsequent election was a landslide in favor of the Democratic Party.
A Launching Point For Adventures
The TA Ranch is ideally situated to serve as a launching pad for any number of adventures in the Sheridan, Buffalo, and Kaycee areas.
The rooms are all rustic, Cowboy chic, with wood floors and furnishings to match. The cookhouse serves a free breakfast early in the morning, or it has a more diverse brunch menu for the late risers, as well as ample coffee, available on request any time of day.
The ranch itself is no slouch when it comes to adventures of its own, if a guest would prefer to travel less and recreate more.
There’s horseback riding and hiking on this working cattle ranch, as well as the history tour Madsen does, where she tells the history of both the ranch and the Johnson County War.
The ranch has lately become a favorite stop for a company that arranges bus tours across Wyoming, which is helping ensure the restored ranch’s future.
“They’re one of the larger, I think second largest travel agency in the country,” Barbara Madsen told Cowboy State Daily. “They do bus tours across Wyoming from the Black Hills to Yellowstone Park and they were looking for someplace in the middle. They wanted an authentic ranch, and they found us, so they are now keeping us busier than the cattle.”
The bus tours start in May and run through the end of September, Madsen said.
The tour folks don’t stay at the ranch, however, because it’s a very large influx of people.
They just stop in for afternoon activities along the way to Jackson Hole.
Many who participate in the tours, however, do come back later for longer stays, having discovered the ranch, Madsen said.
Madsen doesn’t believe the ranch will change a whole lot from here on out. There’s already a plan in place for it to continue to the next generation.
“Our granddaughters Katy and Kirsten are working, you know, to take over and we are kind of working towards retirement,” she said.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.