Lorne Craig: Badlands Rancher

Photo courtesy of Craig Family Collection.

Born in 1902, Lorne Craig was well into his 80s when I met him. He came from a pioneer family of 10 children and his dad and grandfather were early ranchers in Oklahoma when it was opened up for settlement. Despite some pretty big challenges and harsh winters, the new land proved to be productive and the Craig family had supplemented the few crops that they grew with wild game. He joked that he never knew the taste of real beef in those days, because cattle were for selling and not for eating at home. The only groceries that were bought were staples such as flour, salt and baking powder, and were all hung in the granary out of the reach of rodents. Since tarpaper was the only insulation in their house it was lucky that wood was abundant, especially when the temperature dropped to -40°F. His mother, Margaret Craig, had a green thumb and always grew a large vegetable garden, which helped with the food situation during the winter.

Craig’s father wanted to increase the herd size so they moved to the North Dakota badlands. There were still buffalo bones and wallows scattered about as the family crossed their new holdings in wagons, and Craig remembers the tall prairie grass swaying in the wind for miles in a bright blend of green and gold. The family set up house in an abandoned homestead and bought some “range mean” livestock from, what Craig called, a shifty-eyed banker to get started. To earn some extra money, he began to enter rodeos and learned to rope, having been given a rawhide reata by a lame man that he had given a ride in a wagon.

The ambition to buy his own ranch was getting stronger, and so he headed out on his own to try his hand at whatever ranching job came up. Though early travellers often described the badlands as barren land, Craig saw the wind eroded landscape at sunset and decided that he wanted to ranch in that country. First he needed a job, a real job, that would give him a paycheque at the end of each month.

He found a job firing the steam engine on a crew, which gave him an additional 25 cents per day and the benefit of warmth from the engine — he didn’t have warm clothes. At the end of the season he had $162, more money that he had ever seen before, and he headed into a nearby village to buy some clothes since his toes were sticking out of the boots that he was wearing. There he heard that the A-T Ranch was hiring, and he headed off to ask for a job. He arrived at the ranch after hitchhiking and walking, and was greeted with something less than a cordial welcome.

The owner, John Elliott, introduced himself to the youth with, “What the hell do you want?” staring down at Craig from the house porch in an aura of alcohol, tobacco and stale sweat. Craig explained that he had come about a job and described Elliott’s reaction as, “That old coot threw back his head, his long hair hanging like a horse’s tail and just laughed.”

He suggested that Craig survive on snowballs for the winter and come back in the spring. At that point, Fred Nicholson, the ranch foreman, spoke up and, to Elliott’s displeasure, hired him on. Elliott replied, “That pup is your choice not mine, put him on half wages and if he slows up, give him the axe.”

Lorne Craig steer wrestling in 1930. Photo courtesy of Craig Family Collection.

The next morning the crew woke up early to do chores and Craig realized that if he was to avoid freezing to death that winter, he would need some good clothes. A man nicknamed Frenchy, one of the A-T hands, had been killed two months previously in a horse wreck and Craig was given his clothes. That January the snow was so deep the cattle could not graze, so horses were used to break the snow on the hillsides so the grass would show through. The willows and buck brush were soon eaten to the ground. Those ranches that did not winter feed lost 20 percent of their herd.

Meanwhile, Elliott was getting meaner and drunker all the time and after a few harsh words, Craig quit the A-T Ranch. He decided to start breaking horses on his own in order to build up enough money to buy his own place. After five months he had broken enough horses to earn $1,400, and his own brand, an A on the left shoulder of his horses, and on the right hip of a few cows.

In 1917, a section further north came up for sale with two good corrals, a four-stall barn, a shack and three good springs. Fred Nicholson helped Craig bring in a stove, cabinets and utensils from a ranch that had been deserted about 20 miles away. He worked his ranch from 1917 until the dust bowl years drove him out.

Horses have always been a part of a Craig’s day-to-day life and he remembers two in particular named Simon and Socks. Socks was a white-faced sorrel with four white socks, who appeared to be the gentlest and friendliest horse you could imagine. It was an incredible façade however. If anyone tried to ride him he would put on a display of bucking and kicking second to none.

One day Craig’s brother-in-law got the idea that he could tame Socks, and so he bought him. The next day Socks gave his new owner a taste of the dirt from all directions. In the end he was too bruised to climb into the saddle again. Socks passed to several more owners who attempted to break him to the saddle, but they met with the same result. He ran wild on the range for several years before being contracted to a rodeo stock owner where he became one of the toughest horses to ride on the local circuit.

Simon was a grey gelding owned by Craig’s father that had a mile-wide streak of uncooperativeness in him, and a talent for becoming the centre of a wreck. In one escapade he had managed to nearly cut off a foot and as a result, limped for the rest of his life. Simon was also getting to be difficult to handle and too handy with his back feet, so it was decided that the fox meat buyer could have him for $5. But, the night before he was to be sold, Simon slipped out of his halter and headed up into the hills. He returned several weeks later and was standing in his stall, contentedly munching hay just as if he had never left.

Craig suggested that they match him up with a no nonsense black gelding and try him in harness for awhile. Simon’s reaction to this idea was to blow up, rearing and kicking. He tried to escape and when that didn’t work he just flopped down on his side. Craig, his brother Paul and their dad, Andrew, tried everything to get him up with no success. Suddenly Craig’s dad shook his head and walked off towards the house. The boys thought that he had gone for his gun. When he returned, he was carrying a bowl of hot soup, a small quantity of which he poured into the gelding’s ear. The reaction was immediate and Simon was on his feet in no time at all. After that little adventure, Simon and the black worked together fairly well.

Simon continued his adventures over the years, including saving Craig’s life in a blizzard, but one escapade proved to be his undoing and the old horse was found with a broken back. Craig remembers that one of the most difficult things that he ever had to do was to point his rifle at the old grey’s head and look into the eyes of the horse that had once saved his life. When Craig pulled the trigger, he said it ended what was to him one of the most memorable chapters in his life.