Ranch Life - My Early Years

by Billy Norman

We moved from Imperial, Nebraska to a 5,000 acre ranch 50 miles North of Belle Fourche, South Dakota in the early Spring of 1953. I was 5 1/2 years old. We stayed there until I was 12 years old at which time we moved to a 300 acres irrigated farm near Belle Fourche.

An old rancher and rodeo stock contractor named Frank "Mitch" Mitchell, had decided he wanted to have part of his 5,000 acre ranch plowed into strip farm winter wheat. This was relatively new idea for this area of South Dakota. Not being a farmer himself and not being a young man, he headed down to Nebraska looking for a farmer and got tied up with my Dad, Vyrl Norman, who was farming a small farm in Nebraska. Being bare range land, they would need lots of equipment including 2 dozers to pull large chiesels to tear up the range land along with a couple of big tractors for disking and planting. A Case dealer from Nebraska, Hugh Leach, decided to join the partnership. Frank Mitch received 1/3 of the crop for owning the land, Hugh Leach received 1/3 for furnishing the equipment and my Dad got 1/3 for doing all the farming.Crow Butte This ranch was located at Hwy 85 and old Hwy 79, 3 miles south of Redig, SD. Part of the ranch was in Butte County and part in Harding County. Over the next few years, we strip farmed over 3,500 acres. After about the 3rd year, Dad purchased 1,500 more acres of his own about 10 miles east and put approx. 700 acres of that into strip farming. Dad also leased from Art Noyce, an 8,800 acre ranch that bordered the Mitchell place on the west side of Highway 85. This ranch had Crow Butte located on it. Crow Butte was the site of a Sioux and Crow Indian battle. One of the tribes surrounded the other on top of the Butte and they died of thirst. There were several rock rings there when I was a kid where their tents had been. We found some arrowheads but Scotty and Lou Trenk, who worked for us had an obsession of collecting arrowheads and other artifacts off of Crow Butte. Crow Butte was infested with rattlesnakes. Dad put approx 600 acres of the Noyce Ranch into strip farm wheat.

The house we lived in on the Mitchell place was really old, no water and we used an outhouse. First house in SD For water we had a well and hand pump that we hauled water into the house by the bucket. No electricity. We used kerosene lanterns and Mom cooked on a wood stove and we had a wood heat stove. In the summer the wind mill by the barn pumped water into 50 gal drum we had overhead and we took showers there in the evening after the sun had warmed the water all day. We later started staying at the Noyce Ranch house, as it had indoor plumbing and electricity.

In the late fall of 1953, that 1st year, we had a good spring wheat crop and Dad purchased a small, newer 2 bedroom house in Belle Fourche on 11th Avenue for $17,000. I had started country school 9 miles East of our ranch down old Highway 79. This old school sat on the George Johnson ranch about a mile East of an old ghost town called Mason. Me and a half dozen Johnson kids went to that school. I rode my horse, Smoky to school, although, I am sure that when it was snowing, my folks took me. After we bought the house in town, I transferred to Belle Fourche. I only went to country school 3 or 4 months.

We continued that operation for 7 years. We lived in town when school was in session and on the ranch in the summer. My Dad drove 50 miles to the ranch daily and I always went with him on the weekends and we lived out at the ranch during the summer months.

Most people do not realize or believe but in those days ranch kids were expected to do a days work starting very young. At 8 years old, I was combining wheat or driving a grain truck all by myself. I rode horses, roped calves at branding, rounded up livestock, milked cows and much more. Our operation was large enough that we had a bunk house and hired men stayed there. At first my Dad paid $125 a month plus board and room to all of our ranch hands. Some people who used to work for us were Ellard Long from Harding, SD; Scotty Trink my future 4H Leader, Max Travis, my cousin from Nebraska and sometimes David Noyce who was Art Noyce's son and later married Judy Lee who is now Judy Bringle from Aladdin, plus many more over the years.

One time Dad sent me and Lester Woodworth, a hired man, to the South pasture on the Noyce ranch to take all the buck sheep out of the pasture. These bucks were Dad's pride and joy and he had paid $50 a piece for them. It was at least 2 miles to the pasture from the ranch house so Dad sent us out there with 1 stock truck and a saddle horse to rope the bucks, in lieu of rounding up 1,000 head of ewes and bringing them all the way into the ranch headquarters. We were to rope the bucks and then back up to a bank, hoist up the box and put the bucks in the back of the truck. After we had loaded 2 bucks, we left the tail gate out and just tied a rope around their necks and tied them to the front of the box. I was 9 or 10 years old and was driving the truck. Lester took off on the saddle horse and I started to follow with the truck. Lester came screaming back to me, waving his arms in the air. I didn't realize it but I had forgotten to release the truck hoist and the box was raising as I drove and was hanging the bucks by their necks. I dropped the box and jumped in the back. I loosened the ropes and started blowing in the mouth and pumping on the stomach of one of the bucks. Lester did the same with the other but wasn't trying very hard. I got mine to live but the other one died. We got back to where Dad was working. I was so scared and I thought Dad was going to kill me. Lester jumped out of the truck and ran to Dad to tell him what happened. I just stayed away from Dad the rest of the day. Believe it or not, that evening, he never mentioned it.

We lived next door to Shelly Shaw in Belle Fourche. His son, Curt, who has been a lifelong friend, came out and stayed with us one weekend at the ranch. Curt and I went riding. Curt claimed he got bucked off, but that old horse he was riding never bucked in his life. Curt landed on his butt right on top of a cactus. I pulled stickers out of his backside for half an hour. He had a long, painful ride back to the ranch house. When I came home from Vietnam I gave my lucky charm to Curt before he went to Nam thinking it might help keep him alive as it had for me. He refused to give it back when he came home. Oh well. Curt later was my kids teacher in High School.

Another time, Earl Clarkson brought out a couple of thousand head of yearling ewes he had brought up from Texas. We were wintering the ewes for him. Earl was one of the richest men in South Dakota and we banked at the Clarkson bank. A large storm was reported to be moving in. Dad called Earl, who was living at the Don Pratt Hotel in Belle Fourche. Dad asked Earl what he wanted us to do about the storm. Earl said don't worry about it. It turned out to be a real blizzard. Cattle and horses will usually turn into the wind, sheep turn and travel with the wind. When they get to a corner in the fence then they just stop and start piling on top of each other. Several hundred head suffocated in that storm.

We also had about a 600 acre irrigated farm by Arpan, South Dakota. We raised our hay on this farm and did our calving there. This was about 30 miles South and a little East of the ranch. Each Spring and Fall we would have a cattle drive between the two. It always took 2 or 3 days. One year when we made camp the 1st night we got a full blown South Dakota blizzard. You couldn't see 40 feet. One of our best stock horses took off. Dad saddled up my horse, Smoky and went looking for the lost horse. He turned Smoky loose and just let him go what ever way he wanted. Dad couldn't see anyway. Smoky took my Dad right to the horse then brought them back to camp. Dad had no idea which way camp was. Smoky was the best of the best.

Me and Smoky One time I was galloping Smoky in the pasture that has Crow Butte, a couple miles from the ranch house. I was riding bareback. Smoky heard a rattlesnake and jumped sideways. I went flying. Luckily I didn't land on the snake. Smoky waited for me but I was too small to get on with out a saddle. So I got Smoky to eat grass and then put my leg over his head on his neck. He lifts up and puts me on his back. I mostly rode bareback and this was how I mounted him for years till I could jump up.

On another cattle drive, we camped near the buttes known as Two Top, near a small lake or stock dam, my cousin Max woke up in the morning and his cowboy hat was gone. It had blown away in the night to the small lake close by and floated clear across the lake and was on the bank on the other side.

One time out at the ranch, I went out to get the milk cows on Smoky. We were about 1/2 mile from the house heading back. I could see Dad on top of the hill by the house waving his arms and yelling. I kept on driving the cows but I could tell he was Noyce Barn really getting excited. I looked over my shoulder and there was a tornado headed right for me. I raced Smoky for the house. Dad got Mom, my sister and me into the cellar. We just turned Smoky loose. The tornado went right over the top of the house. After the storm was over, a large chicken coop about 40 feet from the house was laying upside down. There was no damage to the house, as far as I remember the chicken coop was the only damage. Smoky was just fine.

Another time, Dad and I were out to the ranch on a Saturday. Dad had just bought a new 1957 Chevrolet car. I would have been 10 years old. Dad was working on the grain bins for harvest and sent me with the car down to the shop to get some parts or tools. The minute I got out of Dad's sight I stepped on the gas, went around a corner and side swiped the rear driver's side of the car on a piece of equipment. I was too scared to tell Dad, so I stayed in the driver's seat when I got back to Dad. He got in on the passenger side to eat his lunch. I bet he was wondering why I couldn't eat. When it was time to go back to Belle Fourche, I jumped in the driver's seat and told Dad I would drive home 50 miles to Belle Fourche. Dad made me promise I would stop the car at the edge of Belle Fourche so he could drive thru town. He then fell sound asleep. When we got to town I just kept driving right through town to our house. He chewed my butt when we got home for not waking him up. That night the whole family went out. It was after dark so Dad didn't notice the dent when we left the house. When we stopped at the Belle Truck Stop for gas, the attendant asked Dad how he got the dent in his new car. My heart dropped about 2 feet. Dad jumped out and looked at the dent. He told the attendant and Mom, he didn't know how it got there. It took me over 10 years before I got up enough nerve to tell Dad what really happened. Then when I did tell him he couldn't even remember it.

One summer, my Uncle Harlan Norman came up from Nebraska to work for us. I would guess this would have been in 1954 or 1955. Harlan and I were putting up an electric fence. I would have been 6 or 7 years old. Harlan talked me into peeing on the electric fence, which is about the worst joke you can pull on a little boy. My mother was furious with Uncle Harlan. I got even though. Harlan and I were sleeping in the same bed at the ranch house. I sometimes wet the bed. That night or a night or 2 later, I wet the bed all over my Uncle Harlan. It must have made him wet the bed also because my mother said the next morning that one little boy could not have peed that much. Harlan was my namesake. In those days, they called me Billy Harlan.

Harlan Norman in the Roman Races In those days in Nebraska and Colorado, they had Roman Riding Horse races. That is where one man stands on two horses. My Uncle Harlan raced in them. Harlan later went on to become a professional race horse trainer and traveled year round doing this. This was his lifelong career. His son, Steven Norman, my cousin, is shoeing race horses. He has shoed several Kentucky Derby winners and many more of the large races. He is still doing this today and lives in Kentucky.

Our last harvest was in the summer of 1959. Dad had elected to do a government program called Soil Bank. This was where you converted all the wheat land to grass land. The government paid you for the next 10 years not to grow any more wheat because there was a large surplus of wheat in the US. Dad purchased a 300 acre irrigated farm approx 3 miles Southeast of Belle Fourche. He about bought the Noyce Ranch instead for $17 an acre. I did my best to get him to buy the ranch instead of the farm. The farm turned out to be the best deal. Over the next 40 years Dad took out more than 1 1/2 million ton of gravel from that farm. He left me, at 12 years old in charge of the final wheat harvest at the ranch. After about 2 or 3 weeks, I was so homesick and I wanted to see the new farm. Dad had forbidden me to drive in 50 miles plus the only thing I had to drive was the grain truck. I just couldn't stand it any longer and so one Saturday afternoon I just started up the grain truck and headed into town. I kind of figured I would get my butt whipped but I did it anyway. Guess what, he hardly said anything. Back to the harvest on Monday.

All the wheat was stored in grain bins right at the ranch. The government paid us to store the wheat. We had already been paid for the wheat. Overnight or maybe over a couple of nights, they figured a caravan of semi trucks came in and stole 5,000 bushels of wheat. They left all kinds of trash, including dirty diapers. Sheriff George Hafner worked on this for several years. They eventually caught some of them.