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Richard Negri interviews cattlemen and women about ranching in the rugged canyonlands region of southeastern Utah. Personal stories and anecdotes from the colorful characters who ground out a hard living on ranches of the are in the early 20th century.
Wiladeane Chaffin Wubben Hills is Ned Chaffin's niece and grew up on the Chaffin Ranch. Her story gives us a rare opportunity to learn what it was like for a child growing up in an environment dominated by cow and horse talk. During her first five and a half years on this isolated ranch, before her sister Claire came along, she had to make do with a favorite dog and horse for playmates. There were other children at neighboring ranches, but those neighboring ranches were ten to thirty miles distant.
Wiladeane coped very well, and in addition to learning early in life the ways of a ranch woman-canning, cooking, sewing, and hauling water-she became a first-rate cowhand and performed most of the duties of any cowboy when it was time to drive the cattle from one grazing area to another.
She is retired now and recently moved to Grand Junction in order to be nearer to her children, and so that her bright eyes will be closer to Utah's wonderlands. In spirit, Wiladeane has never been far removed from them.
July 17, 1995 and May 31, 1996 Grand Junction, Colorado
This is my story of the Chaffin family and its role in the early history of the land that is now a part of the west side of Canyonlands National Park (the Maze District and the detached Horseshoe Canyon Unit), the north and east part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area south to where Hite used to be on the Colorado River, and our ranch on the San Rafael River one mile west of where it joined the Green River.
Back in the early days my family on both my dad's and mother's side were Mormon pioneers and had settled in the middle of Utah around Loa and Torrey. The Chaffin family was one branch. At the funeral in 1968 of my grandmother, Alice Brian Chaffin, all her pallbearers were relatives or had been Mormon bishops. My mother's maiden name was Hunt and on her side of the family were the Hunts and the Curtises. For many, many years every summer we have had Hunt family reunions near Torrey, Utah. My grandparents were Louis (Lou) Moses Chaffin and Alice Brian Chaffin. My parents were Faun and Violet Hunt Chaffin. Dad was the eldest of eleven children and the smallest of the boys.
Granddad Lou was a big man with a magnetic way of getting things done. The Colorado River had a hold on him from an early age when he placer mined many places with his dad. My father told me how Lou, in his teens, went down the Colorado River through the Cataract Canyon with Bert Loper in their homemade boat in the late 1880s, and how his dad walked out from Spanish Bottom to Hanksville, and that Lou had explored all that area long before they took cattle into the Under the Ledge country.
Dad recalled taking their first cattle from Torrey, Utah, to Hanksville, to Hatch Canyon, through Sunset Pass into Waterhole Flat and Ernie Country, and later over the North Trail to Big Water. This was in 1918 and he was eighteen years old.
I was born in 1928 at Green River, Utah, in a house that my dad and mother and my grandparents lived in. My folks had gotten married in July of 1927 at the time of the Mormon Pioneer Days celebration that honors the date of the Mormon arrival in Utah in 1847. They lived in Green River, and my mother told me she found out the day after they were married that Dad was in a partnership arrangement with his family, L. M. Chaffin & Sons. This was much to her surprise. At the time of their marriage the Chaffins were already running cattle Under the Ledge. When I was two or three I went to live at Chaffin Ranch. Several of Dad's brothers, my uncles, were always at the ranch, working it together. I have a photograph of me on a horse, and my little legs were just hanging down on top of the horse. I could ride a horse soon after I could walk, and Dad always told me I was the best cowhand ever.
From the very beginning, when you live on a ranch, when I was four or five years old I started helping my mother around the kitchen with cooking and canning and all of the things that have to be done around a home. Everybody pitched in; you did what was necessary. My family taught me and they were good teachers. In other words, I wasn't out playing like most kids do. I was working on the ranch doing whatever needed to be done and learned at an early age to help in the house, and sometimes to totally take care of the house. That is, whenever Dad wasn't enticing me to go outside.
As soon as I could do anything at all, he had me out helping with the cattle and horses and doing errands for him out on the range. As soon as I could lift a saddle he started me saddling horses. Often when little I just rode bareback. Mother had a hard time keeping me in the house. Dad would just take me off and she would be left without me. My big love was the outdoors, so any chance I got, I was outdoors. I loved to be out with the cattle and horses and riding. I got thrown on several occasions when I was a child, but I was never hurt. In all of my life I never got a broken bone. When young and the horse would throw you, you'd just get up and get on again and ride him right away. We kids used to ride some of the calves when people were there. Just for fun.
I remember how lonely it was with no other children around. There were all these guys, the uncles and the ranch hands. The house was large; it had a front room with a big fireplace, a kitchen with a wood burning stove with a big reservoir that you heated water in, bedrooms, and a big cellar. The stove had lots of space for cooking with big kettles and we had a large griddle for hot cakes. The hot water reservoir supplied us with hot water for washing dishes or clothes. Because we cooked all of our meals on a wood burning stove we always had hot water. It held at least ten gallons, maybe it was twenty.
We had running water from a cistern west of the house on a little hill. The water flowed by gravity from the cistern through water pipes they had put in before the house was set on its foundation. That was how we got running water in the sink. We had a wagon with fifty-gallon barrels, and whenever we ran out of water we'd go down to the Green River and fill the barrels with buckets. The wagon was horse drawn, and was still out there in 1990 when I visited the ranch.
We also had an ice house, and we owned one of the first automobiles in the area. I don't know when the Lou Chaffins got their first automobile, but I have a picture of him holding me with my mother and Aunt Gwen looking on. Aunt Gwen had, I think, a 1930 or 1931 Nash with a rumble seat. We had some pickups too, but I can't remember how we got out to the ranch the first time, whether by car or by wagon.
Four of the Chaffin brothers were at the ranch. By the time I got there, Gay, the youngest, had died at age twelve of blood poisoning. He didn't live at the ranch. My earliest memories were about that house and being there with my mother and dad. My grandparents and uncles lived there, and there was an extra bedroom that people stayed in on the west side of the house. Grandmother and Granddad stayed in the middle section. We had a big bunk house for the guys. It seemed my grandparents, the Chaffin boys, and I were all out there at once sometimes. We frequently had big dinners and there was a big table where everybody would sit around and talk about horses and cattle. Mother and Grandmother made delicious pies and big dinners for everyone. No one was ever turned away hungry.
There was a small house where we farmed to the west, upriver about a half mile from the main ranch house. Sometimes when everybody was at the ranch, I and my part of the family would go and stay in the small house. We had more privacy there, but it was scary when there were big floods and the river came up close to the house.
I remember Granddad drilling the well, and how everyone was so excited when all that water started coming. But they found it was so mineralized they couldn't drink it. Later, we built a cooling system at the well so we could keep our milk and things cool.
After the Chaffin brothers and my grandparents had left the ranch around 1936, Dad didn't use the ice blocks from the cinder icehouse. Maybe it depended upon the weather being colder sometimes because there were huge chunks of ice in there. They must have been ten or so inches square and were cut and brought from the Green River in winter. I used to go down there and scrape cinders off to get to the ice. We had an ice box, one of those you put a block of ice in the top. We mainly kept everything cool in the later years with water from the well. The well became a cold water geyser. It still spouts up in the air ten or fifteen feet. At the geyser we planted the tamarisk that Uncle Ned gave my mother many years ago. It was one of the first ones in the country. Now they are taking over everything.
I did a lot of haying, helping to drive the team and, when strong enough, I ran the mower. One time I cut a rabbit in two and remember how bad I felt. I also helped by tromping down the hay when the men would pitch it onto or off the hay wagon. I did a lot of shoveling to help Dad with the irrigating and kept debris out of the ditches when we ran water from the dam rather than from the pump. It was hard work because we had big old ditches and we had to constantly build little dirt dams to move the water around to different crop rows. There was a big pump on the ditch to get water from the San Rafael River into the irrigation ditches. Claire was little and I was only eight and served as Dad's handy helper whenever he had to work on the pump or around the ranch.
We had lots of fences and I rode them a lot to check for breaks where cattle could get through. Our farm was about 670 acres, not all farmed, but most of it was fenced. We had a fence west of the house that went north to the big hills and sand dunes near a big rock. That fence kept the cattle out of the living area and away from the crops. All of our farm machinery was horse drawn. We never had a tractor. I milked and fed cows a lot, but I never liked milking.
What I liked best was being around the cattle and going Under the Ledge. The farm work was hard and a lot of it was too heavy for me. Like hay raking, that was too much for little me. We had a big ensilage pit and grew corn in a field. In the late summer or fall we would cut up the corn and put it in the ensilage pit. Then I would get on my horse and ride back and forth over the ensilage to tromp it down. During the winter the cut-up corn would stay warm in the pit and made good cattle feed.
I don't think Mother ever moved the cattle when the brothers were around. The way she and Grandmother were brought up in the Mormon religion, a woman's place was in the home. They took care of their husbands and the children and made a happy home. Everything a woman did, pretty much, was the cooking and the cleaning and the social part at the church and all of those kinds of things.
The pioneer women often had to do other things. I recall in my younger days when the brothers and grandparents were here, Mother was mainly doing the cooking and helping to run things. But she did have a say in the financial end of running the ranch.
The ranch was twenty-three miles from town and when we needed something like groceries we went to town in a truck on the old dirt Green River road. Sometimes we went to town only once a month and once in a while we'd get stuck in the sand or clay hills or the truck would break down.
We raised almost everything that we served at those meals because mother canned a lot: corn and string beans, meat, potatoes, carrots, and beets. She made her own cheese, and we always had a big old crock of sauerkraut. There was always canned meat and vegetables that we took Under the Ledge. We had a pressure cooker for canning, meats mainly.
I remember Mother's uncle, Frank Hatt. Each September he would bring us ten or so bushels of peaches from the Fruita, Utah, orchard that is now part of Capital Reef National Park. His wife was Ruby Curtis, a sister of Grandmother, Alta Curtis Hunt, and my grandfather was Charles Hunt. She canned beef, and we'd go down to the Green River with catfish traps. They are outlawed now. We put a rabbit or chicken in this little trap, and the fish would swim in the trap. We would go back in a few days to get the traps out, and there would be maybe thirty fish in it. Mother would can those with a pressure cooker and they tasted like salmon, but they were catfish. If we got carp, we fed them to the turkeys. We raised a lot of turkeys for selling and canning. When we went fishing or to get water, we went swimming. That was a big thing, a fun thing.
I remember when Claire was little she would ride with Mother on old Smokey, the mule, down to Waterhole Flat. Claire would ride on a blanket in the saddle in front of Mother until she could ride by herself, and later got her own horse called Rowdy. Mother always wanted to ride Smokey because he was very gentle and easy-gaited, and he was surefooted and could be used as a pack mule if needed.
When we went Under the Ledge we had to check gates. Like at Spanish Bottom, I used to have to go down to the bottom to check on the cattle. At the trail head, up on top where we found those trilobites and crinoids on a rock ledge, we had a brush gate made out of cedar and juniper trunks and branches. You would take the cattle down and close the gate and leave the cattle there until spring. I don't know if the gate is still there; I haven't been there since I was fourteen or so.
We had a main cowboy camp Under the Ledge at Waterhole Flat. We usually stayed out there for two or three weeks at a time. I was eight years old the first time I went Under the Ledge. We had to move the cattle around when it rained to where the water had collected in the potholes and the ponds. If it didn't rain, we would have to move them to places where they could get water. The later years were very dry and Dad said one year it didn't rain enough to wet his shirt. When not at the camp at Waterhole we took kettles, potatoes, rice, and beans to cook, but we didn't have sleeping bags. We just rolled up our quilts. At Waterhole we had a permanent tent with cedar logs up about three feet on the sides and canvas above that. The tent was under a big cedar tree that is still there, but the tent and logs are gone. We slept on cots outside and there was a camp stove Mother used to bake bread. She'd bring one cake of yeast that would last only long enough to bake yeast bread once and the rest of the time we'd have baking powder biscuits that we cooked in a Dutch oven.
We would go down for two to three weeks at a time. This was during the summer because I was in school during the winter, but I missed a lot of school. Mother taught me a lot at home. The cattle herds we moved around were usually small in number. We had to separate the older calves from the mothers because they would be having calves again. We put the older calves in different places such as Calf Canyon, which is east of Waterhole Flat. You didn't run them in one place at the same time. We ran cattle in Big Water, Ernie Country, Andy Miller Flats, and sometimes in Cove Canyon and down in Hatch Canyon, but Waterhole Flat was our main area. All of those areas are located in what we called Under the Ledge.
Excerpted from Tales of Canyonlands Cowboys Copyright © 1997 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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