I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term “boom and bust” in the context of the American West, I think of gold, silver, maybe even oil. Four-legged critters don’t come to mind, or they didn’t until I started the research for Waiting for Spring. That was when I learned that cattle – the same thing that made Cheyenne the richest city per capita on earth in the late nineteenth century – had a boom and bust cycle like other get-rich-quick schemes.
Though Cheyenne was founded as a railroad town and though the Union Pacific and the territorial government were major contributors to the city’s growth, the primary source of wealth during the 1880s was cattle. The demand for beef was high, and the presence of the railroad in Cheyenne made it easy to get meat east and to Europe. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Believe it or not, raising cattle in Wyoming came about almost by accident. When bad timing forced one herd to remain in Wyoming rather than be driven east during the winter of 1854, the owner left, probably expecting the worst. Instead, when he returned in the spring, he discovered that not only was his herd still intact, but the animals had thrived on the air-cured grasslands of eastern Wyoming.
If you’re from the East as I was, you may wonder about the term “air-cured grasslands.” Eastern grasses, at least the varieties I was used to, are packed with nutrients during the growing season. Winter’s another story. The grass is often covered with snow, and even when it’s bare, there’s little to tempt a cow. Wyoming’s grass is different. The very dry climate of the high plains has the effect of curing the grass much as freeze-drying might. The result is that the grass retains its nutrients throughout the winter, providing excellent forage for animals. Once that first rancher discovered the secret, the word spread quickly. I can picture the telegraphs buzzing with the news of good, year-round forage and an open range. Who could resist the lure of free grazing?
Not many, as it turned out. The result was an influx of ranchers and rancher-wannabes from around the world, some of whom banded together to form cattle companies. All this culminated in what was called the “Great Grass Bonanza” of 1876 to 1886. Some historians refer to these men as “cattle kings,” but I prefer the term “cattle baron.” It was the cattle barons who built mansions, some of which even boasted their own ballrooms. It was the cattle barons who frequented the opera house and who made their private club, the Cheyenne Club, the epitome of wealth and elegance in a
city that had more than its share of both. It was the cattle barons who dominated the city’s social events.
But all things end. This is, after all, a story of boom and bust. The result of all those cattle barons and cattle companies coming to Wyoming Territory, determined that they too would become millionaires, led to overgrazing. Quite simply, there were too many head of cattle on the prairie. That would have been bad enough, even if there had been normal weather conditions. As it turned out, the summer of 1886 was particularly dry, resulting in less than normal growth of the grass. The cattle might have survived that, had it not been for a particularly brutal winter. The snow started early, blanketing the ground with huge drifts.
Though it takes effort they can’t afford to expend, cattle can paw their way through snow to find the grass underneath. But what if there’s a thick coating of ice? That’s exactly what happened in January 1887. The warm winds of a Chinook melted the snow, causing deep puddles. That was followed immediately by a deep freeze. You don’t need to be a meteorologist to know what happened next. The ponds froze, leaving the cattle without water. The grass was covered by ice so thick they couldn’t reach the grass. Those poor animals died from hunger and thirst. By the time spring came, the herds were destroyed, and so were the cattle barons’ fortunes. The boom had ended.
It sounds pretty depressing, doesn’t it? That might make you wonder why I chose this timeframe as the background for Waiting for Spring. The truth is, I believe we can find hope in even the most dismal of circumstances, and so I made my hero a cattle baron. And, yes, I gave him a happily-ever-after.
From the time that she was seven, Amanda Cabot dreamed of becoming a published author, but it was only when she set herself the goal of selling a book by her thirtieth birthday that the dream came true. A former director of Information Technology, Amanda has written everything from technical books and articles for IT professionals to mysteries for teenagers and romances for all ages. She’s delighted to now be a fulltime writer of Christian historical romances. Her Texas Dreams trilogy received critical acclaim, and Waiting for Spring, the second in her Westward Winds series, was released in January.