Amanda Cabot: Boom and Bust Wyoming Style

 

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.

 

About Amanda

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.

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10 Comments on “Amanda Cabot: Boom and Bust Wyoming Style”

  1. Cindy Woolard says:

    Very interesting post Amanda. I know I love to go to the Stockyards in Ft. Worth whenever I am in Texas visiting my brother and I love to think back to what it was like during those days long ago.

    I love the cover for Waiting for Spring. That shade of blue is beautiful.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  2. Lori says:

    I enjoyed your post. It was very informative. I think the cover is beautiful. I love the colors and I love the title “Waiting for Spring”. I’m waiting for Spring too. We just got some snow today after having such I nice warm weekend last weekend.

  3. Amanda Cabot says:

    Cindy and Lori — I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and that you like the cover for Waiting for Spring. There’s a special story behind it that I blogged about earlier this year. Here’s the link:
    http://amandajoycabot.blogspot.com/2013/01/behind-cover-waiting-for-spring.html

  4. Linda Broday says:

    Welcome, Amanda! We’re thrilled to have you spend the day with us. I love cattle baron heroes. Your book looks great. Love that dress she’s wearing. Thanks for sharing some tidbits about raising cattle in Wyoming. I can’t imagine the devastation when all those cattle froze to death. And I’m sure a the ones who didn’t freeze starved to death. How horrible. The Texas Panhandle had several similar situations with their cattle. I think it happened the same years as the Wyoming die-offs.

    Hope you enjoy your time with us!

  5. Connie J. says:

    Love the cover of your book. Stories about the cattle drives or cattle barons are always fun to read. Plus I love your setting so am looking forward to your book.

  6. CateS says:

    Love the cover and look forward to reading your book. I remember reading Mitchner’s Centennial and learning about cattle barons..

  7. Amanda Cabot says:

    Linda — Thanks for the welcome. I’m delighted to be here!

    Connie — I’m afraid there are no cattle drives in the story, but there is indeed a cattle baron.

    And Cate, isn’t/ wasn’t Michener an amazing author? I learned so much from his books.

  8. Maxie Anderson says:

    very informative, but Texas has many large cattle Ranches even today. I lived in a small town, Elgin, Ks. where they use to drive the cattle across Tx. to there to load onto a train. There was a big indenture showing across from my house where there was a deep vat the cattle were driven through to kill the ticks before they could be loaded. The town finally died to a small place from a very busy place, because they voted to not let the highway go through the town. So now it is in the Ghost Town books. This was where my husband was born and raised. One of his brothers was only 3 when they moved there, and lived there all of his life and died in 1992. You had my hopes up to have a chance to win your book. Oh well. Maxie mac262@me.com

  9. Maxie Anderson says:

    This last part about the highway was many years later. Maxie

  10. Patricia B. says:

    I had never heard of the wind cured grass, but it makes sense. Explains why herds of elk can survive and thrive in that region.

    Mother Nature is a hard mistress and has been the ruin of many. Man had a hand in it with the overgrazing. I often wonder how people can be so short sighted. How can you expect to thrive in the future if you are destroying the very environment you depend on for life? We aren’t doing too well today either.

    I like the story line of WAITING FOR SPRING. I checked Amazon and will be looking for you other books. Best of luck with your writing career.