Five generations call Kane family ranches home

The Bighorn Mountains play peek-a-boo behind wrinkled, sagebrush hills on the meandering drive to the E-U Ranch northeast of Sheridan. Twenty miles out on Decker Highway and 10 miles down dusty county roads — some in Montana, some in Wyoming — the ranch is home to David and Terri Kane, the fourth generation to cultivate cattle, family, a fierce work ethic, and feisty humor on patchwork lands totaling more than 30,320 acres. 

An increase of 30,000 acres since the original 320-acre ranch was established 136 years ago is no small feat. Neither is keeping a ranch in the family for five generations.

Fifty miles west of David and Terri Kane’s place, their youngest son Nate Kane and his wife Molly — married in August — manage the HN Ranch near Ranchester, continuing the Kane family ranching tradition for at least one more generation. The E-U and HN ranches both operate under the SR Cattle Company.

A study published by Joseph Astrachan, Ph.D., in Family Business Review found that 30 percent of family-owned businesses survive into the second generation, 12 percent into the third and only 3 percent into the fourth generation or beyond.

If passing any family business to the next generation is that challenging, passing on a family business that requires attention 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and 365 days per year should be celebrated.

But, in typical rancher fashion, Nate Kane speaks sparsely on the topic: “I don’t care to do anything else.”

For Nate Kane, his father David, his grandfather Chas, his great-grandfather Charlie and his great-great-grandfather Philip, ranching is life and ranching is home.

The land — be it tucked against the Bighorn Mountains along Big Goose Creek or corralled by rolling hills just south of the Montana border — is home. The work — fixing fence, pulling calves at 3 a.m., branding six times in the spring — is home. The family — be it kin, friends or neighbors — is home.

“Home is the ranch,” said David Kane.

“When you cross the cattle guard,” Terri added.

How it all began

In 1876, Philip Kane, 16-years-old at the time, was on his way up the Yellowstone River when he was diverted to help bury Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s men massacred in the now famous Battle of the Little Bighorn.

David Kane isn’t sure where his great-grandfather was headed, but he does know he never made it to his original destination; he fell in love instead.

Philip Kane was enthralled by the land below the Bighorn Mountains and staked a claim to 320 acres at the mouth of Big Goose Canyon in 1882, starting what would one day become an operation with 1,100 head of cattle on more than 30,000 acres of prime ranch land in Northern Wyoming.

In 1919, Philip’s son Charlie purchased George Cutter’s ranch across from Eatons’ dude ranch on Wolf Creek. He got married in 1928 and had four children.

His son Charles, known by everyone as Chas, took over the ranch when he was 35-years-old. He and his wife, Arlene, began to expand the operation, purchasing the HN Ranch and Keystone Ranch in 1969 and the E-U Ranch, a holding of Sheridan’s famous Kendrick family, in 1988.

The physical homes in which each generation has lived have changed over the past 136 years. However, the house built of stone in which David and Terri Kane have lived since January 1, 1988, is 100 years old this year. It was built by John Kendrick and serves as office for ranch operations, and a place of rest for times when the family is able to put their feet up in the living room — rare as those times may be.

Just weeks ago, when the mercury had already dipped to minus 11 degrees at 5 p.m., David Kane pulled on his thick work pants, fired up his tractor parked outside the front door and rolled away to go help a neighbor move some snow, a task sure to last well past the final glimmers of golden light on snow-covered hills.

In transition

Hard work is ingrained in the Kane family. The ranch — the home — is kept alive through early mornings, late nights, icy chores, and sheer determination.

In fact, hard work and the care of animals is so ingrained, it becomes part of relaxation and part of sleep, even.

“There’s nothing more relaxing or satisfying than to go out in a bunch of newborn calves and just see them,” said David Kane.

Kane relaxes on horseback, on his land, doing his work day in and day out.

Molly Kane smiles as she tells about the first time Nate told her one morning that he had a dream about “72 Red,” proof that he inherited his father’s and grandfather’s ability to know each individual cow. 

When Nate Kane took on the HN Ranch three years ago, he spent several months with his grandfather, Chas Kane, learning the ins and outs and dos and don’ts of managing the family ranch. Nate learned by doing: the two rode horse, moved cows, fixed fence until Chas died June 4, 2015.

“I was happy to have him for those six months,” Nate Kane said. “He taught me a lot, for sure.”

“It was important to dad for the legacy to continue, to keep the ranch going,” David Kane added.

Now fourth and fifth generation work together, talking on the phone nearly every day to stay apprised of happenings on each ranch and at each home. Communication and respect, said David, are key to keeping the ranch going through each generation and every transition. 

Life on The Range

While generational ranches are often associated with the men in a family, women play a vital role. Sometimes wives and daughters take over ownership and operations. Often, they come alongside in chores, keeping the books and managing the ups and downs of a life that depends on nature’s goodness.

Molly (Ligocki) Kane grew up on a small ranch, so the rhythm of ranch life was not foreign to her. She met Nate when she and her older sister helped at one of the Kane family’s brandings.

“You thought you were helping for a day, and now you’re helping for a lifetime,” Nate Kane joked.

On their first date, Nate and Molly ended up hauling bulls for Eatons’ ranch. They took a detour after that unexpected chore to turn on the #10 irrigation ditch.

“I tried to dress all nice for our date, if you can call it that, and then I had to climb two barbed wire fences,” Molly Kane said. “I was helping with ranch work on our first date; I knew what I was getting myself into.”

David and Terri Kane met when Terri was in the same sorority as David’s sister at the University of Wyoming. Terri had grown up on a small farm near Torrington but wasn’t originally sure she’d like country living in such a remote location. Now, she wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“I feel like I’m out in my own little world, and I like that feeling,” Terri Kane said.

The family makes a few trips into town each week, be it for groceries, church, or other needs. Often, said David, the drive is relaxing; at night, it can get tiresome. But, as they often must in their life of ranching, the family presses on to do what needs to be done.

A good home

David and Terri Kane have three sons: Jade, Ryan and Nate. All three are good hands, David Kane said, but there was never any pressure to stay with the ranch life. Ranch life did, however, provide a good home and lots of memories.

There was a time Ryan fell asleep on the school bus, riding all the way from Sheridan to the ranch and back to Sheridan before popping up in his seat and wondering where he was. Each morning, the boys had to wake early, do chores and be on the bus by 6:20, often not returning until after dark when involved with extracurricular activities.

When Jade was young, he would sneak downstairs, grab some pool balls and tuck them into Grandpa Chas’ boots. The family laughs about that to this day.

When David Kane had neck surgery, Nate Kane went out with Grandpa Chas one day to check cows. The two did not return when expected. As lunch time passed and David and Terri’s concern grew, grandfather and grandson sauntered in the door, giggling like school boys.

“Two hundred prairie dogs later we came home,” Nate Kane said.

Chas Kane was driven by his work, by the ranch duties needing to be done. But, on this occasion, he saw an opportunity for a little fun with his grandson. He took it, creating a memory cherished to this day.

At the Kane family ranches, home is sometimes work, sometimes play, always family, and always love.

By: Hannah M. Sheely for 82801

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