Historic TA Ranch Serves up Dose of Old West with Down-home Charm

When Kirsten Giles and her parents first went to look at the historic TA Ranch north of Buffalo in the early 90s, they nearly fell through the rotten boards on the front porch of the cook house. The other buildings were not much better. Having sat vacant for decades, floors sagged above crumbling foundations where families of raccoons and other critters had moved in.

Most people looking to buy a working ranch would have walked away, Giles acknowledged, or at least torn down all the buildings and started over. But, her dad Earl Madsen knew its history in the Johnson County Wars, and they fell in love with the Bighorns and the 8,000 acres of green hills and rolling pastures.

Having grown up in Greybull, it was always Earl’s dream to retire on a Wyoming ranch after a long career in law in Denver. This ranch was perfect, albeit a monumental project.

It was just meant to be, Kirsten noted, particularly since her mom Barbara not only has a master’s degree in interior design but one focused on architectural restoration and rebuilding structures back to their original form.

“My real love is in restoring old buildings,” Barbara said. “I like old styles with character.”

The TA Ranch definitely had character.

The plan was to restore it, in all its former glory, or as close as possible, for the sake of authenticity. This meant canvassing antique stores for furnishings and other intricate details and doing a whole lot of reading. Today, nearly 30 years later, the ranch buildings feel immaculately preserved, complete with period-appropriate wallpaper, furniture, brass light fixtures and art.

It has since been nationally recognized on the National Registry of Historic Places and was even featured on Bob Vila’s “Restore America.”

And though Earl had originally set out to become a rancher, when beef prices tanked five years later, they revised their plan, utilized a contract feed program for beef producers, and also turned it into a working guest ranch, where people could pay to ride horses, move their small herd of a cattle or just chill out. Some do a little bird watching or attend a conference in the restored granary, equipped with fast fiber optic internet.

Part museum, part guest ranch-house, hanging out in the TA Guest Ranch is a little like stepping back in time into the wild days of the Old West where one of the most notorious standoffs took place.

At the Center of the War

The bullet holes in the barn are the only remaining scars of what historian T.A. Larson called “the most notorious event in the history of Wyoming.” The TA Ranch was literally in the cross-hairs of a makeshift war between the cattle barons and the local cowboys who stood up to their imperialist tactics.

The skirmish began nearly a century ago when homesteaders began running successful cattle operations in an industry heavily dominated by wealthy cattle barons, who dominated not just the industry, but also the rule of law. Primarily politicians and wealthy families, the absentee barons didn’t like the upstart, homesteading ranchers competing for use of the open range – mostly raising cattle to feed their families – trying to infiltrate an industry to which they felt they had a natural right.

Using their political clout and muscle, the cattle barons formed the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association, and successfully ruled the open ranges through hired gunmen.  In Johnson County, Sherriff Frank M. Canton did his part to bring “order” to the upstart cowboys and “cattle thieves” who then joined the cattle barons.

Their methods of coercion were effective in most parts of the state until they came upon Johnson County, where the locals fought back. Led by Nate Champion, who ran a herd of about 200 cattle on public land near the fork of the Powder River, where the cattle barons deemed him “king of the cattle thieves,” insisting he’d stolen from their herds.

Meanwhile, the 100-plus members of the cattle barons’ Stockgrowers Association all pitched in $1,000 each and came up with $100,000, for which to hire mercenaries to arrest the upstarts who, according to the barons, were breaking the law.

The barons began by trying to take out Nate Champion, who they confronted in his small cabin near what’s now Kaycee. The intruders fired at point blank range, miraculously missing him, while Champion returned fire, shooting one guy in the arm and another in the gut. Local ranchers John Tisdale and Orley “Ranger” Jones were not so lucky. In December 1891, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society, both were assassinated by the hired guns, setting off an uproar in Johnson County, where several local cowboys wanted to see the murderers rightfully charged.

Meanwhile, Nate Champion identified Joe Elliot, one of the complicit cattlemen, as his attempted assassin and a preliminary hearing was held in the case of State v. Elliot. After giving a passionate testimony, it appeared that Champion might win if the case went to trial, so the barons formed a posse of “invaders” and went and found him where he had been holed up in a cabin in the northern part of Johnson County and shot him dead.

The posse of 50 or so invaders – and one reporter, who they brought along to catalogue events in their effort to control the narrative – headed over to TA Ranch, which was owned by one of the wealthy cattlemen William Harris.  The Johnson County cowboys, however, were determined to stand up to them, and by the end of the day, more than 400 men formed a posse and surrounded the mercenaries in the house and barn.

It would take three days to smoke them out, which occurred when one of their men who had been shot in the belly escaped with the reporter to Wright, where he promptly contacted Governor Amos Barber who then sent a telegraph to President Harrison in the middle of the night, waking him and prompting him to call in the Calvary to save the surrounded men, who were eventually escorted safely to Cheyenne.

The invaders would never see justice, however. Once in custody, Governor Barber took control over the prisoners and refused to let them be questioned, ultimately protecting them from prosecution. Meanwhile, the cost of feeding and housing the prisoners fell on Johnson County with no assistance from the state. Eight months later, the charges against the invaders were dropped because a jury could not be seated to try their cases, and Johnson County had gone bankrupt paying to house the prisoners.

There are two sides to this story, according to Giles.  Some argue that the barons were only protecting their assets given that the hired men were under the impression that local cowboys had broken the law for which they deserved to be rounded up and punished . On the other side of the argument, many locals believe in and still harbor a deep-rooted pride in their ancestors, who had the courage to stand up to the well-healed cattle barons and fight for their rights.  Others view the incident as the first time the little guy fought back against big business and industry, and still to this day, many locals remain divided on either side of the fence.

Living History

More than a decade ago, Kirsten and her husband Rick moved to Buffalo with their three kids to help their parents run the guest ranch. Kirsten, a former economics professor at University of Wyoming, quit her teaching job to help her family run the ranch full-time while Rick works remotely.

It’s a move she doesn’t regret, leaving the crowded Front Range to escape into the quiet, peace of this corner of northeastern Wyoming.

“We were spending all our time driving up here from Colorado anyway,” she said, adding that Wyoming feels more like home and she’s grateful to be here. Their Wyoming roots run deep, she noted, and along with loving the country, their family are also fanatic University of Wyoming sports fans, including Earl, who helped co-found the Cowboy Joe Club in 1969.

The guest ranch is open May through November, and Kirsten is busy getting her staff up to speed for the busy summer tourist season while honing her own skills in the kitchen. She does a lot of the cooking in their restaurant until the chef comes later in May. The cookhouse is open for dining – for both guests and locals – with a farm-to-table menu either grown or harvested on-site, including ribeyes, burgers and salads, as well as nightly and weekend specials.

Kirsten jokes about her waitressing skills, which admittedly, may need some practice.

“Nothing in my PhD in economics taught me how to carry a fork from the kitchen,” she laughed.

Along with the restaurant, they also have 13 guest rooms available for rent in their restored ranch house, bunk house and granary, and, she said, everyone is invited to come out to the ranch and take in its history and beauty.

“History belongs to everyone,” Kirsten said, noting that bus tours, school groups, and tourists stop by to see the bullet holes as do historians, and sometimes, film crews. 

“Nothing in my PhD in economics taught me how to carry a fork from the kitchen”

Today, the property operates as a guest ranch, where people ride horses and do ranch chores if they desire or just get away from their busy lives or cities to unplug from their devices, relax and watch antelope, deer and the birds with a glass wine or homemade lemonade from their perch on the porch. Most of their guests come for the horse riding and to work their small herd of cows to practice their “dude-ranching” skills. In addition, guests can in one of the tours of local historic sites offered through the TA Ranch.  Guests find the notion of ranch work and Wyoming romantic, she noted, and other come for a dose of living history or to just get away from the throng.

Guests can rent one of the three houses or any of the 13 individual suites and rooms (all with their own bathrooms) that have been named after historical figures from the area or associated with the Johnson County War, like the William Harris Room, named for the Union Pacific Railroad physician who founded the TA Ranch in 1882, or John Tisdale, a popular rancher who was assassinated during the War, the circumstances of which still remain a mystery. There’s also the Red Angus room, named after a local sheriff and brothel owner, who contested the cattle baron’s invasion during the war.   

Along with the history, there are also a couple ghost stories, particularly in the barn where the bulk of the shootout occurred. Once, the door to a tack room flung open and promptly slammed shut, despite the fact that the door is stuck at the top and typically can’t be opened. There have also been a couple strange sightings in the loft upstairs, including the unexplainable glow of red lights that disappeared and seem to have no origin.

“This is a dream come true for us,” she said,

“and we want to share it with everybody.”

History is alive and well throughout the TA Guest Ranch and its outbuildings, which have been persevered in time. Barbara painstakingly researched the wallpaper, rugs and other furnishings of that time, most of which she culled from antique stores and thrift shops throughout the country. Rugs came from her husband’s business trips to Saudi Arabia with the exception of one wool rug in one of the bedrooms, original to the estate, that miraculously survived intact underneath a layer of leaves and debris.  To clean it, they were told to leave it out in the snow and then sweep it off. It worked.

Meanwhile, the original floors have replaced with specially cut 1 ¾ pine or oak planks to mimic the style of that period as have been the doorknobs, light fixtures and other details, including the broken-in leather chairs and couches, brass beds, gingham curtains and the stern, non-smiling portraits preserved in sepia tone.

Were it not for the fast, high-speed internet and modern touches in the bathrooms, it would be easy to get lost in time, during a period when hospitality was much more personal, and it was common to invite strangers into your homes.

This intimate, personal feeling is something that Kirsten feels sets them apart from other guest ranches and vacation get-aways. She wants people to dress comfortably and make themselves at home and get lost in the nostalgia of the Old West as they lounge on the porch, enjoy a sunset or take a walk down a dusty trail.

“I want them to feel like family,” she said, with her trademark smile and double-handed handshake that immediately makes a person feel at ease and at home.

“This is a dream come true for us,” she said, “and we want to share it with everybody.”

By: Jen C. Kocher
Photos: Adam D. Ritterbush

 

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