Dust Bowl tests the Doll Ranch | VailDaily.com

Dust Bowl tests the Doll Ranch

Shirley Welch
Vail, CO Colorado

About the time Frank turned 14, the country was in a deep depression.

On top of this, catastrophic dust storms roared across the Great Plains due to decades of inappropriate farming techniques. In 1935, 20 “Black Blizzards” occurred and turned day into night. A rancher in Goodland, Kansas was left with no grass in his fields to feed his cows.

When Emmett Morton heard that the Colorado mountains were not affected by the dust storms, he contacted Frank Doll and made arrangements to move his cattle to the Doll Ranch near Sweetwater.

This was a desperate decision. It was spring and many of Emmett’s cows were calving. No matter. In Goodland, the ground was 10 inches of dust without a hint of anything green growing.

A deal was struck to graze Emmett’s 500 head of cattle for 50 cents a month per head on the Sweetwater property. When the cows arrived by railroad and unloaded near Sweetwater, the animals were in bad shape. Some looked starved. Many were dehydrated. Others had dropped their calves on the train. Some were in the process of delivering calves.

Those too weak to walk out of the rail road cars were roped and dragged out.

Frank’s dad anticipated the cows’ conditions and had asked some of the women to be there. He instructed the women to fill buckets at the river and then showed them how to get the water down the cow’s throats. Luckily, when the animals were all unloaded and watered, they did not have any dead cows.

Frank and his dad and several other cowboys, including Slim, began to move the cattle to the grazing ground. It was slow going. Besides Emmett Morton, his veterinarian came along with the cows to oversee the operation.

“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” the vet told Emmett. He pointed to hillsides of cedar and pinion, where he didn’t see more than a few slivers of grass. Then he looked at the straggly herd of cows, many who had 2 inches of compressed dust on their backs. “This country doesn’t look much better than what we left.”

“We’re here now. We don’t have much option.”

The vet just shook his head. “No, we don’t, but you’ll be lucky if you don’t lose the entire herd.”

Frank overhead this conversation and couldn’t help but say, “Your herd has all summer to fatten up.”

The vet looked at Frank. “Fatten up on what, son?”

Frank said, “You’ll see.” Then he kicked his horse and rode off to find Slim.

Because the cattle were in such bad shape and because there were so many newborn calves, it took the men 10 days to move the cattle 3 miles down river and then another 3 miles up the mountain to where the sweet grass grew.

About day five of the drive to good pasture it rained like crazy, soaking the men and cows. With the rain, the cows grew unruly and paused to bellow and look up at the sky, as if they had not seen rain before.

Mud ran off the sides of the cows but didn’t clean them completely. After all, they had been in a drought and through numerous dust storms. When the rain stopped, the sun came out.

Two days later, as Frank and the men pushed the cows to the meadows where rich green grass grew. Slim stood in his saddle and looked over his cows. Something wasn’t right. He squinted to see better. Then Frank rode up alongside him.

Slim pointed to a bunch of cows. “What’s that green stuff on the back of the cows?”

Frank looked closely. “It looks like mold.”

Slim kicked his horse and Frank did, too. When they got closer to the cows, they saw that green sprouts of tumbleweed grew from the remaining dirt on nearly flat part of their backs, between their hip bones. That dirt had been there so long and the dust storms had blown seeds and everything else.

Then along came the rain and presto, the cows sprouted tumbleweed.

Frank and his dad and Emmett and the vet and Slim left those cows up in summer pasture. On Sept. 15, Emmett and the vet returned with Slim and Frank and his dad and a couple of cowboys. They found all 500 of the cows and moved them to the railroad at Dotsero.

Frank looked at the herd of fat, healthy animals. Just then the vet rode alongside him, and Frank just had to say, “I guess Mr. Morton did the right thing. Looks to me like the cows gained at least 300 pounds each, and those calves now have to be 450 pounds.”

The vet pulled his lips into a straight line, obviously not too happy to have a kid tell him about cows. Then he sighed and admitted, “I never would have thought this could happen.”

“Colorado grass is the best anywhere,” Frank said and decided it was time to go pester Slim.

Mr. Morton took his herd of Herefords back to Kansas and was a mighty happy man that he trusted Colorado grass and the Doll Ranch to save his herd.

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