Wyoming, by Ralph S. Lewis

“Wyoming” is one of several biographical accounts written by my grandfather, Ralph Spencer Lewis, about his family and his growing-up years. What a treasure he left us!


In the year 1900, my father and a brother-in-law, Alvah Spencer, moved to Wyoming. They bought a small ranch near Moorcroft on the Belle Fourche River and went into the sheep business. I have no record of what month they went or returned but am quite certain of the year. Meanwhile Father had leased our ranch in northern Nebraska to Arthur Newman for five years.

In those days most of that part of Wyoming was open government land, where grazing was free. Anyone with cattle or sheep could use the pasture. Stillman and Alvah bought several thousand sheep and hired a dozen or so herders to take care of them. They gave each one a covered wagon to live in, two or three good sheep dogs, and a rifle to shoot coyotes with. They moved each herder with his wagon and band of sheep ten to twenty miles from the ranch. The herder had no horses, but about every two weeks a tender would come by and move the wagon two or three miles to fresh pasture, and always near a stream for water for the sheep. Also the tender brought him food and supplies. The herder would live this way until November when they would move the sheep to winter pasture near the ranch headquarters. It was a lonely life, but many men liked it. 

Wyoming sheep ranch, herder with wagon and sheep

Father knew something about the sheep business, for when he was 21 years old, he had left his father’s ranch and had gone to Oregon to herd sheep for two years.

Every spring a crew of about a dozen shearers would come to help shear the sheep. As there was no electricity, they used hand shears. A fast man could shear 80 to 90 sheep a day. They would get several tons of wool, which they packed into very large burlap sacks about seven feet tall.

Shearing sheep on the ranch

Our sister, Lillian, was born there on the ranch in September, 1902. In the summer of 1903, a friend of Mother’s came to visit us. She was a professional photographer and took many large pictures of the ranch and the sheep. I have about twenty of these and I prize them very much because they are the only records we have of our life in Wyoming.

Belle (Spencer) Lewis standing near sacks of wool, Lillian next to her, twins and Clare on top


In the fall of 1903, Mother took us three children by train to Ainsworth to live awhile with her folks. On January 1, 1904, our brother Howard was born there.

Father and Uncle Alvah stayed on the ranch and that winter tragedy struck them. Instead of the usual open winter, a foot of snow fell in January so the sheep could not get to the grass for food. Some days the snow would melt a little, then freeze at night to form an icy glaze over the ground. They had no hay for the sheep and, when spring came, nearly half of them had died. As wool had been at a good price, they about broke even after selling the rest of the sheep.

Twins Ruth and Ralph Lewis at the sheep ranch about 1903

Then Father returned to the ranch in Nebraska where he lived with the Newmans for a year, while the rest of us continued to live in Ainsworth.

In the spring of 1905, Father came for us with a team and wagon. I remember that forty mile ride to the ranch. There was some furniture in the back of the wagon, so Ruth and I rode on some blankets laid on that. The trip took all day. We returned to the ranch where Ruth and I were born in 1899, and continued to live there until 1914, when we moved to Dallas, South Dakota.

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