By: Bill Wink © 2003-2016
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“The Earl Era”
The so-called “Earl Era” at Guenoc Ranch spanned 32 years, from 1955 to 1987 and some suspect the “Earl Era” would still be going on had circumstances been different.
I had never heard this phrase “the Earl Era” used, until it arrived in an unsolicited email. But since I am uniquely aware of Earl’s accomplishments at Guenoc, I felt it was, in fact, true. Earl’s time at Guenoc was an era of unprecedented improvements at Guenoc Ranch. Some of those accomplishments were: the total hay tonnage produced, the total corn silage produced, the total size of the cattle herd run on the ranch, the prestige in the cattle industry achieved, the miles of roads built or improved, the miles of fence put in, the number of gates built, the feet of pipe installed and buried, the number of lakes and ponds built or improved, the corrals built, the erecting of new buildings, the improvements to old buildings, the number of acres of irrigated pasture put in, the conversion of permanent pasture to vineyard and total yards of earth moved, just to name a few.
Meet Earl Sylvester Huston
Earl was born Earl Sylvester Huston on November 7, 1911 in Peru, Nebraska. Earl’s given middle name being the same as his grandfather, Sylvester Huston, who was responsible for changing the spelling of the last name from Houston to Huston. At the time of his birth, Earl was one of seven children born to Alonzo and Lena Huston. Over the next four years, Earl would gain two more sisters and shortly thereafter, in 1917, his family would read of the United States entry into World War I. Earl was now six years old.
America was still stretching its wings and many Americans were trying to carve out a future for themselves in this land of the free and Earl did his part for the family of eleven, mostly looking after his younger sisters and learning how to work from his four older brothers.
The family was now living in and around Antelope County, Nebraska, most specifically, Neligh and life was not easy. By the ninth grade, Earl gave up on school as the family’s needs beckoned him to find a means of earning money. Earl engaged in whatever it took to make a living just like everyone else, from sawing ice in the Elkhorn River in the winter, to building roads with his father running teams of horses and spotting loads, to shucking corn with his brothers at a penny a bushel.
Living on a farm from ones beginning would certainly introduce one to the necessity of how to best raise animals for food and profit, which was not uncommon during the teens and twenties of the twentieth century. Earl soon realized cattle ranching would be his choice of a profession and hired on as a cow hand.
Some of the greatest cattle ranching in the Midwest then was in Cherry County, Nebraska, the “Sand Hills”, and most specifically, Valentine. So who would be surprised to find a budding cowboy named Earl Huston rising at 4 am, breaking the ice in the watering trough, and heading out to feed the cattle in this country? Not me.
Now, one of Earl’s neighbors was the Adamson’s. And in the twenties and thirties one knew one’s neighbor because one counted on one’s neighbor for all sorts of things. Little did Earl know that the Adamson’s, from Ireland, had a sister who was on her way to America to meet a cowboy, and she did. My aunt, Dora Huston, told me how excited she was when she spotted her first cowboy, on horseback, as he was riding across the plains of Nebraska, while she was on a train headed for her brother’s place in Valentine. Imagine… Ellis Island, the Traveler’s Aid Society, the Statue of Liberty and a Cowboy! What joys await those who dare dream. And people today question our purpose? Ignorance is a blight on the future. Anyway, there are lots of stories, however, that must be for another time.
The nineteen thirties were very rough indeed and they led right into World War II. These times made everyone very resourceful and as they use to say: “The only thing not eaten off a hog was his squeal.” Earl could break a horse, help a cow have a calf, dig a well, build a hay sweep, rebuild an engine, shoot the eye out of a grouse, shuck corn, build a road, build a pond, erect a windmill, butcher a hog, milk cows, spot a tornado, build a barn, tell the time by looking at the sun and tell you if an old cow was going to be trouble just by looking at her tail. He was use to working outside in sub zero weather or over 100 degrees. He could stitch up a wound on a horse or himself always commenting, “It’s a long way from your heart”. He knew how to rope and tie down an old cow by himself so she could be doctored, and he would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it more than him. By now he had been on cattle drives to stock yards that took a couple weeks to accomplish, eating hard tack and riding nights watching the heard. He said when you came to a fence you took it down, passed the herd through, then put the fence back up. Everyone understood.
In 1945, Earl accepted a job in California at the St. Francis Ranch in Willits. Earl made a horse trailer, hooked it to his car, loaded his horse Trigger, and headed west. (I still lived in Nebraska, and I remember when my aunt and uncle came to visit once and how I’ll never forget they lived in California. It was beyond my imagination. Redwood trees, the Pacific Ocean, California and a pay check, all wrapped up in one dream.)
The first Grand National Cattle Exposition was held in San Francisco in 1946. Who was there? You would be right if you guessed Earl Huston. Winter storm blowing down the tents and all, he was there.
Earl’s reputation as a knowledgeable herdsman and rancher was soon acknowledged throughout the industry and greeting old friends in California seemed to happen more often.
Earl and Dora left the St. Francis Ranch in 1948 and went to the Golden State Hereford Ranch in Oakdale. There he worked for the Kestersons and in 1950, Earl and Dora moved to Sunny Brook Farms in Lincoln, California, all the time caring for pure breed Herefords.
In 1955 an associate Earl had known from ranching in Nebraska came seeking Earl for a new position. That associate was Ray Thalman, a professor of animal husbandry from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and currently under the employ of E. T. Foley. Ray was running Foley’s pure breed operation in Santa Barbara but they, the Foleys, were seeking someone to run a commercial operation under Woodland Farms in Lake County. That operation was the recently purchased Rancho Guenoc.
Earl found Rancho Guenoc somewhat wanting upon his first visit and was reluctant to abandon modern society to once again embark on the more primitive side, and Dora was in agreement. However, before they knew it, they were moving into the old ramshackle farm house that was then the primary residence at the ranch. Who better to walk in the footsteps of Lilly Langtry than Dorthea Alexandra Huston who was named after Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward the Prince of Wales who was a philanderer who had been involved with Lilly Langtry? It was July 15, 1955.
Early morning, July 16, 1955, Earl pulled on his boots and began an adventure that would span over three decades.
Earl and Dora were left to deal with a 21,000 acre ranch. Woodland Farm’s headquarters was of course near Woodland and Foley and Thalman were in Santa Barbara and Pasadena. The learning curve was very steep but Earl and Dora would meet the challenge.
For two years Earl set about making the improvements needed to change Guenoc into a ranch that could support a large cattle operation.
He was to soon realize the challenge of feeding the cattle in their winter pasture. Road improvements were a necessity. Concrete pads needed pouring around the feed barns so the cattle weren’t standing in mud up to their bellies. Pastures need to be broken into different sizes to accommodate the heard size. Fences needed replacing. The corrals needed improving for sorting, branding, doctoring and shipping out the cattle to market and a scale needed to be purchased and installed in the corral area to weigh out the shipments. The irrigation system that was in place needed many improvements and several pastures needed to have the slopes re-done and the dikes re-pulled so the fields would irrigate properly. Stock ponds needed repairs and springs needed to be developed. McCreary Lake needed the spillway re-enforced and the canal needed dredging. A new shop needed to be built to take proper care of the equipment needed to farm and maintain the ranch plus new equipment needed purchasing.
The End Of An Era
After more than 32 years at Guenoc Ranch, Earl Huston retired.
Soon word was put out that Earl was no longer in charge at Guenoc, and at some point that message was shaped into a phrase. The phrase was, “the Earl Era is over”.
Well, there certainly is no disagreement about that. Times at Guenoc Ranch had changed and changed dramatically. The so-called “Earl Era” was a time of pride and achievement. It was a time when the name “Guenoc Ranch” was bracketed with respect and people felt privileged to be associated with that respect.
The “New Era” ushered in something different. If you are looking for an example of what that would be, look at both pictures. The first one shows the corrals at the Ink Ranch during the “Earl Era” and the next shows the same corrals 10 years after the “Earl Era” was over and the “New Era” was busy leaving its mark.
Saying the “Earl Era” was over couldn’t have been more true. It certainly was over and with it went a time that will be no more.
Mr. Foley’s wonderful welcome to the Rancho written in the early 1960s no longer applied. The respect for those who came before was reflected nowhere except in hollow words that held no meaning. Hidden in rhetoric based on phony Saint’s Days and stories of visits that never happened. Of ghosts that did not exist.
The pride of what Detert had accomplished was buried under the illusions of a vivid imagination.
Gone was the jingle of a pair of spurs, the smell of horse sweat, soaked, saddle blankets and the sweet smell of new grass hay. Gone were the practical jokes that originated in the bunkhouse and the ringing of the cookhouse triangle.
Gone too was the character of those who could live the life, walk the talk, work seven days a week without complaining and do it all for little pay and all the while love every minute of it.
Yes, it was quite obvious, “the Earl Era was over” and those next in line were leaving their mark.
I was fortunate enough to spend the greatest part of my life in the company of my Uncle, Earl Huston. He was a tough man to work for but working for my Aunt Dora was tougher.
The two things he said that have always stayed with me were; if you got injured he would always reassure you your injury was a long way from your heart and the other was; “there’s no sense being hungry until you get where the food is”.
When Earl passed in 2006 I truly feel an era passed with him.
Dora passed in 1998 and Earl in 2006
Note!! Earl Huston’s mother’s maiden name was Wyne, this is a link to the history and genealogy page of John C. and Margaret Wyne
READ THE HISTORY OF GUENOC RANCH: GUENOC, from the Land Grant to Earl Huston 1958
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