Thunder Butte

July 28, 2005

The Big Drought: Turning Grasshoppers into Profits

While my family couldn’t do anything about the heat and the never ending dust during the drought, we did try to control the grasshoppers. Our screen door was often black with grasshoppers. Before we could enter or exit the house, we would roll up a newspaper and burn the grasshoppers off the screen door. About this time, my mother came up with an ingenious plan. She ordered about a thousand baby chicks from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. They were delivered through the mail and we set about raising them the best we could.

When those chickens were mature, the land all around us was covered with white Leghorn chickens. Those chickens grew and thrived. They spent every moment of daylight devouring grasshoppers. Because we had so many chickens, my parents did a thriving business in eggs for a time. They made a trip about once a week to the Glad Valley store with a lumber wagon load of eggs—it seemed like hundreds of dozens of eggs. They probably got about eight cents per dozen for them, but that was big money back then. As long as the grasshoppers held out the chickens produced.

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Thursday, July 28, 2005 | (0) comments |

The Big Drought: Swollen in the Saddle

One day, Billy Briscoe and I were dispatched to trail some of our and the Briscoe’s cattle into Faith, to the stock yards where they would be bought. Because of the drought, we had to follow the cattle rather than drive them. If they walked too fast and didn’t get enough grass to eat on the trip, they would lose weight. So, we took about three days, just to travel from Thunder Butte to Faith.

The first day out, we came to the Moreau River, where the cattle drank and settled down in the shade of the trees. Our horses were dripping wet from the heat, so I pulled the saddle off mine. He was a very skittish bronc type. The flies covered him to soak up the moisture when I pulled off the saddle. The flies started driving him crazy pretty quickly, so I had to ear him down to get the saddle back on. When the saddle was on, he whirled and kicked me in both upper thighs. He got a direct hit, and I fell to the ground thinking that my legs were broken. I managed to get back into the saddle and we got the cattle going again, but I was riding a "contest" saddle and my legs swelled until my jeans nearly split and wedged me tightly into the saddle. When it started to get dark, we bedded the cattle down and I tried to get off the horse, but I couldn’t manage it. I was so swollen in my jeans that I was wedged tightly, so Billy undid the cinch strap and the saddle and I slid to the ground—saddle and all

We were pretty tired so we slept soundly all night, even though I was swelled into the saddle. By morning, the swelling had gone down enough that I was able to get out of the saddle. Then, we were faced with a pretty bad hunger and no coffee. After talking it over, Billy rode a couple of miles to Rattlesnake Pete’s place where he bummed some coffee grounds and Pete gave him a slice of goat meat for us to split. That was one of the best breakfasts I ever remember. We spent the rest of that day and the next night with Rattlesnake Pete and his goats. Since my legs were pretty much back to normal, we finished the trip into Faith.

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Thursday, July 28, 2005 | (0) comments |

The Big Drought: The Day the Sun Took its Toll

One day during the drought, I came across the Briscoe kids, who were neighbors, swimming in a hole not much larger than a pool table. They wanted me to join them, and I thought they were nuts. The water looked like mud. That was a sorry day for me as I started for home, about ten miles back to where we lived, east of Thunder Butte.

During the trip, I started to get a headache. I dismissed it as being caused by hunger because I hadn’t eaten that day. However, after trudging along in the intense heat, I passed out and fell off my horse. I woke up sometime later with the horse nuzzling me with his wet nose. Somehow, I managed to crawl back in the saddle. I didn’t remember anything else, though, until my horse walked up to the water trough at our ranch. When he dropped his head to drink, I slid off his neck into the water. After a few minutes, I felt revived enough to crawl and stumble the several hundred yards to the house. I kept feeling as though I was alternately losing consciousness and then groggily reawakening.

At the house, I found some water and put wet towels on my head only to pass out again. When I woke up, it was getting dark and had cooled a little. Needless to say, there was no one else at home that day. Aside from having headaches for awhile, I seemed to suffer no lasting effects from what was probably “heat stoke.”

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Thursday, July 28, 2005 | (0) comments |

The Big Drought: From Paradise to Dust and Mud Holes

South Dakota is not generally an especially hot place. Even in summer, temperatures rarely break the 90 degree mark. I also remember it as a sea of prairie grass, a verdant plain, if you will. As a child, I used to lie in the tall grass, feeling the wind as it whistled through the trees and grass, listening to the birds singing, and watching the clouds scudding across the sky. It was idyllic, pleasant, a time and place that I remember as a lot of fun. Then, hot winds came, water holes dried up, animals died of thirst, and grasshoppers arrived in swarms. The ‘hoppers covered everything, and they ate everything, even the fence posts. It was common to see a piece of fence post hanging from a wire, where most of it had been eaten away.

For a year or two before the drought set in, outlanders, investors from out of state, bought up and leased hundreds of thousands of acres of native prairie grazing land. They sent in tractors with large gangs and sod-buster blades, and they broke up this land everywhere. They planted things like flax, all sorts of other exotic crops, at least by South Dakota standards. Many of these alien crops grew for a few inches, then withered and died. When the sun blazed down and the hot winds blew, the soil gradually raised into wind-blown clouds of dust, which eventually covered everything. Since no rain came, humidity decreased and what grass remained was brittle and dead. Most of my memories of those times are of intense heat, grasshoppers, flies and never ending dust.

During the drought, I used to take my pony out and ride a lot, just to look at the land. I often rode up and down the length of Thunder Butte Creek. It was common to see small pools of water remaining in some deep part of the creek where thousands of fish would be flopping about in what little water remained. All they had was mud in some places, and in other places, the water was gone and the stream bed was covered with dead or dying fish and turtles.

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Thursday, July 28, 2005 | (0) comments |

July 27, 2005

Lindy, the Horse That Could Fly

I want to tell you all about Lindy, the horse that could fly, but perhaps I should preface it by mentioning his Grandmother and his Mother.

Midnight was a Quarter Shetland mare, black as ink, and with a disposition that leaned toward the black side. It seems like any cowpony type horse with a trace of Shetland in them was usually referred to as a “quarter.” I pretty much learned to ride on Midnight. One of my brothers gave her to me when she was little more than a foal. She learned early on that I was an easy mark, since I was just a child. She threw me off regularly, bit me a few times, and it seems like she kicked me in the pants more than once.

Along about her fifth year, Midnight had a foal who was bright red at birth, and which we promptly named Moonlight. “Moonlight,” of course, because she was such a light red color, commonly called sorrel. I remember riding Moonlight to school in the first grade. I remember her so well because she used to lunge through the snow, which was often up to her belly. Once on the way home from school she was lunging through the snow with me on her back when she got sick and laid down. I didn’t know what to do, and when she aborted a baby foal, I knew even less about what was happening.

The next year, Moonlight had another colt. This time the colt was the ugliest baby horse anyone had ever seen. No one knew who the father was since the mares ran on the open range with herds of cowponies when they weren’t being used. This new colt was a poor color, sort of a dark brown with black and red smeared around. His ears were longer than normal, his head was large.

When this colt was about three years of age, I started riding him. We sort of grew up together, you might say, so there was no real period of breaking him. At some point, I just got on him and started to fly. Yes, that’s right, he was the fastest thing I had ever been on and it felt like I was “flying” when I rode on this colt’s back. Charles Lindbergh was a hero in those days for having flown across the Atlantic Ocean, so it only follows that I named my new horse Lindy. As it turned out, the name was very prophetic.

Tony Roach was an Indian boy who came to lunch at my family’s place one day and stayed for the summer. Well, in his great wisdom, Tony could see something special in Lindy and suggested we train him to jump. We would place poles across the corral gate and I would ride Lindy on a dead run, toward the gate with the pole across it. When we arrived at the gate, Tony would crack a "blacksnake" whip, the end of the blacksnake biting Lindy on the hip. With that incentive behind him, Lindy would jump. And, he would jump higher and higher as we added more poles to the gate. Of course, after the first few bites of the whip, it was no longer necessary to hit him with the blacksnake. With just the sound of it popping behind him, over the gate he would fly.

Later, I got to teaching Lindy to jump high wire fences. I would always ride him up to the fence so he would know exactly where it was, then we would trot off a ways—Lindy would decide how far—we would stop, he would turn, and without any further coaching from me, we would run and sail over that fence with feet to spare.

Cowcatchers are common in ranch country. They are poles laid over a large hole in the ground. A car can drive over the poles, but animals avoid them because their feet will slip between the poles and they would be trapped and probably injured. Well, ranchers have a lot of cowcatchers in place of gates. Early on in Lindy’s life, he learned to fly over the cowcatchers as easily as he did the fences—the only difference being that a cowcatcher is a very long jump, probably twelve feet across. That didn’t bother Lindy, though. We never stopped for a fence, a gate, or a cowcatcher. I would just show it to him, back off, and he would fly over it.

Many people in Thunder Butte country knew of Lindy’s great smarts, endurance, and speed. Classmates from high school spent holidays at our place. Pete Ginther, Chick Berquist, and Oren MacMillion were just a few of the guys that we used to perform for. Lindy performed his speed skills one fourth of July when there was a celebration at Usta, about twenty miles to the west of Thunder Butte. As usual, I was late getting started, so Lindy had to run the whole twenty miles in order to get to Usta in time for the pony race. We got to the starting gate just in time to line up with the others. Then, off we went. Lindy took an early lead, but "Bubby" Carmichael, on his quarter pony, kept pushing us hard. After a hard fought last quarter, Lindy pulled ahead and won the race. The race was contested by Bubby, who complained that Lindy was not a pony. The judges were called to settle the dispute. One old cowhand walked around Lindy a couple of times, scratched his head, and said, "Well, it ain’t a jackass, and it sure as hell ain’t a horse. It’s got to be a pony." So, we collected our five dollars and started for home so we could gather in the milk cows.

I remember one other incident in which Lindy was right at home in the air. We had been visiting a ranch quite a long way from home and it had gotten late. It was dark when we got started. Lindy knew the way of course, so all I had to do was sit there, and he ran for home, covering great distances with giant strides. Suddenly, it was deathly quiet. There was no sound of hooves or anything. About the time it dawned on me that we had left the ground, there was a tremendous splash. Lindy had run off a cliff. Fortunately for us, there was deep water at the bottom. After some swimming, Lindy climbed out with me still on his back. He immediately resumed his long lope, and we were soon safely home.

When I was in the Navy, during World War II, I received a letter from a former neighbor in Thunder Butte country, who said he was moving to Arkansas and he wanted to buy Lindy. He said that Lindy was running loose on the range with some cowponies and that if I would take twenty five dollars for Lindy, he would give him a wonderful home. I wrote back and told him that would be all right. Of course, I never received any money and I am sure Lindy wound up one day in a can of dog food.

—John Crowley
Mike Crowley Wednesday, July 27, 2005 | (0) comments |