Monday, March 29, 2004

Monday, March 22, 2004

My Barbed Wire Education

March 22, 2004 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

Each spring I think back to my fence building experience while working for the Barkleys on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch east of Gold Canyon. As many of you know, most of Gold Canyon today lies on land that belonged to the Barkley Cattle Company.

The headquarters ranch was the old Three R near Apacheland Movie Ranch. Harold Christ formed the Dinomount Corporation in the early 1970’s and acquired this land to build Gold Canyon.

When I worked for the Barkley Cattle Company, I generally worked out of the old Quarter Circle U Ranch eight miles east of Gold Canyon. We often drove cattle down the old trail between the Three R’s and the U Ranch. At one time the ranch covered more than 200 sections of forest, BLM and state lease land. Putting things in the correct perspective, a section of land is one square mile, and this two hundred square miles of grazing land was divided up into large pastures.

Some pastures were a couple of square miles in size and others were five to ten square miles. You can imagine how much fence work was required to maintain these pastures. After each spring roundup I spent the summer packing salt, doctoring calves and rebuilding fence.

Building or repairing fence required digging post holes, anchoring corner post, building water gaps, stretching barbed wire and placing fence stays between the posts. Some cowboys often refused to do fence work. A lot of cowboys, particularly rodeo cowboys never wanted to get off of their horse. If they couldn’t work from a horse’s back they didn’t consider the work worthy of their skills. I wasn’t a cowboy of that highest order so I often dug postholes and stretched barbed wire across the desert, over hills and through the mountains. My first experience with barbed wire was an experience I will never forget.

Barkley asked me to rebuild a fence across the north pasture east of the Quarter Circle U Ranch. He told me the fence hadn’t been repaired in over a decade and it needed work. The next morning I loaded one pack mule with wire and [then] another mule with tools. I usually carried a post hole digger, a long pointed shovel, a bar and a come-along. Heavy leather gloves were always a necessity. Barbed wire is sharp, treacherous and at times can be very dangerous if mishandled.

Like all young aspiring men, I wanted to make the job as easy as possible and complete the job as soon as possible. I also wanted to impress a real cowboy, Bill Barkley, with my work and ability. I recall those first instructions from Bill as if they were yesterday.

“Now, Slim,” he said, “you be real careful with that barbed wire. Don’t over-stretch it with the come-along. If you do, the wire could break and really do some damage to your tenderfoot hide.”

I arrived at my planned work site about two miles east of the ranch. The first couple of weeks I spent digging postholes. Digging across the alluvial debris in this basin was a nightmare in boulder extraction. I would start a posthole and be down about six or eight inches and then hit a huge boulder. It would take a half hour trying to dig the boulder out. It was one boulder after another. Sometimes I thought I was on a glacial outwash plain because there were so many round boulders.

Eventually I set some twenty-six posts across the head of the pasture. Every sixth post Barkley had me concrete them into the ground. This operation meant packing cement and water to the site. My concrete mix design didn’t really matter. I hauled sand from a nearby wash and mixed it with Portland cement and poured it in the hole. Bill had a small wooden box lined with tin I used to mix the concrete in. I called it a cowboy batch plant. Some Readi-Mix concrete company could really appreciate their batch plant compared to mine on the U Ranch.

Finally, all my posts were set and I was ready to stretch wire. This became an experience I will never forget. I perused the long line of post stretching across the valley. It was hot, the black gnats were biting, and I was getting really tired of building fence across what appeared to me as “endless desert.” A rattlesnake or two had greeted me every morning at the job site. I constantly had to keep an eye open for snakes in the shade or sunning themselves in the early morning.

Another menace to my enjoyable life in the desert sun was the Yellow Jacket wasp or honeybees. These insects were always around horse troughs and open seeps of water in the late spring and throughout most of the summer and fall. However, anytime I worked near a large arroyo they [seemed] to find me. Maybe it was my cowboy cologne? Oh by the way, we didn’t have Africanized bees in those days. They had not gotten here from South America yet.

I took my first wraps on my corner post and secured the barbed wire tightly. Stretching the wire tightly some thirty feet with the come-along I began to wire it to the posts. Usually I drove a staple into the post securing the wire. This was really a slow operation. Suddenly I got a bright idea.

Pete, our pack mule, was a very gentle animal. I looked at that long level stretch of desert that lay ahead and decided there was a better way [than] using the come-along. I stretched out a strand of barbed wire more than three hundred feet, including the splices I had made in it. At this point I [led] Pete down to the end of the wire. I secured the wire to Pete’s packsaddle and walked him forward until the wire was stretched tight as a drum. I then tied Pete off. I walked back down to the wire and [began] to tie it off and staple it. I used this method throughout the morning without mishap. Just before lunch, when it was really getting hot and the gnats were biting, I received my barbed wire education. While stretching another piece of wire, which was drum tight, Pete lost his footing and stumbled. When the wire broke, the end whistled through the air like a bullet. It missed me by inches, but cut a gash three inches deep in Pete’s hindquarters. It appeared this aspiring cowboy would only learn by doing.

After seeing his injured mule and chewing on me for awhile, again Bill advised me I might not live long enough to become a cowboy. While I doctored Pete’s injuries throughout the summer I had to do without his help, which doubled my workload. While working those extra hot summer hours you can bet I gave this experience considerable thought.

Fence building and maintenance remained my job through most of the summer that year. I suppose everyone appreciates a little recognition and praise. I soon realized Bill would never praise my work until he knew I was confident I could do the job right. Believe me, there is more to being a cowboy than sitting astride a horse and moving cattle. I was convinced I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life building fence, but I had finally learned how to build fence correctly… or at least to Bill Barkley’s satisfaction. This barbed-wire education had certainly put me in touch with reality and distanced me from my image of silver screen cowboy heroes of the 1940s.