Brand Stand: Routt County ranchers leave the last marks of Western range days
It’s May and local cattle rancher Larry Monger is sitting on the ground with his boot planted behind the hind leg of a calf at his cattle ranch along the lower Elk River. Hands wrapped around other the forefoot, he pulls back to keep the calf still. His partner, son-in-law Justin Warren, kneels on the animal’s neck, bending the elbow of its front leg.
The animal squirms and bleats. An audible hiss and the smell of sizzling hair and hide permeates the air. The calf has officially entered the world of the marked, a T overlapping an H for all to see. Then it scrambles away in front of Larry’s wife, Mary Kay, who jots down its ear tag number. Welcome to branding season in Steamboat Springs.
For the Mongers, it’s a true family affair. Joining Larry, Justin and Mary Kay is their daughter Krista, as well as up to 15 other family members and friends. In all, they’ll brand nearly 150 calves each year with the ranch’s telltale T-topped-H that they inherited from Larry’s great grandfather, who registered the mark in 1898.
“We still have no idea what it means,” says Mary Kay. “The only thing we could come up with that went with the H and the T was High Tide, so that’s what we named the ranch.”
One of the people most interested in seeing the High Tide tattoo is Colorado brand inspector Daren Clever. Recently voted the state’s brand inspector of the year, it’s his job to ensure the cattle belong to who the brands say they do, especially come shipping time. “A brand’s role is simple,” he says. “It’s proof of ownership of livestock.”
Clever visits the Mongers’ ranch to check the T and H every fall, employing the keen eye of a hunting guide. “Anytime you ship you have to have your brand papers before they get on the truck,” says Mary Kay. “He looks at each head to see if they match up.
“It’s amazing that he can read them,” she adds. “The hair is usually all grown back so they’re pretty hard to see.”
The Yampa Valley is home to a wealth of well-known brands, from Steamboat Ski Area and Smartwool to Moots and F.M. Light & Sons. But before them all came brands tied to the region’s ranching roots.
Those over-lapping numbers and letters scorched onto livestock mean far more than a logo on a point-of-purchase display. Forged by blacksmiths instead of graphic designers, they define Routt County’s history, well before anyone ever uttered Ski Town USA.
It’s Clever’s task to ensure everyone plays by the rules of the range.
Since long before its statehood, Colorado has been a “brand-law state” — one of 13 with mandatory inspection laws, all in the western U.S. State regulations require an inspection every time livestock is transported more than 75 miles, leaves the state, or an animal (including horses, cattle, mules and donkeys) changes ownership.
Clever describes his job as “identifying anything that moves.” His territory covers Routt, Grand and Summit counties. From late summer until December, when cattle leave for lower-elevation feedlots, while everyone else is fitting in mountain bike rides, fly-fishing and tuning skis, Clever hops behind the wheel of his Ford pickup to keep the tradition alive.
“I don’t see my house in the daylight for seven days a week,” he says of his sunup-to-sundown, 3,500-mile-a-month duties.
On the job
The alarm in Clever’s home outside of Phippsburg sounds at 5 a.m. He needs to load up and saddle his horse for a 7 a.m. cattle sale in North Routt. Eight semitrailer rigs destined for a feedlot in Eckley are waiting along Routt County Road 54, with two already set in the loading bays at the Fait Haystack Corral. Cowhands hee and haw to round up the Angus yearlings into a series of pens.
Once he arrives, he sets out on his horse among each draft of 20 head in a smaller on-deck pen. He gazes over the left hip of each until spotting the marking and sending them on their way, down the chute to be weighed. Cargill Cattle Feeders will receive the title of ownership with the obligatory paperwork filled out by a company representative and exchanged on the hood of Clever’s truck.
The sun warms the day, and Clever relaxes to the march of hooves plodding the aluminum planks of the trailers. He revels in the ease of today’s operation; he’s able to check off on more than 500 cattle in less than an hour.
“I had 100 head over by Parshall earlier that had nine different brands, so I had to run them by all one at a time,” he says. “It took me over three hours.”
Clever’s work isn’t finished on area ranches. He often returns home to a voicemail box filled with requests, some of which that could take him 300 miles to inspect a single horse.
But for Clever, who grew up in Cortez and realized upon horseshoeing in Greeley that inspecting brands was “easier than living under the horses,” the gratification comes knowing he’s working on behalf of ranchers trying to make the most of their herds while keeping them separate from the neighbors’.
“The days are long, tiresome and cold, but you feel like you’ve accomplished something,” he says of his three decade career.
The only time Clever shows any emotional attachment toward the branding practice is when asked about his own brand, a 6 into a 3 displayed on his horse’s hip. It’s one of three he has registered with his employer, the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Division of Brand Inspection. Clever quantifies his brands with the practicalities of the industry. “I could sell any one of them tomorrow for $5,000 apiece,” Clever says. “But they’re neat, clean brands, and someday my kids will have them.”
Keep it simple, cowboy
Clean and simple are cornerstone to the branding practice — especially keeping in mind the function of an identifier seared forever onto an animal’s hide. This means avoiding enclosed characters and extra frills that can risk blotching and lead to extra irons and work.
With simplicity in mind, ranchers historically value brands composed of the fewest straight lines of the same length as possible, in case they need to mark a stray cow, carrying only a single, straight “running” iron.
“The simpler the brand, the better,” says Judy Green, whose family’s 1895 Crags Ranch outside of Hayden, one of nine Centennial ranches in Routt and Moffat counties, still uses their basic “Quarter Circle Connected Z” registered in 1916. “Curly Qs and such aren’t as good because a big line of letters burns too much hide.”
Because of the ease in applying and inspecting a one-iron brand, every conceivable single-character brand has found its way into the 36,600 exclusive Colorado brands on record. Forget about two characters, as well. The state urges new brand applicants to submit a selection of sample brands with at least two letters or numbers and a character like a bar or quarter circle for them to research for conflicts and then approve.
When it comes to the 1,150 brands in the Routt County Plat and Brand Book, the simplest of the bunch reach back the farthest.
Marking the past
John Rolfe Burroughs points out in his 1962 tome, “Where the Old West Stayed Young,” that, “the practice of designating the ownership of an animal by searing a distinct imprint in its hide dates to the very inception of the industry in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish Grandee, Cortez, burned three crosses on the ribs of the heifers that he put ashore at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1521.”
Locally, Burroughs pegs spring 1872 with evidence of “the first herd of any size,” whose owners looked to Northwest Colorado lands for permanent winter range.
So what’s the oldest brand in Routt County? The answer may have died with the last 19th-century cow punchers.
The state inspection division began recording brands in 1899. Before that, ranchers filed with their counties. The first public record available for Routt County is dated 1907.
According to the state records, May 5, 1899, marks the first of 24 Routt County brands registered before the turn of the 20th century — a “Rocking A” registered to Steamboat’s W.W. Adair. The brand now belongs to Dean Brunner, better known for his family’s original “Cross Seven” brand, registered later in 1899 to J.C. Brunner.
Most old-timers point to Burroughs’ work as the definitive historical source. Of all the historic Routt County cattle operations mapped by brand, only the “Slash” remains as a currently registered brand. For good reason.
“It’s easy to put on, it’s plain and you can’t miss it,” says Steamboat’s Glenn Barber, 78, whose father, Lyle, happened upon an impromptu $50 sale of the coveted brand from a foreman of Sen. J.N. McWilliams (who also owned the “Rocking A”).
Based on the brand’s practicality and the scale of McWilliams’ Pleasant Valley Cattle Co., which stretched from Milner to Toponas, Barber could bet on the brand’s use long before its 1905 registration. Of course, he’d have to contend whether it was before Ora Haley’s extensive and long-gone Two Bar Ranch operation, which was marked by two parallel slashes.
Regardless of when the “Slash” first marked a calf in south Steamboat, it fits alongside other long-held, classic Steamboat brands, from the Whetstone operation’s “Seven N” and Nay Ranches’ “Bar Reverse Seven” to the May family’s “S Bar S” and the Hogue’s “Three Quarter Circles.”
Good luck ever seeing Barber’s slash. He sold his ranch in 1969; about the only place it’s still etched is on his custom-made turquoise belt buckle. Bill Buckles, who owns the “Seven N,” estimates it hasn’t been branded on a Hayden calf in more than 10 years.
As the open range becomes increasingly fenced out, subdivided and developed and land prices downsize family ranching operations, brand visibility has faded. Only a few of the county’s 1,150 brands are still in active use — Clever estimates he inspects about 200 per year.
“My cattle numbers are half what they were in ’95,” Clever says. “It’s sad — the ag folks are leaving this state.”
When the Routt County CattleWomen organized a gathering in 2000 to celebrate the opening of Steamboat’s Centennial Hall, they weren’t sure how many ranchers would show to place their brands on a sliding wooden door taken from the original brick powerhouse on site. But as a testament to the growing pride invested in the shrinking number of active, long-held brands — that Green calls “a treasure of the ranching community” — ranchers from across the county turned out in force to celebrate the tradition that helped shape the Yampa Valley. Enough ranchers showed that the CattleWomen hosted a second gathering to finish marking the opposite side of the door, displayed in the Centennial Hall City Café.
Bloodlines behind the brand
Some of the oldest of these local brands — a few still in continuous use since the day they were registered — belong to families that don’t have a clue about the original inspiration behind the design. It seems the older the brand, the less it matters.
“My grandfather, Peter Stanko Sr., came in July of 1907, so maybe that was a factor,” Jim Stanko guesses of the “Seven through Seven” brand that been used every spring since it was registered in 1908 and bought by his grandfather in 1912.
The origin is not so much the point. After putting his mark on an estimated 2,300 cattle since taking over the ranch in 1976, Stanko’s tireless work passed through generations infuses a priceless value. Sure, he could probably get $10,000 for it. Barber’s “savings account” asset likely would fetch upward of $25,000.
But Stanko thinks like Mary Kay Monger, who has no idea what her family’s simple “HT Connected” brand stood for before its 1899 registration.
“No, I won’t sell it — it’s been in the family forever,” Mary Kay says of a symbol that now simultaneously signifies status, proves roots and claims ownership.
Burroughs notes how in the West, “something of a prestige of a coat-of-arms…attaches to a well-established brand.” Perhaps Stanko captures the authenticity of this true western fingerprint when speaking about the only brand he has ever owned: “It’s just something that nobody else can have.”
Cattle branding occurs in the late spring at the conclusion of calving season, when calves are between six weeks and three months of age (able to withstand the shock of branding but still small enough to be easily handled). Forged stamping irons heated to gray-hot, electric or freeze irons are all considered acceptable forms of application. Brands are usually placed visibly on a shoulder or hip, and work on either side of the animal (just not over another brand). The Colorado Board of Stock Inspection Commissioners charges $50 to initiate a new brand. The current five-year assessment fee for registered brand owners is $225.
While some brands are variations of initials akin to vanity license plates, others are purely aesthetic, including symmetrical designs or novel combinations of characters. All also have their own language of how their letters, numerals and symbols relate to one another. The Colorado Brand Book is arranged in “brandabetical” order — first by the alphabet, then numerals one to nine, and then according to brands beginning with the most commonly seen symbols (the top five are Bar, Slash, Swipe or Slash (Left), Quarter Circle Holding, and Quarter Circle Shedding or Rocker).
Brands are read from left to right, top to bottom, or outside to inside if one character is enclosed in another. Often, adding certain modifiers such as “Strung” or “Running” links multiple characters read left to right, while “Stacked” or “Hanging” links characters read top to bottom.
A few other noteworthy modifiers include “Double,” “Lazy” (turned horizontal), “Tumbling” (tilted 45 degrees), “Rocking” (letter held by a Quarter Circle) and “Flying” (bars extending out from top ends of character).
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