The Benkelman’s “T” Wrench Ranch
The Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1859 may have been a “bust” for most of the starry-eyed miners, but Johann Georg Benkelman and his wife Christine prospered by opening a supply store for the miners in Leadville, Colorado.
They used their earnings to invest in Denver real estate and in a cattle ranch named “Running Water” east of Denver. When the sheep growers started taking up more and more of the land, George decided to move east. He asked his 19-year-old nephew, George Adam “Little George” Benkelman living in Michigan, to go into the cattle business with him and his sons Harry and George, later known as “Denver George.” (There were a lot of George’s in this family.)
“Little George” arrived in Denver in 1870 and made two trips by horseback to the Colorado-Kansas state line scouting for a camp location. (Imagine riding horseback alone through desolate eastern Colorado - twice.) He recalls watching a large hunting party of Cheyenne Indians crossing a river and hiding in fear in a draw. When he reached the South Fork of the Republican River, he saw a lush carpet of buffalo grass about 8 inches high – perfect for a cattle ranch.
In 1874, “Big George”, “Little George”, “Denver George”, Harry and a handful of cowboys including Jake Haigler, the ranch foreman, formed the JC Ranch about seven miles north of present-day St. Francis, but moved in 1875 straight west of the deserted Station 20 Pike’s Peak Express stagecoach route and was referred to as the “T” Wrench ranch, the Benkelman cattle brand. They ran herds of 5,000 to 20,000.
The cowboys of the ranch were an interesting group of men. Billy Walsh, the ranch cook, was an Irish buffalo hunter with a sharp wit who would entertain the men with his good-natured songs and sayings. He was popular enough for the Cheyenne County Rustler to mention him in the paper when he arrived in Wano with his mess-wagon pulled by his horses Charley and Morg.
Walter Tovey and Harry Strangways traveled the farthest to reach the ranch. Both of them arrived in America in January of 1885 from New Zealand and found their way to Wano three months later. Walter’s father was a Captain in the British Army fighting the New Zealand natives for the interior of the country.
The other cowboys included John Burgwald, Ben Benkelman, Lee Bright, Mart Tscheudy, John Chandler, George Fahrion, Wallace Clow, Emmet Vandergrift and Elmer Tabor.
Moving the cattle
When the cattle were ready for market, the crew drove them to Ogallala, Nebraska. The journey was mostly boring for long stretches of time with nothing to see but flat land, dust and the back-ends of cattle. Fording a river was one of many challenges along with bad weather and falling sick. The trail to Ogallala was not a clearly defined road. It could span twenty miles wide.
When the Burlington railroad was being built and was nearing the corner of southwest Nebraska, railroad agents promised the Benkelman’s to name a town after them if they shipped their cattle to the Omaha Market. In the fall of 1885, the Benkelman’s brought 20 loads for the trip and the station was promptly changed from Collinsville to Benkelman, Nebraska.
The disastrously cold winter of 1886–87 sent the open-range cattle industry into a tailspin from which it never recovered. Thousands of cattle perished in the thick snow and ice. Homesteaders began to take over and fenced the lands. By 1890 there was little remaining to indicate what had once been a booming business on the open range.
After operating over 30 years, the east half of the Benkelman Ranch was sold in 1903 to Josiah Crosby. It had other various owners through the years with Frank Douthit purchasing the entire ranch in 1941 and turning it over to Thad Douthit, Sr. to raise Registered Herefords.
“Little George” and his wife Mary moved to St. Francis when he was elected County Clerk. In 1905, he was appointed postmaster in St. Francis. Both George Adam and Mary are buried at the St. Francis Cemetery.