by Lee Pitts
The Indians who lived in the 20,000 square mile region that covers one quarter of present day Nebraska knew better. And so did a young farm boy from Lancaster, England. The Indians and Harry Haythornthwaite came to know the largest sand dune area in the western hemisphere for what it really was...a paradise of plenty. Before he was laid to rest in the western Nebraska Sandhills, Harry would leave indelible footsteps in the sand, helping to transform the Sandhills into what they are today...cowboy country.
What those early settlers could not see was that under the Sandhills was the largest underground water source on the continent, the Ogallala Aquifer. Punch a post hole into the Sandhills even today and there's a good chance it will bleed water.
Harry Haythornthwaite first got a taste of the grit of the Sandhills when he came north from Texas on a cattle drive. As a 16-year-old boy in Lancaster, Harry had fallen in love too early in life. Denied his wish to marry, the heartbroken lad stowed away on a ship in 1876. His unauthorized presence was discovered after the ship had already set sail for America and Harry was forced to pay for his passage by taking care of some white-faced bulls headed for Texas. Harry ended up babysitting those bulls all the way to Galveston and, upon arrival, he was hired by the man who imported the bulls. For the next eight years, Harry literally learned the ropes of a new and burgeoning industry...Harry became a cowboy. He made four trips up the Texas trail, two to Kansas and two to Nebraska. The second time he arrived in Ogallala, he found the Great Plains to his liking and decided to stay. Harry opened a livery barn, shortened up his name to Haythorn, and married a veterinarian's daughter, Emma Gilpin.
After selling the livery stable, Harry took a job as a wagon boss. He took his wages in cattle and Emma cooked for the cow hands. When there were more than ten cowboys round the campfire, she got paid a quarter. Less than that and she cooked for free. Nearly every penny they pinched was put aside to buy land. In 1884, Harry and Emma filed on a land grant section four miles east of Arthur, Nebraska, and an American ranching dynasty was born.
Haythorn Land and Cattle today is spread over two ranches in two Nebraska counties. In this, the largest grass stabilized dune region in the world, gramma, blue stem and buffalo grass holds down the sand and keeps the dunes in place. You might say the late Waldo Haythorn, accomplished the same thing. Through blizzards, low prices, and high taxes, he had managed to keep his family firmly established in its proper place, the Nebraska Sandhills. Today, Craig, the great-grandson of Harry Haythornthwaite, his wife Jody and sons Sage, his wife Kelley, and Cord are partners.
Craig got his first taste of ranching when he went on a trail drive at the age of four. He got soaked to the bone, split his lip when he fell off the chuck wagon, and then proceeded to get sick. Naturally he loved it. Thus far this century, every single male member of the Haythorn family has been an honest-to-goodness cowboy, and Craig and Jody's two young sons, Sage and Cord, are carrying on the cowboy tradition.
In addition to the Quarter Horses, the Haythorns use Belgian / Percheron draft horses in four and six horse hitches to pull the feed wagon in winter and stack hay in the summer. It's not just for nostalgia that horses are used...you don't have to put gas in a horse or change his oil either. "It's cheaper to run a horse than it is a tractor," says Craig Haythorn.
Because of the presence of the aquifer, no one around these parts has lived through a drought in the Sandhills. But there sure have been some memorable winters. The "Big Die Up" of 1885 and 1886 almost wiped out Harry and Emma when they were getting started and Waldo and Craig's mettle was well tested on March 27, 1975, when a nasty blizzard killed 750 of their calves.
Old cowboys are fond of saying, "If a man has staying power, he is said to have grit." Well, if you stay in the Sandhills for any length of time, you are bound to have grit in your hair and your clothes, and in your mouth so bad you can taste it. For over 118 years, the Haythorns have shown they have plenty of grit in their character, too.
At the same time that horses were being replaced by horsepower on most modern-day ranches, they were still being used on the Haythorn to put up the hay, feed the cows, and brand the stock.
Horses have played a pivotal role in the ranch's survival ever since Harry loaded his saddle on a train and headed for Baker, Oregon, where he gathered in 500 head of horses and railed them back to Nebraska. Ever since then, the Haythorn name has been synonymous with good working horses. The Haythorn Ranch was the first Nebraska ranch to register Quarter Horses. When the American Quarter Horse Association gave its first ever Remuda Award in 1993, it was fitting that the Haythorns received it. They have since been joined by the 6666 Ranch and the Waggoner Ranch. That's lofty company indeed!
Beginning in 1979, every four years through 2010, the Haythorns had held a production sale in which they sell Quarter Horses. Such is their reputation that more than 4,000 people from all over the world attended each sale.
One reason for such demand is that these are true ranch horses, raised outside, and trained in a cow camp, not in a barn or an arena. Each Haythorn cowboy is responsible for putting the finishing touches on 10 to 15 horses and, when theirmounts are sold, the cowboy receives 10% of the selling price. Says Waldo Haythorn, "You can't sell a man's horse and expect him to make another good one."
For the cowboys who call the Haythorn their home, the spring work is their favorite time of the year. After two and a half months of calving in the cold, fixing windmills and mending fence, the cowboys look forward to tossing their bed roll in and take their horse back to the remuda. The Haythorns still do some things the way they were done back in Harry's day. Calves are still roped and dragged to the fires for two weeks each spring.
The Haythorns have a reputation for being good to their help. They are considered part of an extended family. "If one of our help has a sick child," says Waldo, "then we've got a sick one too." That's why some cowboys have stayed on the ranch their entire lives. "We had two brothers work for us," says Waldo, "for over 50 years each. And the only reason they quit was because they died." They probably died and went to heaven...which, if you ask the good folks who live there, probably looks an awful lot like the Nebraska Sandhills.