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Published May 31, 2010, 01:15 PM

Blazin' trail: Ranchers forge ahead in wake of tragedies

REVA, S.D. — The Hamilton Ranch has seen happier days, but spring branding in mid-May against a picturesque backdrop of the “Slim Buttes” helped lift spirits a bit.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

REVA, S.D. — The Hamilton Ranch has seen happier days, but spring branding in mid-May against a picturesque backdrop of the “Slim Buttes” helped lift spirits a bit.

Maurice Hamilton, 86, acknowledges that, in the wake of two personal tragedies, having friends and family help with the branding this year helped.

Maurice’s wife, Dixie, died Jan. 18 at age 88. They’d been married for 58 years.

His son, Blair, 48, died Oct. 10, 2009, as the result of a gun accident in his home.

Blair had been the Hamiltons’ only child and had been Maurice’s partner in managing the ranch. The son was a well-liked, former rodeo star in the region and was taking the reins from a father who has lived with Parkinson’s disease for the past decade.

“We’re working together to take care of things,” says Marsha Lytle, Blair’s life partner, sitting next to Maurice as the two watch the event from a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle.

It isn’t easy, but family and friends have been a comfort, as best they can.

“I don’t know how we’d have done it without them,” Marsha says.

Songs, saddles

Blair left a large gap, friends say.

Marsha was his “Huckleberry” and had been with him since 1995. He’d played guitar and had been to Nashville and made two albums and wrote his own songs about “rodeos and people,” says Wayne Lee, who helped with the branding. One of his albums was “Blazin’ Trail.”

Blair was typical of the spirit of the kids that had gathered for the Hamilton branding party — rough and ready.

He’d learned to ride at age 3 and started winning rodeo awards at age 14. He was a bareback and saddle bronc rider. He’d been in rodeo in college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he earned a four-year degree in marketing and journalism. He joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1980 and qualified for 14 national finals. He was a Badlands Circuit Champion in 1985 and 1987. He got out of that in the 1990s.

“I finally told him he couldn’t do it as a hobby. It was getting too hard on him,” Marsha says.

Now, Maurice and Marsha must blaze a new trail without Blair’s help.

It’s a big responsibility, but one Maurice knows well. The ranch has been in Hamilton hands since about 1908, and he’s been involved in running it for more than 50 years.

Not all days on the ranch could be as lovely as this, a perfect elixir after a second, long winter in a row. Temperatures kissing the 70s and hills green from 8 inches of snow that had fallen and disappeared only a week earlier.

“I’d mowed my yard and the next day it snowed,” Marsha says.

The 2008 to ’09 winter was as bad as it gets — beating the record of 13 feet of snow that had stood since 1949, Lee says. In 2009, the last spring snow had come June 6 and then the first snow of the fall came early on Oct. 2 — not long before the gun tragedy.

There was a big blizzard at Christmastime, dumping 3 feet of snow — not long before Dixie died.

“I suppose we had 7 to 9 feet of snow, I’ll bet,” Lee says, of the winter, although he admits this year’s calving season has been surprisingly good. “We had some snow, but nothing like last year.

Long winter’s end

Maurice and Marsha’s family and friends — many from the Wall and Quinn areas of South Dakota — first gathered the 400 cows from a 4-square-mile area of a ranch that sprawls for about 15,000 acres, with the forest permit.

Some of the key helpers included Marsha’s family, Rob and Molly Lytle of Quinn, S.D.; and Chad and Jenny Price, from Red Owl, S.D.; Zane and Janet Verhulst of Spearfish, S.D.; and Wayne and Ginie Lee, of Reva.

The ranch has a lease to run 300 head for six months in various units the Slim Buttes, which is under management of the Custer National Forest.

Hamilton’s brand is an “m” topped with a squiggly shape. They call it a “Pothook M.” A pothook is what it says it is — a hook to hang pots while cooking over an open fire, Maurice explains. He’s used the brand for about 20 years now. Brands have to be made up of two or three characters.

The cattle and calves had been pre-sorted into smaller groups for easier handling through a portable corral setup and for dispersing into the various pastures.

Cows go through a working alley for an annual pregnancy medication and insecticides for internal and external parasites.

The calves are about 10 days to 2 months old and get a vaccine and then are branded for ownership.

“We always used to ‘table-brand,’” Marsha says. “Last year was the first time we tried the ‘drag’ method.”

In this, traditional method, the calves are briefly separated from mothers in a pen. The cowboys and cowgirls cut them out, slipping a lariat under their rear ankles, and pulling them a short way to waiting “wrestlers.”

The “wrestlers” often are youths, who hold the calves while they get their vaccination shots and are branded, a practice repeated for decades in cattle country.

Branding irons are laid in an open fire, where a propane tank and burner keeps them hot enough to do the job as quickly as possible.

After branding is complete, the calves lope off with their mothers and will head for summer pasture, as though nothing ever happened.

The same isn’t true for the people involved, who seem to know how important their help is, especially at a difficult time. Marsha hadn’t counted everybody, but she estimates that the entire crew was about 45 to 50 people at various points during the day.

“I think that’s about how much lunch we made,” she says with a smile.

It was a good day.

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