Prairie home

RUGBY, N.D. -- LeeAllen "Lee" Leier is a busy fellow. He and his wife, Rebecca, have been working on their Heartland Bison Ranch for the past 16 years. The headquarters is 21 miles south of Rugby, N.D., on state highway 3, dominated by a grand, 1...

LeeAllen and Rebecca Leier
LeeAllen and Rebecca Leier, Rugby, N.D., ranchers and contractors. Agweek photo by Mikkel Pates.

RUGBY, N.D. -- LeeAllen "Lee" Leier is a busy fellow. He and his wife, Rebecca, have been working on their Heartland Bison Ranch for the past 16 years. The headquarters is 21 miles south of Rugby, N.D., on state highway 3, dominated by a grand, 110-year-old home they moved to the location.

Lee commutes 95 miles east from the boomtown of Minot, N.D., to Rugby, where he, his wife, Rebecca, and his large family maintain and grow a bison business. "Perseverance pays off," seems to be the family slogan.

The ranch looks like a dream, on the picturesque northern bluffs overlooking the Girard Lake, a 2,500-acre prairie lake in Pierce County. The herd is on the top side of average in North Dakota -- 80 head of cows between the two operations. The Leiers started out raising bison to market weight, but in the past four years they've concentrated on the calf market.

Lee grew up in tiny Orrin, N.D., about nine miles west of the ranch headquarters. He was the oldest son among eight children, in the Albert and Alice Leier family. After he graduated high school in 1977, and with younger siblings still at home, he moved to the construction boom area of Las Vegas. In a few years, Lee had his own contractor's license, working in drywall, insulation, finishing and interior/exterior painting.

There, he met Rebecca, a Nevada native and a history student at the University of Nevada. They were married in 1982. Initially, the Leiers built a home in Las Vegas. His company at times employed more than 50 workers. As they had more children, Rebecca stayed home and home-schooled the children. They were flexible to travel the U.S., and to Lee's home state.


"We probably came back to North Dakota a couple of times a year, always thinking we'd move back here," Rebecca says. In the mid-90s, Lee attended some North American Bison Cooperative organizational meetings. Lee had grown up with beef cattle, but he was intrigued by the attributes of bison.

In 1996, the Leiers moved home to start a buffalo ranch.

Moving home

They started out living in Rugby and bought a quarter-section from his father, near Orrin. They bought stock in NABC and started installing the heavy-duty fence needed for the bison. Initially, they kept the Las Vegas contracting business going, with Lee flying back and forth once a month, or so.

Needing more land than immediately available at Orrin, the Leiers purchased acreage on Girard Lake, nine miles west.

By 1999, the bison industry looked stable enough that they sold the Las Vegas company. The market tumbled, but the Leiers had a lot on their minds.

Lee and Rebecca had their own brood of eight children, spaced out over 19 years -- Katie, Kyle, Keith, Kevin, Kelsey, Kristopher, Kade and Kimberlee -- five boys and three girls. Two were born in North Dakota. All were home-schooled from seventh to ninth grade.

In 2001, the Leiers moved a distinctive, 4,200-square-foot house to their ranch property. It had five bedrooms, three baths -- 15 rooms in all, including a parlor and formal dining room. The house was built in 1902 and had to be moved 65 miles from flood-threatened Churchs Ferry, N.D. They bought it for $7,000 and paid much more to move it.


The house was a Queen Anne Victorian, built by a banker. It had long been occupied by Leon Smith, a Churchs Ferry carpenter, who had installed paneling and modern electrical and plumbing. None of the oak woodwork had ever been painted. Hardwood floors were beautiful, covered by carpeting. They redid the walls in period wallpaper and other treatments.

The Leiers thought they'd have to find new doors for the built-in china hutch, and pocket doors for the parlor and dining room, as the originals were missing. But after the move, they found all of them in the attic behind the chimney. They found all the moldings for the picture rails, too -- all labeled for re-installation. They expanded and modernized the kitchen and built a detached, matching garage.

It was kind of a miracle, Rebecca acknowledges.

Like the rest of the place.

When the bison industry bottomed-out, the Leiers shifted gears. Lee resumed drywall work, first in Rugby, then in Minot. He made a daily 95-mile one-way commute, and rarely missed a football game. The drywall business expanded in 2004 with a hotel project, and in 2005 with a Minot Air Force Base contract. They employ up to 15 people, in an economy heated up by the nearby oil patch. Some of their workers commute from Las Vegas, using Allegiant Air.

They seem pleased that Kevin is in the bison business, but insisted all of their children study something else, too, if only as a fall-back position. The older boys became engineers and say all of those construction projects helped stir their interest in the field. The brothers designed and built a pneumatically controlled handling system that allows one person to control six gates.

Kevin had a special feel for it. "When he was a little kid, he'd cut out pictures of buffalo from the Bison World magazine, and say, 'Someday I'm going to be a buffalo man,'" Rebecca recalls.

And that's the way it turned out.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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