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The Cook Farm, Glad Valley, S.D.

South Dakota Travels

       The D-6 Caterpillar arrived at Leonard and Estelle Cook's ranch just before sundown. We heard the growl of its motor pushing the heavy frozen snow before we saw its lights. Leonard went out to see if the crew wanted supper but they said they were going back out the 6-mile access road again and widen it before they quit. They would leave the dozer by the entrance for the night and they hoped it would start in the morning. If the weather held maybe we could get the shearing crew in by the weekend.

       I had arrived that day from their daughter Carol's ranch to the east by cutting across 6 1/2 miles of open South Dakota cattle and sheep pasture with their son Lenny riding snowmobiles. It was foggy and cold and a rough trip. No one had driven a car into the Cook ranch for almost a month. Marty and I were last here in April during mud season. Then the ranch was preparing for spring. Now the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation was covered with a blanket of snow that had fallen in January, followed by a freezing rain that took down over 3000 electric poles throughout the region. Thousands of Natives on the reservation were without power and hundreds without heat and running water. Large groups of the elderly and infirmed had been relocated to other reservations throughout the state. Many people like Leonard and Estelle were unreachable for days. There was almost no cell phone service out there.

        Our hope when we started Peace Fleece back in 1985 was that we would get to know our Russian farmers who grew our wool and tell the story of their lives. Although we were able over the coming years to purchase Russian wool, we never made substantial headway in developing these friendships into commercial relationships. We grew very close to families like the Kornevas, Brusovas and the Potstrelovs but we were never able to use the wool from their sheep in our Peace Fleece yarn. In 1993 with the help of Land O'Lakes we started MASHA (Moscow Area Sheep Association) in the hopes that we could source our wool from this coop. But the Russian economy was still very unstable at that time and US-Russian relations remained tense, complicating shipments of wool out of Russia. The Russian wool that we did source came from international wool brokers who neither could nor would identify the source farms. This was a frustrating situation for us.

       Russia's textile mills are today up and running and now importing large amounts of wool from outside their borders. With the value of the dollar so depressed overseas and the size of the carbon footprint we make when we import thousands of pounds of wool from Europe, we began focus on sourcing Peace Fleece from new sources here in the States. Years ago we had made trips to Montana and Texas to buy wool. Why not return?

        Leonard and Estelle

       I had come to South Dakota and the Cook Ranch to learn more about the history of the Lakota and Dakota people who called this place home. Leonard and Estelle had lived on this ranch since the 1950's. They had a small piece of deeded land that they owned and leased over 15,000 acres of reservation land. Both had worked hard over the years, raising six children and tending to the needs of 400 Angus cross cows and their calves as well as a prize winning herd of Rambuiollet sheep. They seemed happy to see me and insisted that I bunk in the main house.

       Leonard's father was Scotch Irish and his mother Dakota French. They had a smallholding in the nearby town of Timber Lake and raised 9 kids on this farm. Leonard was the middle child. "When I was nine years old I went away to St. Joe's Mission School. We left in September and never saw our families till the following June. The priests forbid us to speak our language and some of the stricter ones cut our hair. They were afraid that we were talking about them behind their backs in Dakota. I was there for 8 years."

       "My dad hated it when my mother talked Indian with her sisters and her friends. He just got so angry. I lost all my language but those two guys snow plowing the road, they can talk real good Indian. Down in Thunder Butte just over the ridge the old folks there have kept the language alive."

        Cook Rambuiollet on Winter Pasture

       Estelle takes over while Leonard goes out on the porch for a smoke. "The Cheyenne River Reservation starts at the Missouri River to the east and goes to about 20 miles west of here. When Leonard and I got married back in the 50's we were living over at Timber Lake. I'm from a Swedish background but my father was so happy when he learned Leonard and I were getting married. Those two guys turned out to be the best of friends. I remember the day we came out here to see the reservation land for the first time. Nothing was here. My dad and Leonard went for a walk up the creek and dad kept saying 'Leonard, this place is going to be great.'"

        The next morning dawned cold and foggy. I headed out before breakfast to see how the dozer crew was doing. Shearing was already weeks overdue. There was still a small chance that if the road was finished by today that the shearers might still get in and I could film the event.

       I grew up on the ocean and by the time I was seven I was sailing a small boat miles out to sea. My dad had shown me how to watch for storms, to never assume anything, to have fun but always be looking over your shoulder. As I made my way up over the calving pasture, I reached the ridge and looked out over a sea of white, free of trees or landmarks of any kind. The ranch house and barns had disappeared from view behind me. My only allies were the faint footsteps I had left on the hard packed snow. As a cold wind drove the wet fog down my parka, a primal fear stirred in me and I humbly retreated to the ranch for breakfast.

        Thunder Butte with the Ranch barely seen down in the hollow.

        Lennie arrived from his home next door and when we were done eating we went down to the barn to fire up the tractor and head out to the pastures to feed the sheep and cattle. We loaded two 500 lb round bales on the front bucket, hitched onto a hay trailer that carried four round bales, then headed out to the feeding grounds. We passed a carcass of a young mule deer that had been unable to find enough feed in the deep snow. A herd of about 200 cows grazed a nearby ridge. Lenny would drop the round bales on the ground and push them with the bucket the way a field hockey player might push a ball across a playing field. If done correctly the bale of hay unrolls like toilet paper. The green alfalfa gave color to white ground and the cows were soon busily at work munching their breakfast.

        When morning chores were done I felt it was time to return the snowmobile to Carol's ranch. I put on my felt Russian boots and my thick down parka and headed out across the prairie once again. But this time alone. I followed the old tracks as best I could, knowing that if I took a wrong turn I could end up miles from home with no gas. Like my boyhood sailing days, I began to look for signs on this white ocean to keep me on course. I skirted small valleys with steep cliffs over which local tribes might once have driven buffalo to their slaughter. The depressions in the prairie where my snowmobile could get stuck became the underwater reefs where my boat might strike a rock. Out beyond the frozen crystals of the prairie fog I imagined hearing warning bells of Minot's Light and looked back over my shoulder in case a rogue wave or thunderstorm were following my trail.

        Leonard and Estelle's daughter Carol w. her grandchildren

        There was a sheep rancher in Wyoming who had hired a Basque shepherd named Ernesto to herd his flock. The young man was new to the States and he had limited language skills. The rancher knew a little Basque and he tried to make it clear to his shepherd that he was never to leave his horse, no matter what. If a blizzard were to hit he should leave the sheep, no matter how far he was from camp, get on his horse, loosen the reins and give the horse his head.

        So sure enough, two weeks later a blizzard came in out of nowhere catching the sheep five miles from camp. Ernesto tried to gather the herd with his dog and head home but he was blinded by the blowing snow. He panicked in the whiteout and began to fear for his life, quickly forgetting the words of his boss. The horse started yanking the reins and finally Ernesto let it have its head. The horse turned away from the flock and headed directly into the eye of the storm.

        Ernesto had never been so cold. He covered his legs with a horse blanket, wrapped his hands inside his coat, lowered his head and began to pray. One hour later, covered with a crust of ice and nearly frozen to death, he and his horse arrived at camp. He gently lowered himself to the ground and on all fours, made his way inside the camp, turned on the propane heater and began to melt.

        As soon as he had regained his strength, he went outside, brushed off the snow from his horses head and mane, covered him with the horse blanket and tied him on the lee side of the camp. He then wrapped his arms around the horse's neck and thanked God for giving him such a powerful four-legged friend.

        The Cooks have horses that they use in the summer to move their cattle. I wished I had a paint under me instead of a snowmobile but on that day the spirits were with me. To my left loomed up Thunder Butte, a cone shaped, flat to mountain long revered as a holy place by the Lakota. "Just keep Thunder Butte to your left and you will find Carol's ranch," Estelle had said so when I was passing the landmark I stopped the snowmobile, bowed in reverence and thanked the spirits of the Butte for guiding me to the Cook Ranch and the warm friendship and humor I found there.

        Larry and Karen Prager

        During our first trip to South Dakota, Marty and I had met Larry Praeger who is the director of the Center of the Nation Wool Coop, a producer owned organization that markets its members' wools throughout the world. For many decades the sheep of this region of northwestern South Dakota produced some of the finest wools in the world. Buyers from China and Europe frequently visit Larry and negotiate with him to buy these wools. Larry was born and raised on a sheep ranch in Wyoming and his passion for his work is evident when you meet him. Larry told us about Leonard and Estelle who are coop members and showed us samples of their soft bright white Rambuiollet fleeces. Impressed by the people we had met and the wools we had seen Marty and I returned to Maine to excited by the prospect of purchasing the coming winter's new wool clip. Now I headed west from the Cook Ranch to find Larry and look over the fleeces from some of the ranches where they had a few snow free days to shear. Larry showed me some beautiful fleeces and topped off the visit with an invitation to his home to meet Karen and sit down to a delicious Sunday lunch.

        Newell, South Dakota, Wool Capitol of the World, truly describes this community of 646. The center of town is not far from the way it was back in the early 1900's. As I signed into the Newell Hotel, ($35.00/night including kitchen privileges) the dining room was filled with the ghosts of the Wild West. The ghosts of these ranchers and their wives have come to town for the ram sale or the rodeo and now fill the empty dining hall. Later the men excuse themselves and retire across the street to the Newell Bar for a few drinks and cigars. The buildings are all still there, the beautiful, historic hotel with its dining room, the bar across the street, the feed store and the grocery. And there are still people in these places, buying a roll of barbed wire, a gallon of milk or a cold beer.

        I arrived at the hotel late in the evening and met Darrell in the lobby. He is a oil roughneck and he and is wife are living upstairs with their three kids while he waits for work. When I hit the lobby early the next morning to check on the night's snowfall, Darrell announced that he has made a pot of coffee for us.. I returned to my room for a humble offering of muffins, some nuts and taco chips and pretty soon we had breakfast underway. Outside on the street two stock trailers idle, filled with sheep for the Friday sale. I drop into the bar late in the afternoon for a whiskey and discuss the finer points of Olympic curling with a cowboy from Montana. Later I passed the high school and almost went in to see the girl's varsity play. Half the people that drive by wave so I just ended up waving to everybody lest I offend someone with a missed greeting.

        This cow and sheep town is fighting for its economic life. Mutton prices are up to .65/ lb so people are selling good breeding ewes to pay the bills. Down the street from the hotel is a full service grocery store with fresh fruit and vegetables. "People come for miles to shop here because there it's a good option," says the owner. "Rapid City is the closest and they are 60 miles to the south."

I have trouble getting my mind around the distance people travel just for the basics. My friends think I live in the 'sticks' in Maine and my nearest neighbors are just a 100 yards away. Out here I drove for 70 miles in one direction without seeing a gas pump." Isolation breeds cooperation," they say. Those who do not help their neighbor will not survive.

        On my dresser in my hotel room this message is displayed. For me it summed up the attitude of the people in South Dakota that I met during the week I was there.

Greetings Travelers
Because this hotel is a human institution to serve people, we hope that God will grant you peace and rest while you are under our roof. May your room at the hotel be your "second" home. May those that you love be near you in thoughts and dreams. Our goal is to know you as a friend and make you comfortable and happy throughout your stay. May the journey that brought you our way make you prosper. May every call you make, every message you receive and every friend you meet add to your memories and joy in this world. Before you leave say "good-by" and when you leave may your journey be safe. May all the days ahead be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet, and a joy to those who know and love you best.
From the Newell Hotel Management and Staff

The Cooks sheep are now shorn and their wool, along with several of their neighbors', is on its way to the scouring mill where it will be washed. We hope to have the first yarn colors ready by early summer.

Our best to all of you, Peter and Marty