Working Cattle with Ed Lemmon; or, A Town Boy Explains How Not to Ride Line

Let me confess: I’m a total town boy. I’ve lived in South Dakota most of my life, but I couldn’t tell you what a combine actually does, how to tell an Angus from a Hereford, or when winter wheat is in the fields (I feel like that has to be a trick question).

It’s pretty sad, really. Agriculture is key to understanding the history and heritage of South Dakota, but I could tell you more about Populist farmers’ attitudes toward binder-twine manufacturers than about what they actually did with the twine. Seems like a basic part of my perspective is incomplete.

But it’s never too late to learn. That’s why I’ve enjoyed working with Controlled Recklessness, Nathan Sanderson’s biography of stock-raising legend Ed Lemmon. Not only could Lemmon saddle-handle cattle better than anyone else; unlike most cowboys, he also climbed the ladder of success and acquired a significant interest in one of the biggest outfits of its day in West River South Dakota. Sanderson’s book covers Lemmon’s colorful life as both a cowboy and a cattleman, and it taught me, to take just one example, how a roundup actually works. In theory.

As I was driving back to Pierre from Rapid City along Highway 14 early one morning this spring, I noticed a couple of little black calves hanging out on my side of the fence. Somebody should do something about those baby cows, I thought dismissively, and drove on.

Over the next mile my conscience wore me down. What would Ed Lemmon do? it asked, and finally I heaved a sigh and turned around, drove back past the calves, and parked. I made sure I had my phone, in case I had to call an ambulance, and my wallet, in case I had to be identified. Then I set off on foot across the road to—well, I’m a town boy. I didn’t know what I was doing.

My first naïve assumption was quickly dispelled. I had pictured myself ambling along beside these two spring calves, humming a little folksy tune, possibly having to nudge them with a hiking stick (yes, somehow in my imagination I had a hiking stick) to keep them moving. Well, they were having none of that. As soon as I got within about twenty yards, they cantered off down the fence line. This happened two or three times. To add to my disillusion, the first gate that I came to was not actually a gate. I didn’t even know what a gate looked like. What if there were no gates?

Finally my luck turned. I had trudged up onto the shoulder to discourage the calves from taking after the chicken and crossing the road, and from my new height, I could see a little streambed where the fence seemed to be lower. Presently the calves reached the bank and stopped, and as I moved directly behind them, the more athletic of the two jumped the fence handily and trotted off into the pasture. Okay, so far so good.

The second calf now experienced an agony of doubt and misgiving. Should it 1) jump, 2) run up and down the fence with me for all eternity, or 3) stand there and hope I was a nice guy? Finally option number one appeared to win out, and the animal screwed up its little nerve and took the plunge—literally. It landed ungracefully in the shallow water, but got out of the stream like a champ, shook it off, and hotfooted it for the safety of mom.

My pastoral idyll over, I noticed that it was a pretty chilly morning, and that my car was parked a lot farther away than I thought. Well, Ed Lemmon would have no sympathy for my discomfort—he had broken his leg handling cattle too often for that—so I sucked it up and walked briskly back, enjoying my success. Alas, I still couldn’t claim to have rounded up any beeves; technically, I had only been riding line. In a tiny Toyota.

Look forward to Controlled Recklessness, which we’ll be releasing next month at the South Dakota Festival of Books. Ed Lemmon is an inspiring character (as you can clearly see)—one of the last greats of the open range. His legacy is written all over the map of West River South Dakota.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear a stampede over across the bluffs. I’d better go see about that.

rgh