Burgers, Broncs and Horse Races

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

My Dad told this story from his childhood in the “dirty 30s” and I’ll share it as best I can remember. It was county fair time in their little community in Colorado. Besides the fair, which would have been a little small due to the ongoing drought and desperately hard economic times, there was bronc riding, steer riding, steer and calf roping, and horse races held. My Grandad, Bill, would work for the man providing the bucking stock to pay his entry fees into the events. He would snub the broncs, ride a bronc and rope, plus race his horses in the flat races and relays. If he rode and roped well and his horses did well, they made some money. He wasn’t doing it for fun, let’s be clear.

One year, when my Dad, Billy, and his brother Keith were small boys, a cow or steer had gotten a leg broken just before the fair, and with no way to keep that much meat in the dead of summer, his folks decided to grind some up and sell it at the fair. So, my grandmother, Elsie, took her cookware, they built a fire at the fairgrounds with wood from the dead trees along the creek, and she fried hamburgers and sold them on her homemade bread. Mind you, no one had much money, but it was fair time, so they’d spend a little there. Having a good lunch was money well spent. I wish I knew how much she sold them for. Dad couldn’t remember.

Bill would ride a bronc, then ride an exhibition bucking horse for the mount money, and rope. He roped calves and steers, all on one of his relay horses. He then raced his relay string of Snip, Traveler, and I believe the third horse was Bob. He also raced them in regular races. Keep in mind that his horses had been ridden and led from the ranch at least 15 miles to get there. Nonetheless, they were fast and he was always a strong contender in all of his events.


With Elsie frying burgers and Bill working the arena events, they made enough money to pay some bills, maybe their taxes, and lay in some supplies. My Dad remembered it as being the best fair he and his little brother had ever had, as they got to eat a hamburger and, as I recall, had an ice cream cone as a big treat.

When the day was over, Elsie and her tired, dirty little boys, Billy and Keith, loaded up in the wagon and she drove the team home while Bill rode one and led the rest of his horses. It had been quite a fine time had by all.

I think about how the county fairs are now by comparison. Even with challenging economic times, is there anyone arriving there with a team and wagon, rope horses, a relay team and the hopes of winning enough money to pay some bills and buy groceries? Nothing now compares to the hard times then. I hope no one ever has to go through that hard of a time as my grandparents did.

But, my grandparents, Bill and Elsie Swan, held on to their ranch in Colorado, built it up in the aftermath, finally selling it when they wanted to expand, and moving to western South Dakota with their married sons to ranch in 1949. Hard work and hard times, made them stronger, and they raised their sons through those times, enabling them to have the same work ethic and determination.


Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

About Jan Swan Wood

Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....

View all posts by Jan Swan Wood