SUBLETTE COUNTY – It’s something the old Sommers homestead had doubtless seen before: a chance to pass the time of day with old cowboys on a Sunday afternoon.
In this case, for the second year in a row, the Sommers homestead – now the Sommers Homestead Living History Museum, operated by volunteers for the Sublette County Historical Society – let its end-of-summer open house on Sept. 3 serve as the venue to also honor the area’s new inductees to the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame.
They included Ira and Edna McWilliams, Robert “Bert” Harvey, and – attending in person – Norm Richie. All four were inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2016.
Dawn Ballou, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Sublette County Historical Society and a volunteer at the living history museum, said it worked so well last year for the museum and for the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame to work together that they did it again. It will probably be an annual event from now on, she said, to honor the area’s Hall of Fame cowboys as part of the open house.
Both the Sommers homestead and the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame, which inducted its first members in 2014, are all about preserving the area’s past, Ballou said.
“It’s a perfect fit,” she said.
Here’s a look at those who were honored:
* Edna May Wardell, born March 30, 1916, on the Green River near Big Piney, drove a team of draft horses in the hayfields before she was even big enough to reach the foot lever to dump hay from the rake. She loved horses and used to say she would rather clean the barn than clean the house.
She found a kindred spirit in Ira McWilliams, born June 22, 1912, in Big Piney. He grew up helping his father, Jasper Howard, with his freight and lumber wagons, then started wrangling horses at age 14. He also cowboyed for Charlie Noble, taking care of his cattle until 1926, when Ira went to work for the Piney Wagon until it was no longer in operation due to fencing of the range. Ira worked at different places until 1949 when he went to work for the La Barge Roundup Association. He stayed 27 years.
Ira and Edna married in 1932 and spent more than 50 years riding for the brands of Sublette County. They worked for many different outfits during the winter months and the La Barge Roundup Association in the summers.
Her biography at the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame website says that Edna not only cowboyed but was also well known for her camp cooking with Dutch ovens on the open range.
* Robert “Bert” Harvey was born Aug. 25, 1908, to Robert W. and Ida Johnson Harvey in Robertson, Wyoming. They named him Robert W. “Bert” Harvey. When Bert was about 5 years old, his mother died and his father was left alone to raise two boys, Bert and his younger brother Harold. “Bert’s father had to work, so he set out to find someone to watch the boys,” Bert Harvey’s biography at the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame website says. “He saddled up his horse, threw a packsaddle on another one, stuck Bert in one pannier, his brother in the other and headed out. It was winter time, and they had a fair piece to travel. When they reached their aunt and uncle’s place, they were cold but intact.”
He grew up on the land, learning first hand about dangers such as frostbite. In 1942, while having a drink in the Green River Bar in Daniel, Bert heard Bob Miller, who owned the biggest ranch in Sublette County, lamenting that he was having trouble getting help for branding calves. He went to work for Miller and stayed for years.
Bert married Mary Katherine Rounds in 1932. They had five children. Katherine died from complications of childbirth in 1946, and their son died a few weeks later. Bert took the children to the Bridger Valley to live with relatives.
Bert worked for three generations of the Miller family, including in the Green River Drift.
“Most years he would help trail the cows to the Scott place, northwest of Daniel. There he would help calve, the take the cows and calves to summer range near the Hoback rim and into the Hoback basin, where the calves were branded and turned out for summer pasture. Bert would ride, doctor and move them to fresh pastures,” Bert’s Hall of Fame biography tells. “In the fall they would trail them to the circle ranch near Big Piney. Here Bert would ride and check them for sickness. He would rope and doctor them when they needed it.”
Bert loved wild horses, ran them when he was young and broke the ones he caught to ride. According to his biography, Bert told Dan Abernathy that if you chased wild horses on a windy day that you could sometimes get close to them by coming from downwind. Bert said, “Them hoses were wilder than hell. If you slipped up on them, they’d all come right up to you. They wouldn’t run if they didn’t get wind of you. They had to have a leader, usually an old mare. If they took off you’d just as well kiss them good bye, cause they were gone. Now if you were riding a pretty good horse and got close to them before they took off, you could bust right into them and catch one.” He said that he would like them handled with better care and consideration.
He was a good hand at breaking horses and roping.
In 1982, Bert was honored as Grand Marshall of the Big Piney Chuck Wagon Days rodeo. Bert cowboyed for Millers until sickness forced him to retire, shortly before he died on March 21, 1995.
* Norman Henry Richie was born March 23, 1933, in Green River to Everett J. “Ebb” Richie and Ellen Williams Richie. He joined an older sister, Verla Sommers (1924-2006) and older brother, Jeptha, born in 1931. He attended Big Sandy School until it closed in 1943. After his parents bought the Allen Place on Eastfork, he and his brother attended the Olson School. They also went to the Boulder School and Pinedale School.
As his Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame tells, “Norm didn’t want to go to school anymore, so his father told him if he wouldn’t go back to school, he had to go to their Muddy Place and feed cows all winter by himself. That is what he did for over 60 years.”
Norm grew up around livestock. He was either riding horses or calves or working goats on a wagon or sled. A good saddle bronc rider, Norm had filled his permit and had his PRCA card when his dad died. At 22 years, he put aside his rodeo dreams to come home and help his brother run the ranch, though he continued to ride broncs locally. In time he became a judge for the bareback and saddle bronc events at rodeos. He also judged the Indian rodeos in Lander.
“Norm likes Morgan horses because they have more stamina in the mountains,” his biography tells. “If a horse wanted to buck all the time when he was breaking it, it went to the pack string. Norm always said, ‘Bounce that salt off some trees on their ribs, they get a better attitude.’ Not only could Norm ride saddle broncs and break horses, he was an excellent teamster. He loved to drive his four-horse teams feeding in the winter. One year, he and a friend tried five-horse hitch to pull a sod boat full of hay to feed the cows because so much snow had melted and the field was a lake.”
It’s said that no one else knows the Forest Service Silver Creek Grazing Allotment like Norm. He was the cow boss for over 30 years but rode it well before that. Most of this high-elevation allotment, ranging from 8,500 to 10,000 feet, is in the Bridger Wilderness and covers roughly 50,000 acres. A dozen ranches have used it in the past and five still do.
Norm has his own innovative method for properly grazing the land. “He uses his ‘beer can’ method: bring the cows when the grass is as tall as a beer can and take the cows off when the grass is grazed to the height of a tipped-over beer can,” his biography tells. “When the Forest Service employees and University of Wyoming range management professionals came to the mountain to do range monitoring, they found Norm’s beer can method matched with their standards.
Read the complete biographies of these real cowboys of the Cowboy State, as well as biographies of other 2016 inductees, at the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame website: yomingcowboyhalloffame.com.