RANGE magazine
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Preserving the Future

Keeping dreams alive on Oregon's Imperial Stock Ranch. By Barbara Wies

This is deceptive land. It can shape dreams or break a heart. High on Oregon's Deschutes-Umatilla plateau, autumn sun gilds rolling hills, freshly harvested. Combines rest in the distance. Homesteaders came here, dreaming of carving a living from these tawny hills, but hundreds of abandoned cabins are mute testimony to their disappointment. This is a country of little rain; a lava plateau broken by basalt canyons; a palouse prairie of cold winters and hot summers.

In a small green valley threaded by Hinton Creek, stands of tall poplars mark the historic Imperial Stock Ranch, a flourishing 130-year-old enterprise. Sheep graze near the main house. The barns and outbuildings are neat and sturdy. Sapling trees stand in rings of marigolds. Owners Dan and Jeanne Carver have brought the ranch into the 21st century with a vision for its future and appreciation for its heritage. For the Carvers, it's both dream and mission to preserve a valuable piece of American history to be passed on to future generations and serve as living cultural legacy for those who've lost touch with their American roots. As Dan points out: "Everybody had a grandmother who raised chickens."

It's not easy. Where once more than 100 farmhands worked year-round to tend cattle, sheep, grain and hay production, there are now just the Carvers, son Blaine and a couple of full-timers. Sheep shearers come in season. For the Carvers, the season is every day.

Jeanne Carver moves with a grace and economy of motion that can only come from having been a sought-after college-level track and field coach and trainer. "You have to look at the whole person," she says. "We all have a lid on our jar and you have to take the lid off to see what we're capable of. Our minds limit us way before we're physiologically limited."

Maybe that's why Jeanne seems to tackle every challenge full-out. She's overseen restoration of the original farm buildings so that the headquarters complex qualifies as a National Historic District, and she intends to bring the interior of the 1900 Hinton residence back to its former glory.

R. R. (Richard Roland) Hinton was born in a covered wagon crossing Missouri in 1852. His first home on what became Hinton Creek was a dugout cave, but by the early 1900s he was the largest landowner in Oregon, raising cattle and sheep in what was then the "wool capital of the world." Although the family declined and the ranch changed hands, it was still a working ranch when Carver bought it in 1988.

Jeanne's pale eyes sparkle in her well-tanned face as she points to apple trees still bearing fruit from an orchard planted before the house was built. The best will go to cold storage in the cookhouse (which still has facilities to store food for 100 hands for several months). They'll be used in applesauce and pies throughout the winter. The Carvers add apples from R. R. Hinton's first trees near the dugout cave, more from further up the creek. "We have a three-way blend of apples," Jeanne says, pointing out the double-barreled cider press. "Blaine is the squeeze expert. I'm the pourer. Dan keeps hauling boxes of apples. Blaine keeps squeezing, I keep pouring, and we just go on all day. We do it all in one day. We take a lot of cider to the lodge."

The lodge is the Imperial River Company, several miles away on the banks of the Deschutes. It's owned by daughter Susie and son-in-law Rob Miles. In addition to rafting, hunting and fishing, the Imperial River Company features Imperial beef and lamb in its restaurant and offers customized tours of the historic ranch.

That dovetails with Dan's vision of the future of the Imperial Stock Ranch. He sees entertainment-showing tour groups around the working ranch-as part of his mission, a way of connecting people to their past. His real passion, though, is caring for the land. Imperial's uplands are linked to the Buckhollow project for restoration and protection of Buckhollow Creek and its watersheds, crucial to steelhead salmon and the Deschutes River. The first dozen or so miles of Buckhollow Creek lie on Imperial land, making the Carvers' participation an important component to the project's success.

"The critical thing about conservation," Dan says, "is mindset. For years the thinking was to 'protect that little green strip' [along the stream]. If you fix the uplands, the little green strip will take care of itself."

Dan did that. He speaks of the uplands as a "sponge" and wants to make sure as much water as possible is saved to percolate down to the deep canyon. He built about 60 high reservoirs in dry washes to catch whatever runoff there might be. Some are able to provide year-round water for the cattle-away from the stream banks. Some are even stocked with fish. He's done a lot of seeding up high including old homestead fields that had just gone to weeds, and done a lot of fencing to keep the cattle moving all the time. Using a no-till method of seeding directly into otherwise undisturbed ground, the fields are replanted every year without loss of soil and there is always winter forage for the herd.

Dan points out a properly grazed area with just about a bite taken out of every plant, still plenty of grass to protect the soil, not too much bare space between plants. Great Basin ryegrass, he says, is one of his indicator species.

"In most of the West it's been eradicated by grazing, so when I see it thriving and expanding its territory, I'm happy. When you hear stories about grass up to a horse's belly, they're talking Great Basin ryegrass. In our lower feedlot (our winter calf lot), there are several acres of wild rye. It's never been grazed in the growing season down there; the cows just bed in it all winter, so the government people say it might be the best stand left in America. It'll grow 10 feet tall because the cows fertilize it."

In one of the low places stands an abandoned homesteader's cabin, one of many on the Imperial Stock Ranch. Jeanne is gathering as many stories and reminiscences about these cabins as she can, to preserve the memories. She's had folks in their 90s come to see the place they were born-a place they didn't expect to see standing. Jeanne and Dan have made attempts to save the cabins. The Burgess cabin has a metal patch on its roof and was recently used as a backdrop for a fashion photographer.

The fashions are Jeanne's brainchild. Seeking a way to maintain the viability of a sheep herd, she has found creative ways to market their Columbia sheep. Developed as a breed by R. R. Hinton and others, Columbias are excellent producers of both meat and wool. Sheared wool is taken to be processed-without harsh chemical treatments. Some is kept as roving (for hand spinners); some is spun, dyed and measured into skeins. Back at the ranch, Jeanne washes all the skeins in a standard washing machine and hangs them to dry. Her 10-foot-long homemade drying racks will dry the wool in an afternoon if the sun is warm and a breeze is blowing. When the weather doesn't cooperate, the racks crowd one end of the kitchen in front of a juniper-burning woodstove. That, Jeanne says, can take several days.

A former servants' quarters serves as a yarn shop on the ranch, but most of the production is shipped to specialty stores and boutiques. Jeanne works closely with designers to create garments of both wool and lambskin, and design kits for knitters. Handmade ready-to-wear fashions include lambskin vests, chaps, felted wool hats and jackets and knitted wraps. Many of these are available for do-it-yourselfers as kits. One popular kit is an accurate reproduction of the blue knit cap worn on Lewis and Clark's expedition. Confirming Jeanne's attention to detail, she ties the zipper tab on each kit's wrapper with strands of yarn and a sheep's bell.

Every Tuesday morning Jeanne is on the phone to local chefs to get their restaurant orders for Imperial Stock Ranch lamb. Then she relays cutting instructions to the slaughterhouse. Lambs are sorted on Wednesday. On Thursday the meat is picked up and delivered to the restaurants (a 12-hour day). Jeanne visits the restaurants to train servers how to market Imperial lamb. She also brings home the hides which she will salt (on Saturday mornings), dry and age before sending them to be processed in the most "natural" way available.

On the Imperial Stock Ranch, everything works. Barn cats live in the barn to keep it rodent free. A black-and-white herd dog, CC, stays close by with her pink "fetch ball," ready to play, but she's just as ready to work. On a nearby hilltop, a pair of beautiful white Maremmas, Bruno and Babe, seem tranquil as they guard a flock of sheep. But since Babe and Bruno have been on the job, sheep predation by coyotes has dropped from around half a dozen lost each week to none.

Old cars and tractors are repaired on the ranch and kept in working condition. A century-old round corral is still used, as are all of the original ranch buildings. In the tack room hang the working saddles, but there are others, dusty ones whose riders have long gone. The shearing room's 12 pens are ready for shearers. Now, only two are used, and Dan takes his turn inside the woolsack, stomping the wool to compress it for transport.

A lush garden between the Hinton house and the cookhouse provides almost all of the vegetables used on the ranch. Fruit trees supply pears, plums, cherries and peaches. All feed for the animals is grown on the ranch.

By emphasizing conservation, preservation and imaginative diversity, the Carvers have come close to the homesteader's dream of self-sufficient sustainability. They've included something else, too-a way of life that is a vibrant, living heritage.

"Every rancher thinks they live in paradise," Jeanne says. They do.

Award-winning writer/editor/artist/author Barbara Wies is associate publisher of RANGE. She lives in Nevada and North Carolina.

Winter 2004 Contents

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