Women Ranchers: Faith & Grit

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Flip through the contents of any history book that paints an accurate picture of the sturdy women who left the comfort of their 19th century homes, both in the U.S. and abroad, to head to rural areas in America during our nation’s development and expansion.

You’ll soon discover how much courage and fortitude it took to secure property and help build a life on barren plains where wind and dust ruled the day, in the heated deserts, along indomitable snowy mountain ranges, and in the sandy, rock-strewn, or clay-layered soil that ultimately resulted – through sheer grit – in a productive ranch on which a family could begin to make a living.

Near the tiny town of Brewster, Nebraska (population 17) is the 5,000-acre Sandhills Guest Ranch, where visitors can tour the property and try their hand at cattle ranching.

In Carmen Goldthwaite’s informative book Texas Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie (History Press, 2014), she explains, “Texas wouldn’t be Texas without the formidable women of its past.” When ranching began to change in the West, she adds, many women led that change, suffering through droughts, low cattle prices, the loss of husband and children, yet continuing to do whatever they must in order to hold onto their land even after their loved ones were gone.

Some went on to become astute ranchers in their own right; others, if widowed, quickly remarried and rebuilt lost wealth and status. They also built communities, schools and churches, rescued the less fortunate, both beast and man, and defended their homes when needed. All were women of sturdy constitution with a determination not just to survive, but to thrive.

When asked if she considers herself a ranch hand, a ranch wife or a rancher in her own right, Beverly says “all three.” RIGHT: Lee, 77, a cattle rancher for nearly six decades, tours the property almost daily, explaining retirement is not for him. The ranch offers off-road tours of the Sandhills and tanking and canoeing on the North Loup to supplement their income.

The same is still true of modern ranching today. It takes a strong woman and a lot of grit to make the ranching life work. Meet Beverly DeGroff, wife of cattle rancher Lee DeGroff and mother to their four adult children. They raise quarter horses, about 300 Angus cross-bred beef cattle and, for extra income, run a bed-and-breakfast accommodation on their property in the eastern Sandhills of Nebraska, a region that lends itself to grasses rather than farm produce.

“I grew up ranching,” says the Nebraska native, “and I’ve been doing it for more than 50 years. So it’s all I’ve ever known. The only way we had to make money when I was a kid was from milking cows and selling the cream.”

She likes the autonomy of being her own boss and working alongside her husband, Lee, and they both like to stay busy. “There are always cows to feed, chores to do and guests to take care of,” she says, smiling. “Vacation time is when everyone wants to come here.”

Located in Blaine County, Nebraska, about 100 miles from the nearest large city, North Platte, the Sandhills Guest Ranch Bed & Breakfast has been in business since 1999. But it was a cattle ranch long before then, with ranch hands, hundreds of cattle and the numerous daily details that go into maintaining a working ranch.

“Ranching was always a hard life,” Beverly says. “It still is. But it’s a good life too. You just have to like isolation and being able to fend for yourself. For recreation, I go to the river, watch the birds, or look for wildlife. Because I love nature, I never get bored.”

Her husband of 40-plus years is a former cowboy and rodeo champion.

One of the couple’s grown daughters, Rhonda Haynes, says most of the younger generation has moved away from the region. The 2015 student body of high school graduates, combined from three different counties, totaled only a dozen teens.

“It takes a lifetime to learn the business,” Rhonda says. “So unless the land is passed along from one generation to another, there’s no reason to stay here. As for my parents, they will likely never retire. Besides, Dad says he can’t think of anything else he’d ever do.”

LEFT: Accommodations include this two-story house with three bedrooms and two full baths. Beverly also serves breakfast and offers dinners by special arrangement.

The family has undergone hard times through the years, but Beverly says, “We never gave up.

“It’s the grandkids I worry about most. We’ll live to see ranching continue, but our children’s children will have to worry about whether or not it will survive. Our ranch used to hire men to work but now, with new equipment and technology, the same number of jobs is no longer there. Lee and I do most of it ourselves these days.”

The biggest misconception she hears involves how they raise beef. “People don’t realize we never give our cattle anything that’s bad for them,” Beverly says. “After all, we eat the beef too.”

Her best advice to any woman contemplating the ranch life in the modern world: Pick your life mate carefully as you’ll often be working side-by-side; be sure you don’t mind being alone when your spouse is gone; be prepared to make big decisions on your own; stick with it good or bad. Moving on is not an easy option when you’re invested as a ranch wife.

Guests are served Black Angus beef burgers alongside homemade potato salad, cucumber salad, baked beans and fresh pie or cobbler.

Black Angus cattle and their offspring block the ranch trail as rancher Lee DeGroff tours his guests by motor vehicle.

I asked Beverly if she had a chance to be young again and start over, would she have chosen a different career path. “I don’t know,” she says. “Life is good … right here.”

A Navy seal leaves his well wishes in the bunkhouse skylight, as well as visitors from Russia, China, and Malaysia.

For an authentic working ranch experience, contact Bev or Lee DeGroff at Sandhills Guest Ranch Bed & Breakfast: P.O. Box 13, Brewster, NE 68821, call 308-547-2460, or visit the website.