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Auctioning off of Rafter Cross Ranch ends 100 year era of family ownership

Ferguson family ... Three young men, out of a family of nine, came from Arkansas in the late 1890s to start the Rafter Cross Ranch in South Dakota. Here are three generations of Fergusons. In back from left are Cleve, Walt, Cap, Ed and Jack. In front are Ford, their mother, Susan Ferguson and Erma. A sister, Meda, married J.Q. Daniel and also lived in Haakon County. Photo courtesy of Prairie Progress of West Central South Dakota

The Rafter Cross Ranch, a ranch steeped in history, has been a fixture in West River for more than a century, but it soon will go on the auction block as the Ferguson family ends its 100 year ownership.

Three brothers, Messer Alexander (Cap), Walt and Edward (Ed), from Arkansas arrived in western South Dakota in the late 1890s. Cap came up from Texas in 1895, where he had been working on ranches. He worked for a short time as a miner in the Black Hills. In 1897 or 1898, Cap decided to venture eastward to look for range. He and Walt set out on the Deadwood Trail, first settling near Peno Basin where Hugh Estes grubstaked Cap with a small herd of cattle. The next year the brothers homesteaded sites five miles west of Plum Creek in what was then Stanley County. In the spring of 1898, Cap borrowed money from a bank in Pierre to purchase 40 head of cattle. He branded them with the Rafter Cross. That fall he purchased E.A. Morrison's improvement on Plum Creek along with 75 head of horses and 100 head of cattle. He moved his headquarters to the new location and the Rafter Cross Ranch was born. Meanwhile, following a winter's work at a smeltering plant, Ed began working for several ranches in South Dakota including Ed Spurling along Cherry Creek, Cheney and Wilkenson on the Cheyenne River, the 73-, the Sword & Dagger and the Diamond A. Ed filed a homestead next to his brothers in 1907. Cap and Ed formed a partnership that was to last for more than 60 years.

In 1908, Ed married neighboring homesteader, Frances Hoffman. Frances had moved here from Iowa in 1907, built an 8x10 shack and broke land. That first winter she worked at the Northwestern Hotel.

Also that year, Walt decided to move to California where their brother Cleve was living. Ed and Frances purchased Walt's 160 acres and built a two room shack. This arrangement made Cap's and Ed's homes just a quarter mile from each other.

Cap married Mary Callahan in 1900 and they had two children, Marguerite, born in 1902 and William in 1903. The two divorced and Cap married Susan (Susie) Hall, his childhood sweetheart from Arkansas. The couple had three children, Clifford (Duke), Eli and Fern.

Ed and Frances had five children, Erma, Ford, Earl, Tom and Eddie, who drowned in Plum Creek in 1922, at the age of eight.

The partnership went through the struggles that all ranchers face, drought, insects, blizzardsflooding, and poor prices.

During the drought years that began around 1909, the Rafter Cross trailed their cattle to other pastures. In 1911, they moved the herd north of the Cheyenne River. In 1912 and 1913, the herd went south to the White River. Many cattle were lost during a 1913 blizzard when the cattle drifted into the White River.

Drought, grasshoppers and an anthrax outbreak in the 1930s and the blizzards of 1949 and 1966 brought hardships to the ranch, but the Rafter Cross survived and prospered. The partnership was able to add more acreage to the ranch until it totaled approximately 17,000 acres. When Highway 34 was constructed it went right between the two homesites.

Over the years other improvements were made to the ranch. New homes were built, dams were dug, pipelines installed, new outbuildings erected, an artesian well was dug and miles of pipeline were installed. A dam was built in 1938 to the east of the headquarter buildings. The dam, dug by Marvin Brooks, covered 75 acre feet. Duke and Tom laid pipe from the dam to the buildings. Electricity arrived in 1954. In Prairie Progress of West Central South Dakota Frances wrote, "We were among the original signers for REA, but did not think it would ever come true. It was a wonderful experience for this country when the lines heated up, making all the convienence of the cities possible for the rural areas."

Cap's battle with rheumatism and asthma began to take their toll and Duke began to take over in the late 1930s. He and Ed retained the partnership. Cap and Susie moved into Philip in 1943, the same year Duke married Retta Lancaster.

Cap and Susie's other children, Eli and Fern both graduated from SDSU and went onto live outside of South Dakota.

Earl had a heart attack in 1943 and he was unable to help on the ranch afterwards. Duke ran the place by himself until his cousin Tom was discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1944. Ed's son Earl was also in the Army Air Corps, and was listed missing over Romania. He never returned home.

Tom and Duke continued the partnership until 1961 when the place was divided between the two families. Ed passed away in 1954 and Cap 10 years later in 1964.

The Fergusons kept strong ties with the surrounding communities. Ed was on the board of directors of the First National Bank in Philip at the time of his death. Both Duke and Eli had been employed by the bank. Both families were involved in church and civic organizations.

None of Duke's family wished to continue in the ranching industry, so when Duke retired in 1985, they sold their land to Larry and Linda Smith.

Tom married Ethel Viereck in 1947, and later Janice Fines in 1988. In 1961, Tom hired Dugan Stewart to help on the ranch. Dugan and his wife, Charmaine, moved onto the Rafter Cross at that time. Eventually Tom and Dugan formed a partnership. When Tom retired from ranching in the early 1990s, Dugan leased the ranch as Tom's two children did not wish to operate the ranch. The ranch always ran a commercial herd under the direction of the Fergusons. Dugan added purebred limousins in the early 1980s which he sold at yearly production sales. Dugan noted the ranch stayed close to its beginnings. The mainstay was always raising good quality cattle. Some sod was broke to raise feed crops such as alfalfa, oats, barley, sorghum, etc. It never raised row crops that were sold.

Tom passed away in May 2004, the last of the Fergusons to operate the Rafter Cross Ranch. And so, an era of ranching came to a close. An era that started when the range was still open and the big cattle outfits still ruled the plains.

The ranch goes up on the auction block Wednesday, June 1, at the Milesville Hall in Milesville. Included in the sale are 9,033 acres of rolling grasslands and creek bottoms. The total acreage includes 320 acres of school lease and 160 acres of Bureau of Land Management lease. On those acres are two homes and several barns, an artesian well that puts out 110º F. water, 20 dams, two rural water taps and several miles of pipelines.

Piroutek Auction Service, Milesville, and Arneson Auction Service, Elm Springs, are in charge of the sale of the historic Rafter Cross Ranch.