This is a guest post written by Carl Fleischhauer.
This blog celebrates the life of Fred Stewart, who passed away on September 23, 2019, a victim of cancer at the age of fifty-nine. Fred was a cattle rancher in Paradise Valley, Nevada. He had taken over the Ninety-Six Ranch in 2006 at the death of his father, Les Stewart. The Ninety-Six was central to the American Folklife Center’s 1978-1982 field research project and it is prominent in the Center’s online presentation Buckaroos in Paradise. The ranch has been in family hands since its founding in 1864 by Bill Stock, born Friedrich Wilhelm Stock in Germany in 1837, and the ranch’s 150th anniversary was the subject of a series of Folklife Today blogs in 2014.
My first encounters with Fred took place during the Folklife Center’s field project in the years around 1980, followed by nearly 35 years of sparse Christmas card communication. Then our friendship was rekindled during my 2014 and 2017 visits to the Ninety-Six and by Fred’s 2018 visit to Washington DC, accompanied by his wife Kris and daughter Patrice. I also paid a melancholy final visit to Nevada just before Fred’s death last September.
In the late 1970s, I formed an impression of a physically strong man, over six feet tall, with a gentle manner and self-deprecating sense of humor. Recently graduated from high school, Fred was much in his father’s shadow, performing day-to-day ranch work from roundups to calf-branding to haying, and starting to tackle aspects of ranch management. When we got reacquainted in 2014 and 2017, Fred was the same big, friendly, chuckle-at-himself man and now a husband, father, and ranch manager.
To run the operation, the manager must juggle tasks related to livestock, machinery, buildings, fences, irrigation water, and government relations pertaining to grazing on public land. Each of these carries financial implications that cross multiple years: markets must be tracked; costs, revenue, and tax law analyzed; workers hired and supervised; and more. It’s fair to say that Fred served as “co-manager.” His wife Kris is a formidable partner and seeing her in action reminded me of how women had often played key roles at the Ninety-Six. Bill Stock’s widow Wilhelmina (“Minnie”) ran the operation for a period in the early 1900s. Later her daughter Edith, who married an earlier Fred Stewart, help run the operation during and after World War II. Our folklife project documented Les’s wife Marie helping work cattle, for example inoculating cows against pinkeye.
For Fred and Kris, managing the outfit in no way relieved them from day-to-day chores. During my three-day visit in 2017, for example, Fred pitched in with neighbor David Cassinelli to corral a half dozen cattle that had strayed from their grazing area, nudging them into Cassinelli’s truck to travel home. The next day, Fred reshoed a horse named Dag for daughter Patrice, then studying equine science (she called it “horse production”) at a college in Oregon. Patrice is an avid competition barrel-racer and, as of 2019, participates in professional rodeo. As Fred fitted Dag’s new shoes, he grumbled that the ranch’s regular farrier had been hired away by a new gold-mining operation, leaving “poor old dad” to tackle the chore. I photographed parts of this: Fred did it in a craftsman-like manner, in 90-degree heat.
Like his father, Fred was an advocate for buckaroo occupational skills. Typical Great Basin cattle-ranching gear, methods, and skills are patterned on Spanish California vaquero antecedents, marked by preferences for certain types of saddles (e.g., “center fire” single-cinch designs), the use of a reata (not a lariat) and, when a calf has been roped, a buckaroo will dally (dale vuelta, “give it a turn”) the reata over the saddle horn rather than tie a lariat hard and fast. (Regional preferences in the Great Basin and elsewhere in the West are nicely outlined in the article “The Western Cattle Complex” by the cultural geographer Fred Kniffen.)
Buckaroo tools and techniques may have Spanish California origins, but at the Ninety-Six, the master practitioners were Native Americans employed at the ranch. At the 150th anniversary celebration in 2014, Fred paid tribute to several members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, residents of the nearby Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. Fred said that many had “lived on the ranch and worked here throughout their lifetimes,” naming Albert and Oscar Skedaddle, Theodore Brown, and the Northrup and Smart brothers, adding that these were “men I grew up with, learned with and from, and am very proud to call friends.” Members of the tribe participated in Fred’s end-of-September funeral.
Numerous photographs of buckaroos from the Northrup and Smart families can be found in the Buckaroos in Paradise online collection. Fieldworker Suzi Jones took a pair that document a poker game during a break in the 1978 fall roundup; the players include Fred, Clale Northrup, and two other men. Not having been there myself, I will plant my tongue firmly in my cheek and refuse to speculate on who taught who poker, or who won the game.
Fred maintained the region’s preference for horseback strategies and techniques when “working” cattle. In 1979, we shot film on one Ninety-Six Ranch roundup and, in the short clip at this link, Fred Stewart and fellow buckaroo Mel Winslow compare notes about rounding up animals in the mountain grazing range. Fred offers Mel a good-natured summary of one encounter:
I ran into four head right below the mine up there, right below the top of the mountain and, sh–, I run ’em, before I could get to ’em they run down to the willows, I must’ve run around in those willows for an hour, on foot, trying to get those ba– out of there. It was back and forth, round and around. I could hear them but I could never see them son of a guns. Finally got them going down the canyon and away we went.
Compared to his father, however, Fred was bit less emphatic about the primacy of horseback to ranch operations. Both men relied on mechanized equipment, notably at haying time. But Fred was more enthusiastic about trucks, tractors, and motorized haying gear than Les. When the folklife team first visited in 1978, Fred had just started his own business at the ranch, in a new pole building emblazoned with a sign “Stew’s Farm and Automotive.” (See some pictures here.)
In 1982, the team documented haying at the ranch, shooting video footage of a swather, baler, and a bale-stacking implement that carried the regional name harobed. The source of that name is explained in the “about” information for the video clip, which you can find here. It features Fred Stewart as the operator, offering a few comments at the end.
Well, there’s really nothing very hard about it, you just — if everything is working good, you get on in the morning, and you never really need to get out of the cabin until you are ready to shut it off at night. Uh, the only hard thing about it is, like, you bring your stack in and set it up, and then you pull away from it and it tips over, you’ve got to drag it all out by hand and do it over again. But outside of that, it’s a pretty easy machine to run.
On first glance, Fred’s size could intimidate those he met. But as the film and video clips show, his manner was collegial and open, with a smile or faint chuckle as he spoke. Several American Folklife Center staff members can testify to this: they met Fred, Kris, and Patrice during a visit to the Library of Congress in September 2018, a scant year before he passed away.
Fred’s passing leaves the Ninety-Six in Kris’s care, supported by twenty-two-year-old Patrice. Fred’s many friends will miss him and the Folklife Center once again sends heartfelt condolences to his family.