By Jim Jennings
Finished with breakfast, Vic Howell skillfully balances his coffee cup on his plate as he steps from the main room of the bunkhouse into the kitchen. Going to the big sink, he holds his plate and coffee cup under running water until all the remnants from egg and bacon are washed away. One by one, each of the other cowboys files into the kitchen and does the same. Janet, the cook, will wash all the dishes later, but this little bit of courtesy makes her job easier.
The screen door of the bunkhouse then slams as Vic steps into the cool morning air, and it slams again and again as the others follow. Their boots crunch on the gravel parking lot, and the occasional ring of a spur rowel echoes softly between the buildings. It’s a few minutes before 6 a.m. – not dark, but not yet daylight either – the moon still hangs over the hills to the west. But it’s light enough to see the horses standing in the corrals, and the cowboys walk toward them, bridles in hand.
Mounts for the day were roped out of the remuda yesterday afternoon, and the horses selected stand waiting to go to work.
Days on the Babbitt Ranches in northern Arizona start early. More than 700,000 acres constitute the three divisions of the property, and to go from one to another in the bobtail truck that hauls the horses often requires at least an hour. The morning sun can warm the semi desert of the high country quickly, and cattle drive best when it’s cool.
Babbitt Ranches lie north of Flagstaff, but the property ranges from beyond Cataract Canyon – near the Grand Canyon – on the west, to the Little Colorado River on the east. The total operation is more than 1,000 square miles.
That’s big, but it was once bigger. Established in 1886 by five Babbitt brothers from Cincinnati, Ohio, the original plans were to establish a cattle ranch in New Mexico, but they found the area around Flagstaff more to their liking. The grass was better. The brothers adopted the CO Bar as their brand – in recognition of their hometown, Cincinnati – and by 1919, they owned and operated almost every ranch in northern Arizona. At the height of their operation, they ran cattle and sheep on 100,000 square miles of range in three states.
But the era between the first and second world wars, which included the Depression and a generally depressed cattle market, along with one of the worst droughts the Southwest has ever known, hit the Babbitt brothers hard. In order to survive, much of the land was sold. Finally, in the 1950s, what was left was consolidated into the three divisions that make up the property today – the Espee, the Cataract and the CO Bar.
The terrain of the ranches varies from the sparse grassland of the CO Bar, where the mountains are all former volcanoes and small chunks of lava litter the ground, to the better and stronger grass of the Cataract and Espee. But it’s all cow country, and the Babbitts make good use of it. The three divisions are stocked with approximately 4,000 cows and almost as many replacement heifers and yearlings.
That, according to Babbitt Ranches president Bill Cordasco, is why they have horses.
“If there was a better way to handle these cattle, then we would use it. But there’s not. With the diversity of our ranch, whether it is mountains, trees, rock or sand, and with the size of some of our pastures, nothing has come close to the ability of our horses to gather our cattle and work them.”
Bill grew up in the shadow of the ranches. Raised by his grandfather, John Babbitt, Bill’s heritage goes straight to the founders. John Babbitt was a son of one of the original brothers, C.J. Babbitt. John succeeded his father and ran the ranches himself for more than 30 years. Bill, as a youngster, rode many miles in the pickup with his grandfather, and today he is applying what he learned, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Not necessarily a cowboy, Bill typically shuns a hat in favor of a ball cap, and he seldom gets horseback. However, he is rarely caught in the home office downtown. He represents the ranches in dealing with any governmental agencies, and he is active with the state livestock associations. And, although he might not help gather the pastures, he is often at the ranches, assisting with the branding, the horse sale and in other areas.
Bill is quick to give credit for much of the current success of Babbitt Ranches to a couple of men named Howell. Bill Howell, retired now, was with the ranches full time for about 33 years and managed them for 22. He was succeeded in 1991 by his son Vic, who manages the ranches today. The elder Howell now has his own place and his own cows to look after, but it’s not uncommon to find him back on the Babbitts, day working, riding out with the cowboys during branding time.
Upgrading the Horses
Bill Howell, face tanned and weathered by more than 40 years of exposure to the Arizona sun and wind, grins as he tells how he came to work for Babbitts. He says he started as a cowboy up on the Cataract, living in a remote camp with his wife and two small sons. Three years later, the manager at the time, Frank Banks, sent him to the CO Bar to run that division, and when Frank retired two years later, he recommended Bill for his job.
Bill is credited with the decision to upgrade the Babbitts’ horse herd. In the early 1970s, he bought for the ranches a grandson of Joe Hancock to cross on their mares, and then a grandson of Driftwood, Deck Of Wood. The Hancock and Driftwood lines had already made names for themselves on ranches across the Southwest, and Bill instinctively knew they would be good for the Babbitts. He then followed those with Hanks Chargin Bar, a palomino son of Hanks Star by Tonto Bars Hank, which he crossed on the Deck Of Wood daughters. It was a good start, and when Bill retired from his ranch manager position, Vic stayed with the program.
Vic Howell is his father's son. He grew up working on the various divisions of the Babbitt Ranches and learned from both his father and his uncle, Harvey Howell, also a longtime employee. Vic left the ranches long enough to graduate from college but then returned to work with his dad for several years. When Bill retired as manager, Vic was named to replace him, and the father worked for the son for the next six years.
Cut from the same cloth, Vic sits a saddle in the same easygoing manner as his father. Like Bill, he wears his hat pulled low to shade his face, and his legs are covered with the same type of heavy leather chaps. A couple of giveaway pens stick out the top of one shirt pocket, and, like most ranch managers, he has a well-worn tally book peeking over the edge of the other pocket.
“I’m as proud as I could ever be of my dad,” Vic says. “Everybody says that Dad was hard, and he was. He was strict. If you were in the wrong place, you knew it really quick. But he made a lot of good cowboys.
“And Dad is the most versatile cowboy I’ve ever known,” Vic adds. “He can design a set of shipping pens, ride a bronc, trip a steer, cut cattle out of a herd, set up a roundup or make a drive, just an all-around cowboy.
“He taught me everything, and we work well together. When we’re working cattle, before we ever make a move, we know where the other one is going to be.”
The father-son team also thinks alike when it comes to the horses. When Vic took over, he stayed with his father’s plan. “The horses we got out of that Hanks Chargin Bar/Deck Of Wood cross were really nice,” Vic says. “They were tough for this country, and they could pull. We decided we liked that Driftwood blood, so we bought another Driftwood horse, Cowboy Drift by Orphan Drift, and crossed him back on the mares we had. We really liked the way that went.”
Today the ranch has about 80 broodmares it is breeding to seven stallions – five of which have some Driftwood blood.
Included in the broodmares are 25 Cowboy Drift daughters that are being crossed on Frosty Gold Knight, a palomino stallion whose linage goes to Doc’s Jack Frost, and on Proud Gun, a son of Playgun out of a Doc Fitz mare. Other stallions include Cowboy Drift and two sons of his, Cowboy Ben Driftin, out of a Hanks Chargin Bar mare, and The Double Cowboy, out of a Deck Of Wood mare. There is also Cowboywood, by Dynaflow Drift by Double Drift, and a horse they have leased, PC Wades Frost, that is bred similarly to Frosty Gold Knight.
Everything is pasture-bred, and each stallion is turned out with a band of mares about April 20. “A first of April colt is plenty early enough here,” Vic says. “We don’t expect green grass until then.” The stallions are not picked up until the second week of July, when all the mares and foals are gathered for the annual sale.
The Hashknife Horse Sale, named for the brand applied to all horses, is held every year on the second Saturday in July. Only weanlings are sold. Each is auctioned to the highest bidder, who puts down a deposit, but then has to return to the ranch the following March to pick up his purchase. Following the sale, the foals are put back with their mamas. They are weaned in January and February.
All the foals are haltered and branded in late June or early July, just prior to the sale. Those that are kept as possible replacements are worked with again the next month, and then again when they are weaned in February.
Roughly 20 percent of the foals raised each year are kept for the remuda. When the colts turn 2, a couple of the younger cowboys get them started, and then turn them out again until their 3-year-old years. When they are 3, these same cowboys ride them for a month or two, and then they are issued to the other cowboys for continued education.
About 80 horses make up the saddle horse remuda, with each cowboy on the ranch being assigned six to eight. The cowboys ride mostly geldings, although all but the older stallions are used just like the geldings from the end of breeding season through the fall works. Also, any fillies destined for the broodmare band are started and ridden 10 to 20 times to be sure they are suitable as replacements.
Babbitt Ranches has had great success with its remuda, both the geldings and the stallions, and not just on the ranch. A number of the horses have been to the National High School Finals Rodeo, and several have seen professional rodeo arenas. And in 2003, a Babbitt Ranches team qualified for the World Championship Ranch Rodeo in Amarillo.
“We are really proud of our remuda,” says Bill Cordasco. “Our horses have evolved with our operation. We had horses in the very beginning, so we have nearly 120 years of history where horses have been the primary tool in our cattle operation. In recent years, we have been blessed with some very special people who have a unique passion and understanding of horses and how to fit them together to best work for us.
“I call it the sense of art,” he says, “to be able to blend it all and produce the horses we have today.”