Rancher Ken Halligan recalls running cattle in a storied land

Farm Forum

Editor’s note: Rancher Ken Halligan died on Jan. 29, 2014, at age 92. He’s the kind of South Dakotan whose ordinary greatness helped make this state what it is, so we re-run today a story about Mr. Halligan that first appeared in the Capital Journal on Aug. 23, 2013. Ken Halligan’s memoir, “Looking for Grass & Water,” is available from the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre for $10.

The family sent him a black-and-white photograph of cattle in an old log corral there at Parmelee back then when he was a soldier headed for action in the Pacific in World War II – a way of saying: Don’t forget what you’ve got here waiting for you. You’ve got to come back home alive and raise cows here in South Dakota.

So he did; but not the way he expected.

He’s still got the military decoration with the spearhead on it that means he was part of the first wave ashore when the troops landed at Leyte Island, and he’s still got the photograph of the corral and the memories of coming back home and living that good life of the cattleman.

But not for very long at Parmelee.

“I left to the military in ’42 and come back at Christmastime ’45. I was there a year and I just couldn’t find anything,” Ken Halligan says. “I went to Rapid City and went to work for the telephone company. I done that for three years and finally got a lease back at Parmelee.

“That Parmelee country, it never had a drought. I thought I’d get the land paid for but I didn’t. I had the best cattle country I think anywhere ever seen and lost money,” he marvels when he tells it now. “I came up here to Stanley County to the worst and made a little money. Nobody else would have it but I had to have something. So I chased the horses off and moved some cattle in.”

Wild horses and a Hamley saddle

Chased off wild horses, because Stanley County had its share. He’d moved way out onto the old Rankin place and there were still wild horses for neighbors down on Lance Creek. Somebody had brought some horses in from the Red Desert of Wyoming and turned them loose in the Bad River country in the years or decades back and this is what had come of that.

“They were a real problem,” Ken Halligan says. “As people’s horses got away, they’d never got them back out. See, some of those studs was them old wild ones that they had down on Bad River. They was vicious, you know.”

And that was a thing he learned first-hand early on when some of his horses disappeared from his pasture. Wild stallions had a way of jumping into a pasture and getting the mares to running until they would jump out.

“I had two mares they stole out of there and I went over to see if I could get them back,” he recalls.

The mares whinnied and looked his way when he found the wild bunch.

“They were off to the side, they were kind of wanting to leave.”

Ken Halligan cut them off from the herd and started moving toward home. He was riding a cutting horse named Badger and sitting atop a new Hamley saddle that had cost him $245.

“I cut in there and I was riding that old Badger horse of mine and he could have probably out-run that stud but he wouldn’t run – he wanted to fight. That stud finally caught up with me and I had a bullwhip. I finally turned it around and had the handle.

“He was coming at me there and I beat on his head. I couldn’t stop him. He took a grab at my leg. I threw up my leg and he got a nip of that new saddle and he gouged it pretty deep.”

And that Hamley saddle of Ken Halligan’s is now sitting up there on display at the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre. The mark where the stallion bit into it is on the right side leather a ways above the stirrup.

“It’s still gouged. He had his old teeth in there pretty good,” Ken Halligan says when he talks about it now. “That old boy was after my leg. If I hadn’t thrown her up, I’d have had a hole in it.”

After that he never went back down in that Lance Creek bottom again without thinking of that wild stud.

“I never went out there again without a gun because I’d have shot him. He should have been shot,” he said. “Mustang studs, boy, they’d be cold-blooded.”

That was 1954. That was one of the ways the country would still bite you if it could in a place like Stanley County.

Anthrax, horse thieves, saddle bums

That’s the kind of thing you had to deal with if you were a cowboy, and he was – born into a family descended from some Irish who landed in New Orleans and worked their way north.

“The Halligans were cattlemen and horsemen in Ireland and of course went to livestock in America,” Ken Halligan wrote in a memoir back in 2010. “Grandpa Jack, as he was known, homesteaded on the Fort Randall Military Reservation, which was on the Nebraska line. It later became Boyd County, Nebraska.

“My mother was Ethel Roush, daughter of Bill and Sylina Roush. Bill Roush was a Texas trail driver. He and his brother trailed a beef herd from the Gulf to Dodge, Kansas, and then trailed up to the Indian reservations in South Dakota.”

More than a century later, Ken Halligan still recalls the details on that deal.

“They went down there from northeast Nebraska,” Ken Halligan tells it. “They brought 1,800 head of Gulf steers. Paid $6 for them in Texas and sold them in Dodge for $30. So they got a pretty good start in the business. After that I think the price went up in Texas and the profit went out of it. That must have been in the ’80s to ’90s.”

The family stayed up in Dakota and Wyoming after that. Ken Halligan was born in 1921 on a homestead at Cedar Butte. Mellette County in the 1920s was a roaring place because they were building Highway 40. Paul Meyer, a car dealer from Wood, was making a lot of money and investing it in cattle.

“At one time he was supposed to have had 28,000 Texas steers in this area. Anthrax hit the steers,” Ken recalled in his memoir. “I don’t remember the year but I was 6 or 7 years old. You could see the fires burning every night up on the Big White River.”

Then the crash of 1929 sucked all the steers out of the country to pay off debts and farmers moved in on the steer leases and started breaking up the sod, turning all that blond prairie to blue flowers.

“They mostly planted flax,” Ken Halligan recalled. “Jim Terbell had a giant steam engine and a 14-bottom plow that would plow 160 acres in 24 hours.”

What else he recalls from those days was that his father once asked the sheriff to ride with him and help trail some thieves that had stolen some of his horses. They followed them down to a horse sale in Albion, Nebraska.

“The draft horses in this bunch were some Dad freighted with in the wintertime and had camped with many times. They hauled lumber for bridges and school houses from Belvidere and Kadoka down to Cedar Butte and Norris country. Dad was able to call his horses out of the big bunch of horses. The law said they were Dad’s horses.”

It might have been such incidents as that that made Ken Halligan’s parents such keen judges of cowboy character.

“Lots of them were riding the grub line in those days. Mom would look out the window and get a look at their horses and saddles and name them – ‘Cowboy,’ ‘Bum,’ ‘Phony,’ ‘Farmer,’ or the lowest was a dressed-up dude with a good saddle, boots and hat, he was a ‘Thief.'”


In 1931 the Halligan family moved over to Parmelee – just in time for the Great Depression.

“1933 was a dry year with some grasshoppers. We had water in some springs and we could get wells at 160 feet and a windmill could not pump them dry. Lots of people moved into the Todd County area because there were lots of Indian houses with a well for lease. The Indians had given up and moved to Issue Stations such as Cut Meat, HeDog and Black Pipe by Norris. These people who came in were from Ziebach and Dewey counties. Some families came from as far away as Harding County.”

The newcomers didn’t have much besides horses, since the banks had foreclosed on the cattle and sheep; but their horses were tall because some of those families had been in the business of breeding horses for the military.

“They brought in some good horse stock as they had been running remount studs for the Army. They told about the dust storms that had filled their corrals with dirt and fences were buried.”

People at Parmelee soon learned for themselves what that decade would be remembered for.

“In 1934 the grass did not green up at all,” Ken Halligan wrote in his memoir. “The prairie looked dead. The Tom Berry outfit, he was governor at the time, leased the Forest Reserve south of Parmelee. He had 1,000 steers, more or less. This area was forest and canyons with lots of water so they survived real well. I helped roundup in 1937 . The red dirt from Oklahoma began to blow in big clouds of dust followed by clouds of grasshoppers. They ate everything they could. They would eat the fly nets off the work horses and clothes off the line when they were hanging out.”

Trail drives, horses, saddles

In March of 1935 two feet of wet snow came down on the country, like God had remembered all about them, and wheatgrass grew stirrup-high by fall and Ken Halligan found plenty of work trailing cattle.

“I thought I was in demand because I was a good cowboy, but I found out it was because I knew the land and people.

“A couple of big drives involved trailing Tom Berry’s steers from Parmelee to Red Stone Basin. I also trailed for Suttons from Ring Thunder to Cherry Creek. We also trailed for Rasmussens from White River to Spring View, Nebraska. The O’Connor and Logan outfit trailed from Cut Meat to Philip and Red Owl. We also trailed from Parmelee to Kilgore, Nebraska. The biggest drive was for the Brickly Cattle Co. We took 2,000 head of steers from the Forest Reserve south of Parmelee to the Missouri River.”

It took good horses for that work and the Halligans had them.

“Many of our horses were out of Morgan coach driving mares and crossed on mustang studs which were blues, duns and mainly buckskin with dorsal strips. They were the best and never had to be shod.”

Ken Halligan’s first saddle had been an Army saddle with stirrup straps that could be adjusted to make it easier to get on, then adjusted again to fit the rider in the saddle.

“When I was about 15 years old, I got a very good saddle. The Krause Store sold saddles. The new ones were about $65. This one I got had been used a little. A sheepherder had it one summer but hardly rode it. It was a single rig Newberry with a low cantle and set low on a horse for roping and was fair to ride broncs in. I lost the battle sometimes but it was not the fault of the saddle. It cost me $35,” Ken Halligan’s memoir recalls. “During the war the barn caught on fire and burned up all the saddles, harnesses, spurs and bridles. It was a long time before I got a good saddle again.”

In the line for something

They had got a three-year high school going in Parmelee by the time Ken Halligan had grown up to it. He had to go his senior year to some other school because Parmelee was not accredited.

“I went to Curtis, Nebraska, to an Agriculture School along with Bud Bradford and Bill Haynes. We could work out a lot of our expenses at 15 cents per hour. We worked at the dairy barn at 5 a.m. until school time and all day on Saturday,” Ken wrote in his memoir. “This school was a ‘prep’ school for the Nebraska School of Ag. Your senior year put you in the line for that college at Lincoln, Nebraska.”

But then came World War II, and Uncle Sam put Ken Halligan, a new graduate of the year 1939, in the line for something else. He enlisted in the Signal Corps and ended up in an amphibious outfit out there in the Pacific Ocean.

And that’s a story but he doesn’t want to tell it now; just that he came home to Parmelee and looked things over and then ended up working for the telephone companies in Rapid City. He was living at the Driver Boarding House and running with a rough crowd.

“I took care of troubleshooting on the toll lines out of Rapid City in all directions. I got to see the Black Hills and Badlands very well. This was a very wild time in the Rapid City area. Every dance was a wild drinking and fighting affair. I did not drink and I had a car so I always had to drive this bunch home and try to keep them from getting beat up too bad.”

He was also involved in some enterprises on the side.

“The horse traders and rodeo contractors had the horses rounded up off the Bombing Range in the Badlands. They would load them at Scenic and ship them to Rapid City where they were processed. A bunch of us guys made a deal to shear the mane and tail for the hair, which sold for about $5. We were making more money than anyone else. There were some wild rides made and some spectacular buckoffs. Some good bronc riders came out of this deal.”

There were, for instance, Neil Allen, Jim Lockhart, Buck Johnson and Rol Kebach.

“I was about to quit my job and go full-time on a five-way split with those cowboys. But then I met Ruth Verch and that changed my plans,” he recalls. “It was like a breath of fresh air after the bunch I had been running with. I quit that bunch and went steady with Ruth.”

They married in October 1947.

Moving to Stanley County

Then the union went on strike and Ken Halligan asked for a transfer to Valentine, Neb., which was union-free; and the first of their kids, Frank, came along and then the history-making winter of 1949 came along. The next kids, Bill and Linda, came along a couple years later.

And he got the chance to lease a place with good hayland, a good garden spot, with timber and a shallow well with a windmill back on Cut Meat Creek, by Parmelee. But non-Indians were feeling pressure from the government to leave the reservation.

And it just so happened that J. Lee Rankin, a U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., was advertising for a manager for his father’s ranch in Stanley County.

“See, that Rankin family goes way back to the open range country in Nebraska,” Ken says. They had come to Stanley County and bought land some years before.

“It was going to be a garden spot. It just didn’t blossom on them,” he says.

Ken Halligan took the job managing the place and ran 2,200 head of summer cattle that first year.

“We pastured cattle, that was the idea. The general price was $2 a month for yearlings and $3 for a cow, I guess.”

He even ran cattle for the Oppenheimer cattle management company, fattening animals on native grass for movie stars the likes of Glenn Ford. But that Oppenheimer outfit was the only one he ever had to tangle with.

“I made them pay in advance every month. But the first of November come, they wouldn’t take the cattle,” he recalls. “The grass was gone, winter was coming and nobody would even talk to me. So I penned 30 of them and sent notice to them to take those cattle out or I was going to sell these. That would have been about ’55.”

Ken and Ruth Halligan got themselves two more kids, Jim and Laura, as the 1950s moved on; and Ruth taught country school. They neighbored with the Norval Cooper family and the Stirlings and the Iversons and the Caldwells, the DuBoix and Kenzy families.

He bought himself a ranch down on the White River bottom in 1964 because the Rankin family wanted to incorporate, and so he left Stanley County behind.

And the years went on and kids grew up; Ruth fought a pitched battle with cancer for eight years and lost it in 1995. Ken Halligan had open heart surgery.

He moved back to Pierre in 1997. He remarried, this time to Florence Williams.

But he still owns the stone fireplace out there on the Rankin place, and once in a while someone like his friend Willie Cowan will give him a ride out there to have a look at the country. Get up there on the skyline and look around in a green year like 2013 and it’s still a promising country.

“Where’s it headed, though?” Ken Halligan marvels on his latest trip to look over that Stanley County cattle country he used to manage. “They don’t have as many people in this country as when I come here 50 years ago. Can they all move to town?”

There’s nobody up there on that ridge to give him an answer to that; while he looks one more time over that country nobody else would have, where he chased the wild horses off and moved some cattle in back in 1954.