Monday, March 24, 2008

The fingerprint of a lonely profession

Published: Sunday, March 23, 2008 12:04 AM MDT

A few hundred footsteps separate a two-track methane road in the Wyoming prairie and a stone obelisk that is a few feet taller than a grown man and twice as wide.

But it seems a million steps away from the lonely lifestyle of a group of men whose boredom made them the first architects in the region.

Creeping its toes to the edge of the sandstone altar stands what one Gillette man calls the “world’s greatest” sheepherder’s monument. The solitary figure’s only company, like the sheepherder who constructed it, is the wind that howls through its crevices in a pitch that resembles the faint cries of a man alone in the distance.


Suppositions about the purpose for the meticulously assembled Rubik’s Cubes of stone that are spread across the region are as varied as the people who see them.

Some say they are navigational markers. Others say they are predator deterrents. All suppose that boredom had much to do with it.

“My herders just said it was out of boredom,” says Patty Meyers, Campbell County Public Library executive director.

While working as a historical librarian in Johnson County, Meyers researched the sheep industry and found that herders often spent entire summers with their herds isolated from human contact.

“Some herders would allow their lines to cross with another’s herd simply for the company,” says Meyers while leafing through a book that details the rise of the wool industry in early 20th century Wyoming.

A century later, the monuments still stand as the fingerprint of a lonely profession all but dead.

Those fingerprints have intrigued Steve Riss, a local artist, hairdresser and devotee of Western history, since he first came across the one off Echeta Road that he claims is the world’s greatest.

The “why” of their existence doesn’t interest him as much as the architecture.

“We all want to leave a mark on this earth even if it’s just chalk on the wall,” Riss says.


Each monument is unique in shape, structure and history.

The wool industry boomed in Wyoming near the turn of the 20th century and beckoned thousands of men to the high plains to tend herds.

At its peak, the Empire Ranch near Moorcroft was home to 100 herders, according to owner Judy McCullough.

Once when she was young, she was scolded for disassembling a monument on the ranch where she spent her childhood.

Some monuments, like the “world’s greatest” that stands atop an altar of sandstone on the Gates-Yonkee Ranch, have more history than others — or at least their history has not yet passed with its owners.

The massive pile of flat stones is a puzzle itself — not only in its almost snap-together design but in the rock itself. The gray stones coated with orange lichen bear no resemblance to the rocks scattered around its pedestal. Riss speculates that a lonely sheepherder constructed the structure carrying the stones one at time from distant hills.

The solitary sentinel, which clings to its perch high above the grassy draw below, existed before the first homesteader claimed the land. It is an artifact from a time before people laid claim to the hills it lords over.

“The great big ones are ones that have been around since before his time,” says Nancy Yonkee, whose father, Lee Gates, homesteaded the ranch in the teens of the 20th century.

Yonkee recalls that her father, a bronc rider and cattleman, added to the already sizable monument in the wake of the Great Depression when he bought and tended a herd of sheep on the ranch to recover his family’s fortunes.

“He brought himself back up by the bootstraps with sheep,” Yonkee says, running her finger over a set of silver spurs he made her when she was young. “In the post-drought era, sheep could survive while cows could not.”

Now it is the sheep ranchers who struggle to find a market for a commodity few want.

The citadels of stone outlived the profession that built them.


Riding the peaks of the harsh landscape, the stony eyes of the giant have watched booms and busts, winters and summers, and fathers and sons come and go.

For now, the elements that have reduced the land around it have strengthened the rock.

Riss slides his hands over the stones on the Goliath’s armor, feeling for a single loose plate. He finds none.

“Over time, the wind has rattled the rocks together until each one cut dimples in the one below and locked them together,” says Riss as he crouches to look inside the stone honeycomb.

The same wind that cemented its footing will one day wear the legs from under it and like all things, it will go back to the earth.

“It’s a hell of a balancing act, and neither nature nor man have brought it down yet,” Riss says in admiration.

As Riss plodded away, his footsteps in the snow are erased within moments by the wind, a reminder of the impermanence of things — even the world’s greatest.

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