Clare Webb Leach 3.2014

Bio: Dude, 1966-67, 1979, 1981-82Descriptor: 80 teens from Tennessee stay at ranch, horse drive to Dubois-Whoa Nelly, Frank and women, “God Bless Wyoming and Keep It Wild.”  

Clare’s Story: A Greyhound bus brought 80 teens from Tennessee to the White Grass and R Lazy S ranches in 1966 and 1967 on a trip with Rev. Dan Matthews called Westward Ho. I had never been west of Tennessee. Assigned to the White Grass both years my first memory is that crisp June morning when the Greyhound too big to navigate the narrow road sat to the side and Frank drove with some wranglers in White Grass vehicles to shuttle us to the ranch. His broad smile and ruddy cheeks welcomed us. As we rounded the corner I caught a glimpse of the barn with mustached wranglers waving at us. It was love at first sight for me as I saw all the cabins scattered through pines and the granite mountains so close to the ranch you had to stand back to get the scope of their size. I sat in the very back seat of the car feeling my feet slipping a bit in my new acme suede cowboy boots… My parents almost didn’t let me come because Frank and Nona lived together at the time (sans marriage) and my parents were scandalized. Dan was a brave man taking all those kids to a dude ranch but the fellowship and friendships have lasted me a lifetime. I was 16 then and I will be 65 this summer and the White Grass Ranch weaves into the very fabric of my being at all the major turning points of my life. I got my first serious kiss on the steps of the big family cabin during Westward Ho. The beauty of the ranch captivated my heart and holds it even now.

There were porcupines under the porch of two cabins keeping us awake that first summer of 66. The yipping of the coyotes after a kill raised the hair on my neck and I remember lying in my bed listening wondering how close they must be. I’d never been as cold in summer as waking and climbing out from covers and putting my bare feet on the cold wooden floors and seeing my breath. We all loved nights in the lodge with the big stone Fireplace with Frank telling tales of life at the ranch in the early days. Meals were plentiful and tasted magnificent after a day’s riding. The barn happenings were a mystery because we were absolutely not allowed inside. I would lean over the fence to try to see in the dark center isle to little avail. I can close my eyes today and see the brand on the gate going into the big meadow in front of the cabins with the horses chomping the high grass and raising their heads in alarm at any unusual sound.

Our most scary moment of ’66 was when one of my Westward Ho cabin mates left her wet jeans on top of the wood stove to dry and we all went to sleep. I woke with the thick smell of smoke and we all got everybody up yelling for our counselor Maggie to come. Not one of us thought to put out the fire in our panic. Thanks to Maggie dousing the fire the ranch didn’t burn down and it easily could have. Frank was down there airing out the cabin so we could go back in and reassuring us we did the right thing but NOT TO EVER leave anything on the stove EVER AGAIN.

I didn’t get back to the ranch until I was 30 going through a divorce and broken hearted. It was 1979. The sight of the Tetons and the White Grass gave me a feeling of coming home, centered me and made me strong again. Frank and Nona welcomed us with a cocktail party in their cabin which as a teen I had never seen. The collection of Navajo rugs and hand-made furniture and pottery stood in every corner as I tried to memorize the moment. Frank had aged a bit and his nose a bit purple from years of cocktail hours with countless numbers
of guests who just like me had experienced life altering experiences at White Grass. I doubt he ever knew the depths of joy he brought into so many lives. For Frank the ranch was simply home.

The next year I came out for the fall horse drive to Dubois and that was a wild time. Frank had to go somewhere and couldn’t supervise the wranglers. WHOA NELLY what a ride! The second day’s ride was through Wind River wilderness. We left at 8 AM with the herd of horses and didn’t dismount until well after 9 PM that night. Wranglers got lost and more than a little drunk during that day. One horse fell behind and they talked about shooting it and I started crying and said I’d stay with the horse until they could pick it up. The cowboys laughed at me and called me “Little Darlin”. The lame horse hobbled forward and later I found out was rescued. Frank arrived back that night as we were finishing dinner after 10 PM and barely in control of his anger at the Wranglers. We heard clinched teeth voices outside the tent.

We weren’t in shower range during the four nights of the horse drive but my friend and I sweet talked some wranglers who found us a shower in staff housing at a neighboring ranch. We sneaked off and two cowboys watched the door for us while we showered. Other guests kept marveling at how well we looked and how clean our hair was. We never told! The next morning after the 13 hour day my sore aching body longed not to get back on that horse but surprisingly I awoke feeling great and got right back in the saddle. I can still see the
red glow of Frank’s cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth as he walked around inspecting saddles and tightening cinches.

The next time I came I was 32 with my fiancé William. I have ridden all my life but William had not. That first trip he put on a Stetson and boots and looked like he was born on a horse. That trip was the most romantic of my life. We loved our tiny cabin with the wood stove in the corner and mice scurrying across the floor with the scratching sound of their feet. William fell in love with the Tetons and the raw beauty of the ranch. We galloped our horses from Dornan’s in a late summer thunderstorm. The wranglers leading us a full gallop and I can still smell the earth and the rain in my mind. Frank wasn’t much on strict rules so we were allowed to do far more with our riding than most ranches allowed. Curly was still head wrangler then with his yellowed white hair and mustache and foot that must have caused him pain every waking moment. But he ran that barn and Frank ran him.

William and I came back the next year with friends. We flew into Billings and went through Yellowstone not knowing no gas stations were open at night. We arrived after midnight on fumes and Frank was there with Fresh coffee for us. On that trip my horse Blanca was gored by an elk during the rut the fourth night we were there. She had to be shot in the morning and I cried all day; my first real cruel experience with nature. Frank came by to let me know how sorry he was and it was a rare event when a horse had to be put down that way but she couldn’t be saved. I almost didn’t ride anymore but Curly got me a new horse and I kept on riding.

Frank loved women and certainly not just in a sexual way although there are legendary tales about that! He liked talking and getting to know women. And he was always charming when a pretty woman was in the room. He lit up. Nona was ill in those last days in 1983 and 1984 and it was clear the ranch was winding down and we knew Frank had sold the ranch and only had a life estate. Frank liked to tell the story of Nona buying him two geese for his birthday one year. She liked to keep an eye on him. He said those damn geese followed him and honked if he went in a cabin until he came out. Frank said it sure put a damper on any long stays with lady guests. Then he let out a raspy smokers laugh. I was saddened to hear the cabin with all Frank and Nona’s collected treasures later burned to the ground.

Every year we came after 1985 and before the restoration of White Grass started William and I drove the road to the White Grass climbed over rocks where the barn had been and walked around the dilapidated cabins. Caved in asphalt roofs; splintered boards on the wooden porches and broken window greeted us. We’d sit on what was left of the front steps of the dining lodge and eat a sandwich and reminisce. These things I know I would not have experienced if I had not spent time at White Grass and are as fresh in my mind as today’s coffee; sipping water from a paper cup right out of Phelps Lake in 1966, no worries of Giardia; An Eagles cry as she returns to her two fledglings to feed them; an Elk bugling during the rut at such close range we could hear him breathe; having the cook fry a brown trout that William caught just moments before and eating it for breakfast; seeing the stars with no light or pollution to cloud them; walking in solitude and taking refuge in the silence with only the sound of my boots on the ground for company;(serves me well even now) Riding trails and not seeing anything but wildlife and our group; Frank standing, one hand on mantel of the stone fireplace in the lodge and the other in his pocket, smiling and telling tales; rafting down the Snake River with Frank at the helm in 1966; the fellowship of getting to know others from a deep level of sharing and seeing cowboys doing what they love best –working with horses; the full moon shining on the meadow; a bear raiding the kitchen rattling pots and pans; the lilting voices of guests sharing a drink on a cabin porch swapping tales and laughter echoing toward Death Canyon and sleeping better than anywhere on earth; waking to a bell and not needing a watch; and so much more. I have a deep respect for nature and preservation because of my time at White Grass. And thanks to Historic Preservation even though new visitors to White Grass will never know the adventures we had there they will have a sense of the ranch.

In 1926 a 15 year old guest at the Bar BC Ranch, Becky Mettler, fell 100 feet down Taggart Canyon to her death after being warned numerous times not to venture so close to the edge. She left behind a diary in which she said, GOD BLESS WYOMING AND KEEP IT WILD.” I guess that says it all for me and the preservation
of the White Grass is a part of American heritage. I hope to bring my grandchildren to see White Grass. The memories we made at White Grass are now preserved in an oral history and so White Grass lives!