Last fall I had a chance to revisit the old Smith Camp on Fort Berthold. It was one of the first cow camps in that part of the country. I think the Keogh’s were among the first to make it kind of a headquarters on the reservation. But I’m sure there were ranchers before them.
For the better part of a century, it was a camp where you could put your horse in a barn, go into a log cabin and get a cup of hot coffee, or find shelter from a storm.
It lies just below the Kennedy Hills, about 15 miles northeast of the Lost Bridge. It was there long before the highway or the bridge. Located just south of Squaw Creek, it was a place of good shelter, and more importantly, good water, with a wonderful spring just below it.
There is not much there anymore. A few poles where the corral stood. You can still see the remnants of the old barn that sheltered many a tired saddle horse. The once welcoming cabin has pretty much gone back to nature. But I could sense the presence of a few of those tough, gritty cowboys that shed a winter coat, or a rain jacket, and grabbed a cup of strong, hot coffee in that old cabin.
I remember riding there forty-five years or better ago. Fall roundup. And the rains came kind of like they did last week. Rain was running off your hat and dripping down inside your slicker. Your chaps were shedding some water, but more than a little was finding its way into your wranglers and boots.
We’d started riding before daylight. Trucks and trailers were parked up by the highway near the county line. We had gathered and sorted the flat above Yellow Wolf’s and went down to the Smith Camp for lunch.
It was a Friday and this rain looked like it would last for a couple days. We were young and knew Grandpa Jack would call the roundup off until Monday. As we sat in that cabin drinking black coffee and talking about horses, cows, and girls, we kept glancing out at the rain. It was really coming down now. You could barely see the horses tied down by the barn. Some were in the shelter; more were standing there getting the saddles soaked.
Lighting cracked and thunder roared. But we felt good. It would be a wet ride back to the outfits, but then we could get home, take a hot shower, and be in Killdeer by nightfall.
As we finished that last cup of coffee, Grandpa Jack stood up, stretched, and said, “You and Red go down by the rock crossing, gather those cows and push them down the creek. Bob, you take a couple guys and go north. We’ll meet down on the creek and work those cattle. Shouldn’t take more than five or six hours.”
He got on Joey and started off at a trot down the coulee. My eyes were wet and it wasn’t all from rain.
Dean Meyer is a former state legislator and currently ranches in southwest North Dakota. He has been a featured columnist around the state for many years.