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Walter C. “Buster” McIlvain

Walter C. “Buster” McIlvain was born on March 20, 1882 on LaBarge Creek, Wyoming to Robert McIlvain and Sarah Ann Woolworth McIlvain. Buster was raised on LaBarge Creek at the mouth of Little Spring Creek. He had four brothers and three sisters.

Buster wrote the following story about his life that was published in Eunice Ewer Wallace’s book, They Made Wyoming Their Own:

The year I was twelve, 1894, I was large for my age. I could ride and rope, and I felt very grown up. Times were hard, and there was a large family of us for my parent to clothe and feed, so I decided to leave home. The rest of the family moved to Kemmerer, but I wanted to stay in Green River country. I went to work for Rody Thornton and rode with Stan Murdock, his foreman. I worked for wages, but in my spare time I broke wild horses to ride. Would break three, and Murdock would keep two after I had chosen the one I wanted for mine. This is the way I got started trading horses—to trade horses, you must have horses to trade. The first horse I got I gave to my brother Newt (Robert) because he didn’t have a horse.

My first job for Mr. Thornton was to take the Figure-4 beef to Opal to be shipped to Omaha, to Rice Brothers and Nixon Company. On this trip with Jim Jensen, I had my first job of night herding, and that was the longest night of my life.


I was working on the old Horse Ranch when Henry McDonald killed Jim Burton, one of the ranch hands, in a shooting. McDonald was later cleared with a verdict of self-defense. He became one of the finest surveyors and civil engineers in the territory. The Horse Ranch had been started by a man named Spaulding, who later sold to Dan Nowlin. Mr. Thornton bought it from Dan. Nowlin was the first game warden in that part of the state.


In 1895, I left the Figure-4 Thornton Ranch and went to work for the Spur outfit, owned by Reel and Friend of Cheyenne. We took a mesa wagon and extra saddle horse to Raft River, Idaho, where we received 3,000 steers and twenty saddle horses to trail from there to the Spur Ranch on LaBarge. At the Spur, we branded the steers, trailed them to the Piney range, and turned them to Green River City, and shipped them East. As I remember, there were about twelve of us cowboys on this trip.


We went back to the ranch, helped put up hay for a week or two, rode to the Big Piney range to gather more Spur stock cattle, and trailed these cattle to Opal, and shipped them east. The owners of the Spur outfit, Reel and Friend, had sold their complete cow herd to an eastern firm. We had no sooner returned from Opal than I was sent to ride with the Piney chuckwagon to gather steers and put them on the Piney range. The cattle were brought from all the ranches and outfits in the territory, and they numbered well into the thousands. They ran on the Piney range until it was time to cut them out and turn them over to their various owners. Al Davidson and Reuel Penninger took the Spur stock to the ranch.


That fall, 1895, I left the Spur ranch and wandered around a bit, making my home mostly at the Ross Ranch on New Fork River. I was only thirteen, but I’d been doing a man’s work and getting a man’s wages, and I figured I was a man. I hadn’t spent much time in school. The terms were short, and I didn’t like school anyway. There were too many other things to do that were more interesting, like riding and roping and chasing wild horses. While I was just a very little kid, my father got the contract for the stage line from Opal to the New Fork Post Office, and it was my job to care for the stage horses that were permitted to roam the free range. Every evening I had to have them in off the range and in the corral for the night, and every Tuesday I had to get them ready to travel. Dad would leave home Tuesday mornings to make the trip to LaBarge, Big Piney, and New Fork. He’d stay overnight at Vible’s store, or sometimes at the Ross ranch, and return in time to reach Opal by Saturday evening. He had this contract for six years. Tobe Huston was one of the first men to carry mail for Father. Jack Reynolds of Pinedale was another.


My father, Robert McClain McIlvain, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1852. My mother, Sarah Ann Woolworth, was born February 15, 1854, in Rockford, Illinois. There were married at Wichita, Kansas, on March 3, 1866. Their first child, Viola, was born November 27, 1866, at White Water, Kansas, but lived only until March 1, 1877. While they were in Kansas, my father took part in one of the first cattle drives from Texas to Kansas along the Old Chisholm Trail. The drive took many months.


In 1877, my oldest brother, Clarence, was born December 28 while my parents were still at White Water, Kansas. In April 1878, my parents moved first to Green River City, Wyoming, and then on up to Fontenelle, where they worked for a year for wages on the Smith ranch. They took up a ranch on Fontenelle and bought a few milk cows. My sister Virn (Mrs. Howard McNaughton, who died January 30, 1964 at Stockton, California) was born there August 2, 1880. And I was born there March 20, 1882. In all, my parents had ten children – five boys and five girls. I am the only one who grew up to be a cowboy. My three brothers became railroad men and worked for the Oregon Short Line. One brother and one sister died in childhood.


My parents bought the Holland ranch on LaBarge and lived there until the fall of 1884, when they sold the ranch and cattle to John McNish and went back to Kansas, spent the winter there, and in the spring returned to Wyoming, bringing with them my baby brother Ernest, who lived only a little over a year. He died at the Pomeroy ranch on May 17, 1885. Mrs. Roney Pomeroy was my father’s sister, Mattie.


We buried the baby. My parents then rented the ranch on LaBarge from John McNish and took his cattle on shares. Finally they homesteaded a ranch on Spring Creek, late in 1885. The rest of my brothers and sisters were born on the homestead ranch, and we lived there for twelve years. In 1897, my family moved to Kemmerer and left me cowboying for Rody Thornton. Father built a rooming house, mostly for railroad men, in Kemmerer, and Mother cooked for them. Later, around 1902, a young fellow named J.C. Penney rented a room from Mother, and opened his first store.


In 1896, I was a fourteen-year-old lad making my own way on LaBarge and New Fork, and feeling that at last I was a man. I took a job for Ed Bowman, to gather his beef steers and trail them to Opal for shipment to Rice Brothers and the Nixon Commission Company of Omaha. Later in the same year, 1896, John Angus hired me to break fifty head of “PL” geldings. Jim Black and I broke the fifty head and turned them over to John. I was paid wages plus five dollars a head to ride these horses, and some were supposed to be real tough, but they didn’t give me much trouble. They weren’t as bad or as tough as they were supposed to be.


When I went on the spring roundup, though, things aren’t quite so easy. The starting of the roundup went along very well, but with lots of green grass the horses were a lot tougher than they had been in the winter when I first broke them. After the roundup, I went down to the Spur outfit. Gull Whitman was the foreman for the Spur, and he and I were very good friends. I gathered stray steers for him that had scattered all over the country. He and I were supposed to go to the headwaters of the Green River to stay all summer, and were started, but somehow this didn’t appeal to me. I had a hankerin’ to head down country, so I quit.


In 1905, I was fortunate enough to win a contest held by the Wyoming Tribune newspaper as the most popular cowboy in Uinta and Sweetwater counties. The prize was a round trip to the Portland’s World Fair. This was quite an experience for a twenty-three-year-old cowboy. After the Fair, I went to work for Norris Griggs.


It was while I was working for Norris Griggs in 1906 that I got mixed up with a posse and some outlaws. Three hold-up men – Bunch Glover, Kid Riley, and Pop Reed – had robbed the Cumberland Coal Company of its payroll at Kemmerer. I was camped on the Little Gros Ventre Creek holding Norris’s cattle while Dick Mathews held the Luman cattle. We didn’t know about the hold-up. Two men, who said they were headed for Yellowstone Park, camped near us to wait for other members of their party. Glover came, but he needed a fresh horse. He asked me to let him have one of mine for the trip. I did. The next day, I went to Alexander’s ranch to get a horse or two. Pop Reed rode into Alexander’s too and wanted to know how to get to Union Pass. We had dinner with Alexanders, and afterwards, when I started back to camp, Pop rode along with me. At the Kendall Tie Camp, I went to get my mail, and in it was a circular telling about the hold-up. As we were riding, Pop asked me what I would do if I met up with any of the hold-up men. I replied that I had all I could do to mind my own business without taking on someone else’s.


At camp, we were all sitting around the fire – Dick Mathew, Pop Reed, and I. Reed was still wearing his gun. I told Reed he could bunk with me, but he’d have to take off that hardware, which he did. The next morning, Reed was in a hurry to be gone. He rode up the creek looking for his horse. While I was trying to cook my breakfast, four men armed with Winchesters rode up and shouted, “Hands Up!” My hands went up fast and high. They yelled at Reed to stop, but he ran for the horse I had loaned him. Lee Payne, one of the deputies, shot the horse through the head, and the posse disarmed Reed. The posse included Lee Payne, my father Bob McIlvain, Beryl Benning, and Frank James, who was Sheriff of Uinta County. The lawmen were tired from long hours in the saddle, so they dismounted and rested. Reed asked me, when unobserved, to burn a letter he had written that morning and given to me to mail. When they were gone, I burned the letter as promised. No one will ever know what it contained.


Bunch Glover was captured in the Park. Kid Riley’s horse died and the Kid walked back to Kemmerer. He was taken into custody. All three men were sent to the penitentiary.


In 1907, I helped take the Thornton Figure-4 beef cattle to Green River City for shipment to Omaha. We couldn’t get stock cars immediately, so we had to hold the cattle along the river for twenty-one days, including the five days of travel from the ranch. Poss Lindley was the foreman, Wash Whitman was the cook, and Ray Daniels, Romey Haynes, and an English boy whose name I can’t remember, and myself were the crew. After we finally loaded the cattle, Mr. Thornton sent Daniels, Haynes, and me to Montpelier, Idaho to pick up 500 yearling steers to trail back to the ranch. That winter, Poss Lindley and I stayed at the home ranch on Dry Piney to feed the cattle with hay that Charley Ott and John Whitman hauled in from the Horse Creek ranch.


In 1908, Ira Bailey, Earl Jones, and I started out for Yellowstone Park with pack outfits. There were two stage lines through the Park at that time, and a company of soldiers was stationed at Mammoth Hot Springs. We went by way of Pocatello, Idaho. And I stopped to visit my parents and family, who had moved there. After our visit, Ira and Earl headed for the Park as planned, but I changed my mind and wanted to see different country. With my two horses and a bedroll, I reached Raft River the first day, and Contact, Nevada, the next. I looked around for a while and finally landed a job with the Utah Construction Company. They wanted me to break horses. This company was a really big outfit – so big, in fact, that its range covered most of eastern Nevada and western Idaho. Their horses were of a breed referred to as “copper-bottoms.” They were all sorrel with a stripe or star on their foreheads, and all carried the company’s brand, the “wineglass.” The country was wide open, and there were camps placed here and there over the vast range. Each camp had a special job to do. For instance, one would take care of saddle horses, and another would handle the heavy work horses.


Recreation of any kind was far away from where we had to camp and work. The most common diversion was to ride the horses to Wells, Nevada, sometimes as much as fifty miles away, and then board the train for rip-roarin’ Elko. Ours was a tough outfit, working long hard hours and days, but the company treated us well, so I stayed on for about two years.


In 1909, I went back to Piney and rode for the Cattle Association for a year. From 1910 to 1912, I worked at various jobs. I broke horses for several ranchers, gathered cattle, put up hay, and in general earned my bed and board. In 1912, Lester Twichel and I broke horses for the Frontier Supply Company that had the mail contract from Kemmerer to Pinedale. For a while I drove the stage from Midway to the Charley Ball Ranch on Cottonwood Creek, a round trip every day.


In 1918, I went into the army with about eighteen other cowboys who also enlisted. At Camp Johnson in Florida, I was crippled in my right knee and was later discharged. In 1919, I was appointed Brand Inspector at Big Piney, a post I held until 1933. I was also inspector for the Wyoming Stockman’s Loan Company. In 1927, I ran for Sheriff of Lincoln County and served three terms, until 1933. Then I left Wyoming.


(By 1909, Robert and Sarah McIlvain were living at Pocatello, Idaho. Robert McClain McIlvain died October 12, 1909 in Pocatello. Sarah Woolsworth McIlvain died October 31, 1929 at Pocatello, Idaho and was buried November 4, 1929.)

Mabel Nott, daughter of William H. and Minnie Reardon Nott, married Walter C. McIlvain of Palisade, Wyoming on November 15, 1908 in Uinta County, Wyoming. They had one child whose name was Lois, and she was born in 1909. (On the 1930 census Lois’s last name was Culbert, so she must have married, but she was living with her mother Mabel and her family in Phoenix, Arizona.) On the 1910 census, Walter was working for Harry and Bertha Burnham of LaBarge, Wyoming and Mabel, his wife was living with her mother’s family. In the December 29, 1920 Kemmerer Camera, Walter C. McIlvain was the County Live Stock Inspector and he had reports published in the paper. Walter C. “Buster” McIlvain died on August 11, 1970 in Santa Clara, California.

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