Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rocky Mountain Dick and His Wild Beast Farm


It is located at Monida, in Idaho. Mr. Richard W. Rock, an old scout, settled in this place over twenty miles from a station, and commenced to trap such animals as buffaloes, bears, mountain goats, elks, deer, etc. He now owns a huge wild beast ranch, and supplies private museums, zoos, etc. Our interviewer elicits from Mr. Rock all his adventures, methods of working, etc. The photographs will be found unusually striking.

Twenty-three miles from the picturesque town of Bozeman, in Idaho, near the little mining hamlet of Monida, in Fremont County, is situated one of the strangest cattle ranches in the world. Its livestock does not consist of cows, sheep, goats, horses, and the other familiar domestic animals of civilization; but instead is made up exclusively of some of the wildest, rarest, and most ferocious creatures which inhabit the boundless plains and mountain fastnesses of the great West.

On this mountain-top farm, hundreds of feet above the level of the sea, are great, shaggy buffaloes, including some of the finest specimens in existence of this fast-disappearing animal; beautiful snow-white mountain goats, which could not be duplicated in any zoological garden; bloodthirsty grizzly bears of unusual size and mark­ings; graceful black-tail deer, fleet - footed elks, and huge, unwieldy mooses. All these rare animals live together in harmony on this unique preserve, and their number is constantly being increased by new accessions.

Richard W. Rock, better known as "Rocky Mountain Dick," is the proprietor of this private menagerie; and among all the pic­turesque and entertaining characters who frequent this region it is safe to say that none can rival him. His whole life has been passed in the West; and as trader, hunter, scout, and animal fancier he has been the hero of some remarkable exploits. Although now over sixty years old, Rock is still strong and hardy - a marvel of physical prowess, possessed of an endurance which many a younger man might envy.

Thirty years ago there were few army scouts so well-known and so much sought after as "Dick" Rock. He served at various times under Generals Gibbon, Hayden, and 0. 0. Howard. He was pro­bably better acquainted with the country in which much of their campaign­ing was done than any other white man. He knew every foot of ground in the Bitter Root region, and long residence among the Indians had given him exceptional oppor­tunities to study them and become familiar with their habits and customs. General Gibbon used to swear by "Dick" Rock, and he told more than one army friend that if he could have had Rock to do his scouting on a certain memorable occa­sion the Blackfeet would have been overhauled sooner than they were, and would never have made a successful retreat through the Taghee Pass.

Although Dick's days as a scout are past, he has not lost his love for the West or remained idle and permitted himself to become a "back number." Instead of resting on his laurels, the erstwhile scout has been seeking fame in other directions, and has achieved the distinction of being the only man in the United States who raises wild animals on a large scale. This is his profession, and he makes his living entirely through the proceeds of the sale of the animals he captures. Many of the big animals raised on the ranch eventually find their way into Eastern zoological gardens, and some of the rarer specimens have even been shipped to far-off Europe.

Naturalists and enthusiastic amateurs fre­quently call on Mr. Rock for additions to their collections. Of course, the finer specimens command fancy prices, and the intrepid hunter finds the trapping of big game a very remunera­tive vocation indeed.

The nearest railroad station to the ranch is Bozeman, twenty-three miles away. The larger portion of the ranch forms a plateau, and is surrounded by a scenic panorama of unrivalled grandeur. Here "Rocky Mountain Dick " and his wife live all the year round, their only companions being a number of hired men and the large and varied collection of wild and semi-wild beasts.

So far as breeding and training are concerned, no attention is paid to small animals, the only ones to be seen in the corrals being buffalo, elk, moose, deer, mountain goats, and brown, black, and grizzly bears. At present there are 120 head of these animals on the ranch; this being the largest number and the most varied and valuable collection owned by any private in­dividual in the world.

Only a person familiar with the differing habits of these various animals can form any adequate conception of the almost insurmount­able obstacles to be faced in their capture.

Some of them - for instance, the elk and the wild mountain goat - frequent the almost inaccessible mountain ranges, are very sensitive and quick to take alarm, and can run with in­credible rapidity along dizzy precipices where no human foot can follow. Others again, like the bear, the moose, and the buffalo, are difficult to catch because of their tremendous strength and ferocity. All three of these animals will fight like fiends when cornered, and it is a feat to kill them, let alone to actually succeed in subduing them and making them captives alive.

The achievements of Mr. Rock as a trapper put even the traditional prowess of a Nimrod to the blush. The great hunter of antiquity was content if he could simply kill his prey and take home the dead carcass as a trophy of his valor. This can now be done with a minimum of risk, and if the hunter is armed with a long-distance rifle he can frequently bag his game without any danger whatever to himself.

On the other hand, "Rocky Mountain Dick" is constantly in imminent peril from the moment the panting and infuriated prey is cornered until it is finally safely brought to the ranch. He must follow the trail of his quarry for miles, then corner it, and succeed in dexterously bringing it to the ground by the use of lassoes. Then he has to fasten its struggling, mammoth body to the sledge with ropes, and guard it so as to prevent escape during the long return journey through the snow. Any slip in. any of these operations - the slightest error of judg­ment or weakening of nerve or muscle – would mean instant death. Where so much skill and daring are requisite there is little chance that "Rocky Mountain Dick" will have many rivals to fear.

A few days since the news reached the outer world that Rock had captured a large grizzly, which had severely wounded one of his assist­ants and killed two dogs in its furious struggle to escape being fastened to the sledge. In order to see the fierce mountain giant and to have a chat with the daring hunter your correspondent drove over to the ranch and spent several hours inspecting the various wild animals and chatting with their daring captor concerning the methods he uses to take them prisoner.

Mr. Rock has devoted considerable attention to the breeding of the buffalo, and has fifty-two head, including some grand specimens of this almost extinct animal.

"These are the pride of my collection," he said, pointing to the splendid herd," not only because of their great size and fine condition, but because I am an intense admirer of the species. I am hoping that someday Uncle Sam will arise to an appreciation of the criminal folly of having permitted the indiscriminate slaughter of the vast herds of buffaloes that once roamed the Western plains in countless thousands, and that he will make one last effort to save the buffalo from absolute extinction.

"I am always glad to add a buffalo to my collection and seldom sell any. Given sufficient space and solitude (for they are very nervous) buffaloes propagate rapidly. I want to secure as many as possible in order to form a nucleus. Then, in case the Government ever does decide to set apart a portion of its millions of idle acres for the use and cultivation of the buffalo, I will be able to furnish the herd necessary for the start.

The question of doing something to save the buffalo is an issue of vital importance, and action must be prompt to be of use. It is recognized and generally admitted that the species in America is practically extinct, and at the present rate of destruction in a few short years the buffalo will be a curiosity known only to zoological gardens, museums, and circuses.

"How scarce they are may be understood from the effort of the Smithsonian Institution in 1886 to secure a herd for the national collec­tion. In spite of the fact that some of the most noted scouts and buffalo-hunters in the West were secured, and almost fabulous prices offered, for fine specimens, it required months of the hardest kind of searching through the wilder­nesses of Yellowstone Park, Montana, and Texas to capture a scant twenty. Yet it is only a comparatively few years since that these animals roamed the Western part of the United States in hundreds of thousands. In fact, it might truthfully be said that, at the smallest possible computation, there were at least two million of them west of the Rocky Mountains and north of Texas alone. Apart from purely sentimental considerations there is every practical reason why, something should be done to save the bison.

“Of all wild American animals the most valuable is the buffalo, and the most easily bred. He is the only fur-bearing animal whose flesh is really valuable, because the bison may be crossed with domestic cattle. The robe of the buffalo is most valuable as a garment, because it makes a seamless coat, while the skin of the seal must be pieced interminably.

"When the Creator brought into existence the mid-continent of North America, with its raging storms, howling blizzards, and scorching siroccos, and made the great American desert, where the water and the grass are but scant, He also brought into existence the only animal in the world perfected for living there - the American bison. No doubt it took untold ages to bring up this wonderful animal and to fit him for existence in his peculiar home. How dreadful, then, it is to realize that through the cupidity and wastefulness of mankind millions of buffaloes have been in a short time - thirty years - almost exterminated!

"The buffalo, despite his power and great size, is extremely nervous, and likes plenty of room and immunity from molestation at the hands of human beings. Uncle Sam has millions of acres of unoccupied land admirably adapted to the purpose.

"Down in New Mexico there are thirty-three million acres of unoccupied land. Around the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains nothing lives at present, but here is an ideal place for raising a great herd of buffaloes, for the buffalo grass and the gramma grass grow plentifully, and there is a sufficiency of shade. I am certain that if a fair-sized section were devoted to buffalo raising, under the systematic care of trained experts, the results would be more than commensurate with the outlay. In speaking thus I am quoting from my own experience; for my own herd has multiplied, and all the animals are in excellent condition. What I have been able to do so successfully on a small scale, the Government, with all its resources, should be able to do in a big way."

"Is the capture of a full-grown buffalo alive a very difficult matter?”

"Exceedingly so," was the prompt reply, "although there are animals that give more trouble. The instinct of the buffalo surpasses that of the shrewdest ranchman - because for ages he maintained himself where the cattle of the ranchmen are now dying.

"The buffalo is not difficult to trail because he has cer­tain habits which are always rigorously followed out. The herd rise at dawn and commence to graze. When filled they start for the trail, led usually by an old cow, who gives the signal for starting by sounding a grunt not unlike that of a hog, only much louder. The remainder of the herd drop in behind, following exactly in her footprints until they reach the path which leads them to their drinking-place. This path never exceeds 12 in. in width. It is the same path along which the ancestors of these buffaloes have travelled for countless ages.

"Finding the trail of a bison is one thing, but getting him safely fastened to the sledge and headed for the ranch is something very dif­ferent. The buffalo is quick to scent danger, but, owing to his bulk, he is not a very quick traveler. Mounted on a good horse the hunter can readily overtake his game. At close quarters, when enraged, the buffalo is a dan­gerous customer. He can deal a nasty cut with his short, wicked horns; and with head lowered as a ram he can land with terrific force, in regular catapult fashion, a blow from which neither man nor beast could ever recover. Once lassoed and thrown on his back, however, he is easily managed and can be readily handled. In captivity, buffaloes usually prove very tract­able, and can even be made companion­able by kind treat­ment."

In proof of this statement Mr. Rock proceeded to leap on the back of a huge fellow, which carried him around the yard several times, without mani­festing the slightest uneasiness or resent­ment.

"The moose is also susceptible to the effects of good treatment, and I have one which I have trained to harness and fre­quently drive har­nessed to a two-wheeled jumper. We have named her Nelly Bly, and so tame has she become that she follows Mrs. Rock all over the ranch, eats from her hand, and in the morning even comes right up to the window to be fed. ‘Nelly Bly' weighs thirteen hun­dred pounds and is very powerful. In my hunts after big game I frequently hitch her to my sledge instead of the dogs, and in this way she has brought to the ranch many a large animal."

Mr. Rock then pointed out his two mountain goats, the finest known speci­mens of the species in captivity; his sixty head of ant­lered, fleet-footed elk; three wicked-looking grizzlies, in­cluding the one just captured, and as fine a bunch of black-tailed deer as was ever assembled together.

"Every one of these animals, excepting the younger ones which have been born on the ranch," said Mr. Rock, "I have captured in their native haunts and dragged here on sledges over the snow."

"How long has it taken you to get this collec­tion together?"

"Over seven years," he responded. "The best time to work is in the early winter. Then the great Western snows cover the ground often to a depth of two or three feet. Even the fleetest of animals cannot de­velop speed in this encumbrance. Their sharp hoofs stick heavily in the snow, whereas the trapper on his snow-shoes and with his light, quick dogs can travel at a considerable pace. When cornered in a heavy snow-bank the game is handicapped seriously in its effort at self-defense. It flounders helplessly around in the snow in a trice the lasso does its work, strong ropes fasten it to the sledge, and my collection of wild animals is augmented by one."

"Have you never been injured in any of these exciting battles?"

"Oh, yes, several times, and I have had a hundred narrow squeaks, but have always managed to survive with my full complement of bones. Once a fierce bull buffalo knocked me down and so stunned me that, although I was fully conscious of my peril, I could not move or raise my hand to defend myself. Just as the maddened bison was about to finish the job by trampling me to pieces one of my brave dogs, barking furiously, leaped courageously at the mighty giant and succeeded in burying his sharp teeth in the buffalo's soft, sensitive nose. Bellowing with pain the monster turned on the dog bent on annihilating him, but of course the agile dog leaped away. The instant's delay was my salvation. Raising myself on my elbow I just managed to draw my revolver, and at close range shot the big fellow straight through the heart. Of course my collection lost an addition, but as I saved my life I don't suppose I should complain."

"Why did you settle down in this desolate, inaccessible spot?"

"Principally, in order to gain the privacy so essential to these wild animals. If  located near a frequented place they would die of fright before they could become accustomed to the crowds and noise. I came here first with only a pack and a saddle horse, having ridden through the Rockies and other mountain ranges over one thousand miles from Galves­ton, in Texas. As soon as I saw this spot I felt my ideal had been attained, pitched my tent, built a cabin, and as soon as I had everything comfortable brought my wife on.  Then securing the necessary dogs and making suitable corrals to hold game, I waited for December snows in order to make my initial venture in my new career. With hard work and almost inde­scribable exposure, I had succeeded by spring in securing seventy-five elk, three moose, ten deer, seven antelopes, and three mountain sheep.

"I have raised several buffaloes on the ranch and also one moose. The elk seem hardy and con­tented in their new en­vironment, and breed as rapidly as when in their native state. Deer, moose, and antelope are of a restless, nervous nature, and do not multiply so readily as the elk. Since 1894 I have sold 350 head of elk alone to zoological gardens and public and private parks in the East, as well as many other varie­ties of animals.

"To be sure, there's money in it," concluded "Dick," "but with me the get­ting of money is only an incidental motive, as it were. If it were not for my attachment to this glorious climate and my fond­ness for the inde­pendent, outdoor life I lead here I reckon I'd be back East. Same way with Mrs. Rock. Ohio suits her well enough to visit it once in a while; but for steady living give her Idaho every time and a ranch just about like this one, twenty miles from nowhere and as pretty as a picture."

Originally published in The Wide World Magazine.  March 1901.
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