A storied and historic Wyoming ranch that’s older than the Cowboy State itself has been posted for sale by a real estate company in Thermopolis with a list price of $67 million.
The Pitchfork Ranch in Meeteetse, which goes back to 1878, has been listed for sale with Properties West Real Estate in Thermopolis.
The listing agent and ranch manager for the past four years, Ben Anson, told Cowboy State Daily this will be only the third time in history that this Wyoming icon has changed hands.
“It used to be a lot bigger in the 1800s and early, early 1900s,” Anson said. “So now it’s kind of condensed down to about where the original homestead was.”
Despite that, the Pitchfork is still a quite large ranch at just over 96,000 acres, and its buyer will find a turnkey operation that’s ready to continue as a ranch, rated to 1,300 head of cattle.
“Talk to anybody in the Bighorn Basin, and they all know where the Pitchfork is,” Anson said. “Talk to anyone around the state and they know where the Pitchfork is. So, a lot of people are connected to it.
“You know, they used to employ a ton of people through the early 1900s to the mid-1900s. So, it seems like everybody in the Bighorn Basin is a relative or some sort of connection.”
The Pitchfork Ranch is still embroiled in a lawsuit with a Texas company, the Pitchfork Land and Cattle Co., which is accusing Wyoming’s Pitchfork Ranch of trademark infringement.
Wyoming Pitchfork Ranch has produced a 1986 letter from the Pitchfork Land and Cattle Co.’s then-manager Jim Humphries, which suggests the Texas ranch knew about Wyoming’s Pitchfork Ranch and had no issues with the Cowboy State ranch using essentially the same Pitchfork symbol as the Texas outfit.
The note thanks then owners Jack and Lili Turnell for a “most enjoyable time on your (pitchfork symbol)” and expresses a desire to have the Turnells “come visit our (Pitchfork symbol)” in Texas.
“I certainly like what I saw, and the livestock you are producing,” Humphries went on to say in the note, which was written on PLCC letterhead and identifies him as the manager.
Anson said the case is ongoing, and that it is not the reason for the ranch’s sale. The owners, Lenox and Fran Baker, have decided to retire and sell their portion of the ranch.
According to the court docket, the trademark lawsuit is set for trial in February 2025.
Where The Buffalo Roam
Wyoming’s Pitchfork Ranch predates the Texas ranch by five years.
Otto Frank Von Lichtenstein, who was known in Wyoming as Otto Franc, had journeyed West with two of his brothers to find drier climates for his health, and adventure.
His explorations led to the upper reaches of the Greybull River, where he found a wide valley upstream of an outcropping local tribes at the time called Papyo Butte.
“Franc became friends with the Shoshone Indians who were camped out there,” Anson told Cowboy State Daily. “So, he asked them where the buffalo hang out in the winter, and they told him they hung out near the face of Carter Mountain.”
Franc figured the spot where Buffalo naturally liked to roam would be the best place for a cattle operation. That is where he decided to prove up his claim.
He trailed 1,200 Hereford shorthorns in from Oregon, and it was at that time he adopted the ranch’s pitchfork brand to mark them.
He also bought Herefords from the Gallatin Valley of western Montana, trailing them south into the Bighorn Basin, where they foraged on the open range.
There’s no census count of exactly how many cattle Franc had in his early herd, but 1880s Fremont County tax rolls assessed them at $6,000 to $7,000, suggesting they were quite large.
By the summer of 1880, Franc had begun building permanent structures for his headquarters. At first, there was a small cabin made from cottonwood logs. Later, he built a larger main house, with adobe walls 18 inches thick, and the cabin became a blacksmith’s shop.
The Belden Years
Eight years after Franc founded the Pitchfork Ranch, famous photographer Charles Belden was born in San Francisco.
Belden’s uncle had taught Belden how to take glass plate photographs when he was just 10, though he ultimately went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied mechanical engineering.
He did do some factory work, but had soon bought himself a camera, which he used to document his many travels, including a tour in Europe in 1908, along with Eugene Phelps, who he ad met at MIT.
Phelps' father had bought the Pitchfork Ranch in 1903, and Belden came to visit Eugene there. He was smitten not just by the ranch, but Eugene's sister Frances as well. They married in 1913, and Belden eventually became co-owner of the ranch with Eugene.
Belden became known as the photographer of the Pitchfork. His gritty and romantic photos of rough-riding cowboys gathering cattle and branding them, as well as his photos of sheepherders sorting sheep at the ranch, graced the pages of many national magazines from 1914 through 1940, making the ranch not just famous in Wyoming, but across America.
Some of the magazines Belden’s photos appeared in include National Geographic, Colliers, and Life, to name just a few. One of his photos even made the cover of Life magazine.
Belden’s darkroom is still around in the stone house as it’s often referred to, which has 5,600 square feet that includes eight bedrooms and six baths.
“I always forget about it, because it’s kind of a secret hidey hole to get up there,” Anson said.
Belden’s photography not only helped make the ranch famous, but it attracted the famous as well, Anson told Cowboy State Daily.
Among the many celebrities who visited the ranch was humorist Will Rogers and aviator Amelia Earhart. Movie stars Tim McCoy and Wallace Beery also visited the Pitchfork Ranch during its dude ranch years, which lasted through 1940. That is also when Charles and Frances divorced.
Frances eventually repurchased portions of the ranch that had been divided off, returning the Pitchfork to most of its 1945 shape.
The ranch, which was 110,000 acres at the time, was listed for sale in 1998 at $25.5 million. It was bought in 1999 by Greg Luce and Drs. Lenox and Fran Baker for an undisclosed price.
They divided their ownership in 2016, with the Bakers retaining the majority of the land, and the Luces keeping some of the old Pitchfork buildings, which include Franc’s original Adobe house and the bunkhouse where Butch Cassidy once stayed, as well several thousand acres.
Location, Location, Location
The foresight of Franc in selecting the particular site that he did, where the buffalo once roamed freely, is one of the Pitchfork Ranch’s major selling points today, Anson said.
“Our feed costs are pretty dang minimal compared with everybody else,” he said. “Because, you know, you have a huge pasture with a south-facing slope that the wind blows on and stays open most of the year,” he said.
The ranch, at $67 million and 96,000 acres, is the most expensive listing in the state right now, Anson said, and the historic property has already attracted interested buyers.
The acreage includes 13,886 deeded acres on the ranch, which are dispersed with state and BLM leased acreage. The land also connects to two Forest Service permits that amount to 44,984 acres. State land makes up 31,600 acres, and BLM ground is the remaining 5,645 acres.
There are abundant springs on the ranch, which stay open all year, Anson added, which makes it easy to water cattle all year long.
The housing located on the ranch has been well-kept over the years, and the stone house offers a quaint and charming place to live. Heating is accomplished using natural gas.
There are eight houses at the ranch headquarters in all, along with working facilities and several barns. With just over 1,000 acres under irrigation, the ranch can both feed its cattle, and operate as a hay enterprise, too.
The ranch also comes with a loyal, direct-to-consumer clientele, providing additional cash flow to the operation year-round.
“I think it’s pretty unique in that all the acreage is contiguous,” Anson said. “On years like last year, there was no supplemental feed given to the cow herd, so it’s kind of a grazing operation which makes it unique for this part of the world.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.