“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”
From the deep recesses of my Girl Scout memories, this little ditty springs to mind. I’m old enough to have seen friendships come and go, and to fully appreciate the serendipitous spark of meeting a kindred spirit.
I first met Ann Chambers Noble in 2016 when my mom and sister and I stayed at her bed and breakfast in Pinedale, Wyoming. After two years of Facebook contact, we had the chance to reconnect this summer. What a delight! As a writer, historian, rancher, and mother, Ann is both making and preserving history in our beloved Wyoming. She embodies those distinctive qualities of western women I have long admired: grit, action, resourcefulness, compassion and confidence. I’m grateful that she allowed me to share a bit of her story!
Home on the Range
Of all her roles, Ann cites being a mother as her first priority and driving passion. She and her husband David have four amazing daughters, Meredith, Andrea, Laura and Zoe, ranging in age from 18-28.
The girls’ talents and interests have already taken them in different directions (Alaska and Massachusetts, so far), but their love for the family ranch brings them home often. As the fifth generation at the Cora Valley Angus Ranch, these ladies grew up on the back of a horse or behind the wheel of heavy equipment. They will make their marks in business or teaching or some other profession, but once a cowgirl, always a cowgirl. May I be perfectly honest here? If a magic genie ever offers me three wishes, my first is going to be for a second run at life, only this time as a cowgirl. A gen-u-wine horse-riding-boot-wearing-cow-roping-hair-flowing-in-the-wind-beneath-a-Stetson cowgirl. I swoon with envy every time I see one. There, I said it out loud and I’m not sorry.
Now, back to Ann’s lovely daughters. Daughter #3, Laura, will someday assume the ranch operations.
For those of us not lucky enough to grow up on a ranch, what, you wonder, does ranch life look like? Well, here’s a quick overview.
The Cora Valley Angus Ranch is located in tiny Cora, Wyoming, population 142. David’s great, great grandparents, James and Pauline Rahm Noble, homesteaded the ranch in 1896. The ranch’s pedigree of more than 100 years in the same family earned it the coveted designation of a Centennial Ranch from the State of Wyoming. In the Nobles’ case, however, the ranch is a Double Centennial, because it includes land from both James’ and Pauline’s sides, the Noble and the Rahm homesteads.
The ranch is a cow/calf operation, running 500+ head of cattle, and holds the distinction of being the oldest continuous Black Angus herd in Wyoming. As a side gig, David and Laura also raise and train quarter horses.
Ranch activities fall into four distinct categories, corresponding with the calendar seasons: calving and branding, cattle drives and haying, weaning and shipping, and hunkering down. Let’s start our overview with winter.
Winters can be brutal. Cora averages 64 inches of snow annually, but the 2016-2017 winter dumped more than twice that amount. It typically starts in October and may not quit until late May, with some of the worst blizzards happening in the spring, right in the middle of calving season. Oy vey. More on that later. Survival is Job #1 in the winter. Keeping the cattle fed and watered in sub-zero temps, well, it’s no job for sissies.
Calving and Branding
Speaking of calving, the Noble ranch typically welcomes about 500 new calves each spring. Of those, about 150 come from heifers, or first-time cow mamas. The first-timers are the most difficult and unpredictable. Even under ideal circumstances, not every calf will survive. Ann will never be able to view calf mortality as a cold statistic of ranch life. No, every loss is personal. And tough.
Calving season lasts about 6 weeks and requires 24/7 attention, so they take shifts. The heifers are kept in a corral near the barn, and Ann frequently finds herself on heifer duty. After a night watch, Ann wrote this on April 10, 2017:
It’s a beautiful morning. We’re still wearing coats, hats and gloves, but the wind is gone and we’re warming up. The dreadful, dangerous spring storm is gone. We lost a third calf to the blizzard, but over 100 made it, most born during the storm and are doing fine. Still bottle feeding a few, but most are now with their mothers. On my night shift, I had no heifer calves! So got a fairly good night sleep for calving. I have a presentation tonight at the Museum of the Mountain Man. I reviewed my notes while sitting on the bunkhouse porch, watching the corrals, with sunshine in my face. Oh, it feels so good.
By the time the calves have all arrived, preparations begin for branding. While intense, it’s all over in just one day. Branding is more than just a mark of ownership. It’s a mark of pride, accomplishment and heritage. Most brands are passed down in families. David and Ann’s “LV” brand was passed down from David’s grandfather, Carroll Noble, who brought the first black angus bull to Cora 99 years ago.
Cattle Drives and Haying
Cattle are moved to national forest land during the summer to allow for the production of hay, essential for winter feeding. In May, the bulk of the herd is driven to a pasture 8 miles away, then in June, they trek another 17 miles to their summer feeding ground. The yearlings are driven to another pasture, at the head of the New Fork River, about 7 miles north.
Once the cattle are happily grazing in their summer pastures, haying production cranks up. The Noble ranch hays about 1400 acres, using round bales. Enough hay has to be cut, baled and stacked to feed all the cattle and horses through the long winter. There are two hay crews, the mowers and the balers. An Amish crew has been coming every summer since 1979 to do the mowing. In a specific pattern, they cut all the native grass down. After a day or so, when the hay is cured, the baling crew (Zoe and Laura) takes over. Zoe uses a 26-foot hydraulic rake to make neat windrows of hay. Laura follows in the baler, which “vacuums” up the windrows and spits out net-wrapped bales. Finally, the “stacker” gathers all the bales and stacks them in fenced in yards to protect them from domestic and wild animals. Ann keeps everyone fed, three meals a day, and runs errands to keep the crew and equipment going.
By mid-September, it’s time to bring the herd home, a trip of 25 miles that takes 2 days. Easy peasy, right? Well, not exactly. Moving 400 cows, their calves and the bulls, requires 15-20 cowboys and at least four faithful border collies. Depending on the cooperation of the weather and cows, a cattle drive can range from downright fun to pure misery. In any event, it provides fodder for story-swapping!
Weaning and Shipping
With banks of hay neatly stacked and the cows back in their home pasture, it’s time to wean the calves from their mamas, vaccinate the entire herd, and prepare to ship the cattle that have been contracted for sale (about 400). As the accountant for the ranch, Ann calls this period the “annual paycheck.” Determining which cows to keep and which to sell doesn’t happen with a coin toss. Instead, the detailed process considers many variables. Fall is Ann’s favorite ranch season, when one successful year wraps up and the workload begins to wind down. She eagerly anticipates the quiet winter months when she finds more time for her other passion.
Writer and Historian
Second only to her family, Ann’s great love is historical writing. Many people don’t find their vocational path until well into adulthood, but Ann knew hers by fifth grade when she started documenting her family’s history. The stories of people who lived in earlier eras completely captivated her, and a historian was born.
Ann received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history and education from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, then went on to get her Master’s degree in history from the University of Utah. She honed her research skills and learned the craft of historical writing.
“It’s said that all great writers hear their inner voice,” Ann reflected. “I worked hard to find my inner voice, and eventually came to realize that my voice is others’ voices. Giving voice to other people’s stories — stories that would otherwise never be told — is my driving passion.”
The past never grows stale for Ann. “History,” she says, “is more a reflection of the person telling it, and interpretation varies by generation.”
Ann’s passion for history flows naturally into three streams: writing, preservation, and consulting.
In addition to numerous articles and book reviews, Ann has published four books of local history and has a fifth in the works.
Her new book, a homesteading history of the Upper Green River Valley, will be available in early 2019. She is co-authoring the book with friend and fellow historian, Jonita Sommers. This book is something of a family affair, with her daughters Meredith and Andi serving as editors. Based on extensive research, the book profiles more than 100 early homesteaders, dating as far back as the 1870s. One of those early homesteaders was my great grandfather, Wesley Bloom. (His story here.)
Historians care deeply about the preservation of historic places and artifacts, so that future generations will have tangible evidence of the people and events that shaped their generation. To that end, Ann has nominated three Wyoming landmarks for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places:
- Cora Townsite – the original buildings of Cora, Wyoming, established in 1902.
- Craig Cabin – a trapper’s cabin built in the Gros Ventre Mountains near Bondurant, Wyoming between 1898 and 1900. It later became a gold mining operation that turned out to be less successful than advertised.
- Darwin Ranch – a dude ranch deep in the Gros Ventre Mountains, established in 1907.
The first two nominations have been approved and the third is pending.
Ann’s tireless work to preserve history includes service on three boards. She has served on the Wyoming State Review Board for the National Register of Historic Places for 9 years; she chairs the American Heritage Center of the University of Wyoming; and she serves on the McCracken Library Board at the Center for the American West in Cody. Writers live a rather solitary life, and this volunteer service unites her with a community of like-minded souls.
Small Business Owner
Ann keeps both local and personal history alive at the Chambers House Bed & Breakfast. The oldest continuous bed and breakfast in Wyoming, the Chambers House was built around Pinedale’s original one-room schoolhouse, which dates back to 1904. As subsequent owners extended the house, each addition reflected another era of the community. Ann’s aunt, Helen Chambers, bought and renovated the home in the 1980s and lived there until her passing in 1994. Ann bought the home from her aunt’s estate, and with the care of a historian, turned it into a bed & breakfast. Above the fireplace hangs a portrait of Ann’s grandfather, Dr. Oliver Chambers, who was a physician in the region for many years.
“I never aspired to be a small business owner,” Ann confessed, “but what I love about the bed and breakfast is seeing how much my guests enjoy the home.”
The home gives her a natural way to give back to the community, as she regularly hosts social and political events there.
In all her ventures, Ann demonstrates a big heart and willing hands. She values each day’s work, as only a historian can, through the lens of reflection from some future vantage point. I tip my Stetson to her in admiration for all she does to both preserve and make Wyoming history.
*Special thanks to Ann for permission to use all the above photos.