Sunday, November 06, 2016

Generations of Cattle Trails

A win for Cub fans everywhere!
Generations of Cattle Trails
Of People and Paths
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            I stayed up until it was all over.
            When Cleveland came back to tie the game at 6-6, I had resolved in my mind that the Cubs would not regain the momentum to climb one more mountain and put the game away. After all, they were the Chicago Cubs and losing was not just expected but traditional faire.
            It wasn’t because I didn’t long to see them win.
            I consider myself a life long Cub fan having been influenced by my maternal grandfather from the start. He had traveled nearly a century ago from Grant County to western Illinois to visit his cousins, Glenn and Guy Sperry, in the small town of New Philadelphia. They had shown him the sights of their farm country and, together, traveled on to Windy City to visit Chicago. He had been smitten by the whole experience including one of the Sperry brothers’ favored big league teams, the Chicago Cubs.
While in the City he was dared to spar in a local gym which caught the attention of a resident fight promoter. He was offered a contract on the spot to fight with that stable of Chicago boxers. He declined, but 50 years later he speculated in a rare moment of nostalgia of what his life might have been like if he had taken that offer.
He came home to the Gila River and lived out his life within a mile of where he was born. For many years, his memories of Illinois were bolstered by yearly visits by his cousins, but one thing remained firm … his interest in the Chicago Cubs.
Honing the loyalty
He told me the story of the great Ruth, in the third game at Wrigley of the ’32 Series, when he pointed to the center field seats and hit the next pitch there. It was to be the Babe’s 15th and final World Series homerun and the mighty Yanks would eliminate the Cubbies.
My own allegiance became stronger when the Chicago flagship television, WGN, arrived in Grant County for subscribers. It was then that all Cub games became part of local culture. In the earliest days it was Jack Brickhouse calling the action and Burt Hooton and Fergie Jenkins were the big men on the mound. Joe Pepitone and Ron Santo were favorites in the infield and Rick Monday arrived in the outfield. Rick had endeared the nation to the cause of the Cubs when he snatched the flag from the hippie trying to burn it one day when they were playing at Dodger Stadium. Even Chavez Ravine Dodger fans stood and gave the Cubs a standing ovation.
Those were good teams, but never good enough.
By the time I was in graduate school and had some free afternoons to indulge, Jack was still calling play by play albeit for a short time and Rick Reuschel and Bruce Sutter were the kings of the mound. Billy Buckner and Ivan DeJesus were favored infielders and Dave Kingman and Bobby Murcer were outfield pillars. I saw DeJesus hit for the cycle, Sutter fill the relatively new role of reliever throwing his split fingered fastball, and Dave Kingman pound those towering fly balls. If the wind was blowing out, they went out as well.
Those were good teams, but never good enough.
It was always next year and Brickhouse, up until 1981, and the famous Harry Caray thereafter annually told us to be patient, to support our team, and to sing with gusto during the seventh inning stretch.
Then came the teams of Rick Suttcliffe, Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, Andre Dawson, Joe Girardi and Sammy Sosa. Those were good teams, too, but they never won a pennant. It was always next year, but we remained loyal and patient. Our elders died off and the Cubbies still didn’t win.
Of Roots and Cattle
My grandfather’s family name was Rice and the family had roots in Illinois. They came from near Macomb in the black ground country with its white barns and fences. My great grandfather, Lee Rice, had left the turmoil of a family conflict resulting from the replacement of his recently deceased mother and headed south to Texas.
Working as a goat herder for his cousin, he was confronted one day by a small posse looking for a murderer. Leaning on his herding stick, he told them what he had seen and which the direction he had seen the suspect traveling.
“If I had a gun and a horse, I’d sure leave these goats and go with you,” he had informed them.
A day or so later, the posse reappeared with its leader leading a saddled horse with a gun belt draped over the horn up the young goat tender.
“Son, here’s your horse and a pistol,” he had said. “Be careful with both.”
By 1880, Rice was in the Texas Panhandle riding for another native son of Illinois, the famous Charles Goodnight. From what we now know of Mr. Goodnight, his cowboys were all expected to conform to his strict rules of conduct. There was no cussing, no card playing, no drinking, and no fighting unless the latter was in response to orders or protection of the JA assets.
We also know Lee left the ranch when Goodnight left to pursue other ventures. In 1888, the young Rice arrived in Grant County, New Mexico on the banks of the Gila River with a string of cattle branded PIT (very similar to the Goodnight road brand of PAT). The PIT brand remains in the hands of a Rice family descendent to this day.
The Illinois connection was about to be reengaged.
All major cow markets were a long, long way from New Mexico. Lee’s sister had married C.E. Sperry, and, together, they became the parents of Glenn and Guy who would eventually be the influences of Chicago baseball loyalty. C.E. served as a more important bridge. On their farms, the Sperry’s marketed a big portion of their corn production through cattle. They would buy cattle and fatten them on the farm. Through a relationship with the Rosenbaum Brothers and Company and the Chicago Stockyards, they would then sell their finished steers. By 1908, the last year the Cubs won the World Series, some Rice cattle from the Gila River in New Mexico were being transported by rail to New Philadelphia, Illinois, fattened with Sperry corn and forage, and harvested in facilities in Chicago. That relationship continued well into the century until the deaths of Glenn, Guy, and Glenn’s son, Edward, in the decade of the ‘60s.
  As the last pitches were being thrown in Cleveland Wednesday night, the anticipation of a Cub World Series win was almost incomprehensible. As Cub fans, we were so used to losing that accepting another loss was not all that difficult, but the Cubs rewarded us all.
They prevailed!
As I sat down this morning to write this, I was reminded of a picture on the wall of my saddle shop. It was taken in the Chicago Stockyards in 1918. The caption reads, “Thirty-two head of prime 1458 pound Hereford steers fed by C.E. Sperry of New Philadelphia, Illinois, and sold on the Chicago market by Rosenbaum Brothers.” The date was August 13, 1918 and the price was $18.85 per hundred weight. That price beat the previously best price ever paid for finished cattle on any American market of $18.80 per hundred weight which was also obtained on cattle from Sperry and sold by the Rosenbaum Company.
A close inspection of that picture and that bunch of crowded steers in that alley revealed what I was looking for, and that was a PIT branded left rib. Yes, sir, it was a week of big circles that culminated in the first World Series win in over a century, and … generations of cattle trails.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “In my career in California agriculture, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was very important. When I first met Don Meinhold, then running the Met Ag portfolio, we found out we had surprising ties. Mr. Meinhold’s first assignment had been in Met’s Illinois field office. His very first ag loan was signed by one Glenn Sperry of New Philadelphia, Illinois. We were friends from that point forward.”

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