“I HAVE ALMOST BECOME DESPERATE OVER THE IDEA OF DYING A POOR MAN”
Most cowmen faced that dread every day of their lives…
By WILLIAM URBAN
One cannot understand the old-time Westerner without understanding his fear of poverty. To the outsider this fear is hard to comprehend because the Westerner often appeared so poverty-stricken even in prosperity.
Yet the land was rich, and it was the contrast of poverty and wealth and the hope of passing from one to the other that provided much of the drama of Western history.
The story of the cowman is that of the pursuit of wealth. A few cowboys may have followed the herds from romance and travel, but few cowmen did. Perhaps that was what separated the men from the boys, their attitude toward cattle. Cattle were money on the hoof. That, at least was the attitude of James Calvin Juvenal, one of the early Texas drovers.
He was known as “J.C.” or “Cul” (he later changed Calvin to Culbertson). Born near Danville, Illinois in 1837, he made his first long trip at the age of twelve when his father and a pack of relatives moved to Williamson County, Texas J.C. grew up fast on that trip; he was expected to perform a man’s duties. All the men of his family were already skilled farmers and drovers. For a generation at least they have been teamsters, and had probably herded cattle in Ohio before coming to Illinois in 1827. Almost certainly they drove cattle from Texas to Illinois in the 1850’s. Relatives who had remained behind fattened cattle on their farms before selling them in nearby Chicago.
J.C. married Martha Allen and had begun a family before the Civil War broke out. His brother Ben joined the 7th Texas Cavalry and gained valuable experience for the years he would spend in New Mexico, Arizona and Indian Territory. Brothers William and Josiah enlisted, but never served. Josiah eventually fought in the Union Army in an Illinois regiment with several relatives. It appears that J.C. went north at that time and farmed near Williamsport, Indiana, not too far from Danville, Illinois.
The Juvenals had a big edge on most drovers when the war ended. They knew the routes, they knew the markets, and they were not obligated to sell immediately but could hold their cattle for the best prices. J.C. took a bunch of Indian boys (whom the Texans called “short horns”) in 1865 or ’66, and gathered cattle from the Juvenal ranches around Hutto, Texas. He took these through Indian Territory into Missouri, and probably on to Illinois and Indiana. He may have been among those herders who brought Texas fever to Missouri and thereby occasioned such anger that further droving was forbidden there. When the route was closed, J.C. took his herd to Baxter Springs, Kansas. By that time the boom was on. Not even cattleman knew what he was doing, but they were all determined to get rich quick. Hundreds of thousands of long horns were on their way north. J.C. helped his fellow man as best he could, and wrote back to those following:
When I left your County little did I expect to be at this point with my cattle; but circumstances alter the cases. The route which is specified by the Live Stock Co. of Kansas leaves this road at Red River, and some droves have gone that way; but not hearing anything definite from the Co. I learned from reliable sources that they are making their ay back to the old route at Fort Gibson. The upper route not having any military protection, is said to be dangerous, and unless it is garrisoned all the way through it will not be safe to drive cattle on that route this year. The Indians are reported to be on the point of starvation, and will stampede cattle at night in order to secure to themselves a portion of the herd before morning…. The only market for their stock is Backster Springs, Kansas, unless there can be a route opened from Fort Gibson to the 6th principal meridian as designated by the circular from Kansas L. S. Co., thence north to some point on the Pacific R.R. This, I fear, will not be a success this year. I shall make Backster Springs a point myself, and as there are but few cattle in advance of me I think I will have but little trouble in finding sale for my stock; though a few hundred head will glut that market. I fear there are many like myself who have listened too much to the flattering reports of Kansas sharpers, whose soul and principle is constructed of greenbacks, and are prompted by no other motives.
ABILENE was J.C.’s primary outlet from 1867 to 1871, whn he began following a more westerly route to Wichita and Ellsworth. But he did not return directly to Texas after each drive. He went to Indiana, presumably taking some cattle with him for corn feeding. A cow costing five dollars in Texas would fetch ten or fifteen in Wichita, but after being fattened it would bring thirty. J.C. was not after the quick small buck. He was a smart rancher. Seeing that he could drive more cattle from Texas than he could pasture in Indiana, he decided to acquire good grassland in Kansas where he could fatten the remainder of the herd.
In the spring of 1870 I came to Russell Co.; stopped during the summer on Wolf Creek with a herd of Texas cattle, at which place I sold enough to pay first cost on my entire herd, and had 204 cows left. The same year I purchased seven grade bulls, at a cost of $350. Cows at that time were worth $10 per head.
In 1872 he took more cattle to the Satline River country north of Russell, and he did the same in ’73. That was the advice given by Joseph McCoy, spokesman for the stockmen at that time:
If the driving of cattle from Texas to Kansas must needs continue in the future, the drovers would act wisely to possess themselves of choice stock ranch locations, and hold their stock, if need be, over winter till it was fat, instead of putting it upon the market whilst unfit by reason of its poverty.
J.C. knew his cattle. In 1874 he brought up another herd, but had to sell part of it promptly. He approached a neighbor named Connell. “I told him I would not take less than $12 per head on time.” He was offered $10 a head cash, less 12 per cent per annum, and he took it. But after a special trip to Leavenworth to cash the check, he still had to collect the 12 per cent. Two more talks with Connell produced no money. He, like everyone else, was short of cash. Then came a crisis: “I went out to the yards to help Connell pen some cattle he intended to ship and did ship and discovered in the lot 2 of my beeves. I knew them by their having my brand on them. Mr. Connell admitted them to be mine and he asked me if he should turn them out or might he ship them through. He told me he would rather ship them through as it would make a full carload. I told Connell he could ship them through and pay me the average price the steers brought.”
But Connell did not pay, and J.C. went to the law. He told the judge: “I drove the steers and cow from Texas. One of the steers two years ago last spring, the cow and one steer in the spring of ’73. My road brand last year was figure 6 or figure 4…. It is the general custom to brand cattle before driving. I did so these years referred to. I put my brand on either side on the trips.” And since he had sold no cattle that year, they had to be his. “Also I know the cattle by their flesh marks as well as brands.”
J.C. won his case, and it was not to be his last. He was careful with his money, and kept close track of his cows.
J.C. was not a lone operator. His brothers Benjamin and Josiah moved to Russell County, as did two cousins from Danville, Illinois. His son-in-law and a hand who married a cousin, all worked with him. William herded cattle in 1869 and ’70, but after that it was Ben’s job to bring the herd from Texas to Kansas. J.C. supervised the Kansas operation in Ben’s absence, and then went to Indiana for the winter. In the spring Ben went to Texas, and J.C. came back to Russell to ship the fat steers from the drive of the previous year.
The Russell Record faithfully noted their travels and often reported, “The Juvenal Bros. shipped three carloads of the best beeves ever sent from this town. Ben knows how to fatten them.”
What was Ben’s secret? Well, in 1876 a letter from “Juneberry” from the Pie Melon Ranch appeared in the Record.
Do you know anyone who wants to speculate in pie melons? Does the Record family want any pie melons? What are pie melons good for? Can they be converted into anything but pies, even at a loss? The object to be accomplished is to get rid of a thousand pie melons, loss or grain…. In the name of Moses tell us what we shall do with a pie melon crop, for we feel we are victims…. We would consider in a privilege to supply every, man, woman, and child in Russell with pie melons, for the next six months in any quantity desired. Anybody who wants pie melons to feed their pigs can have them for the hauling―I don’t know but we would be willing to do the hauling also, if it would expedite the delivery…. When we first commenced feeding them to the cattle, they evidently relished them and wondered what was the matter that they were being so liberally supplied with melons. Now, however, they evidently would like a change; a load of pie melons everyday for six weeks is too much. Whenever they snuff pie melons coming, there is a regular stampede. If you should see a drove of bovines come tearing wildly into Russell anytime in the next six months, led by a bull with a ring in his nose, you may know there is a load of pie melons behind, somewhere. If only we had a river to dam―pie melons are good for a damn.
J.C. was not satisfied with fattening Texas steers. He had a good Durham bull and he produced fine mixed stock that brought premium prices in Kansas City.
The cattle business was in trouble, however. J.C., like all others, was in debt and prices were low. While trying to keep up his pride, he tried to cut expenses. He couldn’t. Finally his wife left him. It was hard enough for her to have her husband absent so much, without having to do without the little luxuries that made life on the Plains bearable. She refused to come back to Kansas with him, and after a year she filed for divorce. In August of 1878 he wrote to her:
“You are bound to know I would not see you on any of my children suffer if I had a dollar. The pressure of times has caused me the trouble. I have seen it coming but could not get my family to realize it- nor live within the limits of our means. Extravagance seem[ed] to be a growing evil which I could not control or check. And the great crash was staring me in the face. Nearly all the most substantial men in my knowing is breaking up―and rather than give up all and become poor I thought I would tear loose, divide up, and begin new…. I have almost become desperate over the idea of dying a poor man, have been economized, or trying to for the past year, but under the old rule find it impossible. My calculations were so balled when I went home in July I lost all hope. $1000 there would have saved me, but all was lost. I don’t deny being in debt. I have always concealed it all I could, hoping to come out all right. If I can get my creditors to hold off one year I am sure I am sure I can save our home place there or think so and that will give me time to set-off all the older children…”
The divorce went through, but J.C.’s problems were far from over. He had brought his hands from Indiana when he gave up his land there, and among them was a seventeen-year-old girl who came out with her brother. Early in March 1879 she gave birth to a child, and claimed J.C. as the father. Now Juvenal was no saint; he had seen life in all forms; but he was not about to have a child planned off on him just because some young woman had thought him to be the richest man around. J.C. arranged for depositions from Indiana that destroyed whatever was left of her reputation.
The rancher was fortunate that his former wife was not around. J.C. had warned her, “You could keep me out of a divorce, but you could not fence me to live with you.” That remark particularly angered Martha. She was furious. And so was her daughter Kitty. Neither of them would forgive J.C., especially after he married nineteen-year-old Jennie Caton in 1879.
Kitty took $600 of her father’s money and bought a team for her mother. Six hundred dollars then, and especially to J.C., was a lot of money. But he did not demand the team back, perhaps because Martha allowed their son Dick to use it on the farm east of Russell. When Dick took the team to help his father break sod on the Saline, however, Martha blew up. She sued for return of the team and won. Dick was whipsawed between the parents. J.C. wanted the money and Dick didn’t have it. J.C. then placed a notice in the Record that he would not be responsible for any of Dick’s debts. Finally, on her deathbed, Martha amended her will so that Dick could sell a quarter-section and repay his father.
J.C. had a hard enough time with Dick. His son liked to race, and had a fast little grey horse; and he liked to bet, usually on himself. When he lost, there was likely to be a fight. Dick (or Martin, or Josiah, or Joseph as he was called at various times) was not a big man. Like is father, he barely weighted 150 pounds with boots, breeches, and shirt. But he was some fighter. Under the name Tommy Ryan he became welterweight and then middleweight boxing champion in the 1890s. He also liked women. J.C. had his hands full.
When Juvenal wrote that he was going to “begin new” he meant it. Earlier he had homesteaded a section near Fairport in Russell County, registering land in his, his wife’s, his son’s, and his daughter’s names. His relatives also claimed land around him, so that the family controlled the water. Once the river was boxed in, nobody else was interested in the surrounding hills, and the Juvenals could run their cattle over all the range there.
As the years passed, though, this became more difficult, and in 1885 J.C. had to make some big purchases to guarantee control of the water. He bought several sections from the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific Railroads. He had always been in debt, but now he was in deep. He had a $10,000 note, a $900 note, a $400 note, and some given previously for land, machinery, and current expenses. If he succeeded he could become rich. It all depended on the cattle and on prices.
The summer of 1885 was a hot, dry one. A prairie fire burned a stable, hay, and other goods, as well as much pasture. J.C. took his careless neighbor to court and won a $100 decision, but that did not help the cattle. Ben’s house burned up in a separate incident. And, as If the summer were not hard enough, the winter of 1885-86 was the worst in history. An early snow melted and refroze so that the cattle could not forage. Half the herds of the Middle West perished.
J.C. did better than most. The Record noted: “Mr. J.C. Juvenal… reports a remarkable incident in connection with the late storms. He had eight fat hogs that were buried in a snowbank, without food or water for twelve days, and which, when rescued, were in good condition… Our statement in reference to the loss of stock by Mr. Juvenal was a mistake as to the number of head. He only lost three calves. Inasmuch as Mr .Juvenal is one of the largest stockmen in the country, his loss was comparatively trifling.”
Perhaps J.C. lost many more head, but he was not telling. As it happened, a judge and his brother from the East had come to town with a pile on money. They were intent on becoming gentlemen ranchers, and saw the depressed prices (cows were brining only $15 a head, half the normal price) as a chance to buy cheap J.C. saw them as his salvation. He sold the Sutton brothers, 5,700 acres and 450 head of cattle, with all the buildings, implements, etc., at a price estimated by the Record at $55,000 to $60,000. That was speculation, of course. J.C. like to keep up a front, and the record office shows a $1 transaction.
Juvenal had to pay off his mortgages and debts, but that should have left him enough to cease despairing about “dying a poor man.” Just to be sure, however, J.C. reportedly sold him the same cattle several times. His hands used to joke about that later, how he took the Suttons around, and coming upon a herd they had seen only minutes before in a different location, would say, “Now here is another nice herd very similar to the last.” Naturally, they “strayed off” later. And he kept some pieces of land out and took advantage of they cloudy titles so that a year later the Suttons had to pay him another $5,000.
With all of this J.C.’s future was not secure. Prices got no better and the weather remained unkind. One by one his relatives moved away. Some fled back to their kin in Illinois. Others went to Pendleton, Oregon. Judge Sutton. Who was thoroughly tired of the Juvenals by that time wrote to the Record in 1889: “There are some farmers among your readers… who are neat in person and who loathe to defile themselves with profanity and profane company―men who labor because it is honorable to work as well as a necessity for us all- men who are not so utterly cast down that they cannot have any hope for this country―who are not wanting to go to Oregon or anywhere else until they become utterly unfit to hold employment through this restless spirit.”
The Juvenals just did not have the bankroll the Suttons had. They could not ride out the bad years. J.C. moved to Osborne County and continued ranching, but with as much lack of success as everyone else. As Joseph McCoy had warned years earlier, “Bank interest eats up the profit and substance of hundreds of stockmen annually. It is an insatiable leech industriously sucking the life-blood day and night.” Interest was 12 per cent and up. Prices were increasingly controlled by big packers and the railroads. When weather was good, men like Juvenal could still survive. When it turned bad, they went under.
J.C. continued the good fight only a little longer. In September 1890 he died after returning from Kansas City to deliver cattle. Those who remember his name know nothing of his history. So it is in the world.
Juvenal was a good man. If a man is judged by his friends he was rich. He planned the biggest Fourth of July celebration Fairport ever saw, supervised the festival, and sheltered those caught in the storm. He lived where they had the “richest soil, purest water, handsomest women, and fattest babies of any county in the state.” The folk around about liked him and his relatives: “Ben Juvenal showed his good-natured face in the Record office yesterday.” They kidded his family too: “That was a FOWLE conspiracy, by which a certain young gentleman lost his girl, the night of the dance and Bob’s now down on all such JUVENILE tricks.” (Bob Snowden married her anyway.) And they were sociable: “There was a social party at J.C. Juvenal’s New Year’s Eve. Quite a number of friends from Russell… were in attendance, not withstanding the extreme cold weather and almost impassable roads. All enjoyed themselves hugely, and came away convinced that J.C. does not do a thing by halves.”
But his life revolved around his work. He feared “dying a poor man.” He scratched all his life, and the money just didn’t stick under his fingernails. That fear drove him, and courage alone allowed him to live with it. It was a common fear, and a common cure, in those days gone by.