A branding iron in the window of a thrift shop caught my eye last week. It was kind of a sad sight — a little piece of the old West, gathering dust next to a few lamps and assorted bric-a-brac. The sun glinted off the brand — a bar lazy S. I wondered whose ranch it represented, whose cows or horses once carried that simple symbol.
Mike Walck, the local brand inspector, said that older brands carry one or two characters. More recent brands have three characters to avoid duplications. By older brands, we’re talking the late 1880s or early 1900s. The first brand in Colorado was recorded in Bend in 1886.
Recent brands with three characters could be 50 years old. Or they could be what I call “vanity brands.” Walck said people create those brands for show.
“They’ve designed something to put on their gate that would be god-awful to put on a cow.” Simple brands work best on animals.
That means the bar lazy S could have been used to mark someone’s herd.
Walck, whose work takes him across five counties from the upper Roaring Fork Valley through De Beque Canyon, said that as of 2012, there are 34,813 active brands in the state, up from a little more than 33,000 a decade ago. Brands can stay active even after the original owner dies.
“I’ve got my grandfather’s brand” explained Walck, who lives between New Castle and Silt. “He passed it on to my dad and my dad passed it on to me.”
His dad didn’t raise cattle but he kept up on the brand’s assessment fees, which is why Walck still uses the cross quarter circle on his cows.
Walck’s brand is stacked, like the one I saw in the thrift store, which means the characters are on top of each other and are read from top to bottom. “Strung” brands are read from left to right. Characters include “lazy” letters, which lie on their sides, like cows in the grass on a cool, mountain morning. A lazy V is open to the left or right. A slash tips right or left.
“Some people use initials,” said Walck, like the late Wilton Jaffee’s W/J Ranch near Aspen.
According to legend, the first cattle brand in the western hemisphere dates back to Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez in the 1500s. His cows, the first to come from Europe, bore three Christian crosses on their flanks. The famous Texas XIT brand is rumored to represent payment of ten Texas counties to the men who built the Austin capitol. XIT stands for “ten in Texas.”
The most complicated brand I’ve seen is the Bureau of Land Management’s alpha angle freeze brand, used to mark mustangs when they come off the range. The brand’s nine characters tell the birth year and what state the horse came from.
Local ranchers, however, keep it simple, like Jim Nieslanik’s diamond heart, which was his dad’s, and his brother John’s lazy V slash bar.
A good place to take a look at western Garfield County brands is at the main building on the Colorado Mountain College campus in Rifle. The brand wall was created to honor longtime Silt rancher Frank Starbuck. CMC Foundation members researched brands from Aspen to Parachute, said Sue Daily, CMC Foundation’s regional development officer.
“We found literally thousands of brands,” she said. They finally decided to display only the brands of ranches whose cattle Starbuck tended.
On a rainy April morning in 2007, most of those ranchers showed up to burn their brand into wood that would become the wall. “It was cool to see ranchers in their slickers with branding irons over their shoulders,” Daily recalled. The branding wall, she explained, depicts the partnerships among ranchers, the community and the energy industry.
Ag land is becoming a precious commodity in Colorado. Increasing water demands, energy development and urban sprawl are changing the landscape as well as the future of ag production. Brand registration is not on the decline, said Mike Walck, but some of the new brands are not so much used to protect cattle from rustlers as they are for ranchettes that spring up when farmers sell off their land. He added that freeze branding is more common these days for all kinds of livestock. “It’s more humane,” he explained.
So, could the bar lazy S brand in the thrift store window be a relic of a bygone era?
Turns out, it’s merely a causality of a bygone relationship. A Carbondale woman purchased it at auction in Wyoming a few years back as a gift for her now ex-husband, whose name begins with an “S”. For her, it’s a reminder of a broken heart. For me, it’s a testimonial to what Daily calls the longest-standing industry in western Colorado.
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