With a stroke of finality, the auction gavel fell. Cowboys, neighbors, and spectators stood silently, stunned. The Double Diamond Ranch, one of Wyoming’s most famous cattle outfits, was history.
After the sale, the audience, obsessed by the buyers’ anonymity, fed on curiosity. As murmurings about the buyers’ identities circulated through the crowd, a lawyer lopped his briefcase onto the roof of his car and drove away, losing the briefcase on the roadside. Only he knew the briefcase contained a down payment check signed by the buyers.
Meanwhile, the cowboys of the Double Diamond had to move on. Their mouths turned down and their shoulders slumped as they threw their saddles into pickups and disappeared down the dusty East Fork road.
The story seemed to encapsulate a fading West. Western songwriter Gary McMahan, who witnessed the Double Diamond’s sale, captured sentiments about the ranch’s demise in the western song, “Old Double Diamond.”
Like the song, the story of the Double Diamond Ranch elicits both fondness and pain, sorrow and hope. When James Kerr, or J.K., Moore headed west with a wagon train bound for Montana in 1864, he had no idea of his role in history. Migrating to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, he eventually established a store at Camp Brown, now Fort Washakie. Travelers, ranchers, and homesteaders bought supplies from Moore’s store. Outlaw Butch Cassidy, a resident of Horse Creek north of Dubois, purchased supplies and cigars from Moore.
The Oregon Trail passed through the nearby South Pass, and Moore and various partners built a large cattle operation on a patchwork of land along the upper Wind River Valley. The Double Diamond homestead, up the East Fork River east of Dubois, proved up on July 9, 1898.
From 1911 to 1927, the ranch changed ownership four times, finally becoming part of the monstrous American Cattle Company, which ran cattle in South Dakota (Circle Y brand), Colorado (Y brand), Arizona (J brand), Montana, and Wyoming.
In 1927, under owner E.J. Bermingham, the ranch began a major expansion, increasing from 5,000 to 30,000 acres with upscale buildings and residences by 1953. Bermingham’s death in 1958 resulted in another sale of the ranch.
The Double Diamond became the largest operator in Wyoming’s Upper Wind River Valley and retained the reputation of a large, well-run outfit. “They ran that son-of-a-bitch to make money,” said Ronnie Alexander. As the ranch’s farrier in 1952, he earned $70 a month. “They worked the piss outa you, but it was a god damned good ranch.”
In the early 1970s, the Double Diamond ran 2,500 brood cows consisting of Hereford, Hereford crosses, and Shorthorn crosses. Cow boss George Meeks remembers the East Fork Valley well. “Up there the grass was short but punchy. It didn’t rain much and burned up fast, but it had a lot of protein.”
Sources of the ranch’s reputation also were the work crews and cowboys. Hank Hudspeth of Lander helped his father in construction during the summers of 1941 through 1943. Hudspeth tells the story about a cowboy teasing the cook. He smacked her buttocks with a large stock whip, but she chased him into the bedbug-ridden bunkhouse. The cowboy barricaded himself in the bunkhouse, but the cook stuffed a gunnysack in the stovepipe. When he staggered out, she picked up a wooden bench, hit him in the face, and kicked him in his manhood. “He didn’t mess with her anymore,” Hudspeth said.
But work crews didn’t always joke and eat home cooking. Friction existed between cowboy crews and farming crews, who felt treated as lower-class citizens. Then there was the trail food. Once while fighting wildfires near the cow camp on the West Fork River, “all we had to eat was slimy sliced peaches,” Hudspeth said. Emerging from the forest hot, tired, and hungry, workers saw a U.S. Forest Service truck. Thinking it carried some good grub, they sprinted to the truck. “But the truck was loaded with cases of sliced peaches,” Hudspeth said.
Many cowboys passed through, some capable and others worthless. Meeks fired a night calver for lying about his job. When Meeks found a dead calf hanging from a heifer, he questioned the cowboy, who falsely claimed he had checked the stock. Meeks caught him in the lie by placing twigs on the unopened gates. Desperate for help, Meeks hired two green teens, one of them Charlie Needham, who later made the national bull-riding finals.
Of all the history recorded about the Double Diamond, however, the unforeseen disaster of sunny May 3, 1974, hastened its downfall. In warmer-than-usual weather, ranch hands and family members participated in spring branding. Cowboys wrestled large calves at one end of the corral while women and children worked at the opposite end near the butane tank fueling the branding fire. When the propane tank exploded, it spewed a liquid fireball that killed Iva Jean Getty, 35, and maimed nine.
Margie Cargill, a ranch cook married to a Double Diamond ranch hand, was aflame. “I thought the whole world was on fire,” she said. But she looked at the hills and, not seeing them burning, climbed the wooden fence, and rolled over sagebrush and rocks trying to extinguish the flames. She had second and third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body. Her young daughter was also badly burned.
Shortly after the explosion, rumors circulated that the ranch’s owners were caught embezzling money from the insurance company they owned. The Double Diamond’s end was near. About a year later—on August 27, 1975, the ranch’s last chapter ended. The finality exuded mystery.
Before bidding began, lawyers representing unnamed clients questioned the auctioneer. One attorney asked about mineral rights, pending lawsuits, liens, and Indian reservation conflicts. Bidding had barely begun when Attorney G. L. “Gerry” Spence asked for a recess to phone the county courthouse, although it was closed on the Saturday. Afterward Spence withdrew his bid.
Why did Spence withdraw his bid? To what information was he privy? Bidding continued but climbed only $28 per acre above the opening bid. At $78 per acre, bidding stopped. The last 10,568 acres of the Double Diamond sold for $824,304.
The buyer was the Triple J group, one of whom was Mrs. Jean McFadden. But who were the other two? When the lawyer’s briefcase was found alongside the road, it was opened to reveal the down-payment check for $169,000, signed by Imagine and Gerry Spence, the other two “J’s”. The victorious bidder was a front.
On the way home from the auction, songwriter Gary McMahan began “Old Double Diamond,” which he didn’t complete until the next year. Heard around every campfire, in every bunkhouse, and on every ranch in the West, the “Old Double Diamond” expresses the thoughts of a fictitious Double Diamond cowboy leaving the ranch where he became a man.
In 1985 at the first cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nevada, McMahan performed the “Old Double Diamond” for the first time, not knowing the song had become a hit. The Starlite Ramblers first recorded it and then a professional rodeo cowboy cut it and sold it from his pickup. Chris Ledoux became a household name. Later Ian Tyson recorded the quintessential version, released on his album “Old Corrals and Sagebrush.”
Having been recorded by about 80 artists, the song is equally popular at western roundups and eastern office buildings. It strikes literal chords with listeners and evokes a longing for the freedom offered by the West. McMahan understands the song’s appeal. “It’s an ode to the West that we’re losing,” he said.
The song has morphed into an anthem for everyone concerned about the changing American West. McMahan said, “Everyone loves the West. It is perceived that the whole lifestyle is dying out. The ‘Old Double Diamond’ puts that into pictures.”
Today the place is named Thunderhead Ranch. For a healthy sum, Attorney Spence sold most of the acreage to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and turned the buildings into his Trial Lawyers College.
The old Double Diamond is gone, but the ranch’s story, a microcosm of the West, survives in a song that entwines good times with bad, joy with grief, yesterday with today and tomorrow.
“Now she’s sellin’ out. I’m movin’ on
But I’m leavin’ with more than I came
‘Cause I’ve got this saddle and it ain’t for sale
And I’ve got this song to sing
I’ll find a new range to ride, new knots to tie
In a country where cowboys are king
I turned my tail to the wind and the old Double Diamond
And disappeared into the sage.”
My interest in the Double Diamond began when I worked at the next ranch upriver where I spent my first summer in Wyoming. This time changed the trajectory or my life. Almost twenty years after moving to another town, I followed a growing urge to return for a visit. In late October, long after tourists had cleared out, I, too broke up to ride a horse for hours, rented a UTV and, in a near-whiteout, sped past the Double Diamond and up, up to the Wiggins Fork Overlook that rises almost 1,500 hundred feet above the river. Looking out over that awe-inspiring landscape and remembering my time spent working that country, in the middle of a snowstorm I suddenly fell to my knees and began sobbing uncontrollably. I missed the place terribly and felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having lived and worked in that place, which will forever be a part of me. I drove back down the mountain and across lands once belonging to the Double Diamond and, like the cowboy in the song, disappeared.