“The only boot tops I’ve ever had to repair from riding came from two families in Johnson County,” says Mitch Black local boot repairman, “And the Graves family is one of them.” Riding is way of life and tradition born of true ranch culture as well the demands of the terrain found on the Red Fork Ranch. Situated twenty five miles west of Kaycee where the homestead cabin is literally built into the base of the Big Horn Mountains between the convergence of the North Fork and the South Fork of the Red Fork of the Powder River. A part of the headquarters today, the cabin is adjacent to a stone bunkhouse, granary, blacksmith’s shop and log barn. The barn is the only place you can take a horse trailer on the ranch, after that it is horseback or a tough 4 wheel drive vehicle.
Norris Graves wore the boots whose tops had to be repaired as did his father before him and his children after him. Born in Laramie, he was a 3rd generation Wyomingite in 1920, his father’s family came from Nebraska after enduring years of killer blizzards and grasshopper plagues so bad the bugs ate the fence posts. His mother’s family gathered wild horses in Northeastern Wyoming and sent them back to Nebraska for the farmers. When the two met, Fannie’s family worked on the Bar C, famous for the stream of outlaws that passed through its gates. They first homesteaded high on the mountain, then his father purchased land situated in the historical valley where the Dull Knife Battle had been fought between the Northern Cheyenne and the US Calvary a mere 32 years earlier. The ranch became known as the Red Fork Ranch.
The 1930’s were wrought with hardship, the Great Depression was gripping the country and drought tainted even the most remote locations. No grass, scarce water, starving cows, and dying sheep on the Red Fork Ranch finally overwhelmed Norris’ father, who took to his bed with severe depression. Norris had planned to leave the ranch and follow the Professional Rodeo Circuit that very year, but he was forced to choose between his dreams and a desperate attempt to save the family ranch and business. He chose to try to save his family and took responsibility for the ranch, 150 head of Hereford cows, 40 head of horses and 500 head of sheep. It took years for it to grow back, but the family and ranch were saved.
The year was 1934 and 14-year old Norris was in the 8th Grade at the Red Valley School. He had proven himself to be an excellent hand and already that year, he had won the bareback riding and placed second in saddle bronc his first rodeo. From then on, he entered every rodeo he possibly could: Edgerton, Gillette, Buffalo, Sheridan, Casper, Ten Sleep and Kaycee; winning most and rarely out of the money. The letdown of not joining the Professional Rodeo was serious, but the ranch meant more to Norris than any buckle or round of applause. He never returned to school and spent the rest of his life ranching.
The same year, he bought himself a Hamley Saddle and became known as one of the most stylish bronc riders in the region, thrilling crowds at Casper, Denver Stock Show, Cheyenne Frontier Days and every small town rodeo in between that he could hit and get a full days ranch work in. Bronc riding was not all he did. When occasion allowed, he team roped and calf roped, bull dogged, competed in wild cow milking and bareback riding. He always had bucking horses on the ranch and at one point with the help of his uncle Lloyd Lea, he put on a rodeo at the Red Fork Ranch complete with picnic and wooden dance floor to add to the already good time had by all.
Often he trailed his horses to local rodeos to be used as stock. One such time, he trailed them to Edgerton, 50 miles one way, on his horse Amos, a big black gelding he loved. At the rodeo, Norris drew Amos in the bronc riding, got bucked off, broke his wrist, got back on him and trailed the bucking horses home to the ranch, another 50 miles.
He eventually left competing to the younger set and focused on the ranch. His saddle went to Las Vegas for the National Finals Rodeo many times with grandsons Deke and Craig Latham and he spent hours helping young bronc riders hone their skills including Chris LeDoux, John and Emory Forbes, John Holman, his sons Ken and Lee Graves, nephew Dan Fraker, cousin Wayne Graves as well as Deke and Craig.
Norris’s children, Joyce, Bonnie, Ken and Lee all competed in High School Rodeo and knew that bucking horses would be hauled right along with their rodeo horses to every rodeo they entered.
In 1940, the ranch had survived the depression, droughts and grasshoppers. It survived the years when the freight to ship cattle cost more than they were worth. It survived winters and heartbreak and Norris turned his full attention to the ranch. He particularly loved riding on the mountain and taking care of his livestock. He was well known for miles around to have a special way with stock. Neighbors relied on him for advice building corrals and working sheep and cattle. An exceptionally ornery horse would find its way to Norris, who would “speak” to it. It would be returned to its owners, with a new way of thinking.
He would spend weeks at a time on the mountain trailing sheep or cows, fighting off lions, coyotes, bears and eagles, building fence, managing water holes. As his children grew, he took them along teaching them the fine points of ranching and riding on the mountain. Every day was a good day to Norris if it was spent horseback.
As busy as he was on the ranch, he continually gave back to the community that he loved. Besides spending countless hours teaching young cowboys how to rodeo, he served the Powder River Conservation District for 22 years, spent 20 years on the school board and as a 4-H leader. He was a member of the Johnson County Co-op and past president of the Wool Growers, Stock Growers and Draft Horse Association.
As a man who spent his entire life dedicated to raising his family and running the Red Fork Ranch, Norris was known as a character in the neighborhood.
Joann Harlan remembers Norris telling her that there was a sign posted on her mailbox that only cowboys could read. It said, “Free lunch served inside!” Lo and behold most meal times he would find his way to her table if he was in the area.
When you got on a horse Norris had ridden, you knew he was solid. Bob Brock found out first hand, what that meant when one early summer morning long before sunrise, Bob and his father Alfred met Norris where their ranches joined at the base of the mountain to help him brand. The ride for the Brock’s followed nearly the same trail the Cavalry rode into the Dull Knife Battle. Norris met the riders by the corral and as he dismounted said to Bob, “Your horses look used up from the long ride. Here, you ride my horse up the mountain and I’ll drive your dad in my pickup.” When Bob reached the branding, Norris’ son Ken asked if he’d had any trouble with the horse? “Not a bit,” Bob answered, “The horse and I did just fine.” Ken replied, “Good! He bucked Dad off 2 times this morning!!”
Anyone that knew Norris knew he was saying quietly in his mind, “I took the buck out of that horse. He’s good to go for the day,”
His daughter Joyce Reculusa recalls of her dad, “He rode bucking stock every day at the ranch and preferred the challenge to his mind and body over riding horses that pleased the rest of us.”
Known in the Barnum country as a man who had a remarkable sense of balance and could ride any horse broke or half broke with grace and skill, coax any number of critters through alleyways, drive a team with panache and tear up dance floors all over the West. He was filled with a sense of fun and common sense that naturally drew people and animals to him.
“Life isn’t meant to be easy,” Norris told Life Magazine writer Burk Uzzle in a 1961 interview that appeared in the magazine’s story entitled “Following the Call of the Old Pioneers”. “I never expected a bed of roses. I didn’t get one,” he went on to say. What he did get was a life he lived to the fullest.
“He was a man who loved horses, cows, the mountain and kids and he was happiest when he had them all together,” concur his children and grandchildren who hold his memory dear. Norris epitomizes the rugged and adventuresome ranching lifestyle in Wyoming. Despite challenging hurdles, he persevered, saving the family ranch, continually helped others and gave back to the community. He was a cowboy in the truest sense of the word.