A cowgirl, role model, a mentor, and a genuine leader, Mary A. “Mickey” Thoman is a Wyoming cowgirl straight out of Western folklore. While life has not always been easy, agriculture and ranching are in her blood and she has faced tough elements produced by both Mother Nature and Uncle Sam. Her grit, determination, love, and commitment to her family and ranching have overshadowed everything else.
The Wyoming cowboy lifestyle and riding horses has been a way of life for Mickey for 88 years. She was riding horseback before she was born when her mom made the Hamsfork mail delivery. At the age of 2 she could be found in the corral hugging the horse’s legs. Her love of riding began at an early age when her Dad put her on the backs of the draft horse-pulled haying equipment. Mickey was driving the team that pulled the haying equipment before she was even in school. She can tell stories of runaway rake teams and experiences of her Dad’s lectures to fall off the back of the rake if anything ever happened to save life and limb.
By school age, old Don, the family horse that her three brothers had ridden to the Hamsfork School, knew the route well. He could always find his way in the worst blizzards. If it was too bad he would circle around and end up back on the doorstep of the house and refuse to go. When the school teacher would try to extend the day and turn the clock back, Don would be at the window at 3 pm demanding to go and tattle on the teacher. Mickey didn’t get her first saddle until she was nearly 14 but that never stopped her as she was adept at riding bareback. She spent her youth riding in the mountains and helping her Dad drag logs on the Hamsfork homestead. From her days as rodeo queen to a newlywed with small children and into her 88 years of youth, riding horses has always been her reprieve.
She spent many a day breaking colts, herding sheep, gathering cows, and chasing wild horses. Most of her life was spent horseback because 4-wheelers were nonexistent, and they didn’t have horse trailers, so anything ranch related required her to ride to the destination or take the old two ton. For adventures, Mickey would load up all her kids and several youths from town and their horses in the two ton and drive to Pilot Butte for a nice ride and picnic lunch. Many summers were spent with the sheep in the Greysriver horseback with a pack string and passel of kids riding behind. The bulls were chased to the cows on the desert and on one occasion Mickey nearly drowned in the river. While crossing the Green River, the horse got tired of swimming and began walking on the bottom of the river. Her oldest daughter didn’t see her and, in a panic, took off for home to report that Mom had drowned.
Each of her children learned to ride at a young age and she helped each child break a horse of their own from the ranch raised herd. Patches came to the family as a baby colt and every one of her children rode him and showed on him. Dude was another favorite that Mickey broke who loved to run. He would easily win the races on the track at the county fair and if everything wasn’t up to par he would just refuse to race. Mini Doc McCu (Cu) was more human than horse and could untie any knot, open any gate, and even undue baling wire. He was never unnerved by indoor fireworks, spot lights, and loved being Mr. Rodeo Wyoming while Laurie reigned as Miss Rodeo Wyoming. While he was Laurie’s horse, Mickey had a soft spot for him and loved to ride him bareback because he moved like a butterfly she would say.
Mickey can tell stories of gathering wild horses in the day that would make the hair on your neck stand up. She was the right-hand hazer on horseback while Barlow Call would muster the wild horses together in an airplane. It wasn’t uncommon for him to fly upside down in gasping maneuvers while Mickey kept her composure horseback. She didn’t think anything of riding the desert at high rates of speed right up until nearly the due date of some of her children. The stories were plentiful but the most recalled is of the wild stallion they saved from drowning. A herd of horses got stranded on an ice chunk in the Green River. They were able to get a rope around the stallion begging and by the time he got to the bank he was ready to eat out of Mickey’s hand and follow her anywhere. She always had a way with animals, but her love of horses was the fondest. When a horse refused to be caught, Mickey would go in the corral and walk right up to them. She would walk five miles to catch the horse just to ride 2 miles she loved it so much.
Mickey’s children are devoted to agriculture as a way of life. Mary E. Thoman, Kristy Wardell and husband Mike Freimuth (son Rex and Mike’s 3 boys), and Laurie Thoman (daughter Taylor) live on the home ranch and help with the daily operations of the place. Her son Dick (wife Sue and 4 kids) reside on the Green River close to home and son Bob (wife Kelly and 12 children) farm in Riverton and they help when they can. Mickey’s family has grown to include 20 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.
Mickey owns and manages the daily operations of the fifth-generation family ranching business, W & M Thoman Ranches, LLC, along with her three daughters, Mary, Kristy, and Laurie. They reside on the Green River 50 miles northwest of Green River, Wyoming below the Fontenelle Reservoir. They raise fine-wool Rambouillet sheep, a uniform herd of Hereford cattle, and spirited Thoroughbred-Quarter horses. As the matriarch of the family Mickey plays a major role in managing the budget, paying the bills, keeping the payroll updated for the ranch, rides during gathering, milks the cows, and still feeds bum lambs. From canning to herding sheep to moving camps, there isn’t a job that she hasn’t done in her 80+ years.
The women that run the ranch do it as a way of life. Daughter, Mary, is attentive to the legal, governmental, and political role in ranching and continually attends meetings in attempt to keep up with current regulations and paperwork. She helps manage the book work. Kristy is the sheep foreman and attends to moving camps and overseeing the foreign labor. Laurie helps oversee the cattle part of the operation and calving. Both Kristy and Laurie drive truck to transport the livestock, haul hay, and water. All major events of the operation are shared and overseen by the four women of the Thoman Ranch such as gathering, branding, docking, shearing, shipping livestock, and working animals. Shopping for supplies and groceries, cooking for the crews, and the daily ranch chores are a group effort as well. Other members of the family pitch in when they can.
The Thoman Ranch has been in Sweetwater County since 1951 (for 67 years). The family operation has been in business since 1900 spanning six generations. Mickey’s parents, Phil and Mary (Planisek) Ferentchak, came to this country from Austria—now the small mountain country called Slovenia. Her grandparents spent time in Big Piney and eventually ended up on the Hamsfork near Kemmerer. Her parents homesteaded on the Hamsfork in 1916 and that is where Mickey was born and raised. In 1948 she married William J. Thoman and raised seven children (two have since passed on). The first three were raised in a sheep camp before they moved to the ranch on the Green River.
The love of agriculture, a strong work ethic, and traditional values have been instilled in her children. Mickey says, “the secret to raising kids is to work with them and do things together.” I suppose that would include throwing cherry bombs in the willows to scare the boys out or leading skunks to their demise in the river while instructing the kids, “stay behind.” Mom always said swearing was unladylike, but some of the best learned expressions came from watching Mom pick the bucket up that the milk cow had kicked over. Teaching the children about progressive agriculture came into play when the first powered mower was purchased after the horses had a runaway that put the rake up on top of the family station wagon. Despite her petite build, the boys knew the garden hose packed the swiftest sting if they had done wrong. Of course, the ranch dogs usually sided with her in tripping the offending youth. The lack of television and a telephone until the youngest was nearly eight probably didn’t hurt the family’s upbringing either.
In 1957 Mickey and Bill established the Thoman Ranch School under the Granger School district which later combined with the Green River School District #2 to keep their children on the ranch while instilling strong values, responsibility, and work ethic. It is one of the last one room schools in Wyoming. The late Bill Thoman Sr. served as chairman and on the Sweetwater County School District #2 board for 17 years. He also guided the district through school reorganization.
Mickey’s involvement goes beyond the ranch. She was among the 33 original founding members of the Green River Valley Cowbelles/Cattlewomen. She is on the Board of Directors for the Wyoming Stockgrower’s Association and is a Guardian of the Grasslands member; past delegate and charter member of the Wyoming Farm Bureau; and Lincoln and Sweetwater County Farm Bureau member and past officer. She was instrumental in organizing the Sweetwater County Cowbelle’s group in 1985 (33 years ago) and served as president for many years. Under her leadership, the group promoted beef in supermarkets, at the fair, and hosted the Sweetwater County 4-H auction barbeque for youth and buyers for several years. Other organizations include the American Quarter Horse Association, National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the Wyoming Cattlewomen, America Sheep Industry, and long-time member of the Wyoming Woolgrower’s Association. She has served as an election judge for Sweetwater County since 1985 (for the past 33 years) along with daughters Mary, Kristy, and Laurie.
The family and Thoman Ranch have received several awards for stewardship and community recognition. They participate in the Resource Rendezvous to help educate the public about agriculture. Each year several classrooms from town tour the Thoman Ranch School and the ranch to learn about agriculture, ranching, food, and fiber.
They work closely with the BLM and forest service to monitor the range and practice good management. They had resorted to using electric chicken fence at night on the forest to help protect the sheep from grizzly bears and wolves. They utilize range rotation to help preserve feed and water resources.
In 2004 the Thoman Ranch received the Bureau of Land Management Director’s 4Cs Award for consultation, cooperation, communication, all in the service of conservation. The late Senator Craig Thomas said, “I also know that you have been challenged by these issues and have struggled to find common ground. Although I understand it has been very difficult at times, it is so good to know that you persevered. Your participation means the outcome should be a better product for everyone who cares for our public lands.”
In 2012 the family received a Partnership Appreciation Award from WLCI (Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative) “For their generous contributions to WLCI’s mission as a long-term science-based effort to assess and enhance aquatic and terrestrial habitats at a landscape scale in southwest Wyoming while facilitating responsible development through local collaboration and partnerships.”
In August of 2013 the Thoman Family was recognized as the “Farm Family Today Award” on behalf of the Sweetwater County Fair-Wyoming’s Big Show. The initiative was to recognize farm and ranch life, promote outstanding farmer qualities, and strengthen a relationship between an urban fairgoer and the agriculturalists who have made fairs a fantastic family tradition. “We are looking for families who have been good stewards of their farm or ranch and are disciplined in their farm practices,” said Larry Lloyd, executive director of the Sweetwater Events Complex. Innovative ideas, economic impact and community involvement were areas they were interested in celebrating.
Mickey was honored to receive the 2014 Wyoming Agriculture Hall of Fame award sponsored by the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. She proudly sports the beautiful buckle she was awarded during the Wyoming State Fair.
Mickey and her late husband, Bill, received the Sweetwater County Ranch Couple of the Year award in 1988 and the Upper Green River Valley Cattlemen’s Lifetime honorary member award in 1997. Mickey was honored with the Green River Valley Ranch Woman of the Year award in 2012 by the Green River Valley Cowbelle’s/Cattlewomen. Mickey was a nominee for Sweetwater County’s YWCA “Women of Legacy” in 2012.
Mickey has been an integral part of 4-H and a continuous 4-H key leader for half a century with over 50 years of service and dedicated leader awards (57 years of service in 2018). The Thoman family has been active fairgoers and participants in the Sweetwater County Fair since 1950 (68 years). Her 4-H involvement started with the Ghost Riders Horse Club in 1961 and later branched off to a lone star club called Green River Riders. She served as horse superintendent and horse clerk for the Sweetwater County Fair. Over the years she has led horse, beef, sheep, wool, leather craft, photography, and dog projects for her children, grandchildren and neighboring children. Members of her club have won many awards including trips to the Denver Round-up for demonstrations, won record book contests, and her daughter Kris won the overall grand champion market lamb at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, CO. Mickey firmly believes that 4-H is largely responsible for the success and ambition of her children, who continue to be involved in 4-H as leaders.
Mickey has served on the Sweetwater County 4-H Foundation Leaders Council, holding several offices as well as serving on the 4-H horse committee. She has served on the State 4-H Leaders Council as the Southwest District Director and as Assistant Director. Her enthusiasm and willingness to serve as a key leader has never faltered and she is just as excited today about what the youth, leaders, council and foundation are doing as she was when she first started.
Besides managing the daily challenges of dealing with foreign labor, the family has battled with grizzly bears and wolves on the summer sheep range in the upper Green River until an inevitable buyout in 2016 forced them to give up 40 years of use on the forest allotments. The Thoman family has faced flood, fire, death, and the loss of the family ranch through condemnation. In the early 1960’s the ranch was flooded when the Fontenelle Dam broke. In the 1970s a careless camper started a wildfire that burned several hundred acres of trees and nearly destroyed the ranch buildings. In 1974, their daughter, Catherine, drowned in the Green River while riding her horse. In 1980, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service served final eviction notice on the Thoman family after the conclusion of a lengthy court battle on condemnation. At that same time, their son Bill, Jr., was killed in a tragic trucking accident leaving a widow and two young sons. In 1998, Mickey’s husband of 50 years, Bill, was killed in an automobile related accident. Through feast and famine Mickey and the family has thrived on the ranching lifestyle and Mickey says that no matter what, God can be found in the beauty of the outdoors and agriculture. She feels closest to God when she is tending His creatures.
Her moral compass has never wavered—not even when the old ewe buyer showed up one fall with a briefcase full of cash and tried to convince her to cancel her commitment to another buyer. When she contracted the lambs two summers ago and then the price went up by twenty cents, she still stood by her word and delivered every lamb promised to the buyer.
Retirement is not in her vocabulary. Round-up time ensures Mickey will be on her horse working cows or you might find her chasing sheep or doing ranch chores. She still feeds the livestock, moves sheep camps, puts tire chains on, and runs circles around most 20-year olds. Her aerobic program consists of driving bigger tractors. Even though Mickey enjoys the convenience of turning the furnace thermostat up to 80, old habits die hard and she still insists on building a fire in the old cook stove. In her 88 years, life has never been dull for Mickey Thoman as she is always excited about what is going on around her. She is living the life she loves and gets up each morning to do it all over again. With a warm smile and soft-spoken words, she is always eager to entertain and feed company. After an honest day’s work when the crew is rubbing saddle sores, Mickey just rides off with a smile to go prepare yet another meal.
The Thoman family mission is to continue the family ranch as a way of life for future generations by educating the public about agriculture and the western way of life. The family consists of role models, mentors, cowboys and cowgirls, and genuine leaders with Mickey at the helm. Mickey is soft spoken, kind hearted, gentle but strong, yet spirited with an undying determination. Mickey is a genuine cowgirl in every sense of the word and continues to live each day to the fullest. While life has not always been easy, agriculture is in her blood.