ELLSWORTH, Neb. — You’d expect to find a store selling cowboy gear in the middle of cattle country.
But Wade Morgan’s Cowpoke Haven stocks a lot of local history as well. You can find a pinch of it on a historical marker outside.
It notes that cattleman Bartlett Richards, who founded the legendary Spade Ranch about 25 miles to the north in 1888, raised cattle on about a half-million acres of the Sandhills, including free-range pasture land owned by the U.S. government. He eventually ran afoul of efforts to make the land available to homesteaders and was jailed for fencing property he didn’t own.
What it doesn’t say is that the store nearby was founded by Richards.
“The tracks were here, and they needed a store to bring stuff in for the ranch,” Wade Morgan, who owns the store today, told the Star-Herald .
You can find hats, boots and other Western wear on its shelves. And guns — lots of guns. Morgan teaches concealed-carry classes, carries his wares to distant gun shows and keeps Sandhills landowners, who live on isolated ranches far from the nearest sheriff’s office, supplied with rifles and ammunition. His customers include neighbors and visitors who come from both directions on Highway 2, which stretches from the Panhandle to Grand Island.
“A lot of guns go out of here,” Morgan said. “The guns probably keep the lights on.”
The store is one of few retail establishments along the 60-mile stretch of fading commercial ghost towns between Alliance and Hyannis. If you’re heading east into the Sandhills, past Antioch, Lakeside, Ellsworth and Bingham, you’d better make sure your gas tank is full. But in the Cowpoke Haven you can get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, as well as bits and spurs, stirrups, ropes, belts, books, postcards, knives, fishing lures, predator calls, backpacks, leather goods — including black motorcycle jackets and chaps — insulated coveralls and Zippo lighters. Folks in Ellsworth, population 32, also pick up stamps and mail in the building, which still houses the community post office.
At its apex in 1905, the Spade sprawled across more than 500,000 acres in Sheridan and Cherry counties, with a herd of 60,000 cattle. Its business successor is still operated by the Bixby family. When the store was built, the Spade Ranch owners, which included Richards’ partners, also built stockyards and a hotel across the street for crews that cut and processed hay and herded cattle. Richards and his partner, Will Comstock, joined with other ranches in 1899 to form a management outfit, the Nebraska Land and Feeding Company, which was headquartered in the store. A large vault in the building secured it records. The Nebraska Stock Growers Association, which merged with other entities in 1988 to form today’s Nebraska Cattlemen, had its first meeting in the building, Morgan said. The original store served not only the Spade Ranch but the surrounding community, and the company built roads and brought telephone service to isolated ranches and villages.
According to Nebraska State Historical Society research on the building. Bartlett and Comstock clashed with Theodore Roosevelt’s administration during the era of the Kincaid Act, which aimed to open up the American West by making land available to homesteaders. Bartlett and Comstock arranged for old soldiers and widows to file claims on parcels near the ranch. But instead of settling those claims, they leased the land to the Spade Ranch. The partners were convicted of illegal fencing and perjury in 1910. Richards died during his imprisonment. Comstock later returned to the area. Richards’ widow operated the ranch until 1923, when banks foreclosed on the ranch and the associated properties, including the store in Ellsworth.
Lawrence Bixby, hired to operate a portion of the Spade Ranch, began to buy back much of the former Spade property. The store sat vacant until 1927, when a new owner hired Lawrence Graham to manage it. He sold ranching supplies, hardware, gas and lumber for decades and eventually purchased the store in 1950. During his era, several additions were constructed. Graham and his family ran the store until 1967. The building sat vacant for the next four years.
Morgan’s father Veldon, purchased the building in 1971, dubbing it “Morgan’s Cowpoke Haven.” It took on new life as a store and informal community center. The elder Morgan, a rodeo champion and former working cowboy on the Spade Ranch, built custom saddles and other gear. Also an inventor, he made saddlebags and various horse tack and eventually opened a manufacturing plant in the back of the complex.
“Dad was the horse man,” Wade Morgan said. “We made a lot for Cabela’s. Elk hunting in the mountains is what started it.”
Eighty people worked for Morgan’s at one time, Morgan said.
“When I moved here, there were 30-some kids I went to school with.”
In 1995, his father sold the manufacturing business to Weaver Leather Livestock, which still makes halters and other horse-related goods. Wade Morgan bought the property.
Since then, not much has changed. The manufacturing warehouses now are rented by local ranchers and community members to store boats, vehicles and equipment. Morgan still uses the old leather-working equipment. Hitching posts for horses remain outside. Columns and roof joists are burned with the brands of regional ranches. The store retains its scuffed wooden floors and pressed tin roof panels. Photos, paintings, guns, branding irons and other artifacts decorate the walls, serving as an informal museum of Ellsworth’s colorful history.
“Most of the stuff here, people have given me,” Morgan said.
It gives the place a look and feel that Western-wear stores in bigger cities strive to copy, but it’s the real deal. If business is slow enough for Morgan to find time to stretch out a conversation with a customer, that suits him just fine.
“I would never trade to be in the city,” he said.
Information from: Star-Herald, http://www.starherald.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Star-Herald.