JACKSON, Wyo. — There’s no typical day for Circle EW Ranch manager Todd Wagner. Whether he’s pulling a moose calf from the now-defunct pool or repairing fencing, no two days are the same.
“I tell people that if you can’t decorate a cake, you can’t have my job,” said Wagner, 55.
Some know him as the 4-H leader who ran the beef club for seven years. Others remember him for his time on the Teton County Fair board, a position he held for five years, his last as president.
Former Circle EW ranch owner Liz McCabe, like many of his friends, fondly called him a “cowboy butler.”
His duties include: washing windows, plunging toilets, watering plants, pouring wine, blowing snow, fixing fences, trapping bears or mountain lions (alongside Wyoming Game and Fish) and, occasionally, frosting a cake when McCabe’s hands became too shaky for decorating confections.
THE ROAD TO THE RANCH
Circle EW Ranch, located in Moose, is the northernmost private property before Grand Teton National Park.
Eli and Elsa Wiel, the parents of McCabe, a well-known local and former News&Guide co-publisher, purchased the land in the 1930s.
“This property was in the family before the park existed,” Wagner said. “This place right here is why all these people are coming to Jackson.”
McCabe, who died in 2012 at the age of 101, spent much of her time, especially during prime fishing season, at the ranch. An avid entertainer, she found the ranch was a special place to bring people together.
“She spent four nights a week entertaining,” Wagner said.
Now, only family and friends stay in the cabins on the ranch.
The cabins, of which there are several, have withstood the passage of time and tough Wyoming winters. The upkeep is a major part of Wagner’s job as ranch manager, a title he has held since Aug. 1, 2001.
Though originally from Laramie, Wagner graduated from Jackson Hole High School, where he met his wife, Ilene. He anticipated moving to Cheyenne at the time. But after four years of Navy service — four years active, two years inactive duty — he landed a job in Teton Village.
He and his wife now remain steadfast on the property with their two dogs, Maddy and Squirt. With jets passing overhead flying toward Jackson Hole Airport, it’s almost like a mini ecosystem of its own.
“The turbulence from the jets causes more work for me than people would know,” Wagner said. “But it’s just part of what it is.”
But blowing snow and wind aren’t Wagner’s biggest environmental challenges.
Once, a black bear and her two cubs ended up caught between two doors.
“I poked one with the butt of my shotgun and said, ‘Get out,'” Wagner said.
Besides wrangling animals and providing constant upkeep, most of Wagner’s duties revolved around McCabe.
“The only thing I don’t do is her hair,” he said, slipping into the present tense when describing his late employer. “I just try to keep the ranch as it is. But it’ll always be Liz’s house to me.”
MISS LIZZIE AND ‘THE HENCHMAN’
Wagner said he makes nicknames up for everyone, including McCabe.
“She was my Miss Lizzie,” he said.
In return, she jokingly called him her henchman, he said.
Wagner lights up talking about the role McCabe had in his, and his family’s, life. He knows more about her than most, evident when he describes everything down to her “little red house coat” she wore with her purple fishing cap.
“She could wear color,” he said, leafing through old photographs. “Nobody else could pull that crap off.”
No one else, Wagner said, could touch her fishing bag. He’d put on her Smartwool socks and belt before every expedition.
“I know what’ll keep her warm,” he said.
McCabe’s house looks the way it did when she lived there, with pictures she took of wildlife up on the wall with snapshots of her with Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Copper cookware lines the kitchen.
Wagner noted that McCabe loved to cook, making her food a big part of his life too.
“She cooked a lot, even when she was 100,” he said.
Everything he described sounds mouthwateringly delicious, like blueberry coffee cake and bacon before big fishing trips, Mother’s Day popovers, Thanksgiving turkeys and milk-can stews — a ranch staple with corn, potatoes, kielbasa sausage, water and beer on an open fire.
“When there is steam coming out of the holes in the top, supper is served,” he said.
McCabe had a special bond with Wagner’s sons, 22-year-old Will and 19-year-old Trey. They promised her they’d go to college, and they did.
“She used to tell my boys, ‘I’m your grandma, you know that, right?'” Wagner said.
McCabe allowed the boys to sit at the adult dinner table at an earlier age than she allowed most children.
Wagner recalled her giving them a grammar lesson three days before she died. Prepositions, they learned, did not belong at the end of a sentence.
“I’ve even stopped saying it, too,” Wagner said.
WATCHFUL EYE ON THE WEST
It’s hard to hide that Wagner’s job has changed since McCabe’s passing.
Still, it’s impossible to separate his narrative from hers. Her 1963 red Cadillac still sits in the garage.
“It’s pretty lonely out here,” Wagner said. “We’re a one-man show. Some days are pretty quiet, but I’m on call 24/7.”
His job still remains taxing, especially during the winter. Days often begin at 3:30 a.m. if he wants to keep the main road to Highway 89 clear.
“Sometimes it looks like a drunken sailor did it,” Wagner said. “But in the winter time you just do it.”
Challenges always present themselves on the ranch. Previously, he built a barn to protect his son’s steers from hungry bears.
This year he kept an eye on the Snake River flooding.
“It was almost futile,” Wagner said of trying to keep the horse pasture from flooding. “It was like filling a 55-gallon drum with a teaspoon.”
He also keeps a close eye on visitors who don’t mind the “private property” sign.
“People think, ‘Private doesn’t apply to me. My curiosity trumps private,'” Wagner said.
If you do ever have a reason to be down at Circle EW Ranch, you better introduce yourself, Wagner warned.
“I chased a guy in a Suburban going 80 mph down the highway,” he said.
Though he is stationed up in Moose, Wagner maintains a pretty good read on the changing landscape of Jackson.
He remembers when McDonald’s was built “at the far end of town” and the day when his wife rode a horse through the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.
“Can you imagine that now — the lawsuits?” he said, laughing. “It would be on YouTube by the time you got to the front door.
“Those were different times,” he said.
His kids and wife beg him to change out of his “ratty sweatshirts” and “stocking cap over a ball cap” when he goes into town. But ranch work, he said, doesn’t require fancy duds.
“It’s about function, not fashion,” he said. “I don’t care — I’m warm.”
He said that Jackson’s ranching roots are often seen through rose-colored glasses by tourists. But spend a day with him at Circle EW Ranch and you’ll learn that living next door to the Tetons isn’t as glamorous as it may seem.
“It looks all romantic and sweet, but cows need to be fed. They feed cattle at 20 below,” he said. “Do you know how brutal that is?”
Wagner laughs when he sees the sign on top of Teton Pass that reads “Howdy Stranger. Yonder is Jackson Hole, the last of the Old West.”
“I want to cut it down,” Wagner said. “That’s a joke.”
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com