Lawrence Y. Bixby
October 31, 1895 — May 28, 1982
In 1908 James and Jennie bought a homestead relinquishment four miles east of the Spade Ranch headquarters next to Bean Soup Lake after James had taken a teaching position for Bartlett Richards and William Comstock. On March 3, 1909 the rest of the family arrived at the rail siding in Ellsworth. As they freighted past the Spade Ranch Store with the milk cow trailing, the Spade Foreman Mike Peterson saw them from the front porch and laughed when he saw the family's piano in the wagon and said "I'll just give them nesters six months." Lawrence would later write, "Before the Petersons left a few years later, Mike sold me his homestead for $11 dollars an acre." They chose the tranquil name of Cloverleaf Ranch for their new homestead but in the first year a rattlesnake bit their dog, James killed a wolf and a neighbor threatened to contest Lawrence's sister Ina's homestead filing unless they gave him a cow, calf and a spool of wire. A two room sod house was to be their home until 1914 when they hauled $427.00 dollars in lumber from Bingham for a frame house.
The Spade Ranch was post office, store, branding-dipping area, and business channel for the Bixby's, as well as their new neighbors. His mother, Jennie, was offered a job cooking for the ranch. "The Spade always had cook trouble, they'd ship in a cook from Denver and the cook would line up all the extracts he could get and drink it all", Lawrence wrote, "They would come down to the homestead and get mother to cook. I used to go up and help her at the cookhouse. I rode Old Plunger and had an eleven dollar Sears Roebuck saddle."
Lawrence's first job for the Spade was operating an 8-foot sulky rake during haying. In 1909 Bartlett Richards bought 20,000 head of cattle delivered from Mexico. "That November it just didn't stop snowing. The Spade lost 10,000 head of those cattle. There was a pile of hides in Ellsworth as big as the depot. My brother Onie and I skinned cow all winter for 50 cents a cow, 25 cents per calf. We tried to skin the dead cattle before they froze so we'd chain a dead cows horns to a post, slit the skin around her ears so we could fasten a chain there, hook our old horse, Dan, to that chain and peel off the hide,", Lawrence wrote. During the sub-zero weather as many as 30 Mexican cows a night might die in the rushes of the east Spade Home Valley alone. One afternoon Bartlett Richard's yellow buggy approached, "he got out of this cart and helped us turn the cow on her back and said, 'hurry up you kids get that hide off and get home before you freeze!".
Lawrence attended rural schools until 1911 when he went to stay in Lincoln with his father's cousin, Dr. Ammi L. Bixby. In 1913 Lawrence was Lincoln High Schools best runner of a mile. When Lawrence was old enough to file on a homestead of his own he described his land on the Alkali Meadow as a quarter mile deep and two miles wide but he met requirements and received a patent on the string of 40's. Lawrence's father, James, died in 1918 and his mother Jennie, along with Lawrence operated their land and cattle for a time as Mrs. J.H. Bixby and Sons. Bartlett Richards had died in 1911 and Will Comstock in 1916. Although Comstock had advised Mrs. Richards and her sons, Bartlett Jr. and Longley, to sell the Spade before his death, the Richards Family remained on the ranch, which by 1920 had dwindled to about 60,000 acres, far from it height of 500,000 acres in 1900. In 1922 with cattle prices crashing, Mrs. Richards was forced to abdicate when the mortgages were foreclosed.
In 1924 Edward Brass and E.P. Meyers, operating as the Sandhills Cattle Company branding the Sugar Bowl brand, leased the Spade along with their Triangle, Sillasen, Joy, Carver and Big Creek Ranches. They had sold most of their cattle beforehand at good prices then with livestock prices at a low in 1923-24 they bought back in but lacked hay and range. Lawrence was hired to put up the hay on the Spade, feeding 10,000 tons for $.75 cents per ton that first year. When a buyer loaded them with 14,000 head of Texas yearlings, Brass depended on Lawrence to find the necessary rangeland.
On May 23, 1927 Lawrence married Miss Eleanor Riordan of York, NE. Eleanor had began teaching in Cherry County District 168 the previous year. Lawrence wrote, "I married her the day school was out. I would have earlier but she was making $40 a month and I wanted to be sure she had it all." Through their union, Lawrence and Eleanor bore two sons: Larry Leonard in 1928 and James Daniel in 1929. Slowly with Brass's help, hard work and willing bankers, Lawrence was able to obtain some of the most desirable old Spade range. "When I got a chance to buy into the Spade land, Brass loaned me the money and Eleanor cooked for the hay crews and everyone on the placed worked hard," he said. In 1937 after E.P. Meyer's death the Sandhills Cattle Company deal was dissolved. In the late 1930's Lawrence established himself by setting up a little better than average salary scale and obtained the best ranch cooks around. He seldom fired anyone and selected his help carefully. A man had to be able to handle draft horse teams, cable hay, pitch multiple stacks a day, chop ice on a twenty-five foot tank and scatter up to a ton of cake. Lawrence's crew at the Spade through the different years included Sam Piper, Cal Westover, brother Onie Bixby, Ted Bos, Fritz Hunzicker, Albert and Merrill Hebbert, Jim Gray, Norman and Merlin Merrill, Bob Pifer, Simon Smith, Ed Riordan, Lloyd Farmer, Bud Voss, Emery Dempsey, Ernie Hawkins, Andy Anderson, Chet Arnold, Roy O'Mara, Hillard Halverson, Bruce Bushnell, Veldon Morgan, Clarence Correll, Howard Parker and many others.
In 1947 Lawrence purchased the Spade's first airplane, a Piper J-3 Cub, but found the plane too small and gave it to his boys. Lawrence then, at the age of 52, purchased a Stinson 108-3 Flying Station Wagon of which he estimated himself to have flown over 100,000 miles on routine ranch duties. Aircraft proved to be vital during the '49 Blizzard and for daily life on secluded Sandhill ranches. In 1950 he estimated that 25 percent of Sandhills ranchers owned or made use of ranch airplanes. Lawrence served on the executive board of the Nebraska Stock Growers Association, the Highway 27 Association, Sheridan County Draft Board and in 1954 was elected President of the Nebraska Flying Farmers and Ranchers Association. Lawrence hosted fly-ins, rodeos, bbq's, ballgames, and dances throughout the years and believed that a handshake answered better than words. Lawrence always admired Bartlett Richards as a cattleman. "Not many people appreciated Bartlett Richard's vision, and how well informed and capable the man was. If he had lived, it's hard to imagine what he might have accomplished," he'd write.
Through Lawrence's efforts, including compiling a petition of 300 cattleman's signatures, in 1970 Bartlett Richards was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, OK. In 1980 Lawrence received news that six sections of the Spade Home Valley and numerous original buildings at the headquarters had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This included the 1879 log cookhouse (moved from the Newman Ranch in 1888), 1889 horse barn and the 1889 Richards-Comstock House originally constructed of sod. In that same year a great honor came when Lawrence himself was inducted in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Lawrence died May 28, 1982 at the age of 86 years old. In memoriam, a biography of his life titled "Lawrence Bixby.. Preserver of the Old Spade Ranch" by Ruth VanAckeren and Robert M. Howard was released in 1995. The many men who made Spade history, from Bartlett Richards to the ranch laborers, could ask no greater respect than "Bix" gave their memory. He will be long remembered in the Sandhills to his friends and family as a remarkable man.