June 26, 1930 – April 4, 2007
Ira “Sid” Sidney Cotton was born on the family ranch south of Bingham, Nebraska in the Rackett Community on June 26, 1930. Foretelling of his life of self-sufficiency and individuality, Sid was born without the aid of a doctor. By the time his father went to Hyannis (some forty-five miles one-way) and got Dr. Howell to the ranch, Sid had already entered the world. Dr. Howell’s only comment before starting the long trip back to Hyannis via Sandhill trail roads was, “Well, you sure wasted my time!”
“Sid”, as he was known to everyone, came from pioneer stock. His father, Ira Calvin Cotton, came as a young man from a farm east of Wichita, Kansas to Nebraska in 1913 and filed a Kinkaid claim in 1915 east of Bingham, Nebraska. His mother, Jennie Elizabeth Jones, came to Nebraska also in 1913 from a farm near Morrison, Oklahoma, where her father had been in the 1893 land rush in Noble County. Sid grew up and, except for his two years of service to his country, lived all his life on his parents’ ranch, which they had purchased in 1928.
An avid hunter, particularly of coyotes, as teenager, Sid purchased his first coyote hounds in 1947 and kept coyote hounds on the ranch for fifty years—until 1997. He often hunted in the earlier days with nearby-cousin, Virgil Ring, who lived on the adjourning Rentfro-Ring ranch. His good friend Howard Parker once told Sid, “You have better pens for your coyote hounds than most people have corrals for their cattle.” As a result of years of coyote hunting, Sid knew the hills for miles around his ranch better than most people know the back of their hands.
An avid horseman from an early age, Sid, at age thirteen, trailed by himself, along with “a good old horse of dad’s” (as Sid often told the story), a small herd of cattle from his parent’s ranch some seventy-five miles to the ranch of his sister and brother-in-law (Enid and Kenton Hardesty) in McPherson County. He spent one of the nights along the way with a local rancher. The rancher later told Sid’s father, “If that boy was going to work like a man, I was going to treat him like a man.” This meant Sid slept with his bedroll on the hay in the rancher’s barn instead of in the rancher’s house with the comforts of a bed.
On March 12, 1952, Sid was drafted into the United States Army. He spent eight weeks in boot camp at Ft. Bliss, Texas. At the same base, he went onto eight weeks of schooling in fire control and electrical work. Then he spent four months at the base receiving troops. He was called home when his father lost an arm in a pickup accident, as he was needed on the ranch; Sid remained home for 50 days. He was later sent to Germany in January 1953 and eventually became a maintenance mechanic, putting to good use the skills he had developed as a young man servicing tractors and vehicles on his parents’ ranch more than thirty miles from the nearest town.
After he was discharged from the service on February 26, 1954, Sid returned to the family ranch and became active in rodeoing, starting out with a homemade one-horse trailer (with “Sid Cotton Lewellen” stenciled on it) and a homemade wooden topper on the back of his 1955 black Chevrolet Apache pickup. In 1955, he was the 18th person to join the newly-organized Nebraska State Rodeo Association (NSRA). He placed in the top ten in calf roping nine years according to the first year records are available (1956) through 1967.
In 1963 and 1965, together with his good friend Duane Buss, Sid won the state champion in team roping and received saddles each year. Duane recently recalled that Sid had one of the best heading horses around those days named Mink, and “Sid always wore a black hat when roping.” Inside that signature black hat, as some people knew, was a tag that read (should anyone pick up the hat by mistake) “Like hell it is yours!” Another long-time rodeo buddy, Duane Wilson, in remembering those days observed, “Sid was an all around good guy, but nobody ran over him.”
In many years during that period, he also placed in the top ten in team roping, including 1968, when he won the third place buckle; 1964 and 1967, when he placed fourth place; 1962 when he placed tenth; and 1971 when he placed sixth. According to Chuck Parker, who maintains an extensive collection of NSRA records, “Sid was one of the top ropers in the state during 1950’s and 1960’s.”
Through the late 1950s and 1960s, he often traveled to rodeos with another good friend, Bob Burgess. Bob, now almost 90, recently recalled, “Sid drove his vehicle and pulled my horse, and I paid for the gas. In ten years, we never had any words.” Bob added, “Sid was not the type of person to stand behind you when you were in trouble. He stood right beside you!”
On May 19, 1967, Sid married Alice I. (Wills) Miller in Julesburg, Colorado. Ira Cotton (Ira Sidney “Tuff” Cotton, Jr.) joined them on February 12, 1970. Tuff also joined his half sister, Penny Rae and half brother, Fred “Fritz” Ronald.
The name Ira Cotton has a long history in the Cotton family, dating back to at least the early part of the 19th century. A barn still stands on the ancestral family farm (dating from circa 1815) near Friendship, New York with the name “Ira Cotton” on it. Sid and Alice’s son Tuff (Ira Sidney Cotton Jr.) and grandson Chase (Ira Chase Cotton) continue the name’s tradition.
Well-liked and respected among his peers, the members of the NSRA honored Sid by electing him to its board of directors every year from 1962 thru 1967 and again in 1969. He maintained an extensive collection of the early NSRA newsletters and was a font of knowledge about its early history.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s he teamed roped with several partners, including his nephew Norman Cotton, his wife, Alice, an accomplished horseperson in her own right (who, in her eighth decade, still heels and drags calves at local brandings), and Howard Parker. Some would say during this time, with too much exaggeration, that when Sid and “Norm” drove into a local ranch “jackpot” roping that the other ropers knew that first or second place was taken.
After a short hiatus from rodeoing when “Tuff” was quite young, in 1980 Sid joined the National Old Timers Rodeo Association and continued as an active member for several years. In 1984, after being a member for 28 years, he received the first gold card in the NSRA. Sid continued to rope at local ranch “jackpot” ropings and win buckles until 1994 when, at the age of 64, a broken leg, occurring at a local branding, finally sidelined him from roping.
Sid inherited the “Bennett” and “Finn” (named after early homesteaders) parcels of the home ranch after his father passed away in 1973. Since owning it, he had a pivot irrigation system installed in “The Bull Pen” (named such after the practice of some early ranchers during the open range days of the late 1800s of keeping their bulls there) and raised alfalfa. He built up a nice herd of Hereford cattle from the original I.C.C. (the Ira Calvin Cotton brand) herd. The herd had a long lineage since Sid maintained his father’s practice of keeping the best heifers as replacements for the older cows. He also raised quarter horses for ranch work and rodeo purposes.
For twenty-one years, he custom hayed for the nearby Grace brothers. During the haying seasons the Cotton ranch was a busy place as many a young man from “town” first learned how to put up Sandhill hay working for Sid. He continued to put up loose hay on the ranch with his collection of 1940s and 1950s Farmall tractors long after many in the Sandhills had started using the less labor-intensive (but more expensive) swathers and large round balers. Multi-talented from observation and experience, Sid also was pretty good welder, and for many years he maintained a federal firearms license and loaded his own shells.
It is said when a man who has lived a long life dies we lose a book of memories. In Sid’s case, we lost a complete encyclopedia of memories of Sandhill ranching, haying, hunting and rodeoing. Alice remains on the Cotton ranch still caring for a varied assortment of livestock, and Tuff lives in nearby Oshkosh and manages the ranch. Sid’s and Alice’s grandchildren, Chase and Addison, are frequent visitors to the ranch, as are friends and other family members.