Modern-day cattle ranching isn’t exactly how it’s portrayed by the fictional, sixth-generation Dutton family on the hit TV show “Yellowstone,” but it’s the only way of life Joleta Ingersoll and her two teenage sons have ever known.
It’s also the one they choose to fight for and work at every day.
“There’s a lot of family history in it, and there’s a lot to live up to. Me and my brother talk about it quite a bit,” said Ingersoll’s son Walt Spurlock, 19.
Ingersoll’s great-great-grandfather Robert McFarlin settled the land now known as the McFarlin Ingersoll Ranch in 1918 after amassing a fortune by drilling in the Glenn Pool and Cushing oil fields.
The oilman went on to become a noted philanthropist, best remembered for building the library at the University of Tulsa, a church in Norman and an auditorium at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, all of which still bear the family name.
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His 11,500-acre cattle ranch is the 2022 winner of the Oklahoma Centennial Ranch Award, bestowed annually by the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
The historic preservation honor is for a property of at least 40 acres with gross annual sales of at least $1,000 and controlled by members of the same family for 100 years or more.
But the sixth-generation homesteaders with 1,200 head of cattle that call it home say no statewide award or grand family name has ever shined as bright a spotlight on their way of life like the pop culture phenomenon that is the American drama television series "Yellowstone," created by Taylor Sheridan.
“The lifestyle and the history and the legacy — there’s a lot of similarities to it, there is. But they really portrayed it really different than it is nowadays, the way I see it — they have a little older style,” said Walt Spurlock. “Around here in Inola, there’s a lot more country people than city people, so they know more than kids from Tulsa. But people always ask me questions about it, and I’ve seen more people interested in cattle ranching because of that show.”
Same as it ever was
Sunup was an hour ago, but you can barely tell on this early morning in late April with the gentle rolling hills north of Inola cloaked in fog and a heavy mist.
A single rooster crowed as 10 or 11 cowboys and a lone cowgirl zipped into chaps and sipped their first Dr Peppers of the day from ice cold cans.
It’s Day 4 of what will likely take six or seven — a task that, to the eye, appears largely unchanged in modern times: working cattle.
Momma cows and their calves must be herded into large corrals, all over the ranch, and then separated into two groups.
Upon their arrival, the cows are hosed down with insecticides to help keep fleas and ticks at bay.
“It cuts into our bottom line — they don’t produce as well if they’re getting bit, and some pests can transmit disease,” Ingersoll explained.
Next, the cattle are coaxed, pushed and prodded, one by one, into a single chute, where each and every one was vaccinated and then had that documented by having their ear notched.
For the young bull calves, castration was also on the morning’s to-do list.
That means a pit stop in the big metal squeeze chute towed in by pickup truck, so the cowboys can immobilize the little guys and easily flip them onto one side for the procedure.
Some took it easier than the others, which bucked and strained against the squeeze chute’s bars.
“You can give them lidocaine, but then you have to wait for it to kick in — so we don’t,” Ingersoll said, watching as the calves alternate between limping out kind of dazed or sprinting like a bullet shot back into the freedom of the pasture.
“Besides, it doesn’t hurt ‘em too bad. Chico’s knife is really sharp.”
A community effort
Chico Spurlock, great-uncle to Ingersoll’s sons, is in his 27th year as the ranch’s full-time foreman.
Before that, he had a day job for two decades working maintenance for the City of Inola, but he has never really been away from ranching because it requires collective effort.
“We’ve done it all our lives, helping people,” said Chico, whose brother Kurt Spurlock was one of the many neighbor cowboys “helping” out that day at the McFarlin Ingersoll Ranch.
“It’s hard to explain how close this ranching community is,” Ingersoll said. “We’ve only got one other full-time employee besides Chico. Everyone else is just helping out — and we help them.”
She pointed to each worker, rattling off not just names, but the relationships of those helping work cattle to her and her family.
“This guy was just in the hospital with heart stuff. His dad was coming out here until he was 90,” Ingersoll said, of a big, hulking man in a blue shirt, before laughing. “His name’s Dwayne (Stout), but I almost forget because we call him Damn It — that’s what his father said to him so often, it became his nickname!”
The lone cowgirl pitching in was Trista Stevens, wife of full-time ranch hand Jared Stevens. And then there was a white-haired cowboy who had dismounted from his horse to help urge the cattle along in their slow march into and through the chute from ground level.
“Wade is probably 80 — he should not be back where he is,” Ingersoll said, shaking her head.
Wade Hibbler is indeed 80, and he said he’ll only quit being a cowboy when he can’t get on a horse anymore.
“I about can’t walk, but I can still ride — if they can help me up on my horse,” Hibbler said, laughing. “I learned as a kid, growing up in Ava, Missouri. We always help our neighbors.
“Besides that, I’ve always got plenty of T-bone, hamburger and brisket over at the house.”
Evolution is inevitable
There is really only one relatively new aspect in the process of working cattle on this ranch.
The feed trucks used to lure the livestock are equipped with a blaring siren, to ensure every beast on the pasture is rounded up.
They replaced the use of horns because they’re louder, but ironically, the vast majority of cattle require no special sound effects.
“They know the sound of this truck,” explained Chico Spurlock, tapping a knuckle on a feed truck loaded down with a round bale of hay. “They can hear that diesel over there and nothing. But this truck’s engine? They know it’s the feed truck.”
It’s no coincidence that railroad tracks run through the McFarlin Ingersoll ranch. Ingersoll, who was born in 1969, is old enough to remember when feed was delivered by rail and stored in little feed houses that dotted the pastures.
Today, you’re more likely to hear the revving engines of ATV 4-wheelers on any cattle ranch than a train whistle blowing, albeit not for working cattle on the rough terrain and hills at McFarlin Ingersoll.
“Unlike on 'Yellowstone,' we don’t ride to check fences,” said Walt Spurlock. “There’s a lot of similarities to it, there is, but they really portrayed a lot of the work really different than it is nowadays, the way I see it. They have a little older style.
“They’re on their horses all the time, but we’re trying to get stuff done as quickly as possible.”
Modern-day cattle ranchers aren’t just concerned with modern-day efficiencies.
The price of so many critical items — from new trucks, which are typically replaced at 50,000 miles on the odometer because of the off-road beating they take, plus fuel and every kind of cattle feed transported by diesel trucks — has forced all those in the industry into a kind of figurative squeeze chute right now.
“There are days where you think we should get rid of the cattle,” said Ingersoll. “But then you remember the cattle pay for your property taxes and a lot of things you don’t think about because it’s been going on so long.
“Yellowstone” may be romanticizing cattle ranching and making Western wear and home décor trendy right now, but at least one local cowboy has a few things he’d like to get off his chest about those make-believe cowboys on TV.
“I’ve seen it a couple times. That Kevin Costner — he talks so low, I can barely understand him,” Chico Spurlock said, in all seriousness. “And you never know when it’s going to be on, the way TV schedules are these days. It’s on and then it’s not. But yeah, everybody you talk to in town asks you about it.”
Worse than those gripes, there’s one thing that bothers this real ranch foreman the most: that a fictional story with a powerful, pop culture following depicts cattle ranchers as very wealthy.
“Most cattle ranchers, if they’re breaking even, they’ll think they’re doing all right,” said Chico Spurlock. “Everyone I know in ranching has got to have other avenues to earn a living. Everyone.”
Among the host of examples he offered is the Stevenses, the ranch hand and his wife, who have a couple of side hustles, including dog breeding.
Another local couple Chico mentioned raise and sell cutting horses, which are trained specifically for herding cattle — even the ornery ones who might only comply in the corral after a gentle kick with a horse’s front leg or even a horse's bite.
Yet another example? The other half of the McFarlin Ingersoll Ranch’s fifth and sixth generations — Joleta’s sister, brother-in-law and two nephews — who have a racing horse operation on the family property.
Striving for a better legacy
As Joleta Ingersoll looks to the future of cattle ranching there, she thinks too much of the historic ranch has been allowed to return to a native state for their purposes.
That presents a massive challenge moving forward.
The family will need to “reclaim” a significant amount of land as pasture for the cows from the overgrowth that has taken hold, but the work of clearing trees and brush and moving some earth is expensive and labor-intensive.
She also hopes to improve production on the ranch and implement strategic ways of economizing while she still can so that her sons and nephews — and their children and grandchildren — might inherit a place on firmer footing.
“We are fortunate to be able to keep this, but I want it to become more profitable for my kids,” she said. “We could run more (cattle), but this is a good number for us right now, especially with feed prices being so high.”
She recalls how, when she returned home from Oklahoma State University in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, she brought new ideas she had learned in school.
“But my dad would always say, `Nah,’” referring to her father, Win Ingersoll, who died in November 2020. “He had his ways and he had his reasons, but I still think there are better ideas for how we could be doing things.
“I’m taking my kid to classes right now. There is a lot of common-sense stuff we could be doing — some is stuff I learned about at OSU — and when Walt saw it on paper and how much it could help our bottom dollar, he was like, `Oh, we’ve got to get that done.’”
Walt Spurlock got such an early start, he can’t recall when the prospect of waking up really early and saddling up his horse to work cattle wasn’t his favorite thing to do.
That love for cattle ranching, rooted in work, makes him eager to help his mom tackle challenges and take on more and more responsibility as he comes into his own as a young man.
“I’m pretty excited in the next couple years to really get more into it. It’s the same for my brother, who is a freshman in high school,” said Walt. “My mom kind of gets to her ways, but she’s open to newer ideas. Prices are going up in everything; there’s a lot that has to change a lot to make a profit in the cattle business.”