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Customer Highlight: Rush Creek

Rush Creek’s 150,000-acre ranch spans across eight counties in Western Nebraska, each in which the cows outnumber the people. At some homesteads on the ranch, the nearest town of any size requires an hour-long round trip on low-maintenance roads. Countless families have been raised on Rush Creek land. Some cowboys arrived at the Head of the Creek at age fourteen and spent their last day on a horse in the same spot 70 years later. Some cowboys had daughters who were married on the ranch, and one had a daughter who grew up to become president of the ranch. Her name is Carolyn Wells Jones, known more commonly as Lynn.

The Rush Creek Land & Live Stock Company had its beginning in the late 1800s, has now touched five generations of the Wells family, and has begun to touch second, third and fourth generations of its employees’, board members’ and shareholders’ families. It began when an Englishman by the name of Thomas E. Wells, Lynn’s great-grandfather, made a loan to a customer for the purchase of some Longhorn cattle in Texas, with the understanding that the cattle would be driven north and placed on the grassland Wells had purchased north of Lodgepole, Nebraska, near the Rush Creek area known as the “Head of the Creek.”

In 1888, the borrower attempted to move the cattle up the Texas Trail, but was met by a group of 40 cowboys – all armed with guns – at the Kansas border. 

“Texas cattle had tick fever, and some states would not allow cattle from Texas to pass through,” Lynn said. “We only believe this took place in 1888 because after, cattle weren’t allowed to cross any state lines at all because of a federal law that had been passed.”

The lead cowboy of the 40, and his sons controlled most of the area as their own ranch, and among other reasons, the grass was already too short to have other cows grazing. Nevertheless, the Kansas cowboys wouldn’t allow the drover across the Kansas border, but informed him they could be moved west and up through Colorado instead. Because of this, Mr. Wells was informed that he now owned a herd of cattle as collateral and began his search for someone who could bring the cattle to Nebraska. 

Reuben Lisco enters the story now as a young man who had been working for George Green at the Head of the Creek. Lisco made a deal with Mr. Wells and went to retrieve the cattle, this time driving them up a fork off of the Texas Trail known as the Western Trail, toward Ogallala, Nebraska.

In 1890, the ranch was incorporated as The Rush Creek Land and Live Stock Company. Mr. Wells served as the first president of the corporation and placed its headquarters near the Head of the Creek. Wells and Lisco worked as partners for a number of years, where Wells developed and improved the holding and Lisco oversaw the management of the ranch. 

Nineteen years later, Lisco founded the town north of the Head of the Creek and called it after his namesake. In the same year, he founded Lisco State Bank (now Points West Community Bank). Mr. Lisco’s ranch-hand and right-hand-man at the bank, Harold B. Olson wrote in a letter, “Rueb Lisco is a good rancher, he likes banking.”

Lynn echoed that the same sentiment was mentioned a few times by her father, T.E. Wells III. 

In 1911, Mr. Wells passed away. Lisco continued to live at the Head of the Creek until he built his new home in the new village of Lisco in 1911. He moved the headquarters to his bank and continued to manage the ranch until the time of his death in 1935, when H.B. Olson took over the bank and became secretary and treasurer of the corporation. 

Mr. Wells had three sons – T.E. II, John and Preston – who continued to be active in the management and running of the ranch. T.E. II became president sometime after his father’s death, but he died at a young age and was succeeded by his brother Preston. Preston managed the ranch with the able assistance of H.B. Olson, who remained at the ranch’s headquarters. Thomas E. Wells III was named president of the ranch corporation and he continued that role until his daughter, Carolyn Wells Jones, became president. 

Lynn spent her summers with her dad on the ranch south of Lisco.

“I wanted a summer job, but the only job I could get [as a girl] was as a mother’s helper for $15 per month,” she said. “My brother could work in the hay fields for $100 per month. So I didn’t take the job.”

One year Lynn was allowed to help Jay Queen, former manager of the north unit of Rush Creek, at his branding and was paid $5 for her day’s work. Lynn’s mother framed the check.

“That’s the only time I ever got paid,” Lynn said.

Lynn has since moved on from her role as president but still stays involved on the Rush Creek Board of Directors, and gets to work at all the brandings throughout the season. 

The Rush Creek Land and Live Stock Company has, for the most part, always focused on cattle but at one point ran sheep on the land, although that operation discontinued after the dry years of the 1930s. Preston Wells Jr. (more commonly known as Dick), the son of Preston, was a substantial shareholder and a rather silent partner in the management of the ranch. Dick was primarily responsible for the development of the Coldwater Fish Farm and it was discontinued after his death. 

At one point, though, Rush Creek owned over a thousand horses and ran them down by the river. Every spring, the cowboys would gather them and if they needed a horse, they would choose a four to five-year-old horse that they could use. 

“There were always cowboys in casts after getting bucked off because everyone had to break their own horses,” Lynn said. 

That was until Preston talked to his friend, Mr. Harris of Harris Bank & Trust back home in Chicago. Mr. Harris had some Arabian horses himself and had countless meetings with the United States Army to convince them that his horses would be beneficial to them. 

“The Army was not interested,” Lynn said. “But he [Mr. Harris] kept saying ‘they’re very strong, they have good endurance, they can do whatever you want,’ but of course they are smaller horses and nobody wanted them.”

Mr. Harris set up several trials for the Army where he had the horses race, loaded them with weight, whatever he had to do to show the Army that his Arabians were capable of anything they needed. Year after year, his Arabs always won. Regardless, the Army never wanted them. But Preston was interested. Preston had room for them, so Mr. Harris sold Preston a stallion and Rush Creek bred some riding mares to it. Those became Rush Creek’s foundation stock. 

“We could ride those Arabians as two-year-olds, so we could break the horses while they were young,” Lynn said. “And they were kind, so the cowboys weren’t injured as often.”

Arabians weren’t, and still aren’t, known for work on the ranch, but people soon found out that Rush Creek’s horses were great on the endurance trail, a mix between the “Barbie Doll” show horses, as Lynn calls them, and the heavy quarter-horses. Eventually, all of the horses on Rush Creek were full-blood Arabians.  

Lisco was once home to car dealerships, a dance hall, the American Legion that still remains, a school system, post office, general store, and a gas station, as Lynn remembered it from her summer visits growing up. The town now sits unincorporated with a population of 30 at the 2019 census. Rush Creek’s growth has been the opposite. It began at about 10,000 acres and grew through the years to be considered one of the nation’s largest ranches. Today the ranch is approximately 148,554 acres, with the land located in Garden, Cheyenne, Morrill, Arthur, Sheridan, Cherry, Grant and Hooker counties of Nebraska. The office for the ranch is still located in Lisco’s bank. 

The original cattle for Rush Creek were Texas Longhorn, but has since improved the herd to include primarily Hereford, Angus and Simmental cattle. The Rush Creek cattle now are primarily crossbred cattle and the herds have been greatly improved in recent years. The cattle are run on open range and deeded land. The company gradually bought out most of the struggling neighbors and the ranch south and east of Lisco is now 80,000 adjoining acres. 

The Wells family remains active in the management of the ranch and several family members have homes that they have developed in the area and on the ranch. When T.E. Wells I dedicated the Head of the Creek as Rush Creek’s headquarters, he had builders from England come to erect his home and the other buildings and corrals from native limestone rock. All of the stone materials were cut from the nearby limestone cliffs and the ranch building site covered about fifteen acres and utilized several springs that were at the location. Some of the original buildings at this ranch site are still standing and being utilized.

Many of the homesteaders of the Rush Creek area became ranch hands of Rush Creek Land & Live Stock Company, and many of those ranch hands became managers, presidents, board members and shareholders. 

I’d be remiss not to mention the many employees of the ranch that have come and gone through the years: Bernard Spencer, Billy Moss, Harry Creason, Jake Ackerman, Clark Ruby, Walt Ruby, Ellis Ruby, Carl Mathis, Herman Mathis, Asa Queen, John Polk, Don Rice, Mike Dutko, Rusty Kaps, Paul Lance, Ivan Moss, Paul Yates, Charlie Holthus, Fred Johnson, Don Collins, Clyde Parker, Carl Poinish, Ivan Applegate, Lucille Tyler, Ed Fleming, Tom Olson Sr., Jeanne Fiscus and many others that all played a big part in the operation of the ranch throughout the years. 

Joseph Nash was a president in 1897, before Rueben Lisco, records show. 

Fred “Old Nick” Nichols found his way to Rush Creek all the way from Tennessee and worked on the ranch until he retired to live in the bunkhouse on the east edge of Lisco. He worked for Rush Creek until he couldn’t ride any longer. Old Nick lived to be 85 years-old and is buried in the Lisco Memorial Cemetery, south of Lisco. 

Carl Mathis was a German immigrant and he lived on several locations on the ranch, raising his family. His son Herman was employed by Rush Creek Ranch and married the daughter of Frank Ruby (former General Manager of the ranch).

Bob Mahoney was another long-time cowboy for the ranch, and died while working on the ranch in 1945. He and his wife, Pearl, are also buried in the Lisco Memorial Cemetery. 

Charlie Tolle found his way to Garden County in 1886, and stayed overnight in an abandoned sod house. He started a fire on the dirt floor in order to stay warm and keep himself awake, as he feared that Native Americans would steal his horses. Charlie worked for Bill Lisco about a mile west of present-day Lisco, until he met Reuben in 1892. In 1924, Charlie moved to the Head of the Creek and became a foreman for Rush Creek Land and Live Stock Company. Charlie raised his daughters, Virginia and Margaret, near the ranch headquarters. Virginia was married at the Head of the Ranch in 1932. Ranch life was good to Charlie, as he lived to be 103 years old.

Five generations of the Wells Family have now been involved in The Rush Creek Land & Live Stock Company. The Olson family ties back four generations. Asa Queen’s son and grandson, J.B. Queen (former Manager of the North Unit) and Walter Queen (successor of his father), make up three generations. Gerald Davis, his son Kenny and his grandson Bryce account for three generations as well. Craig and Will Shaffer make up two, as do the late Harley Altena and his son-in-law Jordan Sterkel, and Paul Yates and his son Cade. Still, I am sure that there are many more father-son duos that I’ve missed. 

Upon my few months of research, I quickly learned that there is too much history in those 133 years to be told in a single article, and hundreds of cowboys (and wives) who’s work for and on the ranch should be recognized by anyone who acknowledges the success of this company.

Thousands of stories won’t be passed along because they will stay in the memories of those early pioneers that suffered and endured the development of the western frontier. My memories of a childhood on the ranch are likely more pleasant than the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of the employees that have cared for the ranch for over a century.

The ranch is still owned primarily by the Wells family, where Tom Wells IV serves as CEO. Mr. Wells IV resides in the Chicago area where he oversees his other businesses and visits the Rush Creek area from time to time. Craig Shaffer is President and General Manager of all units on the ranch.

Craig has worked on Rush Creek for over 30 years. His son, Will Shaffer, now manages the Club unit of Rush Creek. Kenny Davis, who’s father Gerald was formerly the General Manager, manages the South Ranch. Jack Parker manages the North Unit of Rush Creek and has been with the ranch for over 40 years. Lyle Sherfey and Bob Hruby manage the King and Moon units of the ranch, respectively. 

I’d like to thank Lynn Jones for taking the time to sit down with me and tell me stories about Rush Creek; Bill Vogler for his work and research on his book Vanishing Dreams and the wealth of knowledge he has regarding Rush Creek; Craig Shaffer for meeting with me and allowing me to visit for one of the brandings; and Amber Levick for providing me with any and all information I needed throughout the past few months!