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You may have a million acres of ground and a lot of cows, but you ain't got much till you got a brand." So goes an old cowboy saying.
You had to have a brand way back in the days of ancient Egypt if you didn't want some ornery, good-for-nothing rustler to make off with your cattle or slaves. And, centuries later, one of the first cattlemen in the Americas, Hernando Cort�s, conqueror of Mexico, had to have a brand for his livestock. He used three Christian crosses.
In the open-range days of what is fondly known as the Old West branding irons were vital. There were running irons (a red-hot iron with a blunt point used as a stylus to trace a brand on the hide of an animal) and stamping irons with fixed designs. They were and are the real American heraldry. Instead of eagles and rampant lions, or fleur-de-lis, griffins or wyverns, these American heraldic designs are indigenous and understandable things, such as coffeepots (upright with lid closed, upright with lid open, lying on the right or left side, tilted or upside down), bridle bits, bootjacks, butterflies, teapots, knives, lamp chimneys, shovels, hats, umbrellas, tepees, turkey tracks, warbonnets and a host of other familiar objects. A good brand should be simple, big enough to read at a distance, suggestive of a name if possible (to make it easier to remember) and, finally, it should not blotch—this last to discourage rustlers, who might want to alter it.
When fences came along, a lot of people thought brands might not be needed any longer, but it turned out that with more cattle and more people raising cattle even more brands were needed to thwart rustlers. Today cattle states still have thousands of registered brands. Wyoming alone has 22,466 registered in the Brand Division of the Livestock and Sanitary Board in Cheyenne.
The official state brand books probably will not grow much larger, but there are soon going to be more branding irons around the U.S. than there are cows. They are in demand as decorative pieces for dens and patios and as novel pokers for fireplaces and outside grills. They can also be used to brand your leather goods, your steak or a piece of pine board for a gate or door sign. Said one grizzled old Colorado cowpuncher: "The dudes'll be branding the left rear fender of their shiny station wagons next thing you know."
To meet the demands of collectors of western Americana, three bright young men have a brand-new brand business going in the little town of Lusk (pop. 1,890) in eastern Wyoming. Under the firm name of The Blacksmith, 242 Rawhide Avenue, they are turning out 200 branding irons a day. They are using old Wyoming brands but will make brands to order or will even design them for the discriminating 1966 condominium cowboy who must have one of his very own. Prices range from $3 to $18.
The three young men are Paul Holtz, 32, administrative assistant to Wyoming's Governor Clifford P. Hansen, James B. Griffith Jr., 39, editor of The Lusk Herald, and Dr. Lawrence McGarvin, 31, a dentist, who sometimes worries about what his patients will think when they find out he is also in the blacksmith business. The trio got the idea of making branding irons while having coffee one morning in the Ranger Hotel in Lusk. The town had been losing payrolls lately. The telephone company automated and let out 18 operators. A couple of other businesses, including a creamery, were in the process of moving away. What could they do or make that would tie into the Old West and still not duplicate what someone else was doing? Then someone thought about branding irons, authentically made and ready for decoration or use.
The trio went to see W. W. (Buck) Culver, a 56-year-old real, honest-to-goodness blacksmith who runs the Western Repair Shop, the only automobile and truck spring manufacturer in the state. Buck has three men and a woman in his shop and does just about everything except shoe horses. He keeps a stock of different-size horseshoes for the convenience of neighboring ranchers and farmers, but he hasn't done any shoeing himself since he was laid up after trying to put a shoe on a fractious bronc. Buck and his helpers (one of them, 74-year-old John Mudra, has been pounding away at metal since 1910), make gate hinges, grillwork, trailers, branding chutes, rustic door latches and fireplace sets, as well as automobile and truck springs.
Buck listened to the three young would-be purveyors of branding irons, shook his head and said: "I've made hundreds of branding irons for cows, calves, horses and sheep, but never for dudes. Oh, well, here we go again."
A proper sort of stamping iron customarily has a handle about two and a half feet long. The letters, numerals or figures are usually about four inches high. Quarter-inch to half-inch iron is generally used, since the best branding iron is one that will hold heat well and still leave a neat mark. Most brands consist of a combination of two or three characters, though some have only one and some have as many as four.