Owyhee County Ranch Celebrates 150 Years
By John Thompson
Water diverted from Sinker Creek spills out across a pasture where a pair of mallard ducks forage as Paul Nettleton leans on a corral rail talking about the history of this high desert ranch.
Sinker Creek forms a narrow canyon that winds south from Highway 78. It’s been the lifeblood of the Joyce Ranch and helped sustain the family’s cattle operation since 1865. Cottonwoods and willows line the stream while sagebrush and bunch grasses stretch for 20 miles to the base of the snowcapped Owyhee Range which dominates the landscape. A California quail hails strangers with a high-pitched bark, disturbing the morning stillness.
Standing well over six-feet tall, Nettleton’s black felt hat and neatly waxed mustache make him a bit imposing. He’s not a guy you’d want to get on the wrong side of, or at least he gives off that appearance. But what strikes you most after sharing some time with him is his humility, which likely comes from the hardship he’s faced, and an earnest desire to see his family continue its traditions.
The Joyce Ranch originated when Matt and Mary Joyce left northern Nevada and formed a partnership with a fellow known as Scotch Bob on Sinker Creek, where the ranch headquarters is today. Nettleton said there were no official deeds, homesteads were popping up around the region, raising cattle to support the mining and prospecting that was going on at the time.
Shortly after the Joyce’s settled in and built their first house along the creek, Scotch Bob left for greener pastures. In the years that followed, the family faced mounting debt, droughts, fires, predators and cattle rustlers. They lost the original house in a flood and lived in a chicken coop for part of a winter.
With regard to Indians, Nettleton said the Joyce children made friends with the local tribe and when the Bannock War started in 1878 all of the neighboring ranches were burned out but they never touched the Joyce Ranch. “The kids were friends and we think that’s why they left us alone,” he said.
Matt Joyce Sr. was one of the founders of the Owyhee Cattleman’s Association formed in 1868 to control cattle rustling, Indians and predators. He died in 1893, leaving the ranch to sons Matt Jr., Jim and a sister, Annie Joyce. The ranch grew to encompass properties throughout the region but debt also piled up during this time period. Matt Jr. and Jim died in 1935 within five days of each other. They both succumbed to pneumonia. Paul’s grandmother Margaret Joyce married Vilo Nettleton and the ranch was passed on from the Joyce’s to the Nettleton’s after the death of the Joyce brothers.
Prior to the deaths of Matt Jr. and Jim, Paul’s father Hubert became distraught with the family business and struck out on his own. However, the Joyce sisters Annie and Margaret could not secure the financing they needed to keep the ranch solvent after their brothers died so they convinced Hubert to come back to the family ranch in 1935. With a large debt hanging over the operation Hubert saw an opportunity.
Paul explained that the industrial age had come to southwest Idaho and with the advent of tractors and automobiles, the demand for horses disappeared. Ranches still needed good saddle horses but draft horses were turned out by the hundreds to fend for themselves on the vast ranges.
“All of those horses were literally killing the range,” said Paul. “So they gathered horses and sold them for slaughter. They were worth a penny a pound so you could get $10 for a horse which paid down a lot of their debt.”
Hubert was an innovative business man who also made money speculating in real estate. When a federal irrigation project was announced in the area, Hubert purchased several bankrupt homesteads in the area for 10 cents an acre, or the cost of the back taxes owed to Owyhee County. After the irrigation project provided an opportunity to make farmland out of the hardscrabble ranches, he sold the land for $200 an acre. Later the county would approach him with similar deals and he purchased other parcels for the cost of the back taxes owed.
Paul also remembers rounding up horses from the range in the spring, branding the young colts and breaking the older colts to sell to neighboring ranchers. This provided an income stream that helped keep the ranch running in the black.
Hubert was 53 when Paul was born. He decided to lease the ranch and move the family to Boise in the mid 1950’s so that Paul could attend Catholic schools at the behest of his mother. Paul later graduated from Bishop Kelly High School.
But living in the city didn’t stick for the Nettleton’s. Hubert said the ranch went to hell in those years it was leased. Hubert suffered a stroke and at 71 years old wasn’t able to boss a crew and work all day. So Paul took over managing the ranch in his late teens. “Being a cowboy was all I was really ever interested in,” Paul said.
Early on Paul wasn’t interested in the ranch paperwork and politics. His mother Margaret ran that end of the ranch. Paul said his son Chad is much the same today, making the transition into managing the ranch, the herd and the crew, but shows little interest in the books and politics.
“He’s doing an excellent job keeping the crew lined out, he’s just not interested in paperwork and politics yet,” said Paul.
There’s also a handful of grandsons that may move up and manage the Joyce Ranch one day.
“A friend told me once that I could sell this place and live like a king for the rest of my life,” said Paul. “But it’s not really mine to sell, I’m just a caretaker here.”
When asked about his future Paul said old ranchers never die, they just slow down a little. “I don’t think I’ll ever leave the ranch unless I’m not able to care for myself anymore,” he said.
The Joyce / Nettleton family will celebrate 150 years of ranching in Owyhee County on June 10-14. They will welcome family, friends, neighbors and guests for tours of the ranch and a banquet. For more information or check the ranch Facebook page at Joyce Ranch Reunion: Murphy, Idaho.