The Painter was a prosperous ranching family in Colorado during the early 1900s. Even though ranching went into universal decline following a brutal winter in 1886, the Painter family remained successful due to equal parts luck, persistence, and scientific management of their cattle herds. They successfully introduced several new species of cattle that were better adapted to both the changing markets and the changing landscape. The Painters were some of the wealthiest early occupants of Weld County, and the published diaries of Mary Davis Painter have cemented the family’s place in the historical narrative.
Arrival in Colorado
In 1881 John Edmund Painter and his brother, Joseph, came to Colorado from England after listening to their uncle talk about his adventures working with a geological survey team in the American west. Later, brothers Edgar and William, accompanied by their mother, Emily, joined them. By the time Mary started her diary, her father, John, and her uncles had been ranching on Colorado’s eastern plains for more than twenty years.
The Painter brothers began with little and struggled to establish themselves as ranchers. In the early days, John and Joseph spent winter nights inside a small board-and-batten house on their southern Weld County homestead near present-day Roggen, burning cow dung in the stove to cook and stay warm. John Herschel Parsons, an early partner of the Painter brothers, recalled that “during blizzards, fine snow would sift through every crack in the windward side and pile up in heaps on the floor.” After weatherproofing the home with their wagon cover, they cooked meals of wild pronghorn, fried flapjacks, and coffee. They devoured their meals, wrote Parsons, not realizing at the time that they were living and acting in “a great drama that was soon to be finished.”
The End of Open-Range Ranching
That drama, an open-range cattle bonanza that lasted from just after the Civil War until the mid-1880s, was played out on one unimaginably vast pasture extending from Texas to Montana and from the advancing line of agricultural settlement in Kansas and Nebraska west to the Rocky Mountains. Cattle owners profited from a strong demand for beef from urban consumers, the military, and mining camps. Set loose to graze on the public domain, cattle thrived in the ecological niche emptied of the bison. In Colorado, the first entrepreneurs—some of them freighters or failed prospectors—established ranches on prairie pastures recently occupied by Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, who were removed to a reservation in Oklahoma in the late 1860s. Large outfits from Texas drove herds of longhorns north, fattened the animals on the nutritious native grasses, and then shipped them east via railroad. Rising profits encouraged corporate investment, much of it from Great Britain. Intermingled herds dutifully multiplied on the open range. By 1880, about 4 million cattle roamed Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Cowboys sorted them out twice a year at district roundups, branding new calves in the spring and selecting slaughterhouse-bound beasts in the fall. The industry made some men rich, such as northern Colorado’s “Cattle King” John Iliff.
Would-be farmers, lured by the Homestead Act’s 160-acre-per-family allowance, plowed up great swaths of the prairie and closed it off with barbed-wire fences. Cooperative associations dug ditches to irrigate crops, further impeding the movement of cattle. Northwest of the Painter ranches, members of the Union Colony established what they hoped would become an agrarian utopia centered on Greeley and promptly enclosed their entire corporate holdings with a single fence. “This is not so much a question in regard to fences,” wrote colony founder and Greeley Tribune editor Nathan Meeker, “as in regard to order and decency, for our town and colony will be disgraced by cattle running at large through our streets.” Gradually, Colorado’s northeastern plains, already overstocked with cattle, did not seem open anymore.
Just three years after the Painters claimed their homestead, an unusually harsh winter decimated what was left of the open-range system. Sometime during the first week of January 1886—twenty-one years before Mary Painter wrote the first week’s entries in her diary—a blizzard froze eastern Colorado and much of the plains region, killing off undernourished and weak cattle by the thousands. The Rocky Mountain News reprinted stories from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas that assessed the debacle. Entire herds, driven by “a nipping norther,” froze in piles along fences, some still standing. One reporter found hundreds of cattle with Platte River brands piled up dead on the north bank of the Arkansas River, over 100 miles from the ranch. Somehow, most of the Painters’ cattle survived.
Adaptation and Prosperity
Even though the brothers still had their herd, John Painter recognized the newspaper stories for what they were: the final act of the open-range drama. Men and animals had to adapt to new conditions. After that winter, some of the British “remittance men”—second or third sons of landed English gentry who lived on generous allowances—went home. As historian Lee Brown writes in The American West, only the “men with the bark on” stayed. The Painters may have been British, but they were self-made and determined to succeed on the changing frontier.
As the character of the land and people changed and the open-range era came to a close, the Painters prospered. John and Joseph married Alice and Florence Musgrave, sisters visiting Colorado with the Painter matriarch, Emily MacKenzie Painter. John and Alice bought a ranch several miles north of the original homestead, naming it “Lakeside” for the seven man-made lakes on the property. At its pinnacle, the ranch encompassed 60,000 acres of rolling dry prairie and supported 1,000 purebred Hereford cattle. Uncle Joseph (called Edward) and Florence moved to Denver, where Joseph engaged in the wholesale coal business with some success. Later he returned to Weld County, purchased the Stone Ranch near Masters, and served as a Weld County commissioner. Uncle William married Grace Mitchell Clark in 1900, also moved to Denver, then returned to the ranch after the birth of his son Stafford to manage the original Painter brothers stock company. Uncle Edgar, living and working with William, remained a bachelor.
In her diary, Mary recorded the activities of her aunts and uncles, but mostly kept track of her father, mother, sister Emily, and brothers James and Austin. They lived in a triangular region of largely treeless grazing land between the South Platte River on the north and Burlington & Missouri Railroad and the small town of Roggen on the south. Today, this area is bordered by US Highway 34 and Interstate 76, with the towns of Roggen, Masters, and Wiggins marking the corners of the triangle. Mary’s father and Joseph also maintained homes in Denver and traveled often between city and country by train.
While the Painters established homes and grew roots in Weld County, the landscape itself changed. Increased settlement by farmers and overgrazing of the public range led to the development of smaller ranches fenced with barbed wire. Shorthorns, the dominant cattle breed of the day, had problems surviving on the increasingly devastated grassland or in especially harsh winters without supplemental feed. John Painter envisioned a different breed with a hardy constitution, capable of living off the sparse grass of Colorado’s high plains. He found what he was looking for in the red-bodied, white-faced Hereford. Like other cattle breeders with British roots, Painter had an eye for good animals. The word “thoroughbred,” which appears frequently in Mary’s diary, was used in the Painter family in reference to all purebred animal life. There is little doubt that John and his brothers learned to appreciate and breed good animals from their father, who had been a well-respected horse breeder in England.
The “Painter Type”
Mary noted the establishment of her family’s now-famous cattle herd in her diary. In 1906, her father purchased seventy-five registered, or purebred, Herefords from the Gudgell and Simpson operation at Independence, Missouri. The Painters made several successful showings throughout the country with these animals, but they sought further improvements. On January 30, 1907, Mary remarked on the ranch’s additional purchases of purebred cattle by writing, “Papa and Austin went to Roggen to get the therobreds [sic].” On February 1 she added, “Papa, Albert [a ranch hand], and Austin weand therbred [sic]. An announcement in the Greeley Tribune the same day reported that “J.E. Painter has shipped in a carload of thoroughbred Herefords which he purchased in Denver.” Mary’s diary and the corroborating newspaper article make it clear that John Painter tried to improve his recently purchased herd with new and better bloodlines within a year of his original purchase.
Several years later, John looked to his native country for a bull with a wide back and loins to correct the one genetic failing of the noble whiteface. Like felines, Herefords had large forequarters and slim hindquarters. Because of this, “cat-hammed” Herefords produced less beef. Mansell Boy, a bull acquired in 1914, corrected the problem by siring a subset of Herefords known throughout North and South America as the “Painter Type.” Mary wrote little about cattle-breeding methods or the names of specific bulls. She complained once that while the “men and Papa and boys fixed cattle us girls did all the house work. Why?” At first glance, this remark seems to show a girl’s frustration at being left out of what might have been considered men’s work at the time. Indeed, several entries begin with “us girls painted” or “us girls looked at dolls” and end with “boys worked.” However, as her diary entries show, Mary did her share of ranch work, and had plenty of fun in the process.
The Painters Leave Ranching
In 1938 Austin, James, Mary, and Emily sold the entire Painter herd at auction. The dispersal received nationwide attention within the ranching industry and earned the Painter clan a small fortune. The American Hereford Journal devoted three articles to the subject, while the Denver Daily Record Stockman recalled John Painter’s legacy as a leader in Hereford breeding and range conservation. Though the year marked the end of the famous Painter Type, descendants of the herd influenced the breed for several more generations. Despite the dispersal, Painter’s legacy remains strong in northeastern Colorado.
His children, especially Mary, made sure that happened by supporting animal- and youth-oriented causes with their own money and with their father’s estate. In the early 1970s, Mary and her husband donated money to establish the John E. Painter Unit for the Greeley Boys Club. Mary died in 1983. Although her father’s accomplishments have received most of the attention from newspaper writers and historians, her diary nonetheless reminds its contemporary readers that despite their relative fortune and fame, the Painters lived a simple life. In Mary’s world, the weather was always “fare” or “fine” and John Painter, known to some as a cattle king, was just “Papa.”
Adapted from Ben Fogelberg, “‘Papa bought some cattle’: The Diary of Mary Davis Painter,” Colorado Heritage Magazine, 23, no. 3 (2003).