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Cowboy Magazine's Winter, 2006 issue features South Dakota rancher Robert Dennis in a cover story by journalist and photographer Jeri Dobrowski.  

With the kind permission of Cowboy Magazine editor Darrell Arnold and author Jeri Dobrowski, we're pleased to have the article and photos below.

photo by Jeri L. Dobrowski, obtain permission for reproduction rights

Read more about Cowboy Magazine here and at the Cowboy Magazine web site.

Read more about Robert Dennis and read some of his poetry here.

Jeri Dobrowski's journalism and photography is familiar to Western readers.  Her work has been been featured in magazines including American Cowboy, Cowboy Magazine and True West, and in books, newspapers, program books, brochures, and on CDsShe writes Cowboy Jam Session, a monthly column of Western culture news and reviews. She also designs and edits books and CD projects.

A photo by Jeri Dobrowski, titled "Leadin' a Spare," from the shoot for this Cowboy Magazine cover story, is featured in our Art Spur project. Art Spur invites poets to let selections of Western art inspire their poetry.


Robert Dennis

~ by Jeri L. Dobrowski

All Robert Dennis ever wanted to do was ranch and carry on the traditions of his father and grandfather. He is a man living his dream.

Even so, he admits that some years are more fun than others. "Itís fun to ranch when thereís grass and water. Tough winters donít bother me. I can buy more hay or sell down. Dry years just suck. I hate to see thirsty cattle."

Robert is a fourth-generation South Dakotan, operating the ranch homesteaded by his great-grandfather and grandfather in 1900. "Grandpa had his pick of all this country when he came. Iíve often wished heíd picked a more protected location in the breaks. But, you canít drought us out. We have stock wells, and alfalfa does well on the sub-irrigated meadows."

Remnants of the familyís first home are evident a short distance from the corrals. Cottonwoods planted and nurtured through the decades shade the Dennis home containing heirloom furniture and well-worn cowboy gear. The Meade County ranch, near Red Owl, is in the western part of the state. Itís 60 miles from a town of any size. Make that drive and youíll find yourself in downtown Sturgis, S.D., home to the Nationís most recognizable biker event, the Black Hills Motorcycle Rally.

While Sturgis may be known for hosting hell-raising bikers seven days out of the year, the Dennises raises cattle, horses and kids year-round. Robert and his wife, Cindy, have seen three sons grow up on the short-grass ranch established by his Civil War-veteran ancestor. And now theyíre spoiliní their first grandchild on the same spread Ė a boy.

"Kids are the best crop we raise in this country," Dennis said, referring to his three sons. Tyler, 24, is studying to be a priest. Tate, 22, is recently home from duty in Iraq and Kuwait. Heís a new father and working in Sturgis. Chance, 20, is the cowboy. He and his wife, Hope, are on the ranch with Robert for the time being, but are looking for work. "Chance is the one who stayed summers and worked with me while the other boys got town jobs," Robert explained.

Besides boys, youíll find black-hided cattle, quarter horses, draft horses and Indian ponies from the Pine Ridge Reservation grazing the prairie and draws surrounding the home place. Robert and Cindy own a beef herd and also run stocker cattle on a cash basis. Cindy works at the Meade County Sheriffís Department in Sturgis.

photo by Jeri L. Dobrowski, obtain permission for reproduction rights

"Weíre working to build a herd so down the road she doesnít have to work. Someday Iíd like to go to a grass-fat market," Robert said. In the meantime, he makes the place cash flow by running yearlings. He sees the ideal setup as running cattle and using horses for daily chores.

Where many modern ranchers prefer to check cattle from the comfort of a vehicle, old-fashioned horsepower rules the day on the Dennis ranch. A team pulls a wagon hauling fencing supplies and moves out with loads of hay and grain in the winter. "Thatís renewable energy," Robert said, "and theyíre voice activated." Raising cattle is excellent training for young saddle horses. Dennis horses are bred and raised for ranch work. Explaining what he looks for, Robert said, "I want my horses like a border collie dog. When they see a cow, they know what to do."

When something needs doctoring, itís done in the pasture. And, it doesnít take two riders to accomplish the task. Both Robert and Chance are capable of roping, tripping and doctoring cattle by themselves. Robert speaks with pride of Chanceís abilities. "He learned a lot the summer he was 16. He was on a 40,000-acre ranch in the North Dakota badlands, living in a cowboy teepee with a chuckwagon. The owner came and checked on him a couple times a week."

Robert doesnít see "cowboy" so much as a noun as a verb. "Itís a way of doing things, a mind set," he said. "For me, using a horse to work cattle is tradition. Theyíre a tool. In my mind, the best way to get things done is horseback. It doesnít matter if youíre in California, Texas, Iowa, Hawaii or Australia, you can cowboy. A good hand is a good hand wherever you put him."

Saddling up in a weathered barn, Robert hoists a basket-stamped wade he made onto the back of a ranch-raised-and-broke dun gelding. He got into building saddles 15 years ago for one very simple reason: "I was too cheap to buy what I wanted."

Over the years, heís asked questions of other saddle makers and participated in three folk art apprenticeships through the State of South Dakota. He is currently studying Sheridan-style carving under G. K. Fraker, Buffalo, Wyo.

photo by Jeri L. Dobrowski, obtain permission for reproduction rights
Robert Dennis knows saddle making from a working cowboy's perspective

Robert still owns the first saddle he made, which he admits looks "pretty crude now." Riding the most recent saddle he built, he comments that factory saddles are built for everybody. "Mine are built for the individual. I visit with the person Iím building one for, work with them to get just what they want and need. I have an advantage over others in that Iíve rode íem and used íem day in and day out. Itís my opinion that you gotta use the equipment youíre making to know if youíre doing it right."

Comfort, strength, durability and how well it fits a horse are key in Robertís assessment of a quality saddle. Itís not about numbers. "I am a rancher and a horseman first and a saddle maker second. I donít have a high output because my cattle come first. Building saddles is more of a winter sport. I expect to do more as I get older and turn the place over to Chance and Hope."

Aside from four years spent in a prison called high school, Robert has lived his entire life on the ranch. He day worked for neighboring ranches for quite a few years and still helps neighbors with brandings in the month of May and shipping in the fall. "Recitiní my poetry, singiní songs and telliní stories have taken me around to see other states."

Several of his stories have appeared in Cowboy Magazine and the anthology Good Medicine. "I was so pleased with how Good Medicine turned out, I decided to do one of just my stuff." Heís putting the finishing touches on a book tentatively titled Ranchers, Ropers and Rounders due out in late 2005.

Besides cowboy poetry gatherings, Robert enjoys ranch roping. "I got into roping four or five years ago. I studied on it, visited with people, got a video and read an article in a magazine. Itís the first time I found a horse sport that Iím willing to travel any distance to participate in."

Labeling it "old, fat manís team roping," Robert is quick to point out that it really is a perfect family activity. "We have fun with just us or with the neighbors. Tate gave it a go while he was home this summer. And, weíve got Dean, Delbert and Casey all within 10 miles Ė they come over a lot."

photo by Jeri L. Dobrowski, obtain permission for reproduction rights
"Leadin' a Spare"

Combining business and pleasure, Robert said the laid-back approach to ranch roping is good for young horses. "Itís not a hard-and-fast sport. Speed is not the object, grace and ease on livestock are. I can use a young horse. I donít have to have an expensive, highly-trained horse to compete."

Aside from the romanticized, Hollywood versions of ranching and cowboying are the cold, hard facts of the cattle business: grass can be short and markets disappointing. To make his dreams compatible with reality, Robert opted for smaller cattle and smaller pastures Ė making for a more efficient operation. This requires fences and water lines, a subject on which he and Chance disagree.

"Chance thinks the fences are stupid and tells me heíll yank íem all out when he takes over. Iím running more cattle than my father and grandfather had and the land looks better," Robert said. He credits cross fencing and management-intensive grazing for the turnaround. "The land is in better shape than it was a 100 years ago. Thereís way more wildlife than when Dad was young."

photo by Jeri L. Dobrowski, obtain permission for reproduction rights
Fifth-generation South Dakotan, Chance Dennis,
totes a saddle made by his father to the corral.

Muley and white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, mountain lions, bobcat, fox and coyote are abundant in the area, and the cattle look good. Grass and water are the keys. By Robertís thinking, all 600 head of cattle should be able to drink at once, even in drought situations. That takes a lot beyond what nature provides. It means digging wells and running pipelines.

Robert considers himself a true environmentalist Ė considers fellow ranchers the countryís real environmentalists. "We live and breathe our environment. We walk the walk and talk the talk. We cut our own throats if we donít take care of the land."

And, truths be known, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were environmentalists too. Itís part of the tradition that makes Robert Dennis the cowboy-rancher that he is.

©  2006, Jeri Dobrowski, All rights reserved
This article appears in the Winter, 2006 issue of Cowboy Magazine and is reprinted with permission. Some photos and some slight editing vary in this version.


  Read more about Robert Dennis' book that is mentioned in the above article, Ranchers, Rounders & Ropers, here. 

  Read more about Good Medicine: Humorous Stories and Poems from COWBOY MAGAZINE, mentioned above, here.








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