Purchase photos

Rancher talks drought

10/23/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

WALLACE -- When he wasn't jumping out of a plane, Von Chisum spent much of his life on horseback.

That's because he's a true cowboy, right down to the leather suspenders he still wears today.

Or there's the pair of well-worn saddles in the house he lives in northwest of Sharon Springs.

Even his lunch, interrupted by visitors recently, consists of a sandwich and pork and beans, straight from the can.

He'll even agree he's the real deal.

Not quite three weeks into turning 91, Chisum's given up much of the cowboy life, much of it as a result of the drought.

Cattle were pulled off the grass he owns early last year, and conditions were so poor this spring the land was allowed to remain idle.

He's since received rain, and conditions have improved dramatically.

While Chisum traveled the world, he's only 11 miles from where he was born.

"I was 5 years old when we came here," he said of living on what is now the home place. "Ain't that something?" he asked after saying he'd turn 91 on Oct. 7.

Chisum spent a year in the Army, where he eventually became a paratrooper.

But he spent the first 11 months in the cavalry.

"I enlisted in the horse cavalry," he said. "They disbanded the horse cavalry about the day I enlisted."

So he had to make a decision, and eventually transferred to the paratroopers.

"I didn't want to fly," he said. "They took me in the paratroopers."

It all took place so quick, Chisum said, because he'd already gone through basic training.

"I really only jumped seven times," he said. "No combat jumps."

That's because he hurt his leg on one of those jumps.

So he spent the rest of his term in a combat unit, some of which was spent in Europe.

And then he returned home, to a ranch adjacent to the Smoky Hill River and a life of cattle ranching with his father.

It's a tradition he carried on until 12 to 15 years ago, when he switched to stocker calves on grass.

Along the way, Chisum's seen changes in weather.

In the 1950s, "all I could see was dust in my face."

"From what I read, we had less this year than in the '30s," he said. "We had a blow here the other day that sent it up like in the '30s."

Chisum's talking about recent events when wind along the western-most tier of Kansas counties blew at speeds of up to 70 mph, sending dust aloft and closing highways.

Conditions now are sharply different than in the drought of the 1930s, he said, but it's only because of his situation.

"I'm looking at it through different eyes," he said. "We're a lot better off than in the '30s. I didn't worry about things in the '30s. I was just a kid.

"Now, as an old man, I got it all paid for. In the '30s, everybody was hurting. There was no money."

During the dry spell of the 1950s, Chisum went to work in the oil patch and building bridges to make it through the difficult times.

"A cowman has a short memory," he said of being quick to build a cattle herd back up. "You get out of one of these messes, it starts raining and you just get right back in it."

At his peak, he had a herd of 180 cows.

Along the way, Chisum followed area rodeos.

"I used to ride bulls," he said of following the circuit, working during the week so he could head off to a rodeo on the weekend.

He laments the loss of neighborliness.

"I sit here and think about the old days a lot," Chisum said. "I guess that goes with old age."

But then most of his neighbors are gone, long moved out.

A granddaughter built a house nearby, but that's still 1.5 miles away "as the crow flies."

It's moisture that guides the life of a rancher.

"In this country, when it's bad, you can't get out of here." Chisum said. "When it's good, they can't run you out of here."