By Kirsten Arnold
Wyoming Room – Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library
SHERIDAN — In an age where families splinter and many family farms and ranches are sold to third parties, Ken Kerns talks about his history and how their family held tight to their heritage. His family tree has roots that run deep through the history of Sheridan County.
Harriet Dana, Ken Kerns’ mother, was born in Wyoming in 1897. Her family, long a part of the history of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, homesteaded in the Pass Creek area, near Parkman, in 1886.
His father, John Kerns, arrived in 1903 with his father as part of a development effort to bring individuals from Iowa to Wyoming. John Kern’s father came with the intent of opening a bank in Parkman, but influenced by a talented real estate agent, he chose ranching instead and settled his family in the Pass Creek area. In 1918, John and Harriet joined their lives and the two families by marriage starting their own lives and legacy alongside their families.
Memories of life on the ranch are plentiful for Ken Kerns. He attended a small one-room school, Slack School. The same school his sons would attend through the eighth grade. The school still serves the community along Pass Creek. Like so many farm and ranch children, Ken Kerns then had to board in Sheridan during high school. Unlike his siblings who boarded with their grandmother, he boarded in private homes of two different families. During his senior year, his mother and he moved into an apartment in town for two months, but the arrangement didn’t work as she found she was needed in town when she was out on the ranch and needed on the ranch when she was in town. The hardships of splitting a family was one Ken Kerns would face again when his own sons started school.
During World War II the Kerns’ survived shortages and rationing like other families. Sugar was divided into pint jars for everyone including the men hired to help. Once your sugar ration was gone, it was gone until the next month. Excess cream was taken to Sheridan for cash at the creamery and grocery stores bought the extra eggs.
Unlike many contemporary ranches the Kerns ranch had electricity as early as 1932 thanks to a Delco electric plant generator in the basement and a wind generator on the barn.
The Kerns’ house benefited from running water due to a gravity water system that worked with a cistern on a hill.
Some advances were not readily welcomed, however, as Ken Kerns remembers his mother’s reluctance to use the new propane stove preferring the old coal burning stove that allowed her to keep a pot of coffee or stew always on a simmer and the house warm.
Ken Kerns worked the ranch helping with the cattle operation. Assisting with the cattle included driving the herd to summer grazing in the Bighorns and bringing the beef cattle down to Parkman to be sold and loaded on trains, then a few weeks later bringing the rest of the herd down to winter pasture. This, of course, is an extremely simplified definition of what can be a complex operation.
While love of home was strong, Ken Kerns left Wyoming to serve in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. Before heading into the Marines, he married Georgia Dunham beginning a 60- year partnership. He spent the last year of his enlistment, 1955, in Korea working with a helicopter evacuation unit.
Thoughts of continuing to pursue a career in medicine crossed his mind, but the pull of home and Pass Creek was strong and Ken and Georgia decided to move back to the family ranch.
After a few years running a family owned ranch in Montana they moved back to Pass Creek for the last time so their children could attend school closer to home and their family wouldn’t suffer from being split during the school year.
The themes of family and community run deep in Ken Kerns’ history. He has served on school boards, hospital boards and as a county commissioner for Sheridan County along with numerous other positions.
The family has faced the same struggles anyone who makes their living off the land can relate to such as lack of water, devastating storms, changes in land management and restrictions to grazing, but with each the Kerns family has learned, adapted and held tight to their heritage.
Ken Kerns is a participant in the Wyoming Room’s Tellus Project that seeks to collect oral histories of Sheridan County.