J.B. Okie: The Beginning
John Brognard (J.B.) Okie was born in Madison, Indiana, on December 10th, 1864. He was the first son of William Thompson Okie and Susan Pitcher Okie. J.B. Okie was appointed as a cadet of the United States Revenue Marine at a military school. As a Revenue Marine, he participated in a surveying trip in the west. During this trip, an officer made an off-hand remark that would change the direction of J.B. Okie’s life. The officer’s remark was, “A man could get rich out here.”
After Okie resigned as a cadet in 1882, he set off for the west alone at the age of 17. He traveled to Wyoming on the Union Pacific Railroad and disembarked in Rawlins in May of 1882 with only $150 dollars in his pocket. He was hired as a cowboy by Captain R.A. Torrey for $25 a month. Four months later, in August, J.B. Okie returned to his parent’s home on the east coast to borrow money to start a sheep business. However, his trip was unsuccessful and he returned to Wyoming without any capital to start his business. Later, in November, his mother decided to lend him $4,500 on the condition that all the sheep purchased would belong to her and that the profits would be equally divided.
Susan Okie’s loan helped J.B. buy 1,000 ewes, 16 bucks, two teams of horses, and a wagon. He bought the sheep from W.D. Currier. At first, Okie herded his sheep along the Sweetwater River south of Lander and from there moved them over to Beaver Creek. During this time, the herders nicknamed the young man “The Cadet” because always wore his Revenue Marine uniform while herding his sheep. The gulch near Lander where he herded his sheep is still known as Cadet Draw today.
In 1883, there was a terrible snowstorm where Okie lost over half of his herd and the rest of his herd was in terrible health. J.B. Okie joined his herd with A.D. Bright’s herd with the hopes that the health of his sheep would improve. He also decided to work for Bright for $40 a month. In order to join his herd with Bright’s, Okie herded his sheep from Beaver Creek to Badwater Creek at the foot of the Owl Creek Mountains. Later, J.B. Okie’s son, Van, described his first impressions of the place J.B. Okie would make his home: “With plenty of water, trees, level arable land, and the Big Horn Mountains not far away, forming a semi-circle on the north, this spot would be protected from winter’s polar blasts and free of the winds which tear across the open plains. Here was the place to settle and build a castle among the hills; here man might erect an empire of his own and be his own master. No white man had settled here before him. No human habitation was closer than the few cabins at Thermopolis, sixty-five miles to the west, in the Big Horn Basin. This was a country of great silence, broken only by the cottonwoods and willows disturbed by the breeze.”
At first, Okie lived in a small tent with his brother, Howard, who had come to visit him from 1883-1885. In the fall of 1884, Howard and J.B. started work on a small dugout cabin with a sod roof. He stayed in this small cabin for three winters. During this time, Okie also separated his sheep herd from A.D. Bright’s herd and began herding his own sheep with a headquarters located at the little dugout cabin. On his 21st birthday, his mother gifted him half interest in the ownership of the sheep herd. One year later, J.B. Okie decided to expand his operation by clearing land, digging irrigation ditches, and starting a farming operation. In order to expand his operation, he needed to travel to Rawlins to hire some men and to purchase some more tools. On this trip to Rawlins, J.B. Okie met his future wife, Jeannette Anderson, in a hotel on the road to Rawlins. During his stay in town, he found some opportunities to talk to Jeannette at the grocery store and at the community dance.
After hiring six men, purchasing extra horse teams, and purchasing necessary tools, J.B. Okie returned to his cabin at Badwater Creek. During that summer, eighty acres of land were cleared and the men dug irrigation ditches. They constructed stables, corrals, and a larger cabin up on a hill. In October, J.B. returned to Rawlins to propose to Jeannette Anderson. Okie had maintained a correspondence with Jeannette while he was at Badwater Creek so when he returned to Rawlins she accepted his proposal. The couple was married at the home of Professor C.L. Wells where Jeannette had been staying in Rawlins. After the wedding, the couple headed back to Lost Cabin in a supply wagon loaded with winter supplies.
After their marriage, Jeannette and J.B. Okie’s family slowly began to grow and his political ambitions expanded. In 1888, Jeannette and J.B. had their first child named John Jr. In 1890, their second son, Howard, was born. His first political venture began in 1890, when Fremont County nominated Okie on the Republican ticket for the state legislature. During that election, Fremont County ended up electing Robert H. Hall from the Democrat ticket. Later in 1891, J.B. Okie was elected as the first president of the Bighorn Mountain Woolgrowers Association. During this year, people started referring to J.B. Okie as “The Sheep King”. In 1892, he was selected as the alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention for Fremont County. That same year, Okie ran for the state legislation against the Democrat, W.D. Pickett. He won the election, but there was a dispute over the voting count and the election was overturned. Also in 1892, Okie’s third child, St. Claire, was born.
Continued in Part Two Coming Soon…
Next up for the Fremont County Museums
December 7th at the Dubois Museum, “Christmas Open House”
December 7th at the Pioneer Museum, “Old Fashioned Christmas”
Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
December 14th at the Riverton Museum, “Old Time Christmas Decorations”
Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
December 14th at the Riverton Museum, “Christmas Open House”
Consider supporting The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander or the Riverton Museum with a monetary donation. The museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.