Home Events Books, etc. About Tom Links Wyoming's pastContact

A Man and his Mansion

J.B. Okie, Sheep King of Central Wyoming

By TOM REA

In the fenced yard of his mansion at Lost Cabin, Wyoming, J.B. Okie built an aviary—a birdcage big as a house.  Plants grew like a jungle inside it. Among the big plants cockatoos, macaws and birds of paradise (below) flapped, shrieked, and hopped from perches to little swings, bobbing and looking for snacks. Children who grew up around Lost Cabin at the start of the 20th century remembered the aviary all their lives--- its wild sounds, strange smells, and scary, bright-colored birds. And they remembered J.B. Okie.

John B. Okie was a businessman. He was good at it because he had a big imagination, and was thorough about putting his ideas into action. He imagined the dry sagebrush hills of central Wyoming scattered with flock after flock of his sheep. He made that happen. He imagined a chain of stores to sell ranchers, cowboys, sheepmen and their families things they needed on terms they could afford. He made that happen, too. And when he was rich, and his wife had borne him eight children, he imagined a new life with a younger, prettier, more glamorous wife—and he made that happen, too.

Decades after his death in 1930, people still told stories about J.B. Okie—his airstrip, his roller rink and dance floor for his employees, his parties, his cars, his mansion, his mechanized sheep-shearing sheds, his golf course, his aviary, his business methods, and his wives. Out of some mix of nervousness and respect the tale tellers asked that only the good things about him be remembered. But they also passed on stories about his flaws.

John B. Okie was the son of a well-to-do doctor and a mother in the real estate business in Washington, D.C. In 1882, when he was17 years old, confident and ambitious, young J.B. went west by himself. He got off the train in Rawlins and found a job cowboying for the summer.  Then he traveled east again, and talked his mother into lending him $4,500 to buy a herd of sheep. He headed back to Wyoming. In November he bought 1,000 ewes, 16 rams, two teams of horses, and a wagon. The sheep would belong to his mother, and they would split the profits from selling each year’s crop of wool in the spring and lambs in the fall.

The first winter Okie herded the sheep along Beaver Creek, in Fremont County. He didn’t understand the business well. He kept the sheep too long in each place, using up the grass and weakening the animals. Nearly half the sheep died in a bad storm. The next summer, he joined his sheep in with another man’s herd, and went to work for the man as a herder at $40 a month. He learned the business better, sold some property he owned in Washington for $300, and bought more sheep.

Soon, he moved his flock north to Badwater Creek, which flows west along the southern edge of the Bighorn Mountains in central Wyoming to join the Wind River in what’s now Boysen Reservoir, north of Shoshoni. The country Okie crossed with his flocks is very dry. Badwater Creek, with its green cottonwoods and willows, must have seemed like an oasis in the summer dust. His brother Howard joined him that fall. They spent the winter in a tent. The next year they built a rough dugout cabin. Howard left. J.B. spent three more winters in the dugout.

It was always a risky business. The winter of 1886-’87, which nearly wiped out the cattle business in Wyoming, killed three-fourths of Okie’s sheep. But where cattle prices fell and kept falling, sheep prices rose. Okie kept buying and dealing, dealing and buying. Already by 1889, a Casper newspaper called him “sheep king,” and in 1891 reported his herds had grown to 12,000.

On his 21st birthday his mother gave him the sheep, and cancelled the $4,500 debt he owed her from the loan. But there were strings on the deal. When the sheep were shorn each spring and the wool was sold, and when the lambs were sold each fall for slaughter, she would still get half the money.

And Okie decided to marry. In the spring of 1887, on a rare trip to Rawlins, he met Jeanette Anderson, a Swedish girl newly arrived with her parents. They wrote letters over the summer, and were married in the fall. She was valuable on the ranch. She could shear sheep and doctor injured men when necessary. Over the next 15 years, she bore eight children, seven of whom lived. Okie, meanwhile, built a larger and more solid cabin near Badwater Creek, up out of the creek bottom. As more children came, they added more rooms.

He expanded his businesses at the same time. In 1893, he formed the Bighorn Sheep Company. That same year, Okie bought the Smith Mercantile, a store in Casper. His brother Fred came out from the East to run it. In 1895, Okie had enough employees living near his cabin, and enough other people coming and going that it made sense to open a store there, too. The store (a later version, right, replaced it in 1913) made the place something like a town.

“Looks like that store will be a gold mine,” someone supposedly said, and so Okie named the town Lost Cabin, for the mysterious Lost Cabin Mine that decades before had been found, lost, and never found again.

Seven Swedish miners, so the story went, found gold near the headwaters of Badwater Creek in 1864, during the bitter Indian Wars. Before they could reach any town or fort, Indians killed five of them. The remaining two made it back to Fort Laramie. One had by that time gone crazy, but the other supposedly handed $7,000 worth of gold dust over to the fort’s storekeeper for safekeeping. More men went back out toward the mountains to find the mine, taking the sane miner with them. But Indians killed him, too, and the mine was never found.

Okie’s brother Fred caught the gold fever in Casper, quit running the store there and went to prospect on Casper Mountain. But J. B. was much too practical to pin his hopes on something as dreamy as a gold mine. He closed the Casper store and moved all the goods to his store in Lost Cabin. Within a few more years, he opened stores in several hamlets around central Wyoming—Lysite, Arminto, Moneta, Shoshoni and Kaycee.

In these stores, without having to make the days-long trip to bigger towns, ranchers, cowboys, and sheepmen could buy the tack and tools they needed to get from one season to the next. Prices might have been high, but saving the long trip was worth it. The men’s wives could buy a sewing machine and fabric to make clothes and curtains for the family, patent medicines for their ailments, and stylish hats and dresses for themselves. Knowing his business depended on the good will of his customers, Okie cheerfully gave them credit. They could buy now and pay later when they had money—after shearing time or after lamb-shipping time.

Soon he went from extending credit to lending money directly—a short step. Before long it seemed as if everyone in central Wyoming worked for J.B. Okie, shopped at his stores, owed him money, or all three. (Below, sheepherders at a camp on Nowood Creek, 1916).

“All the little sheepmen here have the blues. They can’t make anything,” Percy Shallenberger wrote from Lost Cabin to a friend in 1901. “They are all paying Okie 12% interest on their money and 75 percent profit on their goods.”  The rate Okie was charging when he lent money was low for the time, and fair. Shallenberger worked in Okie’s store, so the profit margin he mentions is probably true. And his main point is true in any case—Okie controlled his customers’ financial lives.

Still, they seemed to like him. They told a good story of his fearless confrontation with a thug just about to leave the store without paying. They told another of his public scolding of a clerk, who was about to cut off credit to a loyal customer. Okie hired smart people, paid them well, and then got out of their way when there was work to do. They worked hard for him in return.

He was determined to make Lost Cabin an important place. In the 1890s, Okie had a schoolhouse built, and turned it over to the school district. He opened a coal mine in the hills for fuel for the little town, and a sawmill for lumber. Eventually he built a diesel-fueled power plant for electricity, and water and sewer systems. In 1906, he brought in an Oldsmobile, the first car in central Wyoming. Soon he had his employees improving the roads.

In 1901, the mansion was finished. It’s built of stone, with handsome lines to its roof and windows. It has two stories and sixteen rooms, with a third-storey tower at the front corner. Before the cottonwoods around it were as big as they are now, Okie could survey his empire in all directions from the windowed room at the top. Shoshones, who came by frequently on their way from the reservation to the mountains, supposedly called the mansion the “Big Teepee.” The name stuck.

And Okie stayed deeply involved in the sheep business. He could afford to buy sheep when others were selling and prices were low. When prices rose again he could sell a herd or two and make a great deal of money. He built big sheds to store his wool. If wool prices were too low, he could hold his wool until prices rose again. When he lent men money, they put up their sheep as collateral. Then when they couldn’t pay, as sometimes happened, Okie would get the sheep.

Each spring and fall, however, he had to make the payments to his mother. This made it harder to invest in new prospects—to buy more sheep, bigger storage sheds, newfangled shearing sheds, or to buy more land. In 1898 he persuaded his mother to sell the rest of her interest in the company to him for $30,000. After that, he could plow all the money he liked back into the company. He began expanding in earnest. The new investments paid off quickly. Business boomed.

Then it backfired. Convinced he’d cheated her, Okie’s mother sued him in a court back east just as the mansion was finished, in the fall of 1901. She claimed the $30,000 he’d paid her was far too low, that he’d taken advantage of her ignorance when he bought her out. Okie (below, around 1905) claimed he’d been trying to for a long time to teach her the business, working to get her to let him put each year’s money back into the company. The court found him convincing. His mother lost her case. The truth is, both were business sharks.

 

Okie’s wife, Jeanette, seems to have been coming into conflict with him at about the same time. They had traveled widely to both coasts, to Yellowstone in 1891, to Mexico, and to Europe. But J.B. and Jeanette began drifting apart. Suffering from lung ailments, she started spending winters in Washington, D.C., with Okie’s mother. Apparently at least some of their eight children were with her. In 1902, their son, Paul, died of diphtheria.

Around this time beautiful Clarice Lovett arrived in central Wyoming with her husband, Herbert, who came to Lander to run the telephone company. She was young and well educated, a much more sophisticated woman than Jeanette. She seems to have had her eye on Okie from the start.

J.B. and Jeannette were divorced in 1907. When Clarice got her divorce from Herbert a short time later, she and Okie (left) were married the next day. He took her around the world. They had guesthouses built near the mansion. They added the aviary. At night, after dinner, they read novels aloud to each other in French.

 

But if there was conflict in his family, there was real violence on the range in those same years. Cattlemen had watched sheep overrun the ranges they were used to controlling. Under the law, any unowned or unclaimed range was open to anyone who wanted to use it. But by custom, the stock raisers who’d come into the country first had first dibs. In most places, that meant cattlemen.

Conflict was especially violent in the Bighorn Basin, its southern edge not far north of Lost Cabin. Cattlemen resorted first to threats—publicizing theoretical lines across the range that sheep were not to cross. When sheepmen crossed these deadlines, cattlemen carried out their threats. Entire flocks were slaughtered and the carcasses burned. Sheep dogs were shot. From time to time, men were murdered, and no one was charged with the crime. There were no more murders after 1909, but raids on sheep camps continued until 1916.

Okie, so far as is known, was involved in just one shooting scrape among some of his employees. One man was killed, and another man’s arm was shot off. Juries twice were unable to convict the man accused. Finally the victims sued Okie, but the case was dropped. Okie avoided the violence of those years because he was smart, had come into the country early, filed early for water rights, and respected the deadlines.

The real problem was that the law did not suit conditions on the ground. Grass on the open range was free. But a person could legally take up only small pieces of government land for himself and his family, and much more than that was needed to run cattle or sheep with security from one year to the next. Most stock raisers, Okie included, found ways to duck and dodge around the land law.

So-called false entry was common. A stock raiser would persuade a friend to file a claim on a piece of land—to “enter” on it, was the legal term. After a few years of appearing to follow the rules, the entryman could own the land. Then he would turn it over to the rancher who’d approached him about it in the first place. This was fraud, but almost impossible to prove, and so common the government turned a blind eye.

But then a complaint against Okie in 1910 led the U.S. Department of Interior to send a special agent to investigate. Probably hoping to make an example of so prominent a man, the government finally sued him in 1916. Okie stood to lose a lot. If he lost, he would have to pay back rent on all the land the government claimed he had gotten illegally—about 13,500 acres. Okie’s lawyers were skilled at delay. The case dragged on for nine years. Finally, a judge threw out all the government’s charges, partly because, he said, the government had moved too slowly on them. When the dust settled, Okie had clear title to 57,000 acres of land.


           
Meanwhile, the railroad bypassed Lost Cabin in 1914 and instead went through Lysite, three miles away. It was a blow to his town, but Okie still kept expanding. He had a huge bunkhouse (below) built for his employees in 1916, a golf course in 1917, and the stylish bungalows for his guests in 1918.

Okie turned management of the stores over to his son, Howard. In 1919, a bad drought drove many sheepmen to sell their herds and leave the business. Rather than lose his own sheep or watch them die, Okie shipped 30,000 head to the state of Sonora, in northern Mexico. It was a brave idea, but it didn’t work out well.  The grass was poor and theft was common. He eventually sold most of the sheep at a big loss. But he opened six new stores in Mexico, part of the well-known Piggly Wiggly chain of self-service grocery stores---a new idea at the time. The money he made on the stores offset the money he lost on the sheep.

Still, Lost Cabin was declining and Okie’s interest in business was declining with it. Howard died of the flu in 1919, part of an epidemic that killed millions around the world. Okie and Clarice were divorced in 1921. He continued traveling, but still seems to have counted Lost Cabin as home. He married the daughter of a former president of Mexico, and they had two children. He survived the great stock market crash of 1929 well enough. But, though none of his friends would admit he was depressed, he was drinking more.

One morning in November 1930, Okie went duck hunting with a friend. Apparently he slipped on the steep, muddy bank of the small reservoir at Lost Cabin. The water was 40 feet deep, he was wearing heavy clothes, and he was out of sight of his hunting partner. He sank, and drowned. They had to drain the reservoir to find the body.

 

Though smaller, Lost Cabin in its heyday was as much a company town as were Hanna, Wyoming with its coal or Midwest, Wyoming with its oil wells. But unlike the others, Lost Cabin was very much the product of one man’s personality.

The house belongs to Phillips/Conoco, an oil and gas giant. The dry hills around Lost Cabin bristle now with natural-gas wells, some more than five miles deep, and gas-sweetening plants. The gas comes out of the ground mixed with poisonous hydrogen sulfide, which must be removed at the plants before the gas can be piped to market. But hardly anyone lives there. The plant workers commute from Shoshoni, and places farther away.

J.B. Okie's personality survives in the Big Teepee. It’s well kept, freshly painted, and part of the lawn inside the old cast-concrete fence is kept neatly mown. It looks as if the oil and gas company expects him to return any moment, for a party with his family and his employees, talking and talking about all his bright ideas.

 

 

RESOURCES

Primary sources:
Shallenberger, Percy H. Letters from Lost Cabin: A Candid Glimpse of Wyoming a Century Ago. Edited by Doug Cooper. Casper: 2006. Printed by Mountain States Lithographing. Percy Shallenberger worked in the Lost Cabin store off and on from 1901 to 1910. At the same time he was in the sheep business with Tom Cooper of Casper. Cooper did most of the herding, while Shalleberger scraped up the funds. They did most of their business through the mail. Though the book only gives half the correspondence—Shalleberger’s letters, but not Cooper’s in return—it still gives vivid glimpses of Okie as employer and sheep king, and a clear picture of the difficulties over land, water, money, and sheep that men with much smaller holdings were up against.

See also the J.B. Okie papers at the American Heritage Center in Laramie.

Secondary sources:
Davis, John. A Vast Amount of Trouble: A History of the Spring Creek Raid (University Press of Colorado, 1993 and University of Oklahoma Press, 2995) and Goodbye, Judge Lynch: the End of a Lawless Era in Wyoming's Big Horn Basin (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005) give great background on the sheep-cattle troubles of the early 20th century.

Hammons, Kathryn. "John Bragnard Okie: Pioneer Wyoming Sheep Rancher, Merchant, and Benefactor," Wyoming magazine, September, 1972.

Love, Karen L. “J.B. Okie, Lost Cabin Pioneer.” Annals of Wyoming Vol. 46, No. 2 Fall 1974, pp. 173-205, (Part I); Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring 1975, pp. 69-100 (Part II). Love’s article was written originally as a master’s thesis in history at the University of Wyoming. An excellent paper, it relies on both written and oral sources, including interviews with many people who lived in Lost Cabin while Okie was still alive and knew him well. Love’s paper is my main source for this account.

Online:
Click here for an article in a power-company newsletter about one of its largest customers, the Conoco/Phillips’ plant at Lost Cabin.

Field trips:
Lost Cabin is three and a half miles northeast of Lysite. Lysite is about 10 miles north of Moneta. Moneta is 21 miles east of Shoshoni on US Route 20/26. Even now the isolation is startling, as is the contrast between the shady green trees at the mansion and the baked hills all around. A drive there makes it easy to imagine the remoteness that Okie and the other Lost Cabinites seem to have welcomed at the turn of the last century.

Photo credits:
The photos of sheepherders on Nowood Creek and of the herd of sheep at Lost Cabin are from Wyoming Tales and Trails, with thanks. The black and white photo of Okie's mansion is from the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. Copy and use restrictions apply. The photo of the bunkhouse is negative #14779, and the portrait of Okie is negative # 18385 in the Wyoming State Archives. Both are used, with thanks, by permission. The bird of paradise is from Wikipedia. The color photos of the Lost Cabin store and the mansion are mine.