Beef State: Melvin Nation

Reminiscences about her father, by Moni Nation Hourt
[used with permission of the author]

Everyone seems to notices Melvin Nation’s hands. Large, agile and strong, they could have been the hands of a pianist. Instead they became the hands of a person known for accomplishing anything on a ranch that needed done – whether that be resuscitating a “backwards” calf and keeping it warm and alive in the family bathtub or rescuing a horse who had fallen through the ice in a pond by and tugging the panicked, flailing animal to safety.

As a child growing up on the Coffee Ranches in north-western Sioux County where my Dad has been foreman for nearly 50 years, I saw my Dad as a cowboy. It was many years though, before I realized he hadn’t grown up that way.

My father was raised on a Sioux County relinquishment, purchased by his father in 1908. The second youngest of eight children, Dad couldn’t conform to being the piano player his mother hoped he would be, or the farmer his father was raising him to become. He could handle a team as well as any man, but he was in his true element in a saddle. Throughout my lifetime, the dominant image of my Dad is one of him “a horseback.”

At the age of 19, the story goes, my Dad rode to a farm sale on a wild, half-broke horse, his long hair as unmanageable as his attitude. From a short distance, my mother studied this young “James Dean of the West,” and decided on the spot that Dad was the man she was going to marry.

At 21, Dad hired on with Bill Coffee at the Coffee Ranches – “Hat Creek” and “Warbonnet.” Disagreements between the two men were common. But Dad managed to stop yelling before Bill fired him, and Bill stopped yelling before Dad quit. I guess you’d say they had an agreement. In time their relationship would develop into one of mutual respect.
Over the years, I took great pride in helping Dad with the cattle work. We’d string cattle up through Sowbelly or East Hat Creek Canyons, then corral them at one of the pastures. If I was lucky, we’d go to the local café’ for breakfast with Bill Coffee. I remember feeling like I was on top of the world on days like this, particularly if one of them delivered a heavily veiled compliment about my morning’s performance.

Years slip away in a most disconcerting manner. Dad and Mom lost their only son to a car accident. Grandchildren replaced children on the trail drives and in the branding pen. A great-grandson moved into the ranch house and became Dad’s right hand man.

Not long ago, a young ranch hand declared that  he had more respect for Melvin Nation than for any man on earth, but added that his hero was my mother, Thelma, “ ‘cause she’d put up with Melvin for 57 years.”
Dad admits that today, he thinks of himself more as a cattleman than a cowboy. As for those who know him, he will forever remain a cowboy, maybe some say, the last of his breed.

As for his hands, when I look at them today doing the work of three men at the age of 78, I am reminded of those hands pressing a wet rag against my forehead as I lay too weak to speak with Asian flu. As a child, I watched through half-closed eyes as those hands dipped a towel into a bowl of ice water, over and over, to bring down the fever. Water streamed down my neck, and I was filled with joy for the affection, and wonder at how the rugged hands that could do so much, could also be so gentle.


Video Extras with Melvin Nation:

Melvin Nation remembers riding a runaway horse bareback at the age of four.
Melvin Nation describes what horses represent for him: Therapy. Says Nation, "The greatest feeling on earth to me, even yet, is... more››
Melvin Nation and his daughters drove a lot of cattle in good weather and bad. But one day they set off in a cold drizzle that... more››
Melvin Nation was 21 when he went to work for Bill Coffee at the Coffee Ranch. Both men had their ups and downs with one another... more››
John Sibbitt says he's always done business with a handshake. Melvin Nation and Jack Maddux agree that your word is your bond.