When Monte Skinner was seven years old, he was given the chore of catching baby antelope. Since I’ve been in Wyoming I’ve become used to hearing stories of children being entrusted with adult responsibilities, the most notable being Bob Richard, who was left alone by his father and uncle on Trout Peak for the summer at the age of ten to herd cows. But Monte may be the only child in history who was charged with catching baby antelope with the assistance of a terrier dog. Monte used to ride his horse, Prince, after the fawns with the dog on the back of the saddle. Like Monte, the terrier was well-trained. When they got to the fawns, the dog would leap off the saddle, run to the antelope and hold them down without hurting them until the attendant men could load them into burlap sacks. From there, they went far and wide.
In 1935, the Wyoming antelope population had rebounded from a low of a few thousand at the turn of the century to 34,450 in 1936. The center of this recovery was the Pitchfork Ranch, a massive, sprawling affair south of Cody along the Greybull River. The Pitchfork Ranch looks like something out of a Western novel, the sort of ranch the wandering hero happens upon when he needs respite. The grass is tall and the streams are lined with cottonwoods. In addition to being a working cattle and sheep ranch, the Pitchfork hosted dudes: people from the East who wanted a taste of western life. Clem Skinner, Monte’s dad and the dude ranch manager, had been a government trapper, lured out West from Wisconsin by stories of wild animals and wide-open spaces. Clem helped provide a zoo for the Pitchfork, replete with a mountain lion he caught, but the antelope were another story. Ranch owners Charles Belden and his brother-in-law and business partner, Eugene Phelps, stewarded the antelope and protected them from hunting. From a low of about twenty at the turn of the twentieth century, the ranch antelope population had rebounded to 2,000 or more.
Faced with competition for their grazing cattle, Charles Belden had an idea. “I was trying to raise sheep and cattle, and the antelope were eating all the feed,” he said. “The antelope belong to the state, but I got a permit to catch the fawns and sell them to zoos. The state allows me the money as a compensation for the feed the animals eat on the place. Nobody has any desire to kill the antelope, since this would exterminate them. That’s what happened to the buffalo. But by selling the fawns we can reduce the number.”
Charles Belden is an important figure in this region. As a child I studied his photos in the Time-Life book The Cowboys; unbeknownst to me I would one day work in a place that holds many of his photos. Belden’s photos of cowboy life look staged, but they are beautiful. With the antelope caper, he had another angle. He became known to the national press as Antelope Charlie.
The baby antelope adapted well to human company. Ranch hands tied colored ribbons around their neck to show who had been fed, and when. Monte says, “I can still remember it just as plain as the devil. We had a pen, and we’d get in the pen and feed them with a beer bottle. We had a buck antelope. He must have been about two or three years old. He had pretty good horns. Named Billy. We had a lady that was real heavyset doing the cooking, and Billy caught her bending over one day out there and gave her a butt.” Right into the creek, apparently. Clem put rubber horns on Billy, but no dice. Finally, Clem drove Billy about thirty miles away to get rid of him. Monte says, “Billy beat Dad back to the ranch!”
The Pitchfork antelope caper seized the public attention. People were charmed by photos of airline stewardesses bottle feeding baby antelope. With the ability to run sixty miles an hour, catching adult antelope wasn’t practical. Adult antelope couldn’t handle captivity, either. The fawns, many caught when they were a couple hours old, were happy enough on warm cow’s milk, and later, oatmeal. When it came time to sell the fawns, it was too difficult to secure milk for a train trip of that length, so Belden turned to airplanes and the local pilot, Bill Monday. Flying at 10,000 feet so the antelope wouldn’t get hot, they stood the trip well, particularly since they were let out at various stops to romp around in airplane hangars. Zoos in St. Louis, The Bronx, Chicago, and other locations purchased Belden’s charges. But the most notable was when some of them got on the Hindenburg.
In 1936,The Hanover Zoo in Germany wanted antelope. Thinking a multiple day ship voyage too long, Belden enlisted the help of the Hindenburg, a blimp replete with swastikas on the tail. The Hindenburg landed in New Jersey to pick up her new charges. “None of the fawns was air-sick,” Belden told Time Magazine. “Whenever they seemed to mind the heat, we just flew a few thousand feet higher. The trip was a cinch.”
The Pitchfork antelope caper was not a sustained operation. There were only so many zoos to buy antelope. In 1936 the Skinners moved, herding their horses through the wilderness over the Absaroka Mountains to Dubois and then over the Wind River Mountains to Pinedale. There they eventually started the first wilderness school in the country. Charles Belden left Pitchfork in 1940; he moved to Florida, where he continued his photography career, using the nickname Seahorse Charlie.