Kansas Gyp Hills Rancher to Retire After 40 Years

July 16, 2016 11:14 AM
 
Merrill

By: Amy Bickel, The Hutchinson News

Getting here isn't easy.

This, after all, is open range. You cross a number of cattle guards on dirt-laden Estill Road, past the cattle grazing by the road, past a weathered sign that says you are now entering Comanche County, Kan. The roads meander across the rugged terrain, dotted with only a couple of homes before you see a sign that says the Merrill Ranch.

It's miles from anything - or anyone. The biggest town, Coldwater, the county seat, has 800 residents.

But this spot on the wide-open prairie is where - for 40 years - Dee Scherich and his wife, Phyllis, called home.

Most people his age would have retired long ago. But for 40 years, Dee, 76, has gotten up every morning as the sun is rising - checking on the some 800-plus cattle that roam the 17,200-acre ranch.

He knows every inch of it, too, every wildflower, every grass that grows. This is where he grew up - riding horseback with his father, the previous caretaker. He left for a short while, getting married then teaching high school before he brought his family back to Kansas' Gyp Hills as manager of the Merrill.

It's never been their land - they don't own anything - yet Dee and Phyllis have cared for the Merrill like it was theirs.

But on this June day - Dee stood amid the grass and wildflowers - in a spot where you can see nothing but the Merrill for miles. He reflected back on how the spring wildfire - of historic proportions - narrowly missed the couple's home, as well as the horse-riding accident about a decade ago that nearly took his life.

It's taken a while to let go of the life he and Phyllis love. But he has taken to heart Phyllis' words to him.

"I don't want to leave here by myself," she had said.

It has been the cowboy way of life here at least 140 years.

The Hutchinson News reports that the Merrill, as folks call it, rests on the edge of the Gyp Hills prairie - rugged red hills only suitable for cattle. Jesse Evans was among the first ranchers - helping form the Comanche Pool - the largest cattle ranching spread in Kansas history. The Merrill was the pool's headquarters, which was called Evansville - a small town that had a post office, store and a hotel.

As the land was fenced, the pool dissolved. Evansville ceased to exist as a town, but the area continued to serve a small population as the headquarters for Mortimor Platt's Ranch, followed by the John Arrington Ranch and then the West Ranch of Davis, Nolan and Merrill Grain Co., Dee said.

Dee's father, Virgil, started out on the grain company's ranch in Barber County - which is now media mogul Ted Turner's Z Bar Ranch. By 1945, they moved to the site of the West Ranch. A few years later, the three partners separated and the ranch stayed with the Merrill family.

Time and technology advanced since pioneers first settled here. But at the Merrill, like most ranches - there are still some things that are old-school - like using horses as the main means of transportation.

Dee and his brother, Hank, grew up riding the range, helping their dad and the other crew members with farm labor like checking cattle. In high school and college, summers were spent on horseback, searching for cattle infected with screw worms - which burrowed like a screw into the skin.

That was before the eradication of the screwworm fly by the federal government, said Dee.

"We didn't have one critter that had screw worms, you'd have a whole bunch of them," said Dee. "You just would ride until you found (an animal) lying out in the grass."

He would rope it, dig the worm out of the hole, apply a stinky ointment, then go looking for the next one.

"You would smell like that stuff the rest of the day," he said.

Dee attended Ottawa University and met Phyllis Uhrig of McPherson. She was a city girl, as Phyllis calls herself, recalling the first day she visited the ranch. It was wheat harvest. She wore white pants.

After college, Dee taught for 14 years, first in Troy, Kansas, then 11 years as a science teacher and coach at Inman High School. But in the mid-1970s, with a boom in oil prices, his father's ranch crew began to take jobs in the oil field.

By then, his dad had been ranching here for 30 years.

"Dad was tired, wore out and frustrated," said Dee. Moreover, teaching was changing amid an era of consolidation. With three boys from fifth grade to high school, he and Phyllis made a decision to move back to the ranch in 1976 and manage it for the H.A. Merrill trust.

"We thought it was a good opportunity to get them on the tractors, have the ranch life," Phyllis said of the boys.

Typically, no two days are the same, but for the past several weeks, Dee and the crew have been rebuilding fence - 80 miles or so that the Anderson Creek wildfire damaged.

It will take a few years before they are all done with fence repair, said Dee - adding with humor that he won't see the day it is completed. Not as the manager of the Merrill.

It was the worst wildfire in the state's history, sweeping across 400,000 acres of Barber and Comanche counties in late March. Three times the fire threatened their home. Twice they got the call to evacuate.

Somehow, thanks to fire crews, Dee and their ranch hands, along with their reliable 1960s-era fire truck, Bam Bam, their ranch headquarters was spared.

Three months later, the once charcoal-stained earth has been covered by a carpet of green regrowth, although evidence of the fire still lingers. Skeletons of cedar trees dot the Gyp Hills for miles. Dee pointed to fence row not far from where the cattle are grazing. Pieces of the blackened hedge posts swayed on the barbed wire.

On this June morning, Dee sent his two hired hands to work on the fence line. He and Phyllis drove to check on cattle that were recently returned to the ranch that an area rancher fostered for them after the fire. The grass now is in better condition for grazing and water is flowing better in the creeks.

They stop at the top of a hill dotted with echinacea, yellow cone flowers and silver lake nightshades - the site of Evansville's cemetery. Dee had a well witcher who was searching for oil find the location of the graves - which includes the resting spot of two men who died in a drinking gunfight. The witcher found three graves in one location, and Dee marked each with a stone.

"I've never seen so many wildflowers like this year," said Phyllis, noting the diversity of flowers.

They take a tour to find more amid the bluestem and buffalo grasses - crossing the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River - a clear, sandy waterway where their children and grandchildren and their ranch hands' children love to play.

Dee stopped the truck so Phyllis could climb to the top of the hill to scout more flowers. Dee, however, glanced across the prairie.

"I never went back to a classroom after I got out here," he said, adding. "I don't know anything different."

His deep connection to the land and the cattle makes leaving even more difficult.

Yet, he said solemnly, he also knows it is time.

Dee wasn't on his usual horse that day nine years ago when the accident occurred. The horse threw him off - breaking his pelvis and causing bladder injuries.

An ambulance took him to Coldwater, where the airport recently was revamped to take fixed-wing airplanes. That allowed an air ambulance to fly him to Wichita.

He arrived barely alive. Doctors began to repair him a few days later "after they decided I was going to live," said Dee, who spent four months in the hospital and rehab.

Now it's the end of an era.

Seventy years of Scherich tradition on the ranch is over this month. No more watching the sun rise on their deck. No more standing amid a stand of buffalo grass with nothing but the sound of bawling calves or birds fluttering. No more checking cattle on horseback.

The Scherich's packed up their house in mid-June - going from the remote countryside to a home with a pool in McPherson - the town where Phyllis grew up. They are still unpacking boxes, said Phyllis.

"It feels like we are just playing house," Dee told Phyllis one evening at the dinner table after spending several days in McPherson.

"It really isn't real, yet," Phyllis said.

Dee plans to make day trips back and forth to help two remaining ranch hands get situated, a team led by hand Jamie Miller.

Miller, who grew up on a hog and row crop farm in Iowa, said Dee is his mentor. He came to the ranch in 2007 to help pour the basement of the Scherich's new ranch house.

"I fell in love with the place," Miller said. But it wasn't until 2012 that he had contact with Dee again. Miller was working for his friends' Pratt-based scrap metal business. Dee had called needing someone to remove junk off the ranch.

Miller asked Dee if he was hiring. Miller and his wife, Tina, and their boys moved to the ranch in January 2013.

Dee is a natural with the cattle, said Miller, adding Dee taught him how to handle the livestock using low-stress techniques.

"Another thing he is taught me is the love of the land, nature, the flowers, the grasses," said Miller.

Dee taught him to be observant, even stopping to point out the different wildflowers growing.

"You know what it is like living in a populated area," he said. "You fly past things on the road, you don't stop and smell the roses, so to say."

Someday, Miller said, he might have the knowledge of the plants that Dee and Phyllis have, or Dee's way of knowing the livestock so well he could pick individual animals out of the herd.

"The local veterinarian who has dealt with the ranch 25 years told me he had learned more from Dee Scherich than any of the other ranchers," Miller said. "We'll keep on like he taught us."

Leaving is bittersweet, said Phyllis as the couple drove across the ranch on this June afternoon. There have been so many people they shared the ranch with. For years, they welcomed folks for their annual trail rides, which raised enough money to help build the Comanche County Health Clinic. Professors, scientists and others have come to the ranch to study the ecology, including the ranch's bat caves.

"It's such a unique piece of property," said Phyllis, adding, "It was a great place to raise a family."

Like a true cowboy, Dee tries to keep his emotions to himself.

"We've had a good ride," he said softly as he surveyed what little was left in their home on this June day. "We have a new life ahead of us."

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