Tom Ross: Routt County pioneer rancher Ferry Carpenter made his own Western film to sell cattle
February 22, 2013
Steamboat Springs — This is the story of how a Routt County cowboy filmed his own Western during the Great Depression.
The irrepressible Farrington "Ferry" Carpenter, faced with an almost impossible market for his purebred Hereford bull calves in 1929, staged his own cowboy movie to market his beeves and discovered that it's not so easy forcing a herd of cattle to ford a river.
Carpenter became a rancher for life in his teens while apprenticed to a New Mexico cattle outfit. He did not receive a high school diploma but somehow managed to earn a degree from Princeton University and graduated from Harvard Law School, Class of 1912.
Improbably, he headed west to Colorado and set up his law office in a bowling alley in Hayden. As Marshall Sprague wrote in the foreword to Carpenter's autobiography, "Confessions of a Maverick," Carpenter was Routt County's attorney for eight years and spent four years as the district attorney for Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, which gave him occasion to prosecute cattle rustlers and kidnappers. He also diffused a potentially violent confrontation among cattle and sheep ranchers south of Craig.
Carpenter's fame grew when he worked in the Department of the Interior under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, where he crafted a federal grazing act.
However, Carpenter's heart remained on his ranch on the Yampa River just east of Hayden.
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Carpenter had a prized herd of registered Herefords and was determined to sell his bull calves to other cattlemen in spite of the Depression. He had learned some lessons about the importance of salesmanship from his mother and father, who had a shoe manufacturing company in Michigan.
"In 1929, when the stock market crashed, the need to sell was critical," Carpenter wrote, but it was difficult to persuade ranchers to part with any money.
Carpenter resolved to hire a Denver filmmaker and direct him to make a promotional film including footage of his ranch hands driving 100 head of cattle across the Yampa in flood stage.
"We found out right away that a big bunch of cattle cannot be crowded into a river. Seeing that it's deep, they just mill around and around," Carpenter wrote. "The only way to get the herd to start is to have two cowboys get on each side of a cow and across the river and then shove and pull her into the water."
Once the lead cow spies the opposite bank, she'll head for it, and the others will follow, he added.
There's also an art to riding a cow pony across a swollen river.
"When a green horse carrying the weight of a rider reaches deep water, where it cannot touch bottom, it lunges, and the rider must be cautious," Carpenter wrote.
If the rider does not slip off the horse’s back, it could go under the surface and drown, he added. So a practiced rider slides off the rump of the horse and hangs on to its tail until it reaches shallow water, then loosens his grip before he gets kicked.
Carpenter took his film to movie theaters in Steamboat Springs, Meeker, Craig and Rifle, where it showed before the main attraction. However, it was in Kremmling where an audience packed with ranchers gave the film its biggest reception, stomping and cheering until the projectionist spooled it up for a repeat screening. And they even bought a few bull calves.
By 1932, Carpenter had more success loading his young bulls into a 1.5-ton Model A Ford truck in the depth of winter and driving all the way to the coastal ranches of Southern California, where he found willing buyers.
"Confessions of a Maverick," published by the state historical society of Colorado, is an important book about the history of Northwest Colorado and one you need to track down. There are three copies at Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs (one is reserved for in-library use only), and you can find good used copies at a variety of sellers for about $25.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com