A collage of characters shaped the west of the nineteenth century. Large and powerful cattlemen, backed by eastern and European investors, flooded the prairie with herds often numbering 50-80 thousand head. They had visions of doubling or tripling their money quickly while their cattle grazed on the free grass of the open range. Others, like Martin Gothberg wisely invested in the future of the young frontier. Starting with a humble 160-acre homestead in 1885, he continued to expand and develop a modest ranch that eventually included tens of thousands of acres of deeded land. Gothberg’s story parallels the history of open range cattle ranches, cowboys, roundups, homesteaders, rustlers, sheep men and range wars.
Author Jefferson Glass relocated to central Wyoming from Oregon in 1981. He was the founder and former chair of the Evansville Historical Commission, a Certified Local Government (CLG) for the town of Evansville, Wyoming. He later served on the board of directors for the Cadoma Foundation, a non-profit historic preservation organization based in Casper, Wyoming. He is a relentless researcher with specific interests in the Rocky Mountain and Northern Plains regions of the United States. He has written several articles for Annals of Wyoming, True West Magazine and WyoHistory.org.
County 17 sat down to ask Glass about his new book and his process getting there.
- Your story in itself encapsulates a bit of the mythical spirit of the West, in that you worked as a full-time mechanic for years while writing your first book, Reshaw, working in your copious spare time during evenings and weekends without intending necessarily to author a book. Can you tell us a bit about how this book came into print and your process getting there?
Susan Littlefield Haines, the present owner of the Gothberg Ranch, is an avid genealogist and an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). At a DAR meeting, she was discussing her ranch’s history with another member. In the course of the conversation, Mrs. Haines remarked how she hoped to nominate the ranch for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The other participant in the discussion was my friend and former colleague at the Cadoma Foundation, Susan Bishop. She suggested that Mrs. Haines contact me, since I had assisted in the research that helped in her family’s home being placed on the National Register. Much like RESHAW, I didn’t initially expect the Gothberg story to become a book. I began searching for any information that I could find on Martin Gothberg. When attending the 2016 convention of Western Writers of America (WWA) in Cheyenne, I was quizzed by publishers regarding what I was working on. When I gave them a brief rundown on Martin Gothberg, they seemed interested, but at that time I still wasn’t even sure that the story would become a book. I love uncovering a story and as my research into Martin Gothberg and the history of the Gothberg Ranch continued, the story grew. Two years later I sent a proposal for the book to my top two choices for publishers and TwoDot/Rowman & Littlefield responded soon after with an offer.
2. Were you surprised with how successful Reshaw was and the accolades you received, winning both the prestigious Spur Award for western writers and then being solicited by magazines like True West and others?
Absolutely. I was greatly honored receiving a Best Nonfiction Book award from the Wyoming State Historical Society in 2014, but when that was followed by a Spur Award from WWA in 2015, I was floored. I attended the convention in Lubbock, Texas, that year. I wandered around half the time with my mouth hanging open in a daze. Here I was, among a group of writers both fiction and nonfiction, historians, movie people, publishers and the list goes on. Not only was I meeting dozens of my idols, . . . they were honoring me. I remember meeting Robert Utley, one of my heroes, shortly after he had received a lifetime achievement award and induction into the Western Writers Hall of Fame. When I told him how honored I was to meet him, he said, “You don’t have to call me Mr. Utley, my friends call me, Bob.” If that wasn’t enough, he extended his hand and said, “By the way, I loved your book.” Later on, I had the opportunity to meet actor Barry Corbin. While talking to him I asked for an autograph, not realizing that there was nothing close at hand to sign one on. He signed the back of my nametag. Not only has my membership with WWA been extremely inspiring but has given me an opportunity to grow into a career that I had only dreamt of. It has opened many doors. I cannot begin to express the effect on my ego when an author that I respect and admire hollers across a crowded room as I enter, “Why look! There’s Jefferson Glass! Come over here, there’s someone you should meet!” My wife says that I’m “in my element” there. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but it sure is fun.
3. How long did it take you to write this book, and what about Martin Gothberg’s story in particular interested you as an historian?
I spent about a year to begin with, just researching. Once I began writing I spent about two more years writing, but for me, the research continues throughout the writing. I also continued to work “my day job” through about half of that, then retired, moved, remodeled a 120-year-old house . . . How did I ever have time to write? In all, about three years. What fascinated me about Martin Gothberg was his insatiable appetite to learn and his inherent work ethic and honesty. This is ultimately what led to his success, all the time remaining quite humble. Though he had graduated high school in New Jersey, he came west as a teenager. It seems his only goal at the time was adventure. Yet he thrived.
4. How is Gothberg’s story indicative of the West?
For every success story of the true pioneers in American history, from colonial times through today, there are thousands of failures. Some might say that he had a free ride; free land through the Homestead Act; free grass to graze his cattle and sheep during the open range years and the list might continue. In reality, none of it was free. It took a lot of very hard work, intelligence and skill. Much of that skill had to be learned along the way and much of that by trial and error. Martin Gothberg was not as much a gambler as many of his contemporaries. He relied on his experiences and he was a thinker. He carefully weighed the circumstances of every venture was a tenaciously hard worker to make each endeavor profitable.
5. He seemed to know instinctively that it was necessary to diversify assets in order to survive and thrive financially. Were these lessons learned the hard way or did he just seem to have a natural instinct for knowing what it took?
Both. There were many setbacks, but he worked his way through them.
6. I know you rely heavily on newspaper accounts from the time, some dating back to 150 years ago. Are you able to access these via an online database or do you spend a lot of time in libraries and historical societies reading microfiche and archived newspapers?
In the past, I relied mostly on archived microfilm newspapers. Through modern technology many collections have been made available through online databases, which also make them electronically searchable. This is a huge benefit and speeds the process immensely. Though tedious, there are advantages to physically searching through the pages the old-fashioned way. For me, I tend to get a better feel for what was going on around the character I’m researching. Some minor sideline that might be overlooked otherwise, often has had a major effect on the outcome of the subject I’m working on.
7. You mention in your preface that Susan Littlefield Haines was a treasure trove of information regarding her family’s long ranching roots and legacy? How do you work backwards to put the story together and is it harder to write about a story with living relatives?
Let me clarify a little bit here some details that appear later in the book. The Gothberg family sold the ranch in the 1960s, and it changed owners several times in subsequent years. Mrs. Haines purchased the ranch in the 1990s. As previously stated, she is an avid genealogist. She began studying the Gothberg family and their legacy several years ago. During that time, she located several of Martin Gothberg’s grandchildren and acquired from them many of the family photographs that appear in Empire. Most of those descendants have since passed away. Mrs. Haines’ ancestors were in the newspaper and oil business. The Littlefields that appear in Empire periodically throughout the early 1900s are her direct ancestors.
To answer the second part of your question, when you have known living descendants, you usually have some known family history and lore. I often begin by trying to either prove or disprove these stories. Old newspapers are often very helpful in these endeavors. If you are limited, many census records list places of birth and sometimes, place of parents’ birth. On the other hand, sometimes you uncover skeletons that the family may be unaware of and may be embarrassing to those living relatives. I try to be ethical in dealing with these situations. If the descendants want to keep a family secret just that, a secret, I usually try to comply. If it is something that I feel is critical to a story, I may override the family’s wishes. I do write nonfiction. I may omit a detail, but never change the story to satisfy a family member.
8. Did you learn anything in the course of researching this story that surprised you?
Hundreds of little things of course, but more. One of the things that surprised most me was the scale of some of the rural celebrations. Entertainment was seldom and when an occasion arose, these hardy pioneers were anxious to oblige. Since the days of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, many writers have told stories of rural dances and get togethers in the nineteenth century. When Martin and Adolphena Gothberg completed their new home in 1889, Adolphena’s mother and the Gothberg’s family friends, Walt and Minnie Blackmore, threw a housewarming party for them. This was no small affair. It was January in Wyoming. It is amazing to realize the scope of the celebration. They loaded Minnie’s grand piano into a wagon and hauled it from Bessemer, Wyoming, to the Gothberg Ranch, then crammed it into the largest room of their new 900-square-foot home. Guests began arriving at four o’clock in the afternoon. With Mrs. Blackmore on piano, joined by a fiddle and piccolo player, they entertained more than two dozen guests who united in singing and dancing. At 10 p.m., the attendees took a break to enjoy a sumptuous supper. After the feast, singing and dancing resumed until eight o’clock the next morning when breakfast was served, followed by a gradual exodus of the exhausted, yet happy guests.
9. What’s next?
I’ve been writing occasional articles, but have had an idea for a novel in the back of my head for some time. Also, since moving to Johnson County, I can’t help but be intrigued by the colorful history of the area here. Nonfiction is my general preference. I love the research. I have a few, non-writing projects to finish up immediately, but it won’t be long before I’m pounding the keyboard again.
Empire: The Pioneer Legacy of an American Ranch Family releases Sunday, November 1 and can be purchased at Amazon and other major retailers as well as Sheridan
Stationery and Books and The Prescription Shop, Occidental Hotel and the Jim Gatchell Museum in Buffalo and at Wind City Books, Lou Taubert’s Ranch Outfitters and Ft. Caspar Museum in Casper.