HIGH NOON ROUNDUP AND BRANDING: A Photographer in Pursuit of his Heritage through the Lens of his Camera
A morning in the life of a California cattle rancher and his crew through photographs.
Setting, background story, and photographs by Alyn Robert Brereton
The classic, Western film, HIGH NOON, staring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, that debuted in 1952 in black and white, was shot on location in the wide-open cattle country of Warnerville, California. Then, and now, no town of significant population is found within miles around.
Warnerville consists of rolling hills with wild grasses green in winter and brown in summer. Just cattle country with a few local ranches spread far and wide throughout the area. Then and now, an old, seldom used, narrow-gauge railroad runs through the area from the “Cowboy Capital of the World”, Oakdale, California, to the 49er gold-rush town of Jamestown. As a crow flies, Jamestown lies approximately twenty-five miles to the northeast. In days past, it was used for transporting lumber and other cargo from the pine forested Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in the east to the flatlands that lie to the west.
The railway was also used in the HIGH NOON film for backdrop and the all important train depot scenes in the Hollywood, make-believe settlement of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory. The depot is where the “bad guys” were gathering for a shootout with the newly married, Town Marshal, Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper. His new bride, Amy Fowler, was portrayed by Grace Kelly.
Warnerville is land that I know well. I was born in Turlock, California, but grew up twenty-five miles east of Turlock near the western edge of Turlock Lake. The lake is geographically positioned seven or so miles south of Warnerville. The location lies within the rural community of Roberts Ferry. The lake is also situated a couple of miles south of the Tuolumne River.
My parents moved to our home in the summer of 1947, a year prior to my birth. My older brother, Bill, was one year of age at the time. And this is where Bill and I, along with my two younger brothers, were raised during our formative years. Our closest neighbors were miles away. My three brothers and I often roamed the surrounding, rolling, grass-filled fields for miles around, free and at will, where coyotes by the dozens resided and wondered and often howled.
Exposed to farm labor from my earliest days, I was responsible for tending to chores around the property and working for neighbors as a payed farm/ranch hand in order to earn money for school that began in the fall of each year. I attended the Roberts Ferry Elementary School located three miles away. The first mile, traveling west, was along a narrow, pothole-filled road named Davis. The next two miles along Lake and Roberts Ferry Roads led to the school located just north across the old Roberts Ferry Bridge that spanned the Tuolumne River. The bridge has since washed out and replaced by a new covered structure that remains standing today. Davis Road ran three miles from my home in the opposite direction southeast to an old-time cattle ranch established back in the early 1900s. And this is where Davis Road ends.
Following elementary school, between my sophomore and junior years, while attending Hughson High School, I worked for a local cattle rancher on land that boarded on Warnerville. I did so to earn funds to purchase my first motor vehicle, a prized, 1957 Chevy sedan. If lucky, my parents would occasionally allow me to drive to school in the town of Hughson twenty miles away.
My wife’s family, Ketcham, were early settlers of the Roberts Ferry area from the 1860s onward. Roberts Ferry was named after my wife’s great, great uncle, John Roberts, who ran a ferry that crossed the Tuolumne River prior to the first bridge being built. John and his wife, Ann Ketcham, also owned and ran a hotel business that catered to passengers traveling to the gold fields located in Mariposa from the city of Stockton during the gold rush.
We both attended the old, two-room, Roberts Ferry Elementary School house that no longer stands. It was torn down and replaced by the present school building constructed in the late 1960s. My wife’s father also attended the old school, as did his four children, including my wife, Kris. The land on which the old school sat, and where the new school stands, was originally sold for ten dollars by my wife’s family back in the early 1900s. Its location was chosen to accommodate local ranchers’ children from miles around, taking in students from two more distant schools that were shut down.
Once upon a time, the Warnerville and Roberts Ferry lands belonged to the Yokut Indians where they lived and roamed, mostly residing along the Stanislaus River to the north and the Tuolumne River to the south. These two rivers are located about 16 miles apart and both rivers' waters flow from the snow packed Sierra’s in the east to the San Joaquin River in the west. The San Joaquin flows north and west ultimately emptying into San Francisco Bay. It was during these old days when the Yokuts traveled between these rivers to spear and feast on salmon as the fish swam upstream each fall to the headwaters of their hatching, long before California’s large, modern dams were designed or constructed. This was all prior to white settlers from the East coming to settle and ranch in the West around the mid 1800s.
And even though the times of free-roaming Yokut peoples are now long past, in the Warnerville and Roberts Ferry environs today, cattle ranching traditions and conventions continue to survive and thrive and proudly live on.
ROUNDUP AND BRANDING
In cattle country each spring, ranchers roundup livestock for branding, a necessity from old days until now. Branding each years’ animals identifies ownership. Female calves are kept for breeding while male calves are castrated and raised for beef.
What follows shortly is a pictorial story that depicts the life of one such rancher named Joe. During the roundup and branding, Joe is assisted by his wife, Cathy, his crew, and his fellow ranchers who are willing, even eager, to lend a helping hand. It took place during branding season early one morning this spring from dawn until high noon, when work was done and lunch was at hand. Lunch was served cowboy style on an old wooden platform where food was placed and where cowhands gathered while eating and discussing the morning’s activities.
Joe is a highly-skilled California cowboy from his earliest days. In the 1970s, as a PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) member and participant, he performed in three consecutive NFR (National Finals Rodeo) rodeos as a team roper and header. Today, he is a successful rancher and a well respected horse breeder. Even now he continues to halter break each year’s young foals.
I “met” Joe by chance a week prior to the roundup and branding. Being a photographer with an interest in shooting images that remind me of my childhood, my wife and I were out for a drive in the Warnerville area when we came across Joe, his wife, and his crew working cattle. And, of course, with camera along and in hand, we stopped the car and I quickly jumped out and began photographing from a distance.
Upon arriving home and loading and viewing the images I had shot that morning, I happened to notice and was able to make out Joe’s name and phone number pictured on an ear tag attached to one of his cows. A few days later, I gave him a call to seek his permission to use several images I had shot for public viewing. And that is when he invited me to join him and his crew on the day of the roundup and branding. That is also when I gladly accepted his invitation to record the following morning’s activities in picture form.
What now follows are images from that day, of true, every-day cowhands as they preform their roles required during livestock roundup and branding. It’s hard work but remains a calling for those rugged individuals like Joe, his crew, and his fellow ranchers as they continue to seek and follow a life that remains free, active, honest, and true. It is a life fit for only a spirited few.
Joe and his crew's photographic story now unfolds.
I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Joe and his crew for allowing me free access to photograph the morning's activities at my discretion.
Alyn Robert Brereton's work can be viewed on his website at brerdog.com. He can be contacted at his email address as follows: firstname.lastname@example.org.