The Spade Ranch is named after the cattle brand that Bartlett Richards and William Comstock used to mark their cattle. The brand resembles an Ace of Spades on playing cards. The Spade brand is still in use today.
On August 10, 1888, Bartlett Richards bought Bennett Irwin's ranch near Bean Soup Lake in Sheridan County. The Log House from the Newman N Bar Ranch was disassembled and moved to its new location at the Spade Ranch. During the 1890s, Richards developed his almost in Sheridan and Cherry Counties into manageable units. Ranching activities occurred year round. Following the breeding schedule, spring was calving and round up. Summer activities included harvesting hay to use for cattle feed in the fall and winter. Additional laborers were often hired to help with this task. During the fall fireguards were plowed to prevent fires from spreading, as the pastures had dried by the summer and cattle were shipped by railroad to markets in Omaha and Chicago. Year round activities included providing beef for the Indian agencies and building fences. Initially, fences created corrals at the ranch headquarters. By the early 1890s, fencing of grazing areas increased. The number of widespread roundups in the area may have increased the desire to fence in areas.
The Spade Ranch was one of the larger operations near the Pine Ridge Agency and supplied beef to the Dakota reservation. The Chadron Advocate reported in 1891," Bartlett Richards has received the beef contract at Pine Ridge Agency for the ensuing year. The amount is 6,000,000 pounds. This will require 6,000 head of cattle. The Spade continued a contract with the Pine Ridge Agency until 1896. Even through the agency provided good business, most of the steady business came from shipping cattle to packers or feeders in the corn belt.
In December 1895, the Richard and Cairnes partnership was formed with assets totaling $475,000 ($10,674,000 in 2006 dollars). Richards and Cairnes, Inc., included Richards as president, Cairnes as vice president, and Jarvis Richards, secretary and treasurer. John Cairnes only attended one board meeting and in 1899 sold his stock to Richards and resigned. William Comstock took Cairnes' place on the board, and they remained partners until Richards' death in 1911.
As early as the 1880s, Richards established the Spade Ranch's cattle shipping point in Ellsworth, southwest of the Spade Ranch. In 1898, Richards and Cairnes, Inc., built a store, hotel, and stockyards in the small community. The store served as office headquarters for the Spade Ranch and included a general store and post office. The hotel built across the street from the store, provided free accommodations for the Spade Ranch cowboys.
In May 1899, the two companies (Richards and Cairnes, Inc., and Richards and Comstock) merged to form the Nebraska Land and Feeding Company. Bartlett Richards, William Comstock, Jarvis Richards, DeForest Richards, and E.C. Harris of Chadron were named directors. At the time of the merger, the company range included 16,000 head of cattle. Bankers authorized loans of $150,000 ($3,503,900 in 2006 dollars) to purchase additional cattle.
William Comstock stayed in the home valley of the Spade Ranch headquarters, which is approximately north of Ellsworth. Comstock had a sod house at the headquarters, another soddie as a ranch office, a good-sized bunkhouse, the log cookhouse (the log building moved from the Newman Ranch), a barn, feed yards, large corrals for working with cattle, breaking horses, branding, and dipping cattle, a blacksmith shop, a machine shop and the ranch store. The ranch store featured staple groceries, clothing, supplies, and a place to pick up mail carried from the Ellsworth post office. Later Comstock built a large frame house in the center of Spade operations. One additional house was built as a home for Spade foreman, Mike Peterson. Peterson worked for the Spade for several years, but rather than work for a wage, he received both land and stock.
During the Nebraska Land and Feeding Company years, Richards provided financial backing for the partnership while Comstock ran the ranch. Although Comstock stayed at the ranch, he seldom associated with cowhands. Instead, two men were hired as Hay Boss and Cow Boss. These men would act a managers, doing the hiring and firing and made sure things were running smoothly and the ranch was financially stable.
By January 1899, telephone lines were constructed from Gordon to Ellsworth, and lines were proposed to extend to Rushville, Hay Springs, and Chadron under the new "Ranch Telephone Company". The Ranch Telephone Company was incorporated with Richards as president. Telephone lines connected the cattle-shipping points on the Burlington Railroad—Ellsworth, Lakeside, and Bingham—with Comstock's headquarters at the ranch.
Richards moved his headquarters from Chadron to Ellsworth in 1901 to be closer to the ranch. He completed his brick house in Ellsworth in the summer of 1902. The Richards family had a winter residence built in Coronado, California, that same year.
Richards began to concentrate on upgrading the breeding operation. He experimented with grain feeds to take care of calves and other special feeding problems, and he put windmills for adequate water. Richards and Comstock were the first cattlemen in the area the use chloro-naptholeum, a livestock dip that removed lice, mange, Texas itch, and other external parasites. The Spade Ranch was the agent for this patented product west of the Mississippi River. In 1903, the Spade's Hereford cattle won the Grand Prize at the American Royal Stock Show in Kansas City, Missouri for the best of any breed in both yearling and calf competition.
Richards testified in favor of the Bowersock Bill, making the following plea:
Congress hesitated to pass a leasing act, and the United States Department of the Interior was determined to remove the fences. By November 1902, the Rushville Standard reported that Bartlett Richards had been ordered to remove his fences in Sheridan and Cherry Counties. The fenced enclosed about 60 civil townships, which would be enough to support 960 families at two sections per family. The Secretary of the Interior, Ethan A. Hitchcock, following the Roosevelt administration's direction, set out to enforce the 1885 Van Wyck Law, which forbade the fencing of public lands.
In 1905, Richards and Comstock were indicted and brought to trial for the illegal fencing of of government land. They first entered a plea of not guilty, but quickly reconsidered and plead guilty to "asserting ownership and exclusive occupancy of government lands". Attorney Richard S. Hall told the court as the plea was entered for his clients:"It is our intention to comply with the law. We are removing the fences as rapidly as we can, but such as may remain, we have nothing to do with. Wherever the government shows us we have an unlawful fence, we will remove it. The fences they had "nothing to do with" may refer to those on a common boundary with other ranches or on widow claims.
On November 13, 1905, Richards and Comstock were sentenced to the custody of a United States Marshal for six hours and a fine of $300 and half of court costs. The modest sentence may have reflected a finding that they did not intimidate settlers and that their employees were at work removing the fences. Controversially, newspaper accounts charged that Richards and Comstock took part in a victory celebration instead of serving time. The Secretary of the Interior was upset about the news and fired District Attorney Baxter and Marshal Thomas L. Mathews, the officer in charge of Richards and Comstock's six hour sentence. In reality, during their sentence, Richards and Comstock returned to the hotel to pack, write letters, shop, eat dinner, and arrive at the train station for the 11 p.m. train to Ellsworth.
In August 1906, new changes were brought against all Spade officials for "conspiracy to defraud the government of the title and use of public lands, subornation of perjury, and conspiracy to suborn perjury". The case was called to trial on November 12, 1906, in the Federal District Court in Omaha before Judge William H. Munger. Richards and Comstock did not testify. United States Secret Service men spent 13 months investigating and getting evidence. Affidavits were taken from 600 witnesses, subpoenas were issued for 165 witnesses, and 132 people offered evidence in trail.
On December 20, 1906, the jury delivered a guilty verdict on 35 of the 38 counts. A motion for a new trial was overruled and the sentence to Bartlett Richards and William Comstock was $1,500 fines and eight months in prison. Richards and Comstock appealed the verdict and were released on a $5,000 bond. The appellate court affirmed the guilty verdict on December 3, 1909. On October 17, 1910, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeals of Richards, Comstock, and their associates, and ordered them to pay the fines and prepare to serve their sentences beginning on December 7.
Comstock, Jameson, and Triplett surrendered in late November and Richards arrived in Omaha on December 7, 1910. All four were transferred to the Adams County jail in Hastings to serve their sentences. Again the press covered the story of their imprisonment with false accounts. It was reported that Richards and Comstock were receiving special treatment but, in reality, the two were in the same surroundings as other prisoners and were granted very few privileges.
In June 1911 Richards was allowed to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for gallstone surgery and returning to the Hastings jail on August 10. Richards had long-standing intestinal troubles and never fully recovered from surgery. He passed away in jail on September 4, 1911. After his death, Comstock appealed and was discharged from jail 22 days early to attend the funeral of his business partner in San Diego.
The trials and appeals had caused financial strain on the ranch and holdings of the Nebraska Land Company. Before his imprisonment, Richards had been ill and no longer directly managed the ranch. During his imprisonment, there was no direct supervision of the ranch affairs. Following Richards' death, Comstock took control of the Spade Ranch and the Comstock and Richards families shared quarters at the Ellsworth house in the summers. In 1912, Comstock closed the C Bar and Overton Ranches, reducing the official land holding of the Spade Ranch. William Comstock died of cancer in the fall of 1916. Despite Comstock's advice to the contrary, Mrs. Richards kept control of the ranch.
It was difficult to maintain the ranch, because the era of free range was over. By 1916, Kinkaiders had claimed the land in the middle of the Spade range. Range land, once free, now had to be leased or bought from the homesteaders. The Nebraska Land and Feeding Company borrowed $200,000 ($3,846,200 in 2006 dollars) from the New York Trust Company through a first mortgage on the Spade Land. The ranch survived until the depression of 1922-1923, during which time the mortgages on the land were foreclosed. By this time, the holdings of the Spade Ranch had been reduced to about . The Richards family spent their last summer in Ellsworth in 1923 and the ranch was turned over to the bank.
E. M. Brass, and his partner, Edward P. Meyers, of the Sandhill Land and Cattle Company leased the Spade land after the bank foreclosure. Brass and Meyers arranged with Lawrence to buy the hay and have him care for and feed their cattle. Early on, Brass assisted Bixby with a $2000 down payment on a loan to buy of the Spade land. Starting in the 1920s, Bixby slowly began to obtain sections of the old Spade Ranch by hard work and perseverance, aided by bankers willing to take a chance. At one point, he was able to purchase a piece of range land with $5.00 down and a note of $1,300. Occasionally, land would be sold back to meet bank notes, but through the years, Bixby was able to regain of original Spade Ranch range, including the home valley headquarters. After the death of James Bixby in 1922, the operations came under the name Mrs. J.H. Bixby and Sons.
Around 1926, Brass and Meyers suggested Bixby move the ranch headquarters to the home valley. Brass died in 1929, leaving Meyers in full control of the Sandhills corporation. During the depression of the 1930s, Meyers reduced the company's total number of cattle . Bixby's 13-year relationship with the Sandhills Corporation ended in 1937.
Bixby continued to purchase land and operation eventually amassed much of the holdings of the Richard's and Comstock's Spade Ranch. Bixby planted thousands of trees in the home valley around the Spade Ranch and installed airstrips for the ranch airplanes. In addition to reviving the Spade Ranch, Lawrence Bixby also returned the Richards House in Ellsworth, Nebraska to noteworthy status. Since the time of the Richards ownership, the house had been divided into apartments and was in disrepair. In 1953-1954, Lawrence and wife Eleanor moved to the Ellsworth house after it was rehabilitated.
Lawrence Bixby admired Bartlett Richards as a man and as a cattleman. "The homesteaders would have starved to death without Richards," he said. " He loaned them milk cows, gave them horses and let them charge at the Spade Ranch Store. Even after the Kinkaid Act people couldn't exist by trying to farm or raise cattle on . They left and Richards bought their land at fair prices.
Lawrence Bixby served as a high ranking officer in the Nebraska Stock Growers Association, the Nebraska Beef Council and as president of the Nebraska Flying Farmers and Ranchers Association. In the 1950s, Bixby donated $60,000 ($440,300 in 2006 dollars) to pave Nebraska Highway 27 from Ellsworth to Gordon, which passed by the ranch.
Through Bixby's efforts, Bartlett Richards was named to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1970; Bixby himself was also inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. In 1980, the original headquarters and Ranch had listed on the National Register of Historic Places. State Historical Preservation Officer Marvin F. Kivett explained:
Lawrence Bixby died in 1984, an Alliance Times Herald headline read:
Although some ranches around the Spade are no longer working cattle ranches, the Spade Ranch continues to operate as a beef cattle ranch. Richards and Comstocks's legacy was carried on by Lawrence Bixby, whose legacy is carried on by his descendants. Historically, the Spade Ranch is an important feature of the landscape of Sheridan County, and it continues to be one today.