It’s in the genes: Hard work and creativity benefit local rancher througout his life

Bob and Cora Goggins have spent more than 50 years at their ranch in Ennis raising mostly Hereford cattle. Photo by Greg Lemon

Bob and Cora Goggins have spent more than 50 years at their ranch in Ennis raising mostly Hereford cattle. Photo by Greg Lemon

Bob Goggins has worked a variety of jobs during his life, but he kept coming back to one thing – cattle, but not just any breed of cattle. Goggins is a Hereford man.

But before he was a rancher, Goggins learned first-hand about hard work.

He was born in Brooks, a little town northeast of Lewistown in central Montana in 1924, but he grew up around Fromberg on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River.

His childhood centered around two things – work and family. Bob is the third oldest of seven Goggins kids, six boys and one girl.

His brother’s Jack and George were standouts on the basketball court; heck the family could have a team on their own, with at least one kid on the bench. That spot was Bob’s.

“I was a heckuva substitute,” he said.

But for Bob Goggins, playing basketball was never a big priority. He was too busy with work.

He grew up during the Great Depression, but doesn’t recall that it had a big impact on his family.

“It didn’t really seem that bad,” Goggins said recently from his kitchen table in Ennis.

During the depression, Goggin’s father John worked for wages on farms and ranches around Fromberg making $30 a month to feed his blooming family. His mother, Pearl, raised a garden, canning much of what the family needed for the year.

Goggins also remembers eating a lot of mutton, mostly older ewes his father could get for cheap.

“We ate a lot of old ewes,” he said.

He and his siblings also milked the eight family cows twice a day and they raised chickens, he said. Like many farm women of the time, his mother worked hard to keep the home fires going. She was a fast chicken plucker, fast milker and a wonderful cook, Goggins said.

Goggins is a quiet man, prone to telling short stories and laughing a lot. On a recent warm spring day, he sat at his kitchen table with Cora, his wife of 63 years, his two daughters Janet Endecott and Betty Goggins and his granddaughter, Rachel Endecott.

In 86 years, Goggins has tried his hand at several jobs, none of them easy. He can tell you about hot, dirty work of thinning sugar beets by hand, or the back busting work of toting around 100 pound bags of great northern beans during planting time. He knows about raising bees and harvesting honey. He has patented an invention and rode an elevator in a Butte hotel with one of his prize-winning bulls. And those are just a few of the stories you get when you have a couple of hours for a cup of coffee.

Like many children during the Great Depression, Goggins had to work to help keep the family going. He was 10 or 11 when he started working the sugar beet and great northern bean fields south of Billings for $1.50 a day.

When he was in his early 20s he started working for an apiary in Harlowton.

It was there at a dance he met a good looking high school senior. Apparently he came to the dance with someone else, but ended up spending most of the night spinning Cora around the floor.

She made more of an impression on him than he did on her.

“She didn’t even remember my name,” he said with a laugh.

Cora worked at a local soda fountain and Bob found his way there to see her on most days.

“He’d come to the soda fountain every night,” she remembered. “When I graduated from high school we started going steady.”

The two youthful redheads were married that October.

In 1948, the family moved to Bear Creek, south of Ennis. Goggins hired on as a herdsman for the Orr family who owned the Bear Creek Ranch.

Of all the different jobs he had growing up, working with cattle was what he was most passionate about and most enjoyed.

A herdsman was different than a ranch hand or a cowboy. A herdsman worked for ranches with registered cattle.

Today, just like back then, registered cattle are sold to commercial cattle operations for seed stock. The registered cattle bring superior genetics into a herd. The products for a registered cattle operation are the genetics of their animals.

Sixty years ago the best way to market those genetics was through livestock shows and that was the herdsman’s job. At the Bear Creek Ranch, Goggins would select the best bulls to train to lead and groom for shows. He would often travel around Montana and the West with a string of up to 10 bulls.

Showing cattle was a specialized job. Beyond selecting the best examples of the ranches genetics, a good herdsman tailored the feed to get the best out of the cattle. Goggins experimented with different combinations of grains, hand cooking and mixing food for his animals. He also had to wash and curl the animals to give the bulls a nice manicured look. The job was both art and science and Goggins was in his element. The cattle he showed consistently did well.

It turns out that Goggins had a gift for it.

His daughter Janet explains it simply as having an “eye” for it.

One of Bob Goggins' famous bulls, Scramble G, here next to the swimming pool at the Copper King Hotel in Butte.

One of Bob Goggins' famous bulls, Scramble G, here next to the swimming pool at the Copper King Hotel in Butte.

He can look at a cow and see faults in the genetics that most people would simply miss. Maybe it’s a quirk in the way the animal walks because of bad knees. Or maybe the animal’s shoulders are too narrow to carry enough weight. Small imperfections mean the animal won’t put on as much weight as it should and could pass on inferior genetics.

Today, scientists look at animal genetics to help select superior animals, Endecott said. But the scientist today doesn’t have anything on the herdsman of yesteryear.

“Guys like dad knew all these genetics better than the scientists do today,” she said.

The ultimate goal is to have the animals in your herd put on weight quickly without much effort. Back then, Hereford cattle were the breed of choice.

In 1959, Cora and Bob moved their family to a ranch just north of Ennis, where they still live today, and started their own registered Hereford operation.

The sharpest memory of their move was the earthquake that came in August that year.

The Hebgen Lake earthquake happened the night of Aug. 17, 1959. It measured about 7.5 on the Richter scale.

Cora remembers the sound of it waking her.

“I thought it was a terrible wind,” she said.

Her first thought was about the bed sheets she’d hung out on the clothesline. The wind would certainly blow them to the ground, she thought.

“I looked out the window and they (the sheets) were hanging still and quiet,” Cora said.

Betty remembers her brother Bobby’s bed upstairs was on rollers and the quake caused it to roll across the floor.

The news came in the morning that Hebgen Dam had broken and that Ennis was going to be flooded, Cora said.

The problem was that Bob hadn’t had a chance to build a loading chute for his cattle. As the kids and Cora went to high ground, Bob and his brother worked frantically to get a chute built to move the cattle.

Turns out the dam held and they didn’t need to panic. But Goggins remembers the whole town emptying out and driving up the Virginia City hill to wait for the floodwaters.

He held his first sale that fall and called it the “All shook up, Hereford bull sale.”

Over the years, Goggins’ ranch grew from about 33 head of cattle in the beginning to about 600 and his Hereford bulls became known around Montana and the West.

He has many stories from the past 50 years.

There’s one about a prize bull name Scramble G who stood for a picture next to a pool at Copper King Hotel in Butte during a convention.

After his picture, the 2,200-pound Scramble G got a ride up to the ballroom in the hotel’s service elevator.

“He wouldn’t fit in the (guest) elevator, so we had to take him through the kitchen into the freight elevator and he barely fit in there,” Bob recounted laughing still at the memory of the faces of the chefs as they walked his prize bull through the kitchen.

Then there’s the story of the 1980 Montana Winter Fair where Goggins’ Herefords won the top five places in the yearling bull show.

There was also the pelvic slide knife that Goggins invented to help cows in delivering large calves.

When cattle producers started breeding to bigger bulls, large calves would often be a problem for the cows, Goggins explained. The standard method was to break the pelvis bone with a chisel so the cow could give birth. The cow would mend up, but the procedure was just as difficult as it sounds.

The pelvic slide knife was a very long knife that was used to cut through the strong pelvis bones allowing the calf to be born and the cow to heal faster.

Goggins patented the knife, but had trouble explaining to the manufacturer in Denver how to build it. So he loaded up a couple of suitcases full of pelvic bones and flew to Denver to give the manufacturer a hands-on lesson in what he was talking about.

Goggins got out of the registered cattle business about seven years ago, but still runs a commercial herd of Hereford and Red Angus.

But his legacy runs thick through the agriculture industry in the Madison Valley and Montana. If you talk to anyone who knows about Herefords in Montana, they’ll know the name Goggins. And standing next to his fruit trees behind his home looking out on the Madison River bottom and his land, his legacy is somewhat understated. He won’t brag on himself.

That legacy is there under his cowboy hat and in his smiling blue eyes and in the close ties he and Cora have to their children and grandchildren. There are also a few truisms he’s passed along.

One thing always goes without saying – be honest, Endecott said.

“Dad doesn’t think that’s something you have to say,” she said.

However there are a few things he does say.

“Can’t isn’t in our vocabulary,” is one saying.

“Make definite plans, but keep them flexible,” is another.

“You have to keep them flexible,” said Betty Goggins, explaining her father’s saying. “Because anything can happen and usually does.”

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