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Small Business Spotlight: Ola family operates ranch for over 100 years

century ranch cows

Joyce Biggers runs cows on her Ola ranch, just as her great-grandfather did more than a hundred years ago. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

A small business isn’t necessarily “small” geographically. Sometimes it can sprawl over dozens of acres.

That’s the case for the Sherman Glenn Ranch, a 125-acre cattle operation recently designated by the state of Idaho as a Century Ranch after being in continuous operation for more than 100 years. Joyce Biggers can trace the family ranch back to her great-grandfather, John Thomas Glenn, who bought its first 40 acres for $300 in 1902, adding to it over time as land became available.

The ranch is in the unincorporated town of Ola, founded in 1882. It’s located northeast of Emmett; you drive by Gov. Brad Little’s place on the way.

photo of ola school

Ola Elementary School, on the National Register of Historic Places, is on land Biggers’ great-grandfather donated. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

John Thomas – “that’s the way he always referred to himself,” Biggers said – was instrumental in the creation of the town as well, donating land for the schoolhouse, church and cemetery. The current school – the third one constructed on the property – is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The property has always been a cattle ranch, dating back to when ranchers took their cattle to graze in the summer and brought them back home in the winter.

“Back in those days, they had open range,” Biggers said. “It wasn’t so important to have your deeded ground.”

In the summer, ranchers took the beef cattle to Upper Payette Lakes and brought them back to the Lower Squaw Creek area, near Sweet, in the winter.

“He had quality cattle that he ran,” she said. “Ranching and livestock were pretty important to him.”

Like many farmers and ranchers, John Thomas did other things to get by. He was elected to the Idaho Legislature and was in favor of women’s suffrage when it came up for a vote 100 years ago, Biggers said. He served just the one term, by his own wish.

“He was quoted as saying he would rather spend his time working for agriculture than sitting in the Legislature,” she said.

John Thomas’ son Sherman – after whom the ranch is named – was just 3 years old when he was run over by a wagon.

“He had a lot of damage to his spine and ribs,” Biggers said. “In those days, the doctors didn’t know a lot about taking care of things like that. They took him to see quite a few doctors, and none could help him any.”

The upshot was that Sherman didn’t grow much.

“His head and his hands were all normal size, but the trunk didn’t grow,” Biggers said, estimating his height at 4’8”. “But he could do anything a 6-foot-tall person could. In his mind he wasn’t little – he was a big man. He always rode the biggest horse in the country.”

At 14, Sherman was put in charge of running the cows and horses at Upper Payette Lakes.

“That blows my mind,” Biggers said. “If you put a 14-year-old up there now, you’d be in trouble.”

Later, he also added sheep to the ranch’s livestock.

Like his father, Sherman did other work as well. At the time, Emmett and Ola were still part of Boise County; Gem County wasn’t split off from it until 1915. Thanks to all his riding through the countryside, the assessor hired him as deputy assessor.

“Then, when the election came up, he ran as assessor, and the guy who hired him became his deputy,” Biggers said.

Sherman also ran the Ola store.

“He sold it and bought it back and leased it many times,” she said.

Sherman married and had six children – five girls and one boy, Asa, who was Biggers’ father. When her dad was little, he tended the sheep and brought them in at night to protect them from coyotes. Her dad bought the ranch from Sherman around 1945.

“My dad just ran cattle,” Biggers said. “He took a lot of pride in Hereford cattle. He pretty much just stayed here and worked on the ranch all his life.”

photo of joyce and butch biggars

Joyce and Butch Biggers. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

Biggers, one of her dad’s two daughters, and her husband, Butch, bought the ranch from her dad.

“We helped him on it, and we bought it fairly early on in our marriage life,” she said. “We’ve had it most of the time. When we haven’t had it, we’ve been up here helping him. I used to work along beside him – help build fence, and look after the cattle and irrigate and hay a little bit.”

Like her ancestors, Biggers also worked off the ranch, as a secretary for Idaho Power responsible for updating substation blueprints.

Sherman Glenn Ranch no longer makes much of its own hay, and it’s sold much of its cattle. Instead, it takes in cattle from other people during the summer and runs them on its flood-irrigated pastureland.

“We wanted to keep up with haying, but when the equipment got old, it didn’t seem feasible to update it,” Biggers said. “We sold most of our cows, and we buy what hay we need. That way, we didn’t have to buy equipment, and we didn’t have to hay.”

The next generation is already in place to take on management of the ranch. Joyce and Butch have three children – two girls and one boy. Her son, Levi, lives in a trailer on the ranch and helps out quite a bit.

“He hopes to take the place over someday,” she said.

Who knows – in time, Sherman Glenn Ranch could become a double-century ranch.

What is the Century Farm/Ranch program?

The Century Farm/Ranch program began in 1990 as part of the centennial celebration of Idaho’s statehood. The program recognizes a farm or ranch owned and operated in Idaho by the same family for at least 100 years with at least 40 acres of the original parcel of land still maintained as part of the present holding.

Under the program, more than 400 farms and ranches statewide have been designated by the Idaho Department of Agriculture and the Idaho State Historical Society.

About Sharon Fisher

Sharon Fisher is an Idaho Business Review staff writer, covering financial institutions, technology, and business development. She holds a bachelor of science in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a masters in public administration and graduate certificates in geographic informational analysis and in community and regional planning from Boise State University. She likes explaining things and going to meetings. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_SLFisher.