May 31, 2006
by Linda Monohan
Have you ever looked at the old brands that are burned onto the wooden doors at Douglas Fabrication Inc.? They represent nearly a century of ranching in Carson Valley and surrounding areas.
Bruce Wise, owner of the family business, has fashioned scores of branding irons since he took over in 1985. The original building dates to 1905 and was located next to the old Pioneer Garage, now gone, in Minden.
The business started in 1909 as a blacksmith shop, and a larger room was added in 1925. Two fires seriously burned the building in the 1940s, and the owner at that time, Harvey Schrengohst, died in one of the fires. You can still see the scorched beams on the ceiling.
Wise started welding when he was 15. He gained a lot of experience while working on local ranches but is mostly self-taught. The first branding iron he forged was a Slash H for the Heritage Ranch on the west side of the Valley.
Recently Wise showed me how he makes a branding iron. He didn’t really heat and hammer the metal as I thought he would, but he used one of the thousands of different tools he stores in his large shop.
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To make the iron, he took a bar stick and put it in a Hosfield bender, bending the bar into the desired shape. He told me the Hosfield bending machine was patented in 1805, and the company is still in business in Wisconsin. As far as Wise knows, there are only two Hosfield benders (complete with various dyes) still in Carson Valley. Besides his, there is one at Douglas High School. Wise also uses a wire welder, a stick machine and a forge welder.
I watched as Wise welded an “L” (for Linda) to a handle. He gave the brand to me for a souvenir. I found that welding certainly is an art, but working the heavy metal is also very noisy and very dirty.
Many of the old Valley brands have been burned into the big wooden doors that face Highway 395. There are hundreds of them, and, as you expect, each one is different from the others. Brands you might recognize include those used by the ranch hands who worked for Harvey Gross, John Ascuaga and Hap McGee, as well as cowboys at the old Dangberg ranch and the Washoe Tribe’s ranch. A pine tree brand was registered to Mrs. Fred Dressler, and there’s another intriguing brand, WHMS, whose iron now hangs over the fireplace in a San Francisco penthouse.
Douglas Fabrication made the 52 branding irons featuring the initials NCG, which stand for the National Governors’ Conference, held at Lake Tahoe in 1964. Each governor was given one. Many irons are never used to brand cattle or horses, but they certainly look beautiful as wall decorations.
When the Spaniards first brought cattle to the New World, they introduced the custom of establishing ownership through brands.
Branding makes a burn that leaves a distinctive scar on the animal’s hide. Brands became especially important in the 1860s and 1870s, when vast herds of cattle were driven north from Texas across open country to shipping points, called cow towns, where they were loaded on trains and taken to towns in Kansas and Oklahoma. The cattle were then shipped to the North and East, to take advantage of the high price of beef in those areas. Even today, when most of the range has been fenced, ranchers continue to brand their cattle as protection against cattle rustlers.
Although it’s not as large as it once was, ranching still is an important industry in Carson Valley. The many branding irons that Bruce Wise and his family have forged over the past 100 years not only tell a story, they also help to preserve our history.