Back After Two Hundred Years

Leisters2015 is an exciting year for wild Illinois bison. It was a big news this spring, first baby bison was born wild in Illinois at the Nachusa Prairie, first one since 1830! This fall bison will be introduced to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois. The last wild bison was killed in Illinois almost 200 years ago, but now they are back roaming full force. Fermilab, a physics research facility in the Chicago western suburbs has kept buffalo since 1969 (and Scotland Highland cows at one point) and has been a tourist attraction. Last weekend we were honored to meet a man who has loved American buffalo all his life and worked with the bison in Illinois and Wisconsin for the last 42 years.

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As we were driving from Kenosha Wisconsin, heading west to Lake Geneva through hilly and summer lush country roads of Wisconsin, we admired endless fields of wheat waving in the wind like golden ocean waves. Not coincidentally, we were approaching the town of Wheatland, Wisconsin. I noticed a large herd of cows in the distance, pulled over, and zoomed in with my camera. As I zoomed, I quickly realized they were not cows. Guys, it’s buffalo! I screamed. Kids rushed out to see the buffalo. At the border of Salem and Wheatland, Wisconsin, marked by flags and a steep gravel road, we read the sign: Lester’s Bison Farm. The gate was closed, my cellphone had no signal, so I jotted down the name, watched the bison disappear behind the hills, and we drove on.

A week later, we drove back to visit the buffalo and Mr. Ron Lester, a well known buffalo rancher in northern Illinois/Southern Wisconsin. Mr. Lester is quite a buffalo man. He is 84 years young, one big no-nonsense man, and runs this 160 acre farm with his grandson Charlie. Charlie was out busy on a tractor preparing two bulls for sale. Mr. Ron was running the store on the busy Sunday. As we pulled up steep gravel road to the country store, we were greeted by his three guard dogs. Buffalo were there too, in the pasture behind the store, all 70 of them, always keeping a watchful eye on us intruders, only a thin fence separating us and them.

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Prized buffalo features: beautiful beards and nice pantaloons blowing in the wind

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They watched our every move. Their smell and hearing is better than their eyesight

The dogs led us into the country store. The outer wall of the store is adored with some shelves and quite a few buffalo skulls and horns. Kids examined buffalo teeth. This is the first time I touched a buffalo skull. Skull alone sells for $150-$200. This reminded me of those pictures from the 1800s of buffalo skulls and bones piled in huge piles, mainly to be composted. At one time, American bison numbers were estimated as high as 70 million, but the 1800’s saw a huge decline, down to only a few hundred. How did bison diminish so quickly? “Almost anyone who could afford the cost booked passage on trains slashing across the prairies. Leaning out the window, hunters could swiftly and easily shoot bison after bison. Now and then, the trains stopped so people could collect the slain animals’ skins (a valuable commodity) and tongues (a culinary delicacy). They left everything else to rot. The extent of the slaughter is hard to grasp. One of the few statistics available hints at its enormity: In 1872-74, a single railway company shipped nearly 500,000 bison hides back to the East. The scale of the slaughter is further illustrated by the recollection of a rancher who traveled a thousand miles over a landscape dotted with buffalo carcasses and containing not a single live bison.” Source and pictures. The sad story of buffalo does not end there, quite few true buffalo remain, many of them are cattle bred.

Due to conservation initiatives and mainly ranches that now raise bison, mainly for meat, buffalo numbers have returned to about 600,000. As we entered the store, Mr. Lester greeted us from behind the counter, and started telling buffalo stories.

Lester's Country Store

Lester’s Country Store

Mr. Lester is a Wisconsin native. In 1951 Ron Lester joined the U.S. Marine Corp. and fought in the Korean War, when his service ended he ranked a Sergeant Major.  During that time Ron developed a passion for buffaloes after he studied them and used the knowledge to teach his men about adaptation and survival. He later married, and raised 7 children. He now has 14 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren (if I remember my numbers right). Mr. Lester was passionate about telling me all about his buffalo products, his story, and the character of buffalo. Living in Northern Illinois and owning a material supply business, he got a permission to own a buffalo in 1973, when they were still endangered and virtually unheard of in Illinois.  So Mr. Ron, his wife Connie, and their 7 kids packed up the RV, with a two horse trailer and a sign on it that read “Buffalo or Bust”, to Yampa, Colorado.  They picked up and brought back one bull and three heifer buffalo to their Illinois property.  And it all started from there. Lesters now own the Wisconsin farm with the 70 buffalo and one in South Dakota where another 1,781 bison roam. Ron Lester joked that he retired twice already, once from the military, and second time from his materials supply store. He now mentors his family members and area ranchers in raising the buffalo.

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Buffalo milk is very rich and reserved for the calves only

Since there was a steady line of customers coming in, many of them regulars, Mr. Lester apologized for not being able to spend more time talking to me. He suggested I come on a slower day, when Charlie manages the store, and he can sit on a swing by the store’s front door and tell me stories, his favorite pastime, he said. I glanced at the swing, sure enough, it was plenty worn. Mr. Lester talked about bison calves being born at 30 pounds, reddish color, gaining 3 pounds a day, reaching 300-400 pounds in just a year. It takes two years for buffalo to reach full grown size and another six years to reach maturity and mating age. Lester was preparing to sell two bulls for breeding stock for $12,000 each, while the most expensive bison bull he once bought was $45,000.

They always walk into the wind, said Mr. Lester. He likes the buffalo because he feels he is a lot like them, his wife even says he looks like one of them. Farm Progress magazine featured Mr. Lester and his farm a couple years back. He insisted that buffalo are tough and need little care, they are self sufficient. That is why you will not find any shelters in his multiple pastures, he says he built a shelter one time, and they knocked it down. There are hills and valleys, a drinking spot, few large water areas, a huge dirt pile, some brushes for itchy buffalo to scratch their backs and Mr. Lester to collect the fur. The herd will stay out happy, even when it is 30F – 40F below zero.

Counter space in the store was covered in buffalo hide. We do not waste anything here, said Ron Lester. He was selling buffalo fur, as well as gloves, hats, socks, and shoe insoles made of buffalo fiber. He also suggested I try some hand cream made with bison bone marrow.

Lesters8Lesters9Buffalo down is strong, fluffy, very insulating and warm. It is warmer than sheep’s wool. It also has the ability to retain much moisture without feeling wet, which makes it a great product for ski wear and cold weather wear in general. According to the spinners who work with the buffalo down, they say that it has more bulk, bounce and resilience than other exotic fibers. Bison fiber has no lanolin, which many people are allergic to. Lanolin is also what moths like to eat. Mr. Lester said buffalo fur has 7 layers, the three closest to the skin get collected for spinning. We touched the fibers he was selling in the bags, and it felt a lot like sheep’s wool.

Per pound it is priced similar to a high quality cashmere. A pair of bison wool gloves from Mr. Lester’s store will set you back $70, a pair of socks is $45, and a long scarf runs as high as $150. Or you can buy a 4 oz bag of bison down for $45 and spin and knit your own goodies. Buffalo fiber is pricey. Although the population of buffalo has increased to over half million, there is still only a limited amount of fiber available – estimated at 10,000 lbs per year, vs 2,100,000,000 lbs of sheep wool.

Mr. Lester’s unique hobby is not limited to live animals. The shelves in his store, and walls above his meat freezers were cluttered with plaques, paintings, photos, ceramic figures, stuffed animals, all depicting the bison. He saw my girl and remembered about the bison kids book which he asked me to pull out from a small box on the bottom shelf.

We picked out some meat. In addition to all buffalo products, Lester’s also sells elk, alligator, pheasant, chicken, Amish butter and local eggs. Bison meat, also called salmon of the prairie, compares to beef as far as protein content, but is lower in fat and cholesterol, and higher in vitamin B-12. I find pastured buffalo more flavorful than pastured beef. We are big buffalo eaters in our house, but this is the first time we bought it from a local farmer, and it passed the taste test. Mr. Lester mentioned that store bought buffalo is most likely cut with fat, some chains adding about 15% of pork fat. And when we were done paying for our meats and other goods, Mr. Lester suggested we pick some raspberries from his raspberry bushes. Kids stood next to the buffalo fence, stuffing overripe berries into their mouths watching peacefully roaming bison.

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Young buffalo with a friend cowbird to keep clean

P.S. For some more great buffalo stories, visit Linda’s blog. Her two part story is filled with some wonderful history, amazing writing and pictures: A Sweet Little Puff of Buffalo Fluff Part One  and Part Two.

~~~

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About BeeHappee

Where have all the bees gone? Where have all the flowers gone? https://beehappeenow.wordpress.com
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32 Responses to Back After Two Hundred Years

  1. bobraxton says:

    tongue and hide(s) – excuses back then – no excuse for gunning down the humans we read and hear about daily in this heavily-armed country. At least not much shooting out of trains (windows) thanks to air conditioning.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Agreed. . . Sadly much simpler now, remote controlled drones. Crazy world. Ironically, on the way there, we stopped at a shooting range and boy watched arrows and shotguns, hunting deeply ingrained in his genes, hopefully we can keep it fair.

  2. migarium says:

    This is great news and happy trip! I hope “they always walk into the wind” like their ancestors on this planet.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thanks, Migo. They are really tough, so it makes it really sad that humans managed to drive them practically to extinction. This lead us to some great conversations with kids about the animals that are already extinct or getting there…

  3. Lily Lau says:

    We humans… I only retrieve my faith in them when I hear this kind of news!

  4. Beautiful animals! Shame on Buffalo Bill… who’s defunct. I hope that they continue to do well! 🙂

  5. blazeburgess says:

    This made me very happy. American Bison always seemed such a lost cause, I never even thought of it as a cause. It’s encouraging to see people so humbly correcting a two-century old mistake.

  6. Olive says:

    Lovely! I remember walking in Golden Gate Park, SF and as the heavy fog cleared, finding bison in a field. My oldest was a toddler then, life was simpler…the world less dangerous somehow ( or so it seemed!) I am really happy to hear about their numbers increasing, as it was always a disgusting and sad part of our history ( but hey, what are some buffalo when genocide was the norm). Sounds like your kids have alot of wonderful experiences.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Buffalo in the fog clearing, that sounds beautiful. I am glad they are bringing them back here for prairie management. If you have time, do check out the link I provided to Linda’s posts, she has some wonderful history.
      For me, buffalo was always exotic, all the novels I read as a teen on native Americans and buffalo. 🙂 I never knew anything about their fur and how it can be used, that part was very interesting. We have a couple pow wows and native American events coming up in August here, so we will explore more of buffalo history. Thank you for your stories.

  7. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says:

    Beautiful animals.We have them around here. I love your pictures and story, especially the calf.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you!! Mr. Lester said on his SD farm where he has 1781 buffalo as of latest count, there are over 400 calfs. 🙂 Right now (June through Sept) is mating season for buffalo so new babies will come next April and May.

  8. noblethemes says:

    Wonderful, wonderful story! It makes me somewhat envious. 🙂 I would love to go on one of your adventures; I know your children just love it! And how fascinating to be able to visit a bison ranch; so far as I know ~ and I’m fairly certain this is correct ~ there are none as far south as I live (assuming it’s just too hot.) One fact you mentioned really astonished me, though, and that was the amount of sheep wool produced each year! 2,100,000,000??? I thought, “No… Bee must have accidentally added three zeroes!” LOL Thank you for another such interesting, delightful story!

  9. bobraxton says:

    unless, of course, the bison watch TV instead

    • BeeHappee says:

      🙂 I could use a TV and an A/C and a cold beer today, none of which I have. . I think you guys are heading to your trip to Africa soon, have a great trip and wonderful experiences!

  10. smcasson says:

    How neat to find and spend time with a guy so passionate about what he does. You probably were talking with one of the foremost experts on bison in the country. Very cool.
    I need to learn how you do it, how you find such great places and things to do, in the middle of nowhere or the middle of everything. How you meet such interesting people, strike up conversations and get them to open up. 🙂

    • BeeHappee says:

      Hi Scott, thank you. I don’t know, I guess you just ask people questions, and everyone usually loves talking about what they know. I am not good at all at listening, still practicing my listening and journalism skills. 🙂 But if seriously, yes, my dream as a kid was to be a journalist/reporter.
      Totally off topic, but last night we were walking in the woods and found a couple of black cherry trees, and cherries were really very good, you probably have some around you, saw this article mentions KY: http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/12/permaculture-plants-black-cherry-tree.html
      Kids dragged a little branch from the tree home just to find out there was a cool pupa on the branch and a green shield bug which now became their pet. 🙂

      • smcasson says:

        haha, yeah those are super-tasty. We have a number of them in our fencelines and in the cemetery. I collected quite a bit last year (10+lbs) and made jam and cherry liqueur. But this year, none of them flowered or fruited. They didn’t ask me for the year off. 😦 I really wanted more cherries

        • BeeHappee says:

          10 lbs, I would love that. How do you get to them? Use a ladder? i wanted to pick more, but cannot reach them, very tall trees, we already do all types of climbing and acrobatics for mullberies. 🙂

          • smcasson says:

            I did use an 8ft stepladder. I still wished for more height. Same story on my apple tree. I’m on my ladder, and have a 10ft long apple picker on a stick, and can’t reach half the apples. Sometimes I feel a little stupid, leaning over, 6+ feet up, trying to get an apple or cherries… a fall from that height, at the very least wouldn’t be fun, and could ruin the whole day. haha

          • BeeHappee says:

            Yeah, I know, have done that. . (the stupid part) we pick this stuff in public property, they would look funny at me if I dragged step ladder with me out to the forest. 🙂

  11. shoreacres says:

    What a neat post! There are lots of details here I didn’t know, especially about the various layers of fur, and the fact that there are products out there like the socks, scarves, and so on.

    The buffalo did roam as far south as Houston, and even farther south in Texas. As a matter of fact, Houston was founded on Buffalo Bayou. You can guess the reason! There’s a prairie just outside my home town in Iowa that is getting (may already have) bison. One of the things that’s been learned is that bison grazing patterns actually help with prairie restoration — that’s one reason they’re being nurtured and pampered these days, as the cause of prairie restoration becomes more popular.

    Even at places like Konza prairie in Kansas, there’s an annual culling that goes on. It’s important for the health of the herd. Some people get really twitchy about hunting, but here in Texas, for example, the seasonal hunt for white tail deer is important. If the numbers aren’t cut, far too many die of starvation and disease. Of course, venison is as delicious as bison, so there’s an upside for people, too. Many hunters provide meat to homeless shelters and food pantries, too. That turns it into a win/win situation.

    But hunting isn’t slaughter, which is what was going on in the West, back in the day. One journal I read (can’t remember exactly which one, now) did make the point that the absolute extravagance of the resources available on the continent as people moved west often blinded them to the fact that abundance could turn to scarcity in only a few years. Today, we know what can happen, so our responsibility is greater.

    Thanks for the mention, and thanks for the wonderful post. I do love bison, and I’m so glad you and your kids got an up close and personal look at them!

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you, Linda! Very neat about hunters providing meat to the food pantries and homeless shelters. I am all pro hunting, reasonable hunting. If I had means and skills to chose the most reasonable lifestyle for myself, it would the hunting/gathering.
      Yes, Illinois prairies are bringing buffalo back for prairie management. It makes sense. The interdependence of buffalo, cow birds and prairie dogs is also very interesting. Where there is buffalo, there are prairies dogs, they depend on each other – buffalo protect prairie dogs from predators by their mere presence.
      As far as 7 layers of fur, I am taking Mr. Lesters word. I had not double checked that. It does make sense, I think they measure quality and type by the thickness of hair. I had not heard about ‘layers’ though when reading up on sheep and alpaca wool.
      Here is an interesting fact I am reading from one wool processing company here in Michigan who also process camel and yak furs in addition to buffalo, alpaca, sheep, cashmere goat, etc: Wool can bend itself 20,000 times without breaking. It lasts for years without losing its resilience.
      Camel and Yak hair does have the layers like buffalo.
      Hope you have an adventurous week!

  12. smilecalm says:

    looking forward
    to weaving around
    them on the interstate
    whaaaahooooooo 🙂

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