2015 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Buffalo 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.
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.