Guest Opinions

Podium: Celebrating Joyce Ranch in Owyhee County, a 150-year old Idaho business

How many people in Idaho today can say their family business has withstood the challenges of recessions, depressions, severe weather, flooding from a dam collapse, lawsuits over water rights, Indian wars, range and house fires, drought, and constantly changing federal laws and regulations? The only one who comes to my mind is Paul Nettleton, the owner/operator of the Joyce Ranch in Owyhee County.

Later this month, Matthew Joyce’s descendants will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the ranch. It is believed to be the oldest in Idaho. I also believe it is the oldest business in Idaho operating under its original name at its original location, and still owned by the founding family.

In 1863 Matthew Joyce was living in Nevada and heard about the gold strike in Idaho’s Owyhee Mountains. In May 1864, he and his family arrived in Ruby City, then the county seat. Joyce understood that the chances of striking it rich were slim, so he brought along oxen, cattle and a thoroughbred, and set about providing the mining community with meat, milk and horses.

The following year he took out a homestead on Sinker Creek where he raised feed for his livestock. While the Joyces bought up other ranching properties, the Sinker Creek ranch would continue to be ranch headquarters for the next 150 years.

Glenn Balch, a prolific writer of novels about the West, used the Joyce Ranch and the surrounding territory as the locale for many of his books.

Matthew and Mary Joyce were both natives of County Galway, Ireland. They had 10 children. None of the four boys married, so the Joyce name remains only on the ranch. Five of the girls married and between them had 29 children. Their many descendants include Matthew’s great-grandson Paul Nettleton, who currently owns and manages the ranch. Perry Swisher, also a great-grandson, became a prominent Idaho politico and journalist. Yet another great-grandson, Tim Nettleton, achieved prominence as Owyhee County’s longtime sheriff.

But the real story here is how this family-owned ranch has continued to operate and sometimes prosper during all of the ups and downs of the past 150 years.

The Joyce Ranch is one of the few businesses left that can claim to have been economically damaged by the advent of the car. For many years the ranch was a major provider of horses for the U.S. Army; the market for Army horses collapsed. At the time there were an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 horses on the Owyhee range. The “wild” horses of the Owyhees are the remnants of those early range-grazed herds of horses. For most of today’s ranchers they hold all of the mystique that feral dogs and cats hold for city dwellers.

In 1923 the Idaho-based construction company Morrison-Knudsen constructed a 60-foot dam in Sinker Creek above Joyce Ranch as part of an agricultural development. M-K rose to fame with its success in constructing Hoover Dam and other such projects around the globe. Unlike Hoover Dam, the Sinker Creek Dam didn’t last. It collapsed in 1943, and the resulting 40-foot-high wall of water leveled much of the Joyce operations on Sinker Creek. In the aftermath, they rebuilt the damaged or destroyed ranch facilities.

Paul Nettleton represents the fourth generation of the Joyce family to operate the ranch. He is the quintessential cowboy. The only time I have ever seen him without his trademark black cowboy hat was at my wedding 40 years ago. Today he is more likely to be seen running salt to his cattle and working on fences with an ATV, rather than a horse.

Unlike Matthew Joyce, he must deal with the Bureau of Land Management, federal protection of feral horses, water rights challenges, government permitting and the like. Like many ranchers, he has talked about eventually selling off some parcels of land for residential use. He also recognizes the potential of tourism and now operates Sinker Creek Outfitters, which provides trail rides in the Owyhee Mountains. And, most recently, he partnered with Trout Unlimited and other organizations to work on stream restoration on Sinker Creek in order to protect the resident population of red band trout.

The future operation of the ranch appears to be relatively secure. Paul’s son, Chad, is now his partner. A University of Idaho graduate in agribusiness, Chad is also taking an active part in community affairs. He serves on the board of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association, Owyhee County Planning and Zoning Commission, and the Owyhee County Sheriff’s Posse. A few years ago Chad brought about a merger of one of Owyhee County’s most prominent ranching families with one of Clearwater County’s most prominent logging families when he married Michelle McLaughlin, of Orofino. They have a 2-year-old son who may well end up being the sixth generation of the family operating the Joyce Ranch.

So the next time you think that the business you work for or own is having difficult times, just give some thought to Joyce Ranch and the obstacles that family has faced. It is likely your problems will pale compared to the ones they have overcome.

Boise’s Martin Peterson is a longtime observer of Idaho politics and a former member of the Statesman editorial board. He is retired.