Women of the West - Clem Kayser

For nearly 50 years, this Washington rancher has raised children, ridden horses, and served as the backbone of the family ranch.

Interview by KATIE FRANK • Photograph by MOLLY MORROW

Clem Kayser is the driving force behind Ellensburg Kayser Ranches in central Washington, just east of the Cascade Mountains. At age 83, she still handles day-to-day responsibilities, from doctoring sick calves to managing the books. Without her, says her son, Sam, there wouldn’t be a Kayser Ranch.

ClemKayser

I wasn’t a ranch-born girl. I was raised in Vancouver, and I went to Battleground High School. I went to live with my sister in Goldendale, Washington, and finish my last year of high school, and that’s where I met my husband, Smoke. He was a grade ahead of me.

My husband was born and raised in the Goldendale area. His whole family ranched down there, and that’s where we moved up here from, because we needed more pasture for our cattle.

When we moved here, we didn’t have a pot to pee in, so I made all my kids’ clothes. When [my grandson] Cass rodeoed, I started making his rodeo shirts, and then his friends wanted some. Now, all my neighbors wear “Clem shirts.” So that’s what I do in the winter when it gets cold and nasty. I have eight grandkids and six great-grandkids, and I make them shirts. Then I make shirts for the cattlemen’s association for their auction every year.

I was never a housewife. I like to be outside. I was always included in the ranch work. I never had aches and pains until I got this damn arthritis.

Activity is what keeps us young and keeps us going. Some people’s bodies just give out and they just can’t go. My sister is 87, and she’s blind in one eye, but she goes like the house is on fire. It’s in the genes, I think. I couldn’t sit in the house day after day and just do housework.

I didn’t have any lessons, and I had to learn to cowboy right from the start, because they didn’t train their horses then, more or less, only the rope horses. But the ranch horses, you got on and cowboyed. That’s the way you broke them.

There were challenges to start with, being a woman in ranching. I’ve always been out and helped in any way. But as far as getting any recognition [back then], I wasn’t even allowed to go in the arena at rodeo time.

They still don’t really call Washington a cattle state. It’s a northwest recreation area, is what [people on the West Coast] like to think. They really want to move here but bring their ways over here with them. We didn’t want Seattle moving all around us, so we tried to buy everything all at once. And now we’ve got awful good neighbors on all sides.

Smoke died way, way too young. He was a hard-nosed rancher. He wasn’t real particular what the place looked like. He was mainly interested in profit and the cattle. Smoke always said about rounding up cattle, “You never say you got ’em all, ’cause as soon as you do, the neighbors call and say that one of em’s come down.”

Tuffy is pretty ancient, but he’s a good horse. I like [our horses’] breeding. They’re real cool-minded, easy to handle, and like to be pampered. And you can do your job on them. You can point Tuffy up the side of a cliff, and he’ll go there for you.

I ride at roundup a lot in the spring when we take the cattle up over the mountain. My dog hates it because he can’t go anymore, he’s so crippled. He still tries to keep up, like when I’m exercising my horse in the pasture. But a lot of times I have to wait for him. That’s one reason I don’t [complain] about not riding as much because I don’t think I could work cattle without him anymore. He was just like a second hand.

I still keep all the books and do all the running around for everybody that wants something done. Every day I bring my own wood in with a wheelbarrow and take care of my horses. And if anything is sick, they put it in the barn and I doctor that. I used to ride the feedlots all the time. Arthritis has interfered with some of my daily chores. And I hate it.

This is a ranch house. If you took your boots off every time you came in the house, we’d never get anything done.

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