Ray Marxer’s first day as a hired hand at the Matador Cattle Co. ranch south of Dillon began with two lessons in humility.
As dawn approached, jitters struck.
“I was so nervous, I threw up,” Marxer recalled.
Next, he joined a crew wrangling horses in preparation for a cow and calf weaning operation that day. A cowboy consigned him a horse. As he was bridling the animal it collided with another horse and Marxer watched forlornly as his designated mount trotted away.
“One thing this life will do for you is humble you,” he said.
Marxer’s career at the Matador Cattle Co. began Oct. 8, 1974. He retired in 2011 as general manager of a ranch whose scale tends to elicit awe: 345,000 acres, roughly 3,000 miles of fencing, 15,000-plus animals, including cows, calves, bulls and horses.
Today, more than 47 years after his greenhorn debut, Marxer’s description of that first day still hints at a young man’s mortification.
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Marxer fretted then that the ranch’s seasoned hands would conclude he was a “gunsel,” a sort of counterfeit cowboy – someone wearing a Stetson, boots and a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate but bereft of skills and gumption.
Yet as the sun climbed the sky, Marxer proved his mettle. Marion Cross, then general manager of the huge ranch, sensed that this rookie wrangler from Cascade had the right stuff. He asked Ray to run a gate for him as they separated cows from calves.
“He saw something in me,” Marxer said.
The Wall Street Journal reported in early December that media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper’s executive chairman and owner, and wife, Jerry Hall, had purchased the Matador Cattle Co. from Koch Industries for $200 million.
That news sent Marxer and his family into nostalgia’s embrace. They reminisced about halcyon years they had spent working on a ranch whose territories included portions of the spectacular Centennial Valley, clear, cold trout streams and habitat for abundant wildlife.
“Those were absolutely the best years of our lives,” Marxer said.
During a recent interview at his home south of Twin Bridges, Marxer, now 68, reminisced about the 37 years he worked at the Matador Cattle Co. ranch south of Dillon. For 21 of those years, he served as general manager.
His voice caught and his eyes brimmed with tears when talking about Marion Cross’ intuitive grasp during that very first day of Marxer’s potential to be a capable wrangler.
“He recognized then, in just a few short hours, that I was an employee with the right values and beliefs and skills, but mostly he realized that I had the right values and beliefs,” Marxer said.
“He saw that I was in the game. He saw that I was paying attention,” he said. “A lot of the old guys wouldn’t say much. They just expected you to pay attention.”
Skills can be learned, Marxer said.
“But values and beliefs, they’re more of a job for God.”
Just a few months passed before Cross and Tom Griggs, cow foreman, felt confident enough about Marxer, then 21, to ask him to be the foreman of Matador’s Sage Creek Division, an 80,000-acre subsection of the ranch near Dell.
“I told them I didn’t think I was qualified,” Marxer recalled.
Yet he agreed to go, and he and his wife, Sue, moved to Sage Creek from a trailer at ranch headquarters.
“I made a lot of mistakes, but that’s how I learned,” Marxer said.
The Sage Creek Division was about 60 miles from headquarters.
“It was colder and things were about a month behind,” Marxer said.
As a consequence, hiring seasonal hands could be challenging because by the time Sage Creek had thawed they had signed on with another outfit.
In those days, many cowboys came and went like the wind.
“They’d work long enough to get a paycheck to go to town,” Marxer said.
He had first felt the pull toward ranching and ranch management as a teenager.
Ray Marxer grew up in Cascade. His father, Dale, worked as a farmer and rancher. His mother, Shirley, tended the home.
Toward the end of Marxer’s junior year at Cascade High School, a guidance counselor summoned him. He asked Marxer, a good and promising student, what he wanted to do with his life.
“I told him I’d really like to be a foreman on a large ranch,” Marxer recalled.
The guidance counselor scoffed, telling Marxer, “You’ve got more to offer than that.”
After a brief flirtation with higher education, Marxer decided to chase getting hired by a large ranch. He landed a job with the Matador Cattle Co., sometimes referred to as the Beaverhead Ranch to differentiate it from the Matador ranch in Texas, also owned by Koch Industries.
Fred Koch, founder of the company that became Koch Industries, had purchased the property in Beaverhead County in 1950, when the ranch was significantly smaller. His sons, Charles and David Koch, continued the ranch ownership.
Marxer and Sue, who grew up in Bigfork, had three children while at the Sage Creek Division.
The oldest was Clayton, who is now 39. In December, his nostalgic Facebook post about growing up on the Matador ranch attracted many readers.
He described living as a child at the backcountry Staudaher Cow Camp in the summer and then following the cows home when they headed back down the Blacktail Road for winter.
Marxer said one problem at Staudaher involved wranglers traveling after work to tie one on in Lima. He said he realized there was little to hold them at cow camp.
“We built a roping arena. We made it so they could have fun and want to stay.”
Marxer became cow foreman in late 1985, and the family moved to ranch headquarters from Sage Creek.
Marxer’s employment by the Matador Cattle Co. commenced during an era when characters still hired on.
One was Roy Drinnen, a D-Day veteran, a steadfast bachelor and loner who meticulously tended the ranch’s thousands of miles of fence on foot with a shovel and a crowbar. He retired at 91 and lived to be 100.
“He would wear out a shovel every year, literally wear it out,” Marxer said.
Ranch work could be dangerous. Yet Marxer said serious injuries were rare.
“Everybody had to pay attention,” he said.
One day a cowboy got distracted and didn’t realize his lead rope had become looped around one leg.
“When he got off his horse to shut the gate, he fell off the horse and it started to drag him. Here came that horse running a hundred miles an hour and [the cowboy] was just spinning behind it,” Marxer recalled.
The man suffered a compound fracture of his right leg. A helicopter evacuation followed.
Marxer made numerous changes at the ranch during his tenure and the Matador Cattle Co. won environmental stewardship awards and collected other honors.
He said his first reaction after learning about the sale to Rupert Murdoch was to wonder why it happened. David and Charles Koch, often referred to as the Koch Brothers, always seemed to have a strong emotional connection to the Matador ranch, he said.
“I questioned in my own mind what motivated Charles to sell the ranch,” Marxer said.
Koch Industries did not respond to a request for comment.
David Koch died in 2019 at age 79. Charles Koch survives and is 86.
Both visited the ranch as young men, Marxer said. They were expected to work hard and they did, he said.
“Charles once lived in a shack at the cow camp with Bitterroot Bob,” he said, referencing the late Robert Roy Stewart, another World War II veteran who worked at the ranch.
“Bob and his pistol shooting in the shack left a lasting impression on Charles,” Marxer said.
Stewart, a Darby native, died in February at age 92. His obituary noted, “There was not a tougher guy than Bob.” It also reported that Stewart had once worked for the P & O Ranch, the Matador’s predecessor.
The Poindexter & Orr ranch was named for P.H. Poindexter and William Orr. Poindexter, from the East, and Orr, a native of Ireland, came to the region around the time Beaverhead County was formed in 1865. They raised cattle and horses on their ranch.
Meanwhile, Marxer said he would happily provide a horseback tour of the ranch’s breathtaking landscapes to the Murdochs and their children and grandchildren.
“I would dearly love to take the new owners to places like the site that has 117 teepee rings,” he said.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch declared, “We feel privileged to assume ownership of this beautiful land and look forward to continually enhancing both the commercial cattle business and the conservation assets across the ranch.”
Marxer said he hopes the Matador remains a working cattle ranch. If it does not, the ranch will linger in his memories.
He knows when the sandhill cranes return in March. He can imagine the calves bawling and the piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk. He remembers the magnificent array of stars.
“I lived a dream. I got to experience living and raising a family and spending much of a lifetime in a setting only God could have created.”