BY: LAUREN MESSMAN
PHOTOS: KATHRYN BOYD-BATSTONE
A homesteading family reflects on the land of its heritage
Every time Sherry Millican drives her ‘94 Jeep Cherokee down Oregon Route 126, she passes a town marker crafted of oversized, chestnut-colored logs on the right-hand side of the road. The large white letters on the sign read “Walterville.”
The town is named after Walter Millican, one of her ancestors who helped settle the McKenzie River Valley in the early 1900s. As the rolling green farmland whips by, she passes a street sign for Millican Road—a nod to her great grandfather, Robert Millican. About a mile further, she approaches a wooden arch at the entrance to a gravel road. A rustic metal nameplate that reads “Triangle 5 Ranch” sits overhead as she drives under the arch onto the dirt road and up to the 640-acre ranch that five generations of her family have called “home.”
Millican is a homesteader–someone who makes both her home and her living on the same plot of land. For her, it’s more than her preferred lifestyle—it’s the family business. She and her husband, Todd Richey, own and operate a ranch on her ancestor’s homestead. It’s a tough job that requires demanding labor from sunup to sundown as they struggle to keep the ranch afloat and meet modern standards. But the way she sees it, if the next generation can continue to drive under the Triangle Ranch 5 sign, it will all be worth it.
“The future of the ranch—it can be anything we want to build it to,” Richey says. “We’ve got the ground to do anything. Time is our biggest problem.”
Though they are in their 60s, the couple continues to wake up every morning and care for their animals, just as generations of Millicans have done before them.
In 1865, Robert Millican joined the wave of pioneers settling the west in response to the Homestead Act of 1862. After boarding a ship in New York, sailing around the Isthmus of Panama to Portland, and walking from Albany to Eugene, Oregon, Robert received a John Latta Donation Land Claim and settled in Lane County.
Four name changes and 148 years later, Triangle 5 Ranch is still run by the Millican family.
Today, the ranch boasts three original hand-built barns that stand as a testament to Robert’s meticulous craftsmanship. The massive charcoal-grey barn that towers over the acreage is one of the oldest in Lane County. Additionally, the same white, two-story house where Millican was raised has sat at the top of the dirt road for over a century. She and Richey follow in her ancestor’s footsteps by preserving the original buildings, raising goats and horses and growing their own hay. They even use Robert’s remaining agricultural tools.
“As you do your work you can think about how many hands have held this, how many hours of work and tedium and love have gone into making something that is great,” Millican says as she gazes out the wide kitchen window at the land that bound her family together for hundreds of years. “When I look out on the field, I can see my great grandfather tilling the land. They were heartier people than I.”
She always knew keeping the ranch in the family would be a challenge. But she never imagined it would start so soon. Two years ago, the death of Millican’s mother, Neva Millican, sparked a family dispute regarding her will. Neva left a quarter of the ranch to each of her four daughters, three of whom had no interest in living or working on the family’s land.
“Sherry’s mom probably thought the sisters would play well and try to sell [their portion of the ranch] to Sherry,” Richey says. “Well, that wasn’t the way it went at all.”
Millican’s three sisters didn’t see ranching as a practical means of making a living. Kathy Millican, her oldest sister, pursued her dream of having her own ranch and has since retired on a smaller acreage. Her other two sisters, Karen Coreson and Sandra Welker, chose a different lifestyle altogether.
“As I matured, the ability to earn a living on any farm decreased. The single-family farm became obsolete as a means to make a living,” says Welker, a retired dental hygienist. “So I gravitated toward where I could make a living and that was away from the land.”
Though she acknowledges that Millican has a better understanding of the ranching lifestyle, Welker and her sisters had other plans for the land. Not seeing the ranch as a practical or profitable venture, they decided to place their portions of the ranch up for general sale.
Lawyers were hired, negotiations were made, and bitter feelings transpired. Millican’s sisters wanted to sell the land to a cattle rancher for around $2.4 million, which would be split between the four of them. It was an offer that Millican and Richey couldn’t afford to counter. Devastated by the potential loss of the family homestead and all the sentimental value that it carried, the couple was determined to fight in order to save the land.
“I said to the girls, ‘I cannot sit here and see everything that has been our heritage bulldozed into a heap and burned,’” Millican says.
Despite what Richey describes as a strong reluctance from the three sisters to sell the land to his wife, they decided to hear the couple’s business plan. Scrambling to counter the offer, Millican and Richey proposed to log $2.6 million worth of trees for a profit that would be distributed three ways. The sisters weighed the couple’s proposal and ultimately decided to take their offer.
“It was sort of like, we traded the trees for the land,” says Welker. “[Sherry] has the knowledge and she is the best one to serve the ranch, and it’s a means of keeping the ranch in one piece. I’m very happy that way and I’m sure [Sherry] is too.”
It was a victory for Millican and Richey, but the impediments didn’t stop there. The ranching industry has undergone significant changes, and they’ve had to evolve the ranch to meet the changing economic environment.
According to land usage data from the Environmental Protection Agency, small family farms represent the majority of farms in America, but economies of scale increasingly favor growth in large industrial farm operations. Data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service in 2002 indicates that every week, 330 farmers leave their land.
Hoping to avoid joining that statistic, Millican and Richey mapped out a way to continue to make a living off their land. When they married eighteen years ago, Millican tended the ranch, took care of her elderly mother, and worked a forty-hour-a-week job. But once they launched a trail riding business on the ranch, Millican was able to quit her job.
“We were taking people horseback riding every weekend. Every weekend in the summer [it] was either friends, friends of friends, or family,” says Richey. “Nowadays we probably see a thousand people a year.”
In addition to trail rides, the couple is in the process of building an arena for roping cattle and horseback riding lessons. Millican estimates the overall cost of the arena could reach up to $90,000 and take five years to complete, but that the profit would outweigh the costs. Other modern ventures include logging trees and renting out a portion of the land to various agricultural companies, which would provide enough financial support to help sustain their traditional ranching lifestyle.
“The ranch is a living, breathing entity,” says Richey. “It’s no different than a sibling, or your son or daughter, and you have to take care of it. It just doesn’t take care of itself.”
Every day the couple feeds and cares for their fifty goats, sixteen horses, and a single llama named Fuzzy. Millican, who knows every animal by name, takes special care of the elderly animals, examines goats for possible pregnancies, and disbuds baby goats by removing their horns.
“[The animals] don’t care if you’re sick, they don’t care if you’re hurt, they don’t care if it’s Sunday, they don’t care if it’s Christmas,” Millican says. “You either love it or you hate it. It’s hard work but I can’t see myself living in a cul-de-sac.”
But while Millican and Richey’s passion continues to fuel the ranch, its future remains uncertain. The fate of the land, the traditions, and the Millican homesteading lifestyle rests in the hands of their only son, Curran Manzer.
Manzer lives on the homestead with his wife, Michelle. After moving back to his ancestor’s land to help care for his grandmother, he decided to start his own taxidermy business and operate out of his grandfather’s old shop.
Like his mother, Manzer successfully integrates the old with the new. He believes that keeping the land in the family is vital, but his commitment to ranching itself is a bit more complicated.
He enjoys living and hunting on the ranch, but says he only feels connected with the animals when he hunts them.
Although his vocation focuses on preservation, Manzer is unsure of how he plans to maintain the ranch for future generations, and has only vague plans for a possible succession. His wife plans to take care of the animals, but other details are still up in the air.
“If we ask, Curran participates,” Millican says. While her son is capable of helping with the ranch work, she says it isn’t his primary interest.
“At this point in his life, it isn’t something he’s ready to step off and take up the reins,” says Millican. “He’s got his young business that he’s building.”
Yet even as the future of the ranch remains uncertain, the family holds onto its traditions. Following in Neva’s footsteps, the two couples hold a family dinner every Sunday evening. They share good food and stories as a means to create new memories and preserve old ones.
In the years to come, the Millicans will navigate the tempestuous waters of diverse family interests, financial stability, and future preparations. In the face of the many changes that come their way, Millican and Richey focus on preserving the land they love and doing what the Millican ancestors did before them: taking care of the animals, cultivating the land, and waking up to do it all over again.