Ribbons in the Rafters – Memories from the Rocking H Ranch
“At the end of a long dirt road leading from Hwy 390 to the banks of the Snake River is the Rocking H Barn of the Huyler family, surrounded by cottonwoods, pines, and a sense of timelessness… As I step into the barn itself I can sense the presence of the many memories that have been made here over the years. A rainbow of horseback riding ribbons, all won by the now over ninety year-old owner, Jack Huyler, stream from the ceiling. Some even date back to the 1950s. However, these are not all of the awards Jack has won; a small room on the left is filled with trophies of all shapes and sizes. I decide that this barn is one of the most magical places I have ever seen.” – Mimi King
When View22 intern Mimi King wrote these words about the Rocking H Barn, we were captivated. What had created the magic of the Huylers’ red barn? Like so many of the places we visited this summer as part of our project, the Rocking H Ranch holds stories made colorful by the incredible people that have called it home. Jack Huyler, like his father Coulter Huyler before him, is a gifted, entertaining, and prolific storyteller. Story seekers can read some fine tales in his two books of Jackson Hole lore, “And That’s The Way It Was In Jackson Hole” and “Every Full Moon in August”.
Horses have always been a big part of the Rocking H story. Before Coulter and Margaret Huyler moved with their family to Jackson Hole, they lived in New York City. As a child, Coulter had a pony and would ride uptown on Fifth Avenue towards Central Park, watching out for chickens and pigs when the street turned to dirt past 57th street. He purchased the Bear Paw Ranch, near the mouth of Granite Canyon, on his first trip to Jackson in 1925, then purchased several hundred acres on the west bank of the Snake, south of the Bear Paw, to create the Rocking H Ranch for breeding and raising horses. In 1928, he enlisted Mel Annis to build the red barn which still stands today, and the following year, he had a herd of wild horses brought to the ranch. Jack, who was a young boy at the time, lights up at the memory of the thrilling day spent watching the herd get split into the 40 they would keep, saying, “it was one of the most dramatic days of my life, it was really something”.
In the 30s and 40s, the height of activity at the Huyler ranches, the Bear Paw became a dude ranch and the Rocking H bred horses for the U.S. Army Remount Service. Jack recalls that “dude ranching was the best life I can imagine. You could spend all day riding with interesting, nice people. And I fell in love with one of those nice people.” He married Margaret Appenzeller, the daughter of family friends and a Bear Paw guest, in 1942. After Jack returned from Princeton University and service in the U.S. Army, he began a lifelong career of teaching, coaching, and school administration, returning to Jackson in the summers to hay and run the ranch.
Jack and Margaret moved out to the Thacher School in Ojai California in 1949, driving straight from the Bear Paw with their small children and two horses in tow. Alongside teaching English at Thacher, Jack used his experience from the ranch to inspire and build the horseback riding program there, specializing in a form of competitive riding known as gymkhana. He would take the riding team to competitions all over California, oftentimes competing –and winning- himself. “I was pretty good at horses,” he says matter-of-factly. Jack estimates that as many as 1,000 ribbons decorate the walls of the Rocking H barn– it’s on his list to count someday. Over the years, he’s brought the joy and life lessons of horsemanship to countless students, and although he stopped competing and riding when he turned 85, he still coaches students at Thacher, where he is known affectionately as “Uncle Jack”.
Jack and Margaret bought about 50 acres -the nucleus of the original Rocking H spread – from the Coulter Huyler estate in 1957 after he passed away. The Bear Paw had been sold in 1950 to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for his private ranch, which later would be donated to Grand Teton National Park. In the 80s, to keep the ranch together for the family, Jack and Margaret began transferring ownership of the ranch to a partnership formed for their three children, John, Ruth, and Stephen, completing the process in 1995. Then, the Huyler family, led by John Jr., made a collective decision to protect the entire Rocking H Ranch through a conservation easement with the Jackson Hole Land Trust.
Jack is quick to answer what the easement means to him: “Nobody can ever come in and mess it up, not even one of my own descendants, if they were so inclined.” He can remember a time before the creation of Grand Teton National Park when billboards “full of all kinds of junk and advertisements” used to line the road between Jackson and Moose. Without the legacy of land conservation in the area, past and present, Jack believes the place would have been exploited to every last inch. His son John adds that “the easement is important to our family on principle. We felt compelled and lucky to be able to contribute to the conservation of the valley and to be a part of protecting the wildlife, history, and land here.” Thanks to the thoughtful way in which the Huyler family has conserved the property, the land is in the process of once again being passed down to the fourth generation – granddaughters Hillary, Allison, and Jesse, who love the ranch and create new memories and stories when they visit it each year.
It’s a matter of pride to Jack that the ranch looks very similar to how it always used to be. And why would he want it to change? From the northwest corner of his porch, his favorite view, he can see clear across to the Tetons and the Sleeping Indian. Like the barn, the inside of the historic main cabin is full of a lifetime and more of memories, including one of Jack’s greatest thrills, “the time [he] walked out in the kitchen and saw four bull moose laying in the front yard, 15 feet from the house.”
Many thanks to Jack Huyler for sharing these special memories and stories with us.