Quarter Circle Seven Ranch, Part One

09/11/2011

Animals, Food, Local Farms

I have too much to say about Quarter Circle Seven Ranch (also known as Q7 Ranch) to fit it into a single post, so this is Part One.  Labor Day came up all sunny and turquoise and breezy, a hint of chill in the air, cotton candy clouds whipping by.  I had a 2:30 p.m. appointment to visit Quarter Circle Seven Ranch in Marengo, Illinois and it was a fine day for it.  (If you have followed this blog for a while, you know how appreciative I am of a non-inclement day.)   My phone rang about an hour before I left the house.  It was Frank Morgan, proprietor of the Quarter Circle 7 Ranch, and he asked if I was on the road yet.  I said no, and he asked when I had last been on a horse.  I had to think about that.  At the time, I said about 15 years.  (In retrospect, I believe it closer to 26.)  Anyway, Frank Morgan said, “It’s a beautiful day.  Come out early, wear your boots, we’re going for a ride.  And bring a sweatshirt, the wind is out of the north.”  My first tour of a grass-fed cattle ranch would be on horseback!  

I like horses.  In fact, as a girl I shoveled manure, groomed, picked hooves, untangled manes, delivered feed, got stepped on and nipped, drove a tractor and pulled a manure spreader around a farm, just to get time with horses.  I broke the ice at the edge of ponds on cold mornings before turning horses out to pasture.  I haunted the edges of horse shows and rodeos as only a teenage girl can, pining for a stocky, barrel-chested, turn-on-a-dime Quarter Horse of my own.  I mooned over horses so much that my parents offered to send me to the Kentucky Horse Farm at sixteen.  In my self-absorbed, teenage state, I said NO.  (Plus, I didn’t like thoroughbreds… too snooty, not enough cowboy and dirt for my taste.)  Anyway I grew up, moved way, got a “real job.”   Horses faded from daily life as other stuff crept in.  Twenty six years later…  I was going for a ride.  I dusted off my boots and hit the road.

Q7 Ranch was easy to find, about 45 minutes from home on Anthony Road in Marengo.  There was a pretty farmhouse surrounded by well-kept flower beds.  There was an office at the front of a big barn, smaller wing off that (do you call parts of barns wings?) and a few paddocks with horses behind the barns.  I peeked into the office, no one there, so wandered into the barn.  I met Fran Morgan there.  She was sweet talking a sleek chestnut and I liked what she had to say to the horse.  You can tell when a person loves animals.  Anyway, we chatted and Fran sent someone to let Frank know I was there.  I met Fran’s son and his wife, then Frank joined us. 

Two horses were already saddled up.  Frank introduced me to Herbie, a trusty 27-year-old, my partner for the afternoon.  (I recall thinking, “Oh, good.  That’s about 70 in horse years.“)  Frank took Captain Gus for himself, we led both out to the trailer and they loaded themselves up willingly.  Herbie all but snapped his own lead to the trailer hook next to Captain Gus.  We headed off to the 380 acre tract where the cattle roam. 

During the drive, Frank told me a lot about the operation; the cattle, the family, the land. He explained his choice to avoid using pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics.  We talked about the adverse effects chemicals are having on humans and animals alike.  Frank told me about an impressive career in the grain business.   I scribbled notes along the way.  Frank and Fran lived in the Chicago Loop for years, they moved out to Marengo in 1999.  Frank grew up in California in the San Joaquin Valley, and went to school in San Luis Obispo.  Cattle have always been a part of his life.  He told me how the Quarter Circle Seven name came into being; as a tribute to an original cowboy in California.  That cowboy’s name is Jack Kirby and he had a brand that was a number seven with a quarter circle above it, like a smile.  Frank and his partner put the quarter circle over the 7, but turned the other way. (Like an eyebrow, not a frown!)   Frank is traveling out for Jack the original’s 90th birthday soon.  I think that is pretty cool.  Anyway, after graduating from the Ag program at Cal Poly, Frank got a job with Continental Grain and moved around the country a lot.  From California to Denver to Chicago, New York, back to Chicago.   He and Fran have a large family, scattered about like families are these days. 

Frank told me he trains horses in the Californio, or Vaquero method, where the animal detects signals from his rider through a very light touch.   Horses trained in the Californio method can cut a steer away from the herd and “hold it” for branding and, medical treatment and such.  (I have since done some reading on this subject, and it is fascinating to me.)  The method takes years to perfect, as the horse and human learn each other; a gentle method for all involved.

We got to the ranch, passed through the double gates, unloaded the horses (actually, they unloaded themselves with a word from Frank) and stood looking at the view.  Wow.  That late day gold light you only get in September and October, shimmering over a vast expanse of grazing land.  We stood on a rise that dropped off sharply to the sandy-bottom Picasaw River.  The clear, indigo river curved, S-like, below with turquoise sky and afternoon sun flashing off its surface.  Crisp wind out of the north making it known fall was just around the corner.  Bright goldenrod and tall grass rippling out as far as I could see.  A tame old horse to ride for the afternoon.  I stood there feeling grateful for my life.

Frank bridled Herbie and Gus without a fuss.  Frank’s way was calm and both horses were content to wait, nibbling at grass and enjoying the view.  The time came for me to swing my old self over a horse for the first time in 26 years.  Nothing bad happened at all.  My person landed upright in Herbie’s saddle.  Small miracles.  Frank said Herbie and Gus were old pals and wouldn’t get too far apart.  Frank and Gus led the way down a narrow trail along the river.  I gave Herbie his head, since he knew the terrain, Gus, the cattle, and Frank.  I kept one finger looped through the reins, the only input Herbie required of me.  Herbie followed Gus down a narrow trail next to a barbwire fence.  It was here that I got my first glimpse of cattle, in a low spot across the river. 

As we rode along, Frank stopped occasionally to share information or to allow me to take a picture.  He told me their cattle is free range… sort of.  You may have read or heard that some pasture fed cattle is moved by humans, from one pasture to another to keep them on fresh grass.  At Q7, the parcels are large – we were riding through a portion of a 380 acre tract.  Frank said the cattle will move themselves, given enough land, and they will follow the good grass that is available at the time.  Makes perfect sense to me. 

In total, Frank, Fran, and partners Herb and Linda Snow own or lease over 1,000 acres in Illinois; in Marengo, Virginia, and Channahon.  Frank said the cattle winter in New Cambria, Missouri and Winchester, Wisconsin. The cattle eat hay all winter; no additives in any of it.  There are Black Angus, and another mixed breed that is Corriente crossed with English Beef.  The mixed breed steers have long horns.  (More on the cattle breeds later.)

Frank told me there is a retail delivery business that delivers to 9 restaurant clients and two all natural stores and a couple of butcher shops.  You can shop at the Anthony Road site.   Also, the Q7 Ranch offering of beef was recently picked up by Greco and Sons, a large area food distributor. 

We rode through a shady stretch along the river, that was beautiful.  There was clear water, a little beach, a green canopy.  Herbie snacked along the way and I did not stop him because: A) a twenty-seven year old horse ought to get whatever he wants, and

B) his little pauses gave me time to look around. 

Back into the sun.  Frank stopped to mend the barbwire on an old gate.  Without gloves.   We talked about books. I asked if Captain Gus got his name from Lonesome Dove. He did. Frank recommended another McMurtry book, Cadillac Jack, which I had not read, but is now on my list.  Also a Barbara Kingsolver book, Lacuna, that I have yet to read. 

We stopped for a minute to let some cattle pass.  That’s Taco in the lead with the long horns.  Taco is 12 and the Ranch Mascot.  He was in a hurry to get somewhere. 

I, on the other hand, never wanted to hurry again.  Stay tuned for Part Two.

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3 Comments on “Quarter Circle Seven Ranch, Part One”

  1. Laura Machin Says:

    Get typing, Mary, I need part 2! You are bring me back to my cattle ranch vacation in Wyoming…..

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    Reply

  2. carla roberts Says:

    i am frank morgan’s sister, carla, from california. i really enjoyed reading your article on my brother. hope i will be able to find part two. i stumbled across this one on his facebook. he didn’t bother to let me know! that’s him all over. carla roberts

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    Reply

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