THE YOUNGEST SON of a pioneer Texas family, John Benjamin Kendrick was born on September 6, 1857, in Cherokee County, Texas. His father, John Harvey Kendrick, arrived in Texas in the 1830s as part of a large extended family involved in a variety of agriculture-based enterprises, cotton production primary among them. John Harvey's wife, Anna Maye, was a native of Ireland who came to America to live with her married sister in New Orleans. After both John and Anna died, young John and his sister Rosa stayed first with a childless uncle and aunt and later with a half-sister. From these humble beginnings, John Kendrick became a "mover and shaker" in the young state of Wyoming. His story is one of perseverance and determination.
FROM COWBOY TO CATTLE BARON
One of John Kendrick's first jobs, around the age of fifteen, was breaking horses for room and board. In 1879, the twenty-two-year-old hired on with the Snyder-Wulfjen Brothers of Round Rock, Texas, to help move a herd of cattle from Matagorda Bay (on the Gulf of Mexico) to the grasslands of Wyoming. Along the way he experienced the worst of what the new land had to offer: drought, flood, storm and stampede. As he noted in 1917,
Anything at night almost, a stumbling horse, the odor of some wild animal or a blinding flash of lightning would start the herd to running. Then the cowboys would have to follow. Sometimes the cattle would run until morning. Or they might stop now and then for a few minutes. Whereupon, of course, we would halt with them, the rain meanwhile coming down in torrents and the night being so black that nothing could be seen but the electricity on our horses' ears or the lightning wriggling over the ground like illuminated serpents.
Like many of the cowboys with whom he rode, Kendrick's formal education was incomplete: he did not continue with school much after the fifth grade. Unlike the others, however, whatever lessons he missed in the classroom he more than made up for on the trail and during roundups. Instead of gambling and drinking, Kendrick spent his spare time reading and studying from the books he carried in his saddle pockets.
With his cowhand's wages Kendrick bought a few head of cattle this his employer, Charles Wulfjen, allowed him to graze with the main herd. By 1882, when Wulfjen's holdings were absorbed by the massive Converse Cattle Company, Kendrick was able to sell his own cattle to that company, using the profits to begin another herd. He managed his herds and finances so successfully that when the disastrous winter of 1886-87 brought an end to the golden age of the cattle baron, Kendrick was in the financial position to take advantage of what was for nearly everyone else an impossible situation.
In 1887 Kendrick signed on as superintendent of the Converse Cattle Company. Two years later he moved the entire operation from eastern Wyoming to south-central Montana. Within another eight years, John completed his purchase of the Converse Cattle Company. Then he started expanding its holdings. Before he was finished, Kendrick's ranching empire grew to include over 210,000 acres of deeded and leased land in southern Montana and northern Wyoming.
It was during these years that Kendrick became involved in the Sheridan business community. In 1889, speculating on the coming of the railroad, Kendrick formed a partnership with A. S. Burrows to start the little town's second bank. The partnership dealt primarily with mortgage loans on farm land and Sheridan real estate.
In 1910, Kendrick was elected to the Wyoming State Senate by the voters of Sheridan County (despite the fact that his Sheridan home was not yet completed and he spent the majority of his time on his Montana ranches). Three years later he ran for the U. S. Senate against Republican incumbent Francis E. Warren. Although he lost the election, Kendrick gained much in the way of public recognition. By 1914 he was able to win the governorship, only the second Democrat in Wyoming history to do so. The great Democratic orator William Jennings Bryan said of him in 1916,
Governor Kendrick ... is a self-made man, educated and polished. His people believe in him, they admire him, and without regard to political preference, will vote for him. His long, active residence has enabled him to learn the needs of the state at first hand, and he has proved that he is an able advocate in helping to supply those needs.
Kendrick spent only two years as Governor of Wyoming before state and national Democratic leaders called on him to serve the party in a higher capacity. In 1916, while still governor, Kendrick became the first U. S. Senator from Wyoming to be elected by popular vote (up to this time the State Senate elected the U.S. Senator).
Senator Kendrick was reelected for two more terms, handily defeating his Republican opponents in 1922 and 1928. In 1932, he announced that he would not seek reelection in 1934. Though some saw him as vice-presidential material, the seventy-five-year-old wanted to retire to the west and enjoy his grandchildren and the homes he had built. Before either the path to the White House or the ranch house could be explored, however, Senator Kendrick's life was over.
By the fall of 1933, friends, family and employees had noted that the Senator looked exhausted; he was encouraged to take some time off and relax. Unfortunately, he did not heed the advice. Instead he was rushed to the Sheridan County Memorial Hospital one cold November night after becoming ill and complaining of a severe headache while working at his downtown office. He slipped into a coma and died two days later, November 3, 1933, surrounded by his immediate family. A cerebral hemorrhage was listed as the cause of death. Following a private funeral in the drawing room of Trail End and a public service at the Methodist-Episcopal Church, Kendrick was buried in the Sheridan Municipal Cemetery. As one newspaper noted at the time,
It was "meet and just" that the sod, that formed the foundation for Kendrick footsteps to trod to fame and honor ... should eventually enshroud him in his final sleep at the threshold, so to speak, of his own "Trail's End." ... Born of the West, the Kendrick name is enshrined in Wyoming as symbolical of a human effort, unceasing, untiring, sincere in behalf of the people whom he represented.
Kendrick's contributions to his community, state and nation went beyond the political. As part of his desire to beautify his adopted city, he became involved in the establishment of parks and recreation areas throughout Sheridan County (including Pioneer/Kendrick Park, the Sheridan Municipal Golf Course and the Buffalo/Elk Pasture). He was also interested in the growth of Sheridan as a regional center for business and industry and as a supply center for area farmers and ranchers. Toward this end he helped develop downtown Sheridan by financing the construction of several imposing retail and office structures.
Whatever else he did with his life, Kendrick was first and foremost a cattleman. He traveled back to the OW Ranch whenever his busy Washington schedule allowed. He championed the political causes of the cattlemen and wrote extensively of not only their problems, but the satisfaction that could be gained from a lifetime spent in ranching:
But notwithstanding all its drawbacks, the cattle business is the most deeply satisfying business in which men engage. No other business so fully occupies a strong man's full powers of body and mind. Cattle ranching still possesses great allurements and some of its traditional romance. ... Those who have grown up with the business can never escape the call of the range.
State Historic Site
(Kendrick, Hoff & AHC collections, TESHS)
John B. Kendrick inauguration, Cheyenne WY, 1915 (Hoff Collection, TESHS)