RATHDRUM – Gordon Sylte worked 35 years as a teacher and school counselor to subsidize his first love: ranching family ground at the foot of Rathdrum Mountain.
Sylte, 78, doesn’t describe his second wind as a retirement after stepping down in 2000 from Central Valley School District. He wakes up early every morning eager to cut firewood, tend to his 45 head of cattle and check the progress of the hayfield.
“I could do a man’s work when I was 12. By the time I was 30, I could do the work of two or three men,” Sylte said. “I always knew I liked outside work. You can’t quit. You’ve got to keep going.”
The Rathdrum rancher, who graduated with a master’s degree in psychology from Whitworth University, loved working with youth. Every spring, he would conduct a two-week careers class for freshmen to get them thinking about their futures before they embarked on their high school careers.
“They all wanted to be rock stars. I said, ‘Don’t let anybody get in your way, but have a plan B,’ ” he said. “Then we got to talking. Then we could explore things they really were interested in.”
Asked how those students would react if they knew Sylte was still ranching at 78, he replied: “They would probably look at me and scratch their heads.
“I feel like I’m lucky,” he continued. “If you listen to your body and your mind … it’s still a good life.”
Great Depression hobo
Sylte’s grandfather made it as far as Montana and tried homesteading before the family retreated back to farm ground in South Dakota. Then the Great Depression hit.
Sytle’s father, John E. Sylte, served in the U.S. 7th Calvary at Fort Meade, located near Deadwood, South Dakota, before working for the Milwaukee Railroad.
“They were all starving, even with a job,” Sylte said. “He left four of his brothers and he joined a friend on the train.”
The men jumped into a boxcar and left the Midwest, which hadn’t seen any appreciable rain for six or seven years. The boxcar door opened in Newport, Washington.
“My dad said the horses were standing in knee-deep mud,” Sylte said. “He said, ‘This is it.’ ”
John Sylte brought in a couple of his brothers and they found some ground to purchase, which turned out to be the original Frederick Post homestead in what is now Rathdrum.
Post, a German immigrant, settled in the area in 1871. Spokane’s founder, James Glover, gave Post 40 acres in Spokane where Post built a flour mill. He later sold the mill and land to Washington Water Power Company. Post also built a flour mill and sawmill in Post Falls, which bears his name.
After helping found Rathdrum, Post Falls and Spokane, Post retired from business in 1898. He died in 1908.
In 1934, John E. Sylte and his brothers paid $5,000 for the 200 or so acres that sit at the current intersection of Highways 41 and 53. Being short on cash, the brothers agreed to pay the bank with firewood. Lots of firewood.
The brothers had to produce 100 cords of firewood every year using only hand-powered cross-cut saws.
“He and his brother were known as the jack pine savages. They would cut the trees with cross-cut saws and skid the logs behind horses,” Sylte said. “The bank took the wood as payment. The guy down at the bank tried to cheat them. You can’t cheat a guy out of a cord of wood. Not a good idea.
“I don’t know how long it took them” to pay off the land, he said.
John E. Sylte began raising cattle on the ranch. Gordon Sylte was born in a maternity home in Coeur d’Alene and grew up ranching with his father. His sister, Deanna Starr, lives in the original Post home on the property.
John E. Sylte ranched until his death in 1985 at age 78, which is the age Gordon has attained. His father died of complications with atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat.
“He never had a chance to treat it,” said Sylte, who got a pacemaker on May 9 to treat his own irregular heartbeat. “Here I am his age and I’m still doing pretty good. I’m still haying and running cattle and all the things he couldn’t do. But, I’ve got to stay active. I see what happens to people when they retire and all they want to do is sit down.”
Sylte’s son, John C. Sylte, 44, said his father’s work ethic is a blessing and a curse. The son wants to see his dad take more time off, but he relishes the opportunity to spend long work days on the ranch.
“How many people get to be business partners with their father? That’s awesome,” he said. “The things he has passed onto me are things that grandpa did. I feel like I am following the arc in our family tradition. We get out way more than we put into it. But, that’s difficult to quantify financially.”
John Sylte, who is building a home with red fir lumber milled from the property, can only help his father so much because of his work as a family counselor in Spokane.
“He’s going to live another 20 years, I hope,” John Sylte said. The work “keeps him young and healthy. On the other hand, I kind of wish he could really enjoy life like other people do at that age. I’ll probably end up being exactly like him.”
Shoot the tractor
Susan “Sue” Sylte, 69, married Gordon Sylte in 1993 after they dated for 17 years.
Like her husband, Sue worked for 30 years as a teacher at Central Valley before retiring in 2004. She grew up on a farm in Wyoming.
“In my era, a woman only had a few career choices. Nurse, teacher or waitress,” she said. “Gordon found the ideal wife.”
Before they married, the couple would train horses and take horseback trips deep into the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana.
“I was hopelessly in love with this man for 17 years. Then he married me,” Sue Sylte said. “I thought I married a cowboy. Then he got this tractor and became a farmer.”
“She was going to get a gun and shoot my tractor,” Gordon interjected.
Sue claimed she would never put a bullet in the International Harvester. Gordon confessed that he took away her gun, just in case.
“He bought this tractor and it changed our lives,” she said. “Before the tractor, it was a ranch. Then it’s all about hay. It’s been sucking us in.”
Gordon Sylte said before the tractor, he relied on other farmers to produce the 200 tons of hay he feeds his cattle every winter. With the tractor, he is able to grow his own hay.
But what he gained by not having to rely on other farmers, he mostly lost in the time it took to grow, irrigate, cut and store the hay.
“Then he realized he was a mechanic,” Sue Sylte said. “I still love him very much and I wash his greasy clothes.”
She brought out an example of what she calls “the awfuls.” In this case, it was blue jeans stained black from belt loops to cuffs with grease.
“I want to throw them away,” Sue Sylte said. “He won’t let me.”
John, the son, said his father’s clothes are legendary.
“Dad is hilariously disgusting,” he said. “He says, ‘Why put on clean clothes if they are going to get dirty?’ One of his great efficiencies is not washing dirty clothes.”
The son recalled one year when his father was so dirty after plowing the field that he went to the doctor to find out why he couldn’t hear as well.
“The doctor actually found grass growing in his ear wax,” John Sylte said. “The doctor actually used tweezers and plucked the piece of grass from his ear. Dad said it hurt. Now that’s dirty.”
John and Sue live in a home he had built in 1972 on a small rise in trees so thick they block most light before it can reach the forest floor.
Just down the slope, the trees give way to lush, green pasture. Red fir stumps around the house double as bases for flower planters. The yard is bordered by a log-rail fence that has railroad ties as posts.
The home is located down a narrow, paved lane with a covered-log bridge over the meandering Rathdrum Creek.
In the pasture are Limousin cattle that Gordon crosses with an Angus bull. He explains that cross produces what’s called Lim-Flex cattle that combine the lean meat of the Limousin and the high-fat content of the Angus.
“That way you get marbling in the meat and not an inch of fat on the outside,” he said. “We’ve been raising them four 40 years. We raise some of the best Limousin cattle around.”
Gordon and Sue tend to all of the young ones during the calving season and rarely lose any.
The home is guarded by Gypsy Rose Bunny Butt, a 3-year-old Queensland red heeler, who got her name thanks to a particularly cute hind end when she was a puppy. She’s joined by Ruben James, a 14-year-old blue heeler who is blind.
“It’s a hard way of life,” Gordon said. “But I get up most morning loving what I’m doing. We have a nice place. The hay crop is good. We have enough money to go out to dinner.”
The couple tries to spend eight weeks a year on trips to Mexico or riding a train through the Canada.
“We take trips that are an interest to us, but also educational,” Sue Sylte said. “If it’s not interesting or educational, we don’t do it.”
As he continues his work, Gordon Sylte also knows his reign over the ranch will someday end.
“I’m trying to groom John. We also have a nephew in high school … he’s showing interest,” Sylte said. “I spent my whole life on this little piece of ground. We made it better. We’ve tried to hang on to things that are important.”
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