This 136-Year-Old Nebraska Ranch Welcomes Guests to Create, Work and Learn From the Land
I'm somewhere way out in Nebraska—twisting my way through sandy hills and pine forests and quickly approaching Wyoming—when Jean Norman calls.
"What car are you driving?"
"A Chevy Malibu."
A moment of silence.
"An SUV would have been better."
When I pitched my editor a story on Our Heritage Guest Ranch, I sold it as a dude ranch. I imagined I'd ride horses, sit around a fire under the stars, and dabble in chores. The property's owner, Jean, had been courteous and demure in email, but now, a few miles out, I already feel like I've failed a test. Jean says rain has left the roads a muddy mess, and my car won't make it. She instructs me to stop at the Dairy Sweet in Crawford and wait for her. "Get yourself a barbecue sandwich."
I do as I'm told. The only noise in the Dairy Sweet lot is the metallic creak of a rusted Pepsi sign blowing in the breeze. "Best in the West," the sign declares, with worn letters that now say "e ts 'N Trea." I'm trying to determine if it once read "Meats 'N Treats" or "Sweets 'N Treats" when a pickup rumbles in.
"Hi Jean, I'm Julia!" I babble excitedly. "So nice to meet—"
"I think you can make it," Jean cuts in. "Follow me." And she turns back onto the road.
I rush back to my car and race to keep up with her cloud of dust. Jean is flying, windows down. I'm struck by her presence—a tall, strong woman with long, platinum-blond hair, Jean is a no-BS type.
And she has to be. The great-granddaughter of a Swedish homesteader, Jean is one of the country's rare independent female ranchers. Over the next days, I come to learn that she shoulders a lot. Disregard from male counterparts. Assumptions made about her. Lack of respect. Even threats and vandalism. Her toughness isn't a facade; it's a necessity.
Jean shows me to my room in her childhood home, one of six accommodations she offers guests. After settling in, I join her in her farmhouse (formerly her grandparents') for a chat. She tells me how her ancestors, the Rosenburgs, were blacksmiths who homesteaded this land in 1887. The family acquired 7,000 acres along a future railroad route. Over the years, they helped lay the tracks, housed other workers and, in time, built their own legacy too.
Jean grew up working on the ranch and returned after college, when health issues arose for her father and brother. She started a family and, while running the ranch, also worked in the local schools, teaching art for a few years, among other roles. In 1999, she added a bed-and-breakfast—Our Heritage Guest Ranch. Which, Jean quickly corrects me, is not a dude ranch. It's a place of work.
Guests can help with chores, such as fixing fences or assisting with calving, or simply enjoy the scenery. Our Heritage notches into the Oglala National Grassland in northwestern Nebraska, about 15 miles outside of Crawford and two hours south of Rapid City, South Dakota. Though Jean no longer leads guided trail rides, she offers stables and pastures for those who bring their own horses. Others come to hunt fossils among the baked clay of the badlands.
On my first day as a ranch hand, I dress in an olive-green button-down, old jeans, my hardiest pair of Durango boots and a wide-brim hat. Jean takes one look at me: "Let me give you some clothes." I insist I don't mind the dirt, but we compromise on rubber boots.
We load up in a side-by-side and head out to pasture for a health check on the calves. We're looking for droopy ears, often the first sign of sickness. Sprightly Black Angus babes lope alongside our vehicle. A brown-and-white speckled longhorn nursing her newborn eyes us cautiously. After confirming all are well, we take a little tour. Clay bluffs loom on the edge of the property, rising from tall, waving grasses. Occasionally, the earth cracks to reveal canyons.
As we ride around, Jean points out personal landmarks: A pine tree where a raging wildfire roared over a cedar slope and stopped suddenly before her property. The fence she and her father clung to during a blizzard to find their way home. (A guest bed at the ranch is made from one of its last posts.) The remains of the historic schoolhouse her relatives attended. The place where a mountain lion—one of 53 in the area—stalked her cattle. Her life story unfolds over miles, stamped onto every square foot.
"We are people of the land," Jean says. "We are emotionally tied to every aspect of it."
That sentiment led Jean to place her 3,600 acres into a land trust five years ago, ensuring environmental protection. The trust also defines areas to be used for agricultural purposes, restricts mining and commercialization, and prevents the property from being subdivided. "My dad spent his lifetime putting pastures back to the native grasses after the Dirty '30s ruined so many places in the U.S.," Jean says. "There's a new move in the Midwest and in our area to preserve pastureland, which has its own fragile ecosystem."
Jean powers what she can via solar energy and plans to add more panels once her barn restoration is complete. Because the ranch sits on badlands, the land isn't farmable, other than a small portion dedicated to hay and wheat. Since the ground can't produce, Jean would have to buy fertilizer to make it yield.
"We are on a watershed that would carry [fertilizing chemicals] down to the rivers, streams and lakes, and I just don't think that's appropriate," Jean explains. "When you work with the land, it's a relationship. We are stewards of the land, rather than just living on it and gaining what we can from it. We went through measures to perpetuate being as natural as possible, and for it to be a legacy the family can care for."
We make a pit stop at the horse pasture, where I'm especially thankful for my borrowed boots. A stallion and three mares swarm around us. Jean hugs the neck of a honey-colored buckskin, her favorite riding partner. A cocoa-brown beauty nudges me for attention, but we can't stay long—we're heading to town, as Jean says.
We go in the truck, but Crawford is the kind of place where hitching posts scatter downtown. As we lunch at Tailgate Bar and Grill, three couples ride down the street, tie up their horses and walk in the saloon doors.
Jean encourages guests to visit the Trailside Museum of Natural History, located within nearby Fort Robinson State Park, to learn about the area's geography and history. Operated by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the small museum showcases the fossils of two bull mammoths—found not far from Our Heritage—who died with their tusks locked in combat.
Armed with that crash course in regional geology, fossil hunters can better identify finds. Since Jean's property is private, it's finders keepers for bone enthusiasts. On our fossil-hunting day, we start off on a tall, gravelly peak. Ribbons of landslides run down one side, like veins in a time-worn hand. It's monotone and bleak, punctuated by occasional fist-size shrubs. But as we look closer, the landscape bristles with opportunity. Bright white indicates a possible fossil; it takes a trained eye to distinguish it. I come across something bleached and sharp sticking out. A bison rib? I jab at the hard ground around it. Jean takes a look: "Well, you just excavated a stick."
She determines we might have better luck in a former riverbed since rain has washed many fossils off the cliffs. Descending below pasture height feels like entering another world. Crumbly clay walls rise on both sides; soft mud squelches underfoot. Odd mushroom-like formations called toadstools—which can also be found in nearby Toadstool Geologic Park—line the cliffs, giving the illusion of hand-carved columns in an ancient temple. It's like something out of Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but we're looking for real, natural treasure. We leave with two gastropod shells, a small bone embedded in a rock, pieces of tortoise shell and part of a large femur bone that Jean thinks might have belonged to a prehistoric cat. I'm thrilled, but my finds pale compared with what others have found here, including two whole titanotheres skeletons and a sabertooth jaw.
The next day, we train horses using a pressure-and-release method. I guide an older male named Buck through a series of exercises to build trust, while Jean works with a nervous young mare she recently took in. She explains you're instilling respect for boundaries by applying pressure through certain activities and then reading the horse's fight or flight responses.
"She and I are going to build a relationship," Jean says of the mare. "And by the time I'm finished, hopefully she'll have some trust. Sometimes it just takes time."
It feels oddly metaphorical. Since taking over the ranch, Jean's had to work hard to earn trust and carve out a place for herself within the industry. Even growing up, she grappled with confusing gender roles.
"All day, I'd work beside the men in every possible way—lifting, carrying, pushing, driving machinery," Jean says. "And when we'd finish up, my dad would say 'Go help your mom with the dishes,' while he and my brother sat in the living room."
When she inherited the ranch, she struggled to be accepted. Some men wouldn't sell her livestock in their facility. Others would steal her cattle, make sexist comments or assume inappropriate relationships between her and her ranch hands.
Though her husband, Rick Sample, a former railroad foreman, now shares the ranching duties, operations decisions have always fallen solely to Jean. "Men will come up to Rick and say, 'Gee, nice place you got here.' And he'll go "Thank you, but it's my wife's.'"
According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, women account for 36 percent of the country's 3.4 million producers, but the Midwest lags behind other regions. "Most [women] struggle the same way that I have," Jean says. "Agriculture's difficult in the first place, and then to be accepted as knowledgeable doesn't happen sometimes just because you're female."
Within her small community, Jean has always been supportive of those like her. When a woman from Colorado bought a nearby hotel and was snubbed at the auction, Jean shared her phone number and said, "You're going to need this."
It's not that women can't thrive out here, Jean says. "But we're like 20 years behind on trends," she adds. "So our industry is just now going through what the '90s looked like. It's still a man's world, but people are becoming more accepting."
On our last evening, Jean suggests we stargaze from the pasture bluffs. The hay shines golden in the fading light. Three elk appear, jumping a fence and hightailing it to the outer cliffs. Even Jean gasps at the sight.
At the top of the bluff, we set up camp chairs and pour boxed wine into plastic cups. A curious cow peeks around the side-by-side, creeping closer until she's in line with our chairs, just another eager sunset observer.
In the peachy glow, we broach a whole new world of topics. Religion, the afterlife, marriage, interplanetary beings, what causes déjà vu, dreams—both future and fleeting. Jean admits that most people don't understand her way of life.
"They can't imagine open space, the roads I drive on. They can't imagine why I'm making a living this way. They can't imagine most of this," she says. "But to have the freedom of choice, the liberation of waking up in the morning and being able to see a different scene every day as the sky and environment changes—I chose this. And it's not for everyone. But what I'm doing is truthful, it's authentic and it's how we make our living."
As inky blackness enshrouds us, the cows low, calling their babies home.
How to Book a Stay at Our Heritage Guest Ranch
While I came on my own, Jean specializes in group travel and retreats at Our Heritage Guest Ranch. A family or group can book a three-day private fossil-themed trip ($1500 for four), or individuals can simply come to relax and pursue art or other hobbies ($160 per day). Jean also offers a spring fossil-hunting excursion ($850) and Plein Air art workshops in summer and fall ($350). These rates include lodging, activities and two meals per day. Lower rates may be available for sharing accommodations.
Choose from a two-bedroom house; two rustic, lodgelike barn lofts; and three renovated trailers. Resident peacocks might wake you up in the morning. The trailers, new in 2022, are old campers that Jean renovated into modern mobile stays with water hookups and electricity. They can be parked wherever guests want in the pastures. The two-bedroom house has a full kitchen, and all guests have access to an independent kitchen with a porch for sipping wine and playing cards.
What to Do Near the Ranch
Our Heritage Guest Ranch sits in a remote area of Nebraska known for geographic wonders and scientific mysteries. Several popular attractions are within 25 minutes of the ranch.
Fort Robinson State Park
Fort Robinson is most famous as the site where Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse died. Historic buildings include barracks and officers' homes. In summer, you can ride in a stagecoach or enjoy buffalos stew and steak cookouts. It's also the closest place to Jean's ranch to take a guided trail ride. Twenty miles of equestrian trails wind among dramatic buttes; hikers have even more options.
Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed
In 1954, local ranchers discovered a pile of bison bones while digging for a pond. Eventually, the remains of more than 600 animals were excavated, the largest bison kill site ever found in North America. Scientists aren't sure what caused the mass extinction 10,000 years ago, but on summer Fridays and Saturdays at Hudson-Meng a staffer will talk you through the theories.
Toadstool Geologic Park
Our Heritage backs up to this quiet site operated by the U.S. Forest Service, where gray badlands rise from the earth, their parched surfaces crackled like an elephant's skin. Follow trails to see how many of the toadstool-shape rocks you can spot. (Some are huge, others small.) A 3-mile trail connects Toadstool to Hudson-Meng.
Related: Best Nebraska Road Trips