Melvin, Lloyd and Joseph Adams: Ranching icons of San Juan

Ranching Adams brothers

by Buckley Jensen

Making a living in San Juan in the early days was generally by farm, ranch or both.

It was never easy. Drought, price fluctuations, predators (both animal and human) and other obstacles were a constant challenge.

Three brothers, Melvin, Lloyd and Joseph Adams, born in the 1890’s in Bluff, grew up in the cattle business working with their father, John Adams.

They learned to love and respect the wild canyon country of southeast Utah. They learned about hard work and not giving up.

When John Adams’ economic fortunes failed along with the cattle industry during the Great Depression, Melvin, Lloyd and Joe Adams faced the stark reality of starting over from scratch or getting out of the livestock business altogether.

It was the only life they had known and they were determined to go on despite the obstacles. Their story is one of hard work, grit, overcoming hardship and finally, of remarkable success.

They attended school in Bluff through the eighth grade and some also went to school in Provo for a few years.

They married well. Joe married Dora Black, Melvin married Mamie Jones and Lloyd married Allie Williams.

Melvin went into the Armed Forces in September, 1918 but the armistice ending World War I was signed in November and he did not see action in Europe. He did, however, almost die of influenza at the Presidio in San Francisco while waiting to be discharged.

Melvin and Mamie’s first child was born in 1919. Melvin was called on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Central States soon after.

In l921, his baby daughter Elaine died of pneumonia. Melvin hurried home, but missed the funeral.

He stayed that summer to help with the cattle and the crops and then returned to Kansas and Missouri to finish his mission.

During the Depression the price of cattle fell to almost nothing. The John Adams family operation went broke.

All the family had left when the financial disaster was over was some land north of Monticello. The three brothers acquired that land, eventually paid off the bills and started over from scratch.

They decided to switch from cattle to sheep. They purchased a few head of sheep around the County that people had for sale and then began going to the Navajo reservation to buy more.

They would buy flour at the gristmill, truck it to the reservation and trade the flour for sheep. They started with nothing but the ability to work from daylight till dark and willingness to take risks.

“Well, as the years went by, we got to where we had a bunch of sheep.” Melvin recalled later. “We went out to Colorado and leased grazing land for several years. We bought range rights on the Blue Mountains.

“When we first went to Colorado we could lease a section of land for $75 a year. We bought a lot of land out there.”

Land was cheap after the Depression. In some cases, land could be had by simply paying the taxes on it.

They kept buying land and buying sheep and eventually had an operation with 15,000 head of sheep. They had acquired the land to run them on ahead of time through purchase or lease.

When they went broke in the cattle business, their father John had felt terrible about it. But after the Adams Brothers switched to sheep, they built their business into one of the largest livestock operations in the area.

Their Father came to them one day and said, “That’s the best thing that ever happened to us when we went broke in cattle… you fellas have been a lot better off since we got away from the cow business.”

Joseph, Lloyd and Melvin worked hard to keep their business ahead of coyotes, bears, cougars, thieves, a lack of good sheepherders, fluctuations in the price of sheep and wool and all the other problems that accompany an operation of that size.

For 20 years, the Adams Brothers operated as a partnership. When Congress passed the Taylor Livestock Grazing Act, it was against the law for one outfit to lease as many acres of public land as the Adams Brothers had.

It became necessary to break up the company into four entities; the original operation and then one for each of the three brothers.

They divided the property and assets of the company into equal parts and then, the story goes, Melvin’s wife Mamie broke three straws off an old broom and placed them in a book. The brothers drew straws.

The brother with the longest strand choose first which outfit to take. Because they had been careful about dividing up the company beforehand, the last to choose was as well off as the first and there was an amicable parting of the partnership.

Lloyd was asked in an interview in 1972 if he would share one of the particularly vivid memories of his life. He recounted being one of the posse of men who participated in the last shooting Indian war in the United States in 1923. The Indian Chief, Posey was shot and later died in the gun battle that took place.

Lloyd’s wife Allie remembered Lloyd as a mischievous lad who enjoyed tying tin cans to the tail of a bull and then running the bull down the main street of Bluff to stir up a little action.

Lloyd also admitted to borrowing a few watermelons from some of his neighbors during his growing up years.

Melvin had a sense of humor. He loved telling stories, “We was coming off Clay Hill once trailing cows and calves. It was night and it was plumb black. My brother Jacob was with me that night.

“I was just feeling my way along a ledge with my knee, you know, just kinda pushing along and I fell off the horse and off the ledge.

“It was a ways to the bottom but I wasn’t hurt. Jacob was right there and I guess he heard me dropping. He came back and said, ‘Well, are you dead?’ My goodness that was funny. I will never forget that as long as I live.

“Hell, that could have been a high bluff I fell off of that night. I guess I shouldn’t think it was so funny, but dadgumit, it was!

“When we were kids in Bluff, we used to go visit our neighbors who raised watermelons late at night. One night Floyd Nielson, Lloyd and I went up to old Cap Hansen’s place.

“We all went out in his patch and each got a melon. As we were leaving, here comes Cap’s mean old dog. We took off running. I could hear that old dog panting and growling and gaining ground.

“I was the furthest from the back and then I fell down. That old dog went right over the back of me and took out after the other two. After we got together again, I said, ‘If I had known that was going to happen, I’d have fallen down a long time before I did.’

“Didn’t seem funny at the time, but I’ve had some good laughs over it since.”

The Adams Brothers were proud of their heritage and their family. Their father had given them each a checkbook on the family account as young men and allowed them to write checks when necessary.

That trust meant the world to them and they would have died rather than betray their father’s trust.

In 1971, Melvin was asked about the state of young people of the day and he replied, “I see these dadgum hippies and stuff and I just can’t understand them. Why do they do it? For looks? Easier to live? Damn, they grow that awful long hair… I just don’t understand it.”

The Adams Boys had grown up in an era when a man’s word was his bond; when hard work and honesty were what earned a man respect. The hippie era and the way many people lived in the late l960’s and 1970’s was a mystery to them.

Joe, Lloyd and Melvin Adams were great examples of what hard work, grit and perseverance can accomplish. Their legacies make them three of the Giants of San Juan.

San Juan Record

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