Recycling on the Plains: Buffalo Bones for Fertilizer

It's All Trew: Buffalo bones recycled as fertilizer and feed additive provided both additional nutrients and cash for settler families.

Familybonemill.jpg

Montgomery Ward’s family bone mill.

Content Tools

The whys and wherefores of the near-extinction of the buffalo will be long debated with no clear conclusions accepted. Most writings of the time dwell on the waste and carnage; many Western movies show the prairies covered with the carcasses of slain animals.

There was waste and carnage to be sure, but not all was wasted. Many a carnivore and hungry predator made a good living following the hunters. Buffalo meat built railroads, mined gold and silver, fed tribes, armies, explorers, wagon trains and early settlers. Buffalo hides made robes and commercial belting to drive the machines of manufacturing in the east. Buffalo horns and hooves produced glue, and the hair of the beasts was used as furniture stuffing.

Before, during and for a short time after the big buffalo hunt, everyone living or traveling on the Great Plains burned buffalo chips for heat and cooking. Settler women and children dragged washtubs across the surrounding prairie gathering buffalo chips, a crude but undeniably economical fuel.

As the buffalo herds diminished and weather took its toll, and as Texas cattle herds began moving north, the buffalo chip was replaced by the longhorn chip. About that time, the bleached bones of the buffalo, found almost everywhere on the prairie, began selling by the ton to be made into fertilizer and live-stock feed additives. In reality, the easy availability of bones was a godsend.

Settler families, hard-pressed for cash, switched from gathering chips to gathering buffalo bones. This chore not only provided much-needed cash, but also cleared grasslands for plowing. Freighters distributing supplies throughout the West began stopping at settlers' homes, purchasing piles of buffalo bones and hauling them to the nearest rail loading facility where they'd be sold for a profit.

Kansas history records the tale of a freighter who hauled two wagonloads of barbed wire to Quitaque, Texas, for Charles Goodnight. "I made more profit on the back-haul of gathered buffalo bones than I did on hauling the original cargo of barbed wire," he reported.

The bulk of the buffalo bones were ground by machines, sacked and sold to settlers for fertilizer. Later, ground bones were added to livestock feed to provide much-needed calcium. Poultry were fed a blend of bone meal and ground oyster shells in the belief that the mix strengthened eggshells.

Major machinery companies sold large-volume bone grinders while Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward & Co. sold small bone chippers, nippers and grinders for bone processing on small farms.

There are many early photos showing itinerant wanderers of the prairie pushing wheelbarrows as they gather buffalo bones and pile them into huge ricks. Ownership was established by writing their name on a buffalo skull. When the surrounding area was picked clean, the bone gatherers contacted a freighter who hauled the bones to the nearest railhead loading station for shipment to a fertilizer plant. It provided a good living as long as it lasted.

Interestingly, the legal description for the original town of McLean, Texas, begins with the sentence, "Starting at a pile of buffalo bones, thence south …" I wonder how many legal descriptions through the west began in this manner. FC 

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. His wife, Ruth, collects antique dolls, is secretary/treasurer of the Devil's Rope Museum and the Old Route 66 Association of Texas, and, according to Delbert, "Queen Mother of the local Red Hat club." The two share authorship of this column, and Ruth is the able photographer. Contact them at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; email: trewblue@centramedia.net