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Published October 29, 2011, 03:02 PM

Horseback Riders March Cattle through Gary

GARY, S.D. (AP) — Horseback riders drove more than 500 cows and calves through the northeastern South Dakota town of Gary on Saturday in what is likely the last installment of a 32-year tradition.

By: DIRK LAMMERS, Associated Press

One day each fall, rancher Dennis Kamrath and dozens of friends, relatives and volunteers drive his herd from pasture land about 7½ miles west of Gary to the Kamrath family farm in Canby, Minn.

The 15-mile trek has become an annual tradition for Gary — population 227 — but the 59-year-old rancher says the expense of calving across the border in South Dakota is getting to be too much.

"I might sell the cows this winter," Kamrath said. "This could be the end gate."

Diane Melby, one of more than a hundred onlookers to line the First Avenue route, expressed sadness the annual event could end.

"It's kind of nostalgic," said Melby, owner of the Alibi Bar and Grill. "It's been such a tradition here."

The drive in its early days was more of an annoyance for residents. Some remember an early December cattle drive that came through town the same day as a Christmas parade, leaving Santa to dodge manure along the shared route.

But Roger Baer, president of the Gary Historical Association, said it has blossomed into a tourist draw since officials began promoting it a decade ago. He said it's an experience to see cattle hustling down a town's main thoroughfare.

"It's something that used to go on in the days gone by, and we still do it, I guess," Baer said.

Kamrath, however, said he's never able to relax on drive day. He constantly worries that a few of his 300 cows and more than 200 calves could slip away from the crew, which has grown in recent years to around 40.

"A lot of the riders think this is a trail ride. They have no clue that these cattle could get away on them and there's stuff like that," he said.

Kamrath and the riders left the pasture around 8 a.m. and arrived into town a little more than two hours later. It takes at least another two hours to reach their destination across the Minnesota border.

The journey is actually the return leg of an earlier spring getaway. Each April, the Kamraths haul their cows by truck from Minnesota to the South Dakota pasture for calving season because the heavily farmed Canby site doesn't have enough sod.

After the riders and cattle pass through town, residents and visitors gather at the fire hall for a meal, bake sale and raffle, with proceeds benefitting the historical association. Heavy snow a couple of years ago toppled the town's main museum building, and members are trying to replace it.

Kamrath's father, 86-year-old George Kamrath, used to drive the family's cattle through Gary in the early 1960s, but he quit when his count dwindled to about 40 head. Dennis Kamrath and his wife, Dawn, began to build up the family operation when they returned to Gary in 1975.

They initially trucked the cattle over to the South Dakota pasture, but the yearly trips grew expensive and the rides would sometimes spook a calf into sickness. The herd can handle the 15 mile trek, he said.

"You might have five or six cows that are sore footed, but they heal up in a day or so," Kamrath said. "But at least the calves don't get sick."

Kamrath said he appreciates the help from the residents, family friends and newcomers who drive the cattle each year.

But driving between the South Dakota and Minnesota sites costs $25 or 30 a day, so Kamrath will probably start buying calves in the fall and then sell them each year in February or March, he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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