Alonzo Stepp was an anomaly in America in the late 17th centuryth Century, and along with his three sons, is a 2020 inductee into the Wyoming Cowboys Hall of Fame.
Lang, as he was better known, was a black man, the son of a former slave. Not only was he college educated, he also owned property in his home state of Kentucky before moving to Wyoming in 1893, where he settled and established a large and successful ranch.
Son of Archie Stepp and Anne Bryce Stepp, born September 20, 1874 in Berea, Kentucky. Long realized the value of education at an early age and worked hard, learning to read, write and do “arithmetic”, asking for help, begging for books and paper, and learning whenever he had time. He went through the education system of Berea College, which included grades from primary to college, and earned his degree.
While in college, he met Esther Jane Yates, the daughter of former Union Army lieutenant Harrison Yates. They married in 1894 and had three sons and four daughters. Three of them were born in Kentucky, and the last four were born in Wyoming.
While in college, Long became close friends with Howard Embry. Embree’s eldest sister lives in Fontenelle Creek, Wyoming, with her husbands Charlie and Nellie Rathbun. In 1893, Howard asked Long if he would like to take a trip to Wyoming, where two young men would spend the summers at Rathburn Ranch and learn ranching skills.
Lon started working on the ranch and became so good at cowboy work that he decided to stay on the ranch. He became the number one person in charge of the day-to-day operations of Rathbun Ranch, which ran cattle and sheep.
His goal is to set aside enough money to pick up Esther and their children and return to “The Fontenelle”. The old Rathbun told Lon that he would help him raise livestock and money to start his own ranch.
In 1898, Esther and their first three children moved west to live in Opal. Lon resumed work at Rathbun Ranch and worked as a hairdresser at Opal.
He decided to build his home south of the confluence of the Fontenelle and Green rivers, but instead of proving his home, he gave it to his father. His parents moved to Wyoming, and Archie Stepp, a former slave, was a proud landowner. Archie applied for his 156.28-acre homestead on June 25, 1900, and patented it on December 5, 1907. Lon applied for his own 69.8 acres and patented it in 1908.
He continued to work for Rathbun, riding fifteen miles from home to ranch. When old man Rathbun bought more sheep and needed to graze in the Montpellier area of Idaho, Lon was hired to “track” for him, leaving his own sheep and land to his oldest sons, John and Bill take care of.
In 1922, Stepp slowly increased his ranch, purchasing his father’s land and another 750 acres owned by Daniel and Alice Robertson. Nine years later, he added another 789 acres, buying from Steyer and Jenny Richards.
But there were also thin years. He took his wages from Rathburn’s cash and livestock, starting with a small flock of sheep. For the extra money, he worked as a brand inspector in the early 1900s, was employed with his cavalry to maintain county roads, served as an assistant assessor for Lincoln County and served as postmaster at Fontenelle. For a time, he belonged to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the association’s first African-American member.
His granddaughter Eleanor Johnston, who was only two years old when her grandfather died in 1941, has very little memory of him. But she heard stories from family and friends and told them like ancient treasures.
She thought about the culture shock of Lon and later his family coming to Wyoming. “He came here, being a black man, more educated than a lot of people here. They respected him for that,” she said.
Johnston speculates that part of the reason for his education was a family friend, a white man surnamed Fei, who took the risk of helping black youth attend Berea College. Lon’s eldest son’s middle name was Fee; in those days, Johnston said, children were often named after influential friends, which is why Lon and Esther named him John Fee.
She remembers hearing stories about baseball games among ranchers and townspeople. Usually single men vs married men, and Lang was always the referee. “No one was arguing with Long,” a neighbor told Johnston. “We always believed that Lon would be a fair judge.” The loser had to bring sage chicken for the next game, cooked on a Dutch oven.
When Johnston was in college, she met people who knew her grandparents and uncles and heard more about them. A family is said to have broken down while traveling in a carriage. It was a cold night, and they stayed in their carriages, making a fire to keep them warm. Long saw the fire in the distance and drove down to see what it was. He took them home and stayed there for several nights until the carriage was repaired.
When Lon was a brand inspector, the rustling horses passed by and stopped at Stepp Ranch, where they were greeted. They continued on to Star Valley, and when Lon found out the horse had been stolen, he ran after him and said, “No one stole the horse and passed my place.” He rode up, caught them in Star Valley, arrested them, and put the horses back to their owners.
Long knew outlaw Butch Cassidy personally, and he sometimes rode to his camp for dinner at night.
Religion is important to Lang and Esther. Sunday at their house. Education is also important, and when the family first moved to Wyoming, they homeschooled their children. Later, Lon built the Stepp-Olson Schoolhouse between Stepp and Churndash Ranch.
His sons: John Fee (1896-1983); William (1898-1980) and Horace “The Dutchman” (1912-1989) ran a ranch with their father. Sisters Helen McGaughey (b. 1894), Nellie Johnson (b. 1904), Ruth Steward (b. 1906) and Grace Martinez Ilames (b. 1908) make up the family.
As children, they worked for Lyons Rathbone, herding cattle on summer pastures. They’re also good at sabotaging horses, paying $15 each to sabotage other ranchers’ horses. John has a ranch horse that resists and cannot be used. He would lead the horse, Step and a Half, to the rodeo venue at Big Piney, where they would beat him at the rodeo. When the horse was finished, John would walk into the arena, grab him, and take him home.
Stepps loves music and dances throughout the Green River Valley. Their band is called the Stepp Family Jazz Band. When they were joined by Ralph Armstrong, they became Stepp and Armstrong. The Dutch play the organ, the piano, and the occasional violin; John sings on the guitar and Bill plays the drums.
The Stepp Ranch came to a tragic end in 1963 when the federal government forced the sale of Stepps, along with five other ranches, to create the Fontenelle Reservoir. Before disbanding, the family owned 500 Herefords on nearly 2,000 acres.
The brothers separated; John and his family moved to Los Angeles, California. Bill and his family moved to Denver. Dutch and his wife, Johnston’s parents, went to LaBarge, Wyoming.
Johnston remembers her father’s work as a guardian at the Rabag School. It could have been interpreted as a humble occupation, but it wasn’t for her father. “For him, that wasn’t the case,” she recalls. “He did a fantastic job and the kids loved him and followed him around.”
Dutch and his wife Carolyn have six children: Johnston, Gary, Larry, Brad, Mary Helen Redington and the late Jean Bron of LaBarge. All of them have been successful in their respective professions.
Johnston, who had never heard stories of Lon and his family facing racism in Wyoming, noted that the community judged Lon and Esther on their outstanding character and ability. “Nobody put them down,” she said. “They were just classy people.” She recalled an old man telling her the story of Lon being asked to help the county assessor. Lon’s answer was that he could probably do it. “That guy was laughing,” Johnston said. “Certainly, Long can do that. He’s more educated than anyone in the entire region.”
She recalled another time when an old man observed Eleanor and her children and grandchildren at a house party, about 50 of them in all. “Like old Lon and Esther, looking after each other,” he mused.
Johnston said her grandfather and grandmother were kind people, known for their hospitality and well-respected in the community. “Older people in the area love to tell me stories about the ranch, the family, the brands that go to Stepps, the delicious food they eat and how welcome they always feel at Stepps,” she said. Lon is often asked to be the coffin at funerals, sung by Esther. “They have earned the respect of a lot of people.”
Lon is humble but confident. “He never felt inferior to anyone, and the way he treated anyone never made them feel he was superior to them. That’s how God created him, and I think a lot of it has to do with how he grew up, “she says.
“He’s an amazing person.”