Opening Spread: Droppa rides with ranch manager Jed Roark to gather mares on the ranch. Photo by Holly Roark.
For nearly five decades, O RO Ranch owner Jane Droppa has transitioned between living on the East Coast and on one of the most remote and rugged ranches in the Southwest.
In the early hours before sunrise, under a dark sky sprinkled with stars, cowpunchers catch their horses in the corral and saddle them. The only sounds are hooves crunching gravel, saddles settling onto horses’ backs, and the jingling of buckles and spurs. As the black of night fades into a hazy blue dawn, a silhouette of horseback cowboys trots off into the distance single file in what’s known as the “jig line.” One by one, in an order determined by the wagon boss, they ride away from the group to their designated areas to gather cattle hiding in a maze of thick brush.
This is a ritual on the historic O RO Ranch during the spring and fall works, and the excitement and anticipation builds in young, fresh-faced ranch hands as they go out with the wagon for two to three months to gather and brand cattle scattered on the 257,000-acre ranch about 50 miles north of Prescott, Arizona. It’s a tradition that traces to 1936 when cattle baron Colonel William C. Greene bought the 100,000-acre Baca Float #5 Spanish land grant that is now part of the O RO. It continues today under the ownership of Jane Droppa and her husband, Larry.
“Jane hires people to do a job, she trusts them to do their job, and she lets them do their job, and that’s really unique,” says Jed Roark, who has worked on the ranch for four years and became the ranch manager in the summer of 2021.
East Meets West
Droppa’s father, the late John N. Irwin II, purchased the iconic ranch in 1973, when his daughter was a 21-year-old college student at Kirkland College in upstate New York. Raised in Keokuk, Iowa, Irwin was an attorney in New York City. During World War II and throughout his career, he assisted the U.S. Defense Department with negotiations and other affairs, and he later became the ambassador to France. While attending college at Princeton University, he asked a friend if he could work on his family’s ranch in Montana, living out some of his cowboy dreams.
“That summer, he cowboyed only about half the time and had to spend the rest of his time haying,” says Droppa. “He thought that if he ever had the chance to own a ranch, he wasn’t going to have a haying operation!”
His dream came true several years later when he purchased the O RO. Droppa, like her father, was fascinated with the O RO’s rich history and natural beauty. She enjoyed spending summers there exploring and helping do ranch work. It wasn’t customary for women to ride out and stay with the cowboys during seasonal works. However, with the approval of the ranch foremen through the years, she has gone out several times with the cowboys and has developed a deep respect for them and their work.
“I don’t think they thought I’d last long, but I did,” she says with a laugh. “I’d drive out to have breakfast with the guys, and you didn’t say a word—nobody talked during breakfast. Then I’d trot out at the end of the jig line. If we had lunch at camp, I’d eat and then leave. If lunch was brought out to us, I’d eat, change horses, and do the afternoon work, and then I’d leave when we got to camp. Sometimes it was a long commute back to the house, but I got a warm shower and bed, so I thought that was a pretty good trade off.”
Nearly 50 years later, Jane, who lives with her husband, Larry, in Baltimore, Maryland, is actively involved in the O RO’s cattle and horse operations since her father’s passing. In Maryland, she plays arena polo, a hobby she started about 20 years ago. Transitioning from riding English to Western has never been difficult for the horsewoman, but she says going from Western to English can be challenging. Adapting to differences between East Coast culture and ranch life doesn’t faze her, either; she likes the variety.
“I know a bunch of people from New York who couldn’t make it out here [on the ranch], and I know people [on the ranch] who couldn’t make it in New York,” she says. “I’m fortunate that I like both places.”
Leddy Hughes and her husband, Pat, have worked at the O RO for a decade and live at the Sandstone Camp on the ranch. She and Droppa often ride together and share a common interest in rock hounding.
“She loves everything about the ranch and is fascinated with the country—the terrain, rocks, mountain, and trees,” says Leddy Hughes. “We’ll come across a giant alligator juniper, or an interesting rock formation and she’ll stop and take pictures of them [and then go home and read about them]. In my years on the ranch, I’ve discovered some interesting things and have been able to share those with her, and she truly enjoys it.
“I’m amazed how well she transforms from her East Coast world to the West,” continues Hughes. “I’ve lived a pretty closed life and haven’t been too many places outside of Arizona, and when I’m around her I feel like I travel the world because she’s been to so many interesting places and seen so many interesting things.”
Despite her worldly experiences, Droppa values the time she spends with the cowboy crew, especially the Hugheses.
“I always learn something when I ride with Pat and Leddy,” she says, humbly.
Droppa and her brother, John N. Irwin III, were raised in a 13th-story apartment in the middle of Manhattan. From an early age, she expressed interested in riding horses.
“I was always horse crazy, and my parents said I could get a horse if I would keep my room clean,” she remembers.
Needless to say, she never had her own horse as a child, but she did take English riding lessons, and her family spent time on her grandparents’ property in Connecticut and rode horses nearby. The family also took dude-ranch vacations in Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming, giving her a taste of the West.
Droppa brings in O RO mares and foals. Horses play a vital role on the ranch, and for more than 75 years the ranch has raised stout, athletic, surefooted Quarter Horses to work cattle. Photo by Holly Roark.
“Both of my parents could ride. My mom fox hunted, and my aunt and grandmother rode sidesaddle and did jumping,” says Droppa, adding she has a case of ribbons displayed in her home on the ranch that they had won.
Though she was an English literature major in college, Droppa found her calling in the music business as a sound engineer for 15 years. Through the music industry she met Larry Droppa, a fellow sound engineer, and the couple married in 1985. At the time, Larry was working for a leading sound engineering company in Baltimore, Maryland. Droppa also went to work for the company, and after a year was sent on tour with Stevie Wonder for more than four months. When she found out she was pregnant with their first son, Larry took over the gig and traveled all over the world with Wonder for 12 years.
After Droppa left the music business in the late 1980s, she became a fulltime mom to their three children: Jack, Daniel, and Katherine. More than 25 years ago, Larry acquired a leading audio equipment manufacturing and sales company and continues to run it.
A Heart for Horses & Horsemen
Droppa confesses that she “just loves horses,” and spending time with them and developing her horsemanship have always been priorities. Starting in 1980, while in her mid-20s, she attended the first of a dozen Ray Hunt clinics to improve her horsemanship, one of which was held at the O RO. She also started three colts with Hunt. There has always been a selection of ranch-raised horses to ride, and Droppa appreciates the individuality of each animal.
Droppa is drawn to horses, whether she’s playing polo on the East Coast or riding on the ranch. Her current ranch horse is the O RO-raised horse she calls “Toby,” named after the cowboy who started him. Photo by Jennifer Denison.
“All animals, including dogs and horses, want to be around her,” observes Roark. “When Jane walks into a pen of colts and broodmares, they surround her because they want to be around her. She rides really good, and the horses she rides are cowboy horses [not horses just anyone can ride], and they are so loyal to her and take care of her.”
Throughout her years riding on the ranch, Droppa has been around handy horsemen and cattlemen who have helped her learn cowboy ways, as well as how to read cattle, rope and drag calves in the branding pen, and other skills that have made her a productive ranch hand. Many of the men left special places in her heart.
“Pat Cain was foreman after Mike McFarland, and he had cowboyed here with the Greenes and left and then came back. He and Mike taught me cowboy etiquette,” she says. “Whenever I’d ride out [in the jig line] with Pat and his crew, he would drop me [off in the country she was gathering cattle] second to last. I had the second longest loop to ride, but I got to see a fair amount of country. The longest I spent on the wagon was 2½ months, and we worked the whole land grant country and the east side of the Mahon Mountains.”
Another cowboy Droppa enjoyed riding with was Coley Lyons. His bridle and spur leathers have a prominent place on a wall in the Droppas’ ranch house. An avid art collector, Droppa recently acquired the original painting Coley Hi At ORO Ranch, by Ray Swanson, which came with Lyons’ well-worn cowboy hat. The painting depicts Lyons holding a cigarette and crouched beside his dog, Hi, outside the tack room.
“Coley had been a World War II medic and was at the ranch when the Greenes sold it,” she says. “He was a tough cowboy, but he knew horses, cattle, and the land, and he and I got along great.
“One summer he was wrangling his horses so he could start shoeing them for the wagon,” she continues. His horse kicked up a big rock and broke his leg. He went to the nearest corner of Lake Mary on the ranch, got off and learned against a fence and rolled a cigarette. He planned to wait there until we rode by the next morning. Two guys happened to be checking water and drove past the lake and saw him. They loaded him into the pickup and hauled him to town [to the doctor]. When he got back, he asked if I had a pair of spurs, and I told him I didn’t. They had to cut off his boot, so he had two pair of spurs and only one pair of boots. He told me to go into the barn and get those spurs and get a new pair of leathers made for them. I’m still proudly wearing his spurs.”
Droppa is an avid rider and student of horsemanship. She is shown here on Wiley, a horse raised on the ranch, at a Buck Brannaman clinic in the 1980s. Photo by Kurt Markus.
Not much has changed on the O RO Ranch since its inception, except there are more horse trailers and satellite Internet service on parts of the ranch. A ranch so remote, expansive, and rugged doesn’t operate on the grid or have powerlines. And horses are the best mode of transportation in the steep, rocky terrain where cattle roam. The Droppas are working with Roark to increase solar power on the ranch, develop springs, maintain the roads, and improve several structures, including employee housing.
“Before we bought the ranch it was known as an ‘old man’s’ outfit,” reflects Droppa. “A lot of the cowboys were single men in their 60s. When my dad got here, it was becoming obvious that the day of the single cowboy was coming to an end, so he built four houses at headquarters for married couples, he installed two-way radios, put up a few more fences, developed tanks, and started to eradicate encroaching junipers”
Today, the ranch employs 11 full-time employees: five camp men, a horse trainer, two maintenance men/mechanics, a natural resources manager, a ranch manager, and an office manager. Many of them are married with children who are being raised on the ranch. The Droppa’s children and grandchildren also visit and enjoy the solitude, horses, and outdoor recreation.
“I don’t think the ranch is much different now than when my dad bought it,” observes Droppa. “It’s still rough country, and you need the same number of cowboys and horses to work the cattle. You can’t do it without them.”
Owners Jane Droppa and her husband, Larry, spend several months of the year on the O RO Ranch, ensuring it remains a viable horse and cattle operation for future generations. Photo by Holly Roark.
The past year, the Droppas and Roark have increased cattle quality and numbers on the ranch. They are also revitalizing its horse program, returning to the roots of its remuda, which boasted bloodlines from the King Ranch in Texas.
“Horses have played a huge role in this ranch’s history, and we’re excited to add a stallion from the King Ranch into our program. We want to breed good cow ponies, and I think we do. They have good bones and feet. They grow up here, so they learn at a young age how to get around in the rocks and where to put their feet.”
When Droppa is at the ranch, she tries to saddle up every day and ride with the crew as much as possible. That enables her to see different parts of the ranch, visit with her employees, and understand day-to-day operations and the overall state of the ranch.
“I much prefer having a reason to ride, whether it’s checking water or gathering and branding cattle,” she says. “A cool part of the ranch is that there are so many different places to explore.”
A steward of the land and O RO heritage, Droppa looks forward to future generations of her family spending time on the ranch and continuing the horse and cattle operation.
“It’s a special place, and it needs to keep going,” she says. “I don’t think any of us would want to see it go away.”
O RO Ranch Roots
In cowboy circles, the iconic O RO Ranch is known as one of the last “big outfits,” or ranches spanning more than 100,000 acres. Located about 50 miles northwest of Prescott, Arizona, the ranch encompasses more than 257,000 acres, making it the largest contiguous piece of private land in Arizona. Steeped in Native American, Spanish, and ranching history, the fabled ranch is a place of legends and lore. Through the years, several cowboys have “cut their teeth” on the wagon or in one of the ranch’s five remote cow camps and became respected cattlemen and horsemen.
At the heart of the ranch is a 100,000-acre parcel that was once a Spanish land grant given to Don Luis Maria Baca in 1821. The Bacas fled the area, fearing for their lives after experiencing Indian raids. The land became part of the United States through the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. A couple of years later, Baca’s heirs filed a lawsuit to reclaim the land grant. The U.S. government offered to “float” them five 100,000-acre tracts in what’s now Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. The fifth grant became known as the Baca Float #5.
Cattleman Colonel William C. Greene, owner of Greene Cattle Company and Cananea Cattle Company, located in southeastern Arizona and across the border in Sonora, Mexico, purchased the Baca Float #5 in 1936 and started the O RO, which was represented by the RO brand on the left hip of the cattle and an O on the left shoulder.
In 1973, Greene sold the ranch to the JJJ Corporation, made up of the late John N. Irwin II, his son, John N. III, and daughter, Jane Irwin Droppa. When the senior Irwin passed away, Droppa and her husband, Larry, took the reins on the ranch and continue to run it as a commercial cattle and horse operation.
With its jagged canyons and steep, rocky ridges, horses are still the best way to work cattle on the ranch. The ranch’s early stallions and mares were some of the first to be registered in the American Quarter Horse Association, formed in 1940. In 2019, AQHA designated the O RO a 75-year Quarter Horse breeder, and this year the ranch received the prestigious AQHA Best Remuda Award.
The ranch raises athletic, surefooted horses that have the stamina to ride a big circle on the ranch and work cattle in all terrain, as well as perform in team roping, reined cow horse, ranch rodeo, and other competitive events. The ranch currently runs 30 to 40 broodmares bearing the bloodlines of foundation Quarter Horses such as Driftwood, Joe Hancock, and Mr San Peppy, and crosses them on stallions such as RO One Time Kat, TRR Royal Blue Oak, and This Guns Hot U2. They recently purchased a young stallion from the King Ranch, who provided some of the ranch’s early breeding stock, and are excited to bring some of the King Ranch bloodlines back into the remuda.
“First and foremost, we want to raise horses to work cattle on this ranch,” says O RO Ranch Manager Jed Roark. “But there are quite a few of those horses that can go to town to ropings, ranch horse competitions, and ranch rodeos and do well. We want trainable, good-minded horses with good bone. We want horses the cowboys enjoy riding and can go do a job.”
(Originally posted on November 25, 2022)