As a 24-yo school teacher, Eva Topping homesteaded the Moose Head Ranch

Research and photographs provided by the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Once again, Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum’s photo of the month has inspired us to dig deeper.

Eva Topping is featured in the photo cutting up what appears to be elk tenderloin at an old cookstove at hunt camp. How fitting for Eva. That is one place you would have found her for sure. But this industrious woman pretty much did it all in her time, beginning with homesteading her own place.

It was 1924 when Eva first came to the valley as a 21-year-old, riding in a Model T over the then-graveled Togwotee Pass road with her parents— Bert and Anna Rice Sanford. The Sanfords were one of Converse County’s earliest settlers, homesteading in the Upper LaPrele area.

The eldest child, Eva was born January 8, 1903. She received her early schooling at the Beaver and Sanford rural schools and graduated from Glenrock High School in 1923.

Eva took a job teaching at the Spread Creek School in Elk. She taught 1st through 8th grade for three years, averaging up to 16 students. Despite being paid $90 a month (almost $10 more than the surrounding counties) most of her wages went toward her rent. She boarded with the Cunninghams and with Rudy Harold—also doing odd jobs for both for extra money.

Eva meets Fred

Eva Topping working that cookstove at hunt camp. (JHHSM)

In 1927, she learned of an available tract of public land located south of Spread Creek. Seizing the opportunity, she filed entry papers in May and established residence in November. In that same year, Eva married Fred J. Topping in Riverton on July 24, 1927.

Fred was a middle-aged widower at the time, losing his wife Doris Coffin to influenza during the 1918 epidemic. The couple had been married for two years.

Fred was respected cow hand and hunting guide. Born in Quebec in 1883, he came west at the age of 24. He settled in Wyoming in 1910 and made his way into Jackson Hole by 1912, bringing horses over Union Pass for the Frontier Days rodeo. He sold his homestead to Rudy Harold in 1916.

Eva proves up

Eva was one of the last individuals in Wyoming to make use of the Homestead Act as President Calvin Coolidge signed Executive Order #4685 removing over 1,280 acres of public land from homestead claims.

It was in Spread Creek that Eva met her husband, Fred. They were married at Riverton on July 24, 1927 and moved to her 120-acre homestead.

In 1930 the Sanford’s homestead was contested by the General Land Office believing it to have been illegal due to the closure of public lands. An inspector was sent to review the property and the application. He found four cabins, a barn, chicken coop and garage, along with 19 acres that had been cultivated and nearly 20 head of cattle and horses on the property. The inspector determined that the homestead complied, and a patent was issued on December 16, 1931.

When Eva and Fred were married, they had homestead claims but no cabin to live in. During the fall of 1928, Fred built a small cabin and they moved in before winter hit. A barn was added the next year. Rudy Harold gave them two dairy cows. Eva kept chickens and Fred bought eight head of horses.

Beginning of Moose Head Ranch

Fred and Eva Topping serve dudes at the ranch in the 1950s. (JHHSM)

Fred worked as a wrangler and hunting guide at the Bar BC and JY ranches. Eva tended the ranch and sold dairy, eggs and vegetables to the stores in Jackson.

With Fred’s growing reputation as one of the best guides in the valley and Eva’s tireless efforts to keep up the homestead, the Toppings were building the beginnings of what would become Moose Head Ranch.

In fact, the couple began operating as an outfitting business in the early 1930s. Despite the ranch opening during the Depression, the Toppings brought in a steady and loyal group of guests. Operations began to expand and by 1937, they officially called themselves the Moose Head Ranch.

The ranch soon could house up to 40 guests, but Eva found work as the postmaster for Elk to bring in some cash. From 1932 until 1967, the Elk Post Office was stationed in its own cabin at the ranch.

Eva’s later years

The Toppings never sold out to the National Park, so the ranch became in inholding in Grand Teton. The Toppings eventually sold the ranch to John Mettler in 1967 when Fred’s heath began to fail. The couple moved to Jackson in 1969. Fred passed away in 1971.

Eva remained active in the Jackson social scene, working for several organizations. On November 20, 1972, she married William “Bud” Briggs.

Eva Sanford Briggs (Topping) passed away on July 2, 1988.

Moose Head Ranch dudes head out for a ride. (JHHSM)


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