Rita Evans always wanted to have her own ranch.
She was born in August 1932 in Hilliard, Wyo., where her parents Ernest and Mary Ann Barker had a ranch. As the second youngest of six children, she learned to work hard alongside her two brothers.
Rita recalled, “The older girls [my sisters] were gone and married, so it was kind of left to my older brother and my younger brother … [and me] to work in the hay field. That was done with horses, not tractors — we didn’t have them then.”
The work was demanding, and her father frequently hired young men to help. However, not all of their hired hands knew how to work on a ranch.
“Some of those kids were city kids — they didn’t know one end of a horse from the other,” Rita said. “So the next morning my mother would have to take them back … and send them home.”
When Rita was 16 years old, her older brother hired a young man named Keith Evans to help them hay. She wasn’t impressed to hear that he was from Randolph, Utah.
“I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, another city boy,’” she said. “I called him a carrot eater. We always called the Utah kids carrot eaters — I don’t know what it means.”
Keith faced his first test when Rita’s father showed him to a horse team that was harnessed to a buck rake.
“Do you know how to rake hay?” he asked, to which Keith replied, “Yes sir.”
Barker said, “Well, go follow Rita.”
It was normal for Rita’s father to assign the hired hands to work with her. Usually, she had to wait for them to catch up. As she watched Keith step up to the team for the first time, she had little doubt he would be just like the others.
But he surprised her.
“The horses he had were old, big, fat horses,” Rita said. “One was pretty good but the other was awful lazy, so one line was long and one was short. He gathered up that big long rein and whipped that [lazy] horse.”
After seeing that he had the team under control, Rita rode ahead to guide him through the hay field. Privately, she was sure he would never keep up.
But he surprised her again.
“When I turned around [at the end of the section] he was right with me,” she said. “With the other kids I always had to wait, but he was right behind me. I said, ‘Just follow me, sir’ — I didn’t even know his name — and he said, ‘I could follow you all day.’”
When they finished haying that day and took the horses back, Keith faced one final test.
“My dad told him, ‘The team you’re driving goes in this barn,’” Rita recalled. “The team I was driving went in a different barn, and we were all watching the carrot eater. Keith happened to look up and we were all watching him.”
The next morning when they went out to work, Keith offered to help Rita harness her horses. She refused.
“He asked me, ‘Can I help you ma’am?’ And I said, ‘No, you cannot help me,’” Rita said. “He thought, ‘Oh boy.’”
Having proved his worth, Keith stayed to work on the Barker ranch through haying season and then the winter. Rita wasn’t thrilled about the arrangement.
“I got so irritated because my dad … said I didn’t have to go out and work now that Keith was here, but then Dad would come in and say, ‘Rita, can you take Keith to section so-and-so for me today,’” she said. “After two or three times [of that] … I thought, ‘we hired a hired hand and I still have to do his work.’”
Rita was so annoyed that one day when her father asked her to help Keith, she was determined to lose him.
“I had a really peppy horse and the one he was riding wasn’t that peppy but I couldn’t lose him. The only thing we lost was his wallet,” she said. “He worked for the ranch for two or three years, [before] I thought, ‘Oh maybe he’s not such a bad guy.’”
Rita and Keith started dating. They were married on February 19, 1951, and sealed 18 years later in the Salt Lake City Temple.
“We eloped,” Rita said. “Broke my mother’s heart.”
After their marriage, the couple moved to Montana, where Keith worked as a miner and a rancher. When the mine in Butte closed, Keith found work at the Aragonite mine in Tooele County. They bought a yellow house in Grantsville that Rita loved.
“It was so cute,” she said.
They also started collecting more and more animals. Keith shared Rita’s dream of owning a ranch one day, and as they saved their money, they began acquiring pigs and heifer calves.
“We got too many and started looking for a ranch,” Rita said. “When we put our home in Grantsville up for sale, I fell to pieces. I loved that house, but we had to sell that house in order to get this one [in Skull Valley].”
At one point, Rita called Keith at work and told him she couldn’t stand to have people coming in to look at her house.
“He said, ‘OK, I’ll call the real estate man and tell him the deal is off,’” Rita said, “but then I felt bad because this was our dream. So I called him back and said, ‘It’s OK. Let’s do it.’”
The ranch they bought in Skull Valley included 340 acres and a tiny house. The first time Rita saw it, she wondered if it had been a mistake to give up her house in Grantsville. Not only was it small, but none of the colors matched and the bedroom smelled like sweat and horses.
Rita felt like she was standing in a cardboard box, but she took a deep breath and got to work. She and Keith fixed up the house and added on to it. She’s lived in it since they arrived in Skull Valley in 1971.
Running the ranch didn’t always feel like living her dream. Rita has seen her fair share of wildfires, some of which have passed uncomfortably close to her home. Keith was a member of the fire crew at Dugway, and during some of the worst fires, there were times she wouldn’t see him for days.
Living in a small community like Skull Valley also meant spending a lot of time alone.
“There’s a lot of solitude,” Rita said. “A lot of people can’t take it.”
But Rita and Keith loved it. They taught their three sons everything they knew about ranching.
“It’s a great life,” she said. “It teaches kids how to work.”
When Keith’s health started to decline to the point he could no longer take care of the ranch, their son Eugene bought it. He built a new house for his family, allowing his parents to stay in the original home.
Keith and Rita had been married for 63 years when Keith passed away in August 2014.
“It’s been a great life,” Rita said. “Just work hard, stay close to the church and keep the commandments is all I can say. They’ll get you through it all.”