“Pretty, ain’t they?”
Seven-year-old Brandeon Hampton stared at the TV in awe, watching and listening intently to the exchange between the fictional former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Pea Eye Parker.
“I reckon,” Parker, played by actor Timothy Scott, answered.
“Let’s chase ’em,” McCrae, played by Robert Duvall, said. “You want to?”
“Shoot us one for our supper?”
“No, I mean chase ’em just for the sport of it.”
“To run them off?”
“You don’t get the point, do you Pea? I mean chase ’em, because, before long, there won’t be any buffalo left to chase.”
Hampton watched as Gus McCrae took off to chase the herd of six-feet tall, 2000 pound buffalo. Hampton, or “Buffalo Brandeon” as some tease,” wanted to chase them too.
Ever since Hampton, now 39, watched “Lonesome Dove,” the buffalo called for him. They sure were pretty like Gus McCrae said.
“I just fell in love with seeing the iconic image of the bison,” Hampton said.
But for a time, Hampton set his dreams aside to pursue other ventures.
Hampton’s family were in the custom-car business, turning rust to riches. They own several shops in Winchester. Hampton said his family, the Stanfields, is known all over for their custom street and rat-rods.
After graduating from George Rogers Clark High School in 1998, Hampton eventually went on to work in the pharmaceutical industry. He said he was burned out for the time being working on cars; it was all Hampton had ever known since he was 6-years-old.
So, Hampton accepted a job at Catalent and after working on an assembly line for a time, moved into the research development department. Hampton approached the task as he did working on cars, through trial and error and looking at each of the components.
Finally, Hampton looked up, and it was 16 years later. He had moved up in the company, assuming a supervisor position in the research and development department.
Throughout those years, Hampton spent his spare time hunting.
Hampton dabbled in archery in his teen years, and when he got older, he entered archery competitions. Eventually, he got tied into doing professional filming with The American Outdoorsman, a weekly hunting and fishing TV and radio show.
“That led me to my first trip out west,” Hampton said. “We went to 11 different states, and one of them was Montana.”
Montana seemed far, far away to a small town boy from Kentucky, Hampton said. He traveled to Bozeman, Montana, and was right next door to Ted Turner, the second largest individual landowner in North America and famed bison rancher. The Turner bison herd across 15 ranches comprises about 51,000 bison, which is the largest private herd in the world, according to Turner’s website.
Hampton was close, but he didn’t get to chase the herd. Though, he still yearned to.
In 2006, Hampton was sitting down by the fire at the then-local boys club, Winchester Hunting. He and his friends would “picture-hunt” deep into the pages of “Bowhunt America,” a tip and gear oriented bowhunting magazine.
Somehow, a September 2006 issue of “Bowhunt America” ended up in Hampton’s truck.
Months later, Hampton stumbled upon the magazine while cleaning out his truck.
“Next thing I know, I pick it up, and I have to throw it out of the truck,” Hampton said. “It lands on this article, ‘Legendary Buffalo,’ and I looked down, and oh my gosh, that is an actual buffalo. So, I started reading this article, and it was about a gentleman named Dan McFarland.”
Dan McFarland owned Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, near Fredericksburg in the rolling hills and timber country of Northeast Iowa.
McFarland, instead of selling the buffalo to other ranchers and the slaughterhouse, would welcome people into his home. He would offer tours of his expansive ranch and then teach people about the Native American traditions involving buffalo, how they honored the buffalo when they took it life.
Plains tribes used the bison to provide shelter, food, clothing, weapons, tools and even children’s playthings. The buffalo became a crucial part of their lives and economies. McFarland made sure his visitors understood their importance.
“He’s teaching us to use every animal in life from its nose to tail,” Hampton said. “Don’t waste anything.”
The visitors would then go on to hunt the bison. The experience was primitive; the visitors could only use bows and other primitive hunting weapons.
After reading the article, Hampton reached out. In June of 2007, he and McFarland talked on the phone for nearly three hours. The pair bonded quickly and still speak to this day.
“We’ve been the best of friends, like a father and a son,” Hampton said.
Hampton worked close with McFarland for about six years, learning the ins and outs of the bison business. Hampton traveled to farmers markets, processing plants and more. He watched their social structure, their eating patterns; Hampton wanted to know about their meat, their nature and their essence.
“I was a sponge to the bison,” Hampton said. “I just soaked up everything I could.”
The bison were unique creatures, and Hampton was fascinated.
In 2010, Tom Rice, a Lexington radiologist, bought a 230-plus acre property on Quisenberry Road.
Hampton caught wind of it and one day came out and offered to set up a bowhunting range for free on the former golf course.
Hampton even set up a “camo church.”
“We were teaching [people] the ins and outs of hunting, gun hunting, gun safety, bow hunting, both safety, hunting, fishing, but with biblical principles,” Hampton said.
The private archery course eventually went public and then after a time, Rice shut it down publicly but kept Hampton on board.
Rice told Hampton he admired his work ethic and enjoyed his stories. He then asked Hampton what would he do with the farm.
“I said, the first thing I would do is bring the buffalo here,” Hampton said.
Hampton had been looking to chase the buffalo all these years, he thought, this could be his chance.
“The motto that I’ve always used was without a vision, you have no future, and a dream doesn’t have an expiration date,” Hampton said. “And so [Rice] started talking about what’s your plans and intentions? I said the number one thing is awareness of buffalo and who they are. I want to honor the animal first.”
Hampton told Rice he wanted to start tours and share the iconic image and fascinating history of the buffalo with the community. Rice inquired about meat sells, and Hampton said they could do that, too.
“That’s how we slowly began,” Hampton said.
Hampton started with about eight bison on the 240-acre farm which they later dubbed Blackfish Bison Ranch. Since 2013, the herd has significantly grown, with a current head count of about 100 bison.
Hampton said the tours had been a success, averaging around 1,500 people a year.
Hampton lives in a log cabin on Blackfish, named for Chief Blackfish of the Chillicothe division of the Shawnee tribe, year-round tending the herd. The front of the cabin is the meat shop, where anyone can come in and purchase a cut of meat seven days a week. Blackfish offers ground bison, filets, rib-eye, short ribs and is adding a new line of bison jerky.
As visitors move further into the cottage, Hampton’s obedience to honoring the animal from head to toe is evident.
Waylon, a two-year-old red heeler and Hampton’s only other worker on the farm, lays snugly on the buffalo fur draped over the couch. Bison skulls hang on the walls, and tiny metal knobs shaped as buffalo heads adorn the kitchen.
Leftover roast bison sits in a Mason jar in the fridge. In his office area, a massive stuffed head of a six-and-a-half-foot bison looms overhead, adjacent to his Elvis Presley memorabilia.
Hampton is a huge fan of Elvis, he said. In the barn, Hampton has a few cars he’s working on rebuilding. He never let go of his custom-car heritage; instead, he’s intertwining it with his passion for bison, adding bison-leather seats, a buffalo horn shifter and more.
Hampton sleeps, eats and practically breathes bison.
The buffalo are what Hampton calls “God’s Original Equipment.”
He raises the bison to be “unadulterated,” which means they aren’t bred to achieve a specific color, size or temperament. Other than having a large social circle, all bison need is food, water and a peaceful place to live. So, Hampton provides those needs, and let the bison roam free, emulating their lives as closely as possible to what it would’ve been like hundreds of years ago.
“We raise our animals to be as primitive as possible, as natural and humanely and they are all grass-fed, grass-finished bison,” Hampton said.
Tours begin with a lesson from Hampton. He details the history of the American buffalo, its close call with extinction and how private ranches like his have helped repopulate North America’s largest land mammal, named in 2016 as the U.S. national mammal.
The story started in the 1700s when the Shawnee used Kentucky primarily as hunting grounds. In 1778, about 70 to 100 million American Bison, commonly known as buffalo, roamed the landscape. It was at this time the natives encountered Daniel Boone and his party.
Beginning in the 1800s, American expansion and overhunting, nearly drove the iconic American animal to extinction. Although their numbers shrank to a seriously small figure, the U.S. never classified the bison as an endangered species.
Hampton said colonization and Western expansion through the railroad narrowed the population to just 5,000 by the 1860s. Herds, numbering more than 30 million when the first European explorers set foot on American soil, were nearly wiped out by the 1880s.
By 1923, fewer than 700 bison remained in existence.
As of 2018, roughly 400,000 bison — with the most significant increase occurring in the last 40 years — now roam the pastures and rangelands across North America, thanks primarily to private conservation efforts, marking a remarkable comeback for a species that teetered on the brink of extinction little more than a century ago.
“They have stood the test of time,” Hampton said.
Bison are as important as the American flag, as the rose, like the bald eagle, Hampton said. They, quite literally, helped to shape the fabric of North America’s landscape, he said.
Hampton’s guided tours make it possible for people to get face-to-face with the animals that were nearly extinct.
After the tour, people can purchase the meat at the ranch. Blackfish also sells products at the Winchester-Clark County Farmers Market and Full Circle Market. Local restaurants, such as Graze Cafe, also use bison meat in some of their dishes.
Hampton swears on the cleanliness and quality of the meat. It is much lower in fat and higher in protein and iron. The beef, a bit sweet in flavor, is easy to cook.
“It requires less effort on marinades and soaking,” Hampton said.
Hampton said he is currently working on a consulting business to help other ranchers chase their buffalo. Hampton said there’s only a handful of bison ranchers across the state, and none are doing it like he is at Blackfish.
Hampton is paving a path for a new-type of rancher, taking on the role of historian and educator as well as manager to the farm. The buffalo roam Blackfish Bison Ranch, and Hampton watches, records and shares.
Hampton tries to document everything. The National Bison Association (NBA) has previously recognized Hampton as a social media guru.
Hampton said the bison’s presence on the farm had even rejuvenated the land’s ecosystem. He has recorded 15 species returning to the property.
He said has also confirmed what he already knew: the buffalo are intelligent creatures. They don’t cower from storms, but instead head right into it, knowing if they persist through the initial violence, it will pass quicker.
Perhaps, that’s how the buffalo have survived the turmoil tossed at them throughout history, Hampton said. They take hardship in stride and keep going.
Much like Hampton has.
It’s been a long ride to Blackfish Bison Ranch, but every day, Hampton takes off like Gus McCrae, chasing the wild herd, knowing there will still be buffalo left to chase today, tomorrow and for years to come — thanks in part to the buffalo’s rugged durability and to ranchers like Hampton who reckoned the bison sure were pretty.