CLARK COUNTY — At Blackfish Bison Ranch visitors center, manager Brandeon Hampton is about 25 minutes into the educational portion of the tour, and some members of the audience — those in the 3-7 age group — are getting a bit fidgety.
They've listened politely to Hampton's telling of how Shawnee Chief Blackfish gathered his forces on the nearby creek and launched an attack on Fort Boonesborough in 1778. A few raise their hands when asked if they've visited the fort.
They've ogled the massive stuffed buffalo head behind Hampton, perhaps not fully comprehending the story of why that buffalo ended up that way — it became disruptive to the herd after losing dominance. They've tried to picture the buffalo outrunning a Thoroughbred, as Hampton says it can, and tried to imagine it smelling water up to 2 miles away.
Then, like another of the animal's surprising traits, Hampton's talk turns on a dime: Who made the Shawnee the hunters they were, the buffalo the shape it is? "God did." When Hampton asks how many kids have been to Vacation Bible School this summer, many hands shoot up.
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Hold on. How did we go from a discussion of the athleticism of the buffalo to VBS?
Turns out it's all part of the bigger picture for Hampton that includes the Native American god Wakan Tanka, Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark and the Lakota creation story in which a turtle creates the four races of man.
Buffalo are part of GOE, as Hampton calls it — God's Original Equipment. His presentation ends with the legend of the sacred white buffalo. Then it's everybody out to the wagon for the ride to see the buffalo.
A Hawkeye education
"There's a certain part of preaching in me," Hampton says after the tour has finished, and the kids got to experience what they'll probably remember best: feeding the buffalo.
"I did Sunday school classes, Wednesday night classes," Hampton says, "but I still felt that wasn't having the impact that I needed to be me."
Now, in his role as co-owner and manager of the Blackfish Bison Ranch, he's able to combine his love of the buffalo with his devotion to Scripture. He's earning an income and spiritual satisfaction: "Psalm 37 says 'I'll give you all your heart's desire.'"
Hampton, 35, who grew up around custom hot rods at his family's auto body shop and spent 15 years in the pharmaceuticals business, traces his love of the outdoors and Native American traditions to the day he took up archery at age 7. But a real turning point came in 2005 when a magazine he'd had in his truck slid out and onto the ground. When he bent to pick it up, he saw it was lying open to an article about Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch in Iowa. A phone call to ranch owner Dan McFarland turned into a 3-hour buffalo gabfest, Hampton says. He took part in one of Hawkeye's buffalo hunts and became hooked on the place. It was the first of many visits he'd make, often helping the owner as a ranch hand. "Brandeon is certainly a dedicated individual, very enthusiastic," says McFarland. "He has visions of doing things, and more power to him. He's made things work that I didn't think would."
At Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, Hampton got the hands-on education that any number of buffalo nickels can't buy. Now he does everything with the animals. "I don't outsource anything," he says — except when it comes to turning them into a different commodity. He drives them across the river to Memphis Meats in Indiana when that time comes. Three buffalo made the trip recently and came back as 1,406 pounds of very lean meat on June 9. "Now, on July 24, less than 173 pounds are left," says Hampton, who is as enthusiastic about the health benefits of the product as he is about everything else buffalo. "It's pure, it's clean, and the taste sells itself. Hampton sells the meat at the ranch, the Winchester Farmers Market and a few restaurants and stores. "People love it. It's got great flavor, very lean. And we know exactly where it comes from," says Laura Sheehan, owner of Full Circle health food store in Winchester.
The animals designated for people's platters because of age, quality or their disruptive nature, are kept separate from the ones being fed apple slices by 5-year-olds to squeals of delight: "Its tongue tickled my hand!"
'An iconic animal'
Hampton's partner in the business is Tom Rice, a Lexington radiologist. Rice bought the 230-plus acre property in 2010, when it was a golf course. Hampton got wind of it and one day came out and offered to set up a bow-hunting range for free. The two clicked. "I admired his integrity and his work ethic," says Rice.
When Rice decided to eliminate the golf course, Hampton made his pitch: How about acquiring some buffalo? "I thought it was preposterous," says Rice.
But the more he learned about the history of the Lower Howard's Creek area, and how the Shawnee came through on their way to Fort Boonesborough, the more the idea of re-introducing buffalo to the region made sense. "What appeals to me is the way in which the history of the area and the history of the animal coalesce," says Rice. Plus, "it's such an iconic animal." And he had full confidence in Hampton.
Rice and his wife, Angela, come there on weekends. Hampton lives on the farm year-round tending the herd. "The best way to ever know an animal is to be in there with it. This animal isn't for everybody, it can be dangerous if you don't know it. You can't treat buffalo like a cow or a horse or a donkey. 'People perish for lack of knowledge of Him,'" he says, speaking in biblical terms again.
However, if buffalo are kept happy, they're not a threat, says Rice. "We've never had a problem."
Hampton has a vision that someday 100 or even 200 buffalo will roam the fields and creek bottoms of Blackfish ranch. As the herd grows, so will the amount of meat produced. And all who eat the meat will be leaner and healthier. "We create a mindset, that, yes, you can change ... everything's achievable," Hampton says.
Unlike other creation stories, Hampton's Blackfish creation won't happen in a matter of days. It might take many years.
Scripture says that without a vision, you have no future, Hampton said: "It's a God-ordained lifelong thing."
"This is not a short story."