At a visit to the Range Riders Museum, this photo piqued my curiosity…


Starting over in Montana

James Haywood

James Haywood

Prince Edward Island, on the eastern coast of Canada, is a long way from Montana and it’s where James Haywood was born, in 1854.

His cousin had come to Montana first and urged James to follow, for the work was plentiful.  At 23, James Haywood arrived in Miles City by steamboat on the Yellowstone River. It was 1877 and he joined his cousin as a buffalo hunter, supplying meat to the army men stationed at Fort Keogh.

Once,  Haywood was held captive in a cabin by Sioux Indians. The journals don’t give any other information about this, except to say that his captivity lasted only one day.

James Haywood married Elizabeth Miller, a woman who had been born in Scotland before her family moved to Prince Edward Island.  The Haywoods settled in Hanging Woman Creek and started a ranch.  Elizabeth became the superintendent of schools in Rosebud County, but died just as she was serving her first term, in 1909.

But a couple years later, James married again, at age 57, to Inez Perkins, who was only 27. It had been a “mail order” courtship, as they didn’t see each other until their wedding day. James Haywood lived another 23 years, presumably with his young wife.

Though there isn’t much detail in the journals, you can see the outlines of a classic Montana story of starting over: the migration from East Coast to West, the work as buffalo hunter and then rancher, the tragic loss of a wife–and another second act, with a mail order bride.

A cowboy’s life

Louie Pelissier

“I had very little schooling,” Louie Pelissier wrote about his youth. “My idea early in life was to be a cowboy instead of a professor.”

Louie was born in North Dakota in 1897,  and started breaking wild horses when he was 15 or 16 years old. At 19, he rode to Sheridan, Wyoming, and went to work branding calves and breaking horses. A couple years later, he moved to Miles City and kept doing the same kind of work.

“We used to break horses for $10 a head,” Louie recalled in 50 Years in the Saddle (Medora Press). “Really tough and they would buck. Seemed like a pretty slow way to make money but we did it anyway.”

sketch of Louie by Casey Barthelmess

Louie, who bought a ranch in 1931 and died in 1970, must have been a familiar face in Miles City.  There are references to him in many of the rooms at the Range Riders Museum.  I saw this sketch of him by Casey Barthelmess (son of the famous photographer and grandfather of the museum’s curator) on a wall in one room. Maybe Casey and Louie were friends.

In another room, I spotted Louie’s cowboy hat.

And, in yet another room, his cowboy boots (in the center).

There was something so poignant in reading his simple straightforward description of his life, then seeing the hat and boots he wore. You know if a cowboy’s hat and boots are in a museum, he’s really hit the end of the trail.

Three musical sisters

Rosa Felora Sickmiller Bryant

Rosa Felora Sickmiller Bryant

In another place — perhaps if her parents had stayed in Ohio — Rosa Felora Sickmiller might have been a concert pianist. With her refined yet intense appearance, she looks the part, and she was said to be very talented.

She was born in 1892, and was in her teens when she came west with her parents to Melstone, Montana, in 1908 so her father and brother could work on the Milwaukee Road. Rose had been a very studious girl and her mother was deeply disappointed that she couldn’t continue her education, as the school in Melstone went only to the fifth grade.

Rose’s musical talents were appreciated in Melstone,  and she played piano for traveling concerts and for dances there. Word of her abilities spread and a call came in from Harlowton, a larger town about 100 miles to the west, requesting her to play piano for the silent movies.

She later moved to Lewistown, Montana, and then to Three Forks, Montana, (pictured above) where she played piano at the Ruby Theater until it closed.

Princess Ruth Sickmiller Conklin

Princess Ruth — what a name! — was born in Ohio in 1895, so she would have been 13 when the family moved to Melstone, and she could attend school there only for one year. After a fire destroyed much of Melstone, she worked as a waitress in newly established eating houses, serving the railroaders. Her mother disapproved of such work.

Princess had a beautiful voice and she too was “called to Harlowton,” her account says, where she became a soloist in the Presbyterian church choir. She also worked at the hardware store there. In Harlowton, she met her husband, Edward Conklin, a conductor on the railroad. That seems fitting, as this family was all about railroads and music.

Gladys Sickmiller Simmert

Gladys was only 3 when the family moved from Ohio to Montana in 1908. She was also a talented vocalist and became a soloist “for funerals, churches and schools.” The account says that her singing was broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

She decided to attend business school in Miles City, and then she went to work for her father’s employer, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad — the Milwaukee Road. She did various jobs, including secretary to the chief dispatcher, cashier, rate clerk — and worked for the railroad for 47 years.  I wonder if she kept singing in the church choir too?


Henry's horse, Buck, watched out for him after a fall

(John) Henry Haughian

Henry Haughian has a great face. It’s tough and leathery, in stark contrast to the flowery wallpaper behind him. You can tell he was out in the weather a lot (though maybe he came in the house occasionally for teatime, like his brother Jerome.)

He worked on his sheep ranch near Miles City and trailed the sheep from the ranch to Deer Lodge or Jordan, Montana — wherever there was grass. He liked to rodeo and won silver spurs in 1939.

Henry and his brother joined the Army in 1942 and Henry was seriously wounded in June of 1945 and was sent home in December of 1945 with a 50 percent disability. The account doesn’t say what the disability was,  “but he handled it well, going on with ranch life and doing most things he really liked.” He got married in August, 1946 to Lorraine Wood, a woman 19 years his junior.

One thing he couldn’t do anymore? “No more bronc riding!”
There’s quite a story about Henry and his horse Buck, which appeared in several newspapers around the Northwest in 1951. Ellen Baumler, who writes the wonderful blog, Montana Moments, told me about it and wrote about “A Cowboy and His Horse” in her new book More Montana Moments.

Henry and Buck had been rounding up cattle in the Sheep Mountains north of Miles City when Buck stumbled on the rough steep terrain. With no time to jump from the saddle, Henry was caught beneath his horse as Buck tumbled down the slope. Buck got to his feet but his master lay unconscious; so the horse climbed to the top of the hill and stood there, silhouetted against the sky until he was noticed by two sheepherders who wondered about the horse with the empty saddle. Buck led them to Henry, and the men carried him to their truck so they could take him to the hospital.

Henry had three broken bones and many bruises — but as a former bronco rider that must have seemed familiar. In any case, thanks to Buck, he recovered and went on to live another 42 years. When he died in 1993, he was 84.

On the Milwaukee Road

They came out to Montana to work on the railroad, lived in Melstone, Montana

Adam and Elizabeth Sickmiller

Adam was born in 1860, Elizabeth in 1866. They were living in Galion, Ohio, where Adam was working as a locomotive engineer on the Erie Railroad when he heard that the Milwaukee Road  (official name: Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul) railroad was looking for experienced help for its expansion to the Pacific Northwest.

Adam, along with his oldest son, Frank, traveled west to look over the situation. Assured  that good jobs were plentiful, they returned and the family sold their Ohio home. They kept their furniture, though: they would send for it once they had settled in.

Things didn’t really go as smoothly as they expected. After they arrived at Mobridge, South Dakota, they were given two equipment cars to live in, then told that Adam and Frank were needed in Melstone, Montana.

Melstone, a base for crew operations, was one of the many Montana towns that the Milwaukee Road created in 1908 in order to draw customers and business to areas that had been almost unpopulated. Laid out on a grid, each Main Street had the requisite general store, post office, hotel, saddlery, saloon, church, and so on. Although places in this part of Montana had been given names long ago by Native Americans, the U.S. Army and ranchers, the railroad capriciously renamed them. Ismay was invented for the railroad president’s daughters, Isabel and May; Melstone for Melvin Stone, an Associated Press reporter who was riding in the railroad president’s car when the towns were being named.

In March, 1908, Adam was hired as a night roundhouse foreman in Melstone. The furniture arrived but had to be sold as there was no place to store it and it had to be sold.

Conditions in Melstone were “less than perfect to say the least.” At one point, the account says, much of the hastily-built town burnt to the ground (I haven’t been able to verify the date or cause) and many of the residents had to live in boxcars as it was being rebuilt.  The drinking water was bad, coyotes barked around the boxcars and the cars had to be steamed regularly for bedbugs.

Elizabeth was used to a more cultured and sophisticated life than she found in Melstone, Montana. Her three daughters all had musical talents, which she must have encouraged.  It seems likely that there was a piano in the house, as her daughter Rose Felora was an accomplished pianist at a young age.

Elizabeth was dismayed that the education for her five children did not continue past the fifth grade in Melstone. She was disapproving when her daughter Princess Ruth (imagine having that name in Eastern Montana!) worked as a waitress in the eating houses in Melstone after the fire — which her mother didn’t consider a suitable environment for a young lady.

Still, Elizabeth had a generous nature and was an enormous help to the railroad workers, even though she was not on the Milwaukee Road payroll. After Melstone’s fire, many many times Adam (“Dad Sickmiller) came home and told her that a crew had been called but there was no place to eat. Elizabeth always told him to send the men over and she fed them all. “She fixed, mended and pressed their clothes when they wanted to go to a show or dance. She attended all the children with good remedies.”

Skirts and saddles

Grace Harris with her first born, Walter Jordan

Grace Harris was born in Maine in 1873 and came with her family to live 25 miles from Miles City on the Tongue River in 1882.

The four girls of the family were wonderful horsewomen. They dressed like other refined women riders, wearing high-necked long-sleeved dresses, gloves and chamois masks to protect them from the elements.

Grace and her sisters rode as far as 30 miles to a Fourth of July picnic or a dance, their best clothes tied up in flour sacks. They would dance until dawn, ride back and do their chores before they slept.

The family could not afford the side saddles that were standard for genteel women at the time, so Grace rode astride, wearing full length skirts. If another rider showed up, she  swung her right foot around the horn and tucked her skirt discretely over her toes.

Even in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of Miles City, women were constrained by such severe conventions of dress. In Photographing Montana, author Donna Lucey recounts how pioneer photographer Evelyn Cameron caused a scandal in Miles City in 1895 by riding into town wearing a long full divided skirt.

Until the split skirt came to be accepted, women had to ride horses in long dresses

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 90-87.80-2

“So great at first was the prejudice against any divided garment in Montana that a warning was given to me to abstain from riding on the streets of Miles City lest I might be arrested!” Cameron wrote in her diary.

Yet a few years after Cameron’s introduction of the garment, the divided skirt became an accepted mode of dress for Montana women and a common sight in Miles City. Cameron also designed such skirts, and took this photo of a friend dismounting her horse dressed in such a skirt in 1914.

Whatever she wore, riding a horse came naturally to Grace, even after she and her husband moved to California in their later years and she rode in the San Gabriel parade. “When Grace Howard Harris was 70,” the description in her story reads, “she still sat on a horse like a cavalry officer.”

Cooking & dancing

William Brock

He looks like a wealthy man in his beaver coat, suit and tie. Yet it’s not likely that he was, as he earned his living as a round-up cook.

There’s something else surprising about William Brock that I learned reading his story: he had a disability. And he was also as confident as he looks in this photo.

He was born in Missouri in 1870 and was sent to a special school because he was deaf and couldn’t talk.

“He was a striking young man and made up for his handicaps by developing his other senses to the razor-sharp edge. He learned the hand alphabet and could talk it in lightening speed.”

William  came to Montana in 1903 and worked as a trail cook for cattle drives for the XIT ranch, a huge Texas cattle ranch that operated from 1885 to 1912.

Postcard, “The chuck wagon — the cowboy’s kitchen”

“William was a fabulous cook, baked pies, cakes and puddings besides the regular chuck. Seasoned beans and hash and special bread to a tongue’s test and likeness.”

He seemed quite adept at compensating for his inability to hear. The first telephone put in from Miles City to Powderville was mounted in the bunkhouse so he could feel the vibrations of the telephone bell.

He enjoyed dancing, taking his cue from the vibrations of the floor after the music and the other dancers had started.

He was quite handsome, and I’m sure he experienced no shortage of dance partners.

Simple pleasures

Jerome Haughian

One can see the photographs on the opposite wall of the memorial hall reflected in the photo of Jerome Haughian. The painted symbol is the brand of the ranch he and his brother Henry ran.

Jerome was a rancher of sheep and cattle, of Irish heritage. . He always made it back to the house for tea time, which took place in the mornings at 10 and afternoons at 3 or 4. If he had a cookie or two with his cup of tea in the afternoon, it meant that he’d be late coming in for supper.

Jerome loved trees and planted lots of them around the ranch. He also liked to read history. But my favorite part of the history was this wonderful description — which could be a concise guide for how to live well on a Montana ranch:

“Jerome’s wants and desires were few but those few were greatly enjoyed. He was pleased with the sound of a simple Meadow Lark.”

Western Meadowlark

Hard luck

Matie and Morgan Eliott

Like many Montana homesteaders, Matie and Morgan Elliot had a tough road, theirs even harder than most.

He came from Minnesota around 1900 and worked in Washington logging camps and as a cowboy around Miles City, Montana.

She came from Michigan when her parents (originally from Germany) and other German friends filed on homesteads south of Miles City. They may have been drawn by the U.S. government’s offer of double homesteads (320 acres) on “semi-arid land”and the railroads’ enticing pamphlets promoting the wonders of Montana agriculture, which were published in German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian and Italian. Dry farming proponents promised riches from farming land with limited water and lots of dry sunny days. Too much rain washed the goodness out of the soil, they said –while at the same time they claimed that “rain follows the plow.”

In any case, after Morgan and Matie married in 1918 in Miles City they lived and worked on the homestead.  And in the 30s, like so many other homesteaders, they were beset with hard times and drought. Especially drought. Rain had not followed the plow — there was no water, grass or hay for their cattle.

The U.S. government offered to buy their stock, and in 1936 Morgan and Mattie sold everything.

Now what would they do? Construction of the Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in northeast Montana  had started in 1933, and was at its peak of employment in 1936, hiring thousands of workers. Morgan left to work at Fort Peck Dam in October of 1936. Three weeks later he caught pneumonia and died, at age 56.

Matie left the homestead the following spring and moved to the town of Broadus. She worked there and in Miles City. When she died in 1981, she was 97 and had lived 18 years with Morgan and nearly 45 years without him. When I look at her picture–taken well before the difficulties she would face– I see someone with the strength to carry on.

Guns and violins

Lillie Mae and William Henry Crouse

They were married in 1899 in Wyoming and moved to Montana so William Henry could be the violinist at the Miles City Opera House. But the pay wasn’t enough to support a family (and before too long the opera house would be replaced by a cinema anyway). So he worked as an apprentice at the local gun shop, and in 1913 purchase the shop.

It had to be one of the more unusual gun shops in the West, because it was also a violin school, where William Henry taught students nearly every evening. Pretty soon the store was also selling violins, bows and strings.

William Henry was also an expert in violin repair and attracted the attention of musicians from Chicago to Denver and Los Angeles, who sent in their violins for repair.  Additionally, he hand-built seven violins.

Besides guns and violins, Crouse’s Gun Shop expanded to carry all kinds of sporting equipment, such as tennis rackets, skis, skates and bicycles. And William Henry Crouse became Miles City’s all-purpose handyman, sharpening skates and lawnmower blades, duplicating house keys and fixing everything from guns to bicycle flats, spokes and chains.

At the Range Riders Museum’s Old Main Street replica, one of the most distinctive shops is Crouse’s Gun Shop. Of course, alongside the guns there are plenty of violins.