Lee family: MSGA good for family ranchers


FORSYTH – When you think of a Montana cattle rancher, the first things that come to mind are wide-open spaces and a herd of cattle being pushed by cowboys from one pasture to the next. While this may be a true image of a cattle rancher, you won’t necessarily find 88-year-old J.R. Lee (Toppy) working the ranch on the back of a horse. You will, however, find him at a desk with a pen in his hand working the numbers.

Toppy, as he is fondly called because of his “Cotton-top” head of hair in his youth, was born and raised in 

Sweetwater, Texas, and began his interest in agriculture through Future Farmers of America in high school. Because of his interest in farming, when he set off for college, Toppy chose to major in agriculture with a special interest in ag business, while attending Texas Tech.  As a sophomore, Toppy was accepted to a Navy Officer’s V-12 Unit for three semesters in Forth Worth, Texas. He then took three semesters at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, where he also won a tennis tournament at Harvard in the fall and was given the Loving Cup. Following Harvard, he became a commissioned Navy Supply and Disbursing officer. As an officer, Toppy was given a great deal of responsibility, which he excelled in.

“Another young officer and myself set up and started the surplus disposal unit in the Bremerton, Wash., Navy Yard, working six WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and six Civil Service girls,” Toppy recalled.  “While operating the disposal unit, a ship came in from the Pacific - it was the USS Sappho AKA 38. It needed a supply officer to replace theirs, who was being discharged.”

Toppy was transfered and given a safe with $250,000 new money to hold paydays for the crew, as well as the crews from smaller ships that didn’t have a paymaster aboard. After several months working as the ship’s paymaster and surplus officer, Toppy found himself also handling most of the paperwork to de-commission the very ship he was on.

“We put that nice, big ship, fully equipped and supplied, in a moth-ball fleet anchored in Lake Union Navy Yard,” commented Toppy.

Unknown to him at the time, Toppy’s commission in the Navy set the course for his life as a Montana cattle rancher.

In March of 1945, Toppy’s dad, A.G. Lee, Sr., left Texas and made the move to Montana, where he was part owner and operator of the Porcupine Ranch, near Forsyth. Toppy followed in 1946 but went back to Texas two years later to marry his high school sweetheart, Mariellen. 

In those days, all the land was open range and ranchers got together to help one another in the roundup.

“We got here when the country was open,” said Toppy. “Three years before our ranch fenced, we began going to the annual roundup.” 

Toppy purchased his own steers in 1947 and has run them for 67 consecutive years. He also purchased land at Armells Creek, near Colstrip, where he started a cow herd that remained in operation for 60 years. Toppy ran steers with his brother, Al Lee, but kept the cows to himself. 

During his early years in Montana, because of his degree in agriculture, Toppy was hired by the Montana Extension Service to teach the Farmers on Farms program in Rosebud County.  The program was designed to teach adult farmers about farming.  

“I love teaching adults,” said Toppy. “I learned a lot from the other farmers.  They knew more about what I was teaching than I did,” he chuckled.  

Toppy taught the class for five years.  After that came the recession during the Korean war.

Toppy and Mariellen became involved with the Montana Stockgrowers Association and attended the Association’s annual conventions for 40 straight years, from 1950 to 1990. He and Mariellen enjoyed attending but circumstances prevented it in later years. Toppy has fond memories of their time going to conventions and commented on how much he learned while he attended.

“It was an education to go,” he said.  “Each area ranched under different conditions. Here [eastern Montana] was deeded land. In western Montana they had a little strip of land, along rivers and leased grazing land, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.”

But the times of the convention had to come to an end, as Toppy had a busy season ahead.  

“We had to quit when they changed the time of year for the convention. We were busy receiving cattle [that time of year],” he said.  

With 80 miles dividing the ranches, the Lee family hired cowboys and moved to town in Forsyth; that was in 1955. The move made traveling between ranches a lot easier.

“We hired some good cowboys,” Toppy reminisced. “Cowboys work long hours in bad conditions. I always tell my grandkids, ‘Don’t try to compete with those professional cowboys, they can’t.’  I say, hats off to those professional cowboys... I don’t know what these ranches would do without them. Some have worked for me for 25 years.”

Toppy has many fond memories of ranching in eastern Montana and has great respect for the members of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. In particular, he found himself intrigued by the dedication of the presidents of the association.  

“We had some wonderful presidents over the years,” he said, recalling two presidents in particular - Julian Terrett and Bob Barthelmess of Miles City - who made an impact on the southeastern Montana cattle industry.

“Because our interests were different, they delivered a resolution at the general convention that was a good solution for the cattle industry,” said Toppy. “In the end, those presidents worked through some good legislation.”

The Stockgrowers Association sometimes can’t pass legislation, but they can keep legislation from being bad, said Toppy.

Today, Toppy continues to run two ranches with his younger brother, Al, which they have done for nearly 50 years and have never had a cross word between them.  

“There is no reason to... there is enough ranch for the both of us,” said Toppy.

Toppy has been a member of the Montana Stockgrowers Association for more than 60 years. He was there when the Stockgrowers celebrated their 100th anniversary and is proud to take part in their 130th.  

Toppy knows that, because of the hard work and dedication of the members of the Stockgrowers Association, his family’s Montana ranch has been so successful.

“I have so much appreciation for those men who have dedicated so much of their lives to the cattle industry,” said Toppy. “The different parts of the states singularly have been looking out for the effects of legislation on our industry. Their dedication makes it a strong organization.”