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Range Riders to celebrate the beginning of group, museum
By the late 1930s, most of the old settlers who first came to eastern Montana in the days of the open range were dead and more were dying every day. The final months of 1938 had a number of such deaths, which is probably what prompted the remaining old cowboys to get together and celebrate their youth.
A group of “range riders,” with names like “Montana Bill” Roberts, got together and decided to have a reunion. They set a date, Jan. 10, 1939, and set a menu, “one whole quarter of beef and trimmings, prepared in range wagon fashion by an old-time range cook, George Helms,” and sent out the invitations.
There was some discussion of who to invite and the group settled on “any man who had ridden on the range, on circle, stood day and night, guard, rode herd on the trail, etc., from the 1870s up to 1910 would be considered as having the necessary qualifications.
In the Miles City Star article at the time it stated, “The thought stressed that men with actual range and cowboy experience should constitute the membership of the organization.” It was also decided that the reunion wouldn’t be a single event but the members would continue the group “throughout the years until the last cowboy stood looking backward over a long period of action and transition and was about to step over the divide as the last of that band of men who really rode the range.”
The reunion was a success. Approximately 150 former range riders arrived for the dinner. One of them was Craig McDowell, 85, who was believed to be the last survivor of the 1884 Montana Stockgrowers Association, which was formed in Miles City that year.
Most of the riders got up to share their stories, of course, and a list was read of all those who had ‘crossed the great divide.’ Many of those names were known only to a small circle of friends but Theodore Roosevelt and the Marquis de More were counted. Their names may have been better known but on Jan. 10, 1939, they were just some of the boys.
In addition to the men themselves, there was great nostalgia for the huge cattle outfits of old, from the XIT to the N Bar N and “Bug.” Only one cowboy was there to represent that old brand. His name was Billy Coleman and he noted “that the boys are beginning to thin out some,” according to the article.
The “boys” were all old men but they decided to preserve their memories so that, as the world changed even more and horse and rider were replaced with pickup truck and driver, Charley Wiley, Harry C. Reed, Dale Wilder, Bill Roberts and Sid Vollin were charged with “the duty of keeping alive the range riders roundup.”
It started with a dinner for a bunch of old hands and evolved from there. Today, the Range Riders Museum is sprawling complex displaying some of the finest collections of the Old West to be seen anywhere. And those names of the old cowboys, those old range riders, has been preserved for seventy-years.
This year the Range Riders Museum will mark that anniversary with a series of special events but will also make sure that the tradition carries on for several more generations.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Amorette Allison is a local historian and a columnist/reporter for the Miles City Star. She is also a former preservation officer for the city. Allison has authored several volumes on local history titled “The Way We Were,” which are available for purchase.