‘Recollections .. ’ is holy grail for local history buffs

History Columnist

One hundred years ago a series of articles began to run in the Miles City Star, starting on Jan. 17, 1918. They were entitled “Recollections of old Milestown” and they were written by Sam Gordon, an early Miles City resident who edited the Yellowstone Journal for many years.

The editor of the Star suggested readers clip the article out and if they wanted extras, to contact the newspaper in advance, as it was expected the columns would be popular.

They were.

Samuel Gordon was, in 1918, a distinguished gentleman of 75 but when he came to Miles City, back in January of 1881, he was 37 years old and had been in the employ of A. H. Wilder for more than a decade.

Amherst Holcomb Wilder was a man who loved the Western frontier, starting with the Hudson Bay Company when St. Paul was the edge of frontier. He invested in steamboats and banks, railroads and mercantile firms, all of them farther and farther west.

He also was the financial backer of fort traders, including the merchants at Fort Keogh. 

He found Miles City to be a promising place for his money, becoming part owner of the Broadwater-Hubbell firm which ran the Diamond R bull trains. It was when he was first investigating the possibilities of Miles City that he sent Sam Gordon to check the place out.

Apparently, Gordon liked Miles City and also saw the possibilities in the growing community. He resigned his position with Mr. Wilder and started working for Broadwater and Hubbell. 

He brought his wife and two children from St. Paul, William and Marion, known as Billy and Babe, and settled into the community for the rest of his life.

He continued to work for Broadwater and Hubbell, even as it changed owners, and took an active role in the community, becoming a trustee of the school district. 

And then, in July of 1883, with Miles City well-established and the Northern Pacific Railroad making regular runs for both freight and passengers, Gordon became one half owner of The Yellowstone Journal.

There were other short-lived newspapers in Miles City, some of them only publishing a few issues before an election, but it was The Yellowstone Journal that lasted and became the newspaper of record.

By 1918, he was retired. He had decided to write a history of Miles City as he had known it in those early, primitive days. Like everyone else of his generation, he realized that he had seen the last days of the Western frontier and the United States was now a civilized country, with steam trains running regular schedules from coast to coast.

An old-timer was defined, in the parlance of Miles City, as someone who had arrived in Miles City before the NPRR showed up in November of 1881. Someone who had to come to town across country or upriver. And it was the life and times of these old-timers that Gordon wrote about.

Gordon had the flamboyant style of the 19th century newspaper man and was more than willing to tell the tales of what he called Old Milestown in all their somewhat gory detail.

It is because of Sam Gordon that we have such a clear vision of what Miles City looked like, and what the residents acted like, in those early days. 

There are a couple of descriptions from Recollections that I particularly love and often quote when someone asks me to blather about area history. For example:

On the remaining corner of Main and Fifth, where the Leighton block now stands, was located another very popular resort, the Cottage saloon, John Smith proprietor, and Jimmy Coleman managing director. It was housed in a very ornate two-story building something on the style of a Siwash chalet, and was the chief resort of the "swaddies" on pay day. On these occasions the patronage was so large and so urgent that there was no time wasted on drawing beer. It was emptied into a couple of washtubs behind the bar, and dipped up in the beer glasses in a continuous service; one shift filling the tubs and another, emptying them. Such a thing as "a quiet drink" was impossible in the Cottage saloon while pay day lasted.

The Leighton block still stands. Appropriately, Whipps Welawiben Photo Framing and Art Gallery, which sells Huffman prints, is located in that building.

Gordon’s columns were collected into a small booklet that was printed by Independent Publishing Company, owner of the Daily Star, in 1918, with photos by L. A. Huffman to match the text.

That booklet is the holy grail for fans of area history. An edition in good condition costs around $1,000, if you can find one at auction or through a used book dealer. For signed copies, expect to pay at least $1,500.

I found one copy in excellent condition for sale for £ 2,572.48 Yes. Pounds. The British love western history, too.

Fortunately, modern technology and fans of Miles City have made it much easier to obtain than having to fork out that kind of money.

Larry Antram, who grew up in Miles City and maintains a website where residents can go to chat, has put the entire book online. Scroll past the conversation threads at milescity.com and you will find links to quite a bit of Miles City history.

The direct link to Recollections is https://milescity.com/history/books/room. 

Larry has also graciously provided “Dusting Off the Old Ones,” a series of vignettes that were published in the Star in the late 1950s written by W. B. Clarke, whose family is among the oldest in Miles City. Those stories are shorter and written in a modern style, but the tales of “Shade Tree Bill” are equally worth reading for fans of Miles City history and Western history in general

“Dusting off the Old Ones” can be found at https://milescity.com/history/books/dotoo.

Both books are delightful not just for the author’s voice but for the tales they tell. 

In an unrelated aside, the house that was recently restored on Main by the Wambolt Insurance Company, belonged to Jimmy Coleman, once of the Cottage Saloon.

I love Miles City history.

(Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)