The life of Pierre Wibaux is an amazing story

By: 
Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

Since Wibaux Park is a topic of conversation these days, it might be a good idea to remind everyone of the man after whom the park is named — the remarkable Pierre Wibaux. He not only has a park named after him but a town and a county. He was, according to all accounts, an excellent business man, became an expert rancher and was a philanthropist who was honored by his native France with the National Order of the Legion of Honor, which is rather like being knighted.

Pierre Wibaux was born on Jan. 12, 1858 to a prosperous family of textile industrialists in Roubaix, situated in the north of France. His grandfather had founded the family fortune and it was assumed that Wibaux would one day take over the family textile business.

However, Wibaux went to England and everything changed.

After he finished his formal education and spent some time in the French Dragoons because he was an excellent horseman, he went to England to study their textile mills. He found two unexpected things in England — his future life and his future wife.

The English nobility often sent their younger sons to sow their wild oats out in the American West. Some of them invested in horse and cattle ranches and became wealthy. Wibaux was already set to inherit wealth but he wasn’t really that interested in the textile business.

His father was not enthusiastic but, in 1883, gave his son $10,000, the equivalent of around $250,000 now, and sent him to America.

Wibaux started not by buying cattle but by going to Chicago to study the livestock markets there. While in Chicago, he met another ambitious Frenchman out to the conquer the  American West, the Marquis de Mores.  The Marquis had thousands of acres of land in the Dakota Territories and he invited his countryman out to his ranch to see how it really worked.

Wibaux soon settled on Beaver Creek and started building up his herd. He went back to England to marry his wife, Mary Ellen Cooper, and brought her out to the ranch. Their only child, Cyril, was born in 1885.

Things were going well for Wibaux when the Great Winter of 1886-1887 hit. The first blizzards started in October and didn’t end until the following spring. Charlie Russell’s famous painting, “Waiting for a Chinook or Last of the Ten Thousand,” illustrated the ghastly winter, as a last starving cow is surrounded by hungry wolves.

Lucky ranchers lost only 70 percent of their cattle. Most went bankrupt. Pierre Wibaux, however, saw opportunity. Only the strongest cattle survived and Wibaux saw an advantage in that. He also had rich relatives. He went to France and borrowed money from his wealthy family. He then bought out what his neighbors had left. 

Cattle prices were high after the losses of 1886-1887 and by 1890, Pierre Wibaux was one of the largest cattle ranchers in the entire country. His herd numbered around 65,000 and he became friends with all the important area ranchers, including a young man named Theodore Roosevelt.

According to Wibaux’s entry when he was nominated to the American Cowboy Hall of Fame: “He established his W Bar ranch at Beaver Creek which was located twelve miles north of present day Wibaux. Here he built a large ranch house, a house for the foreman, bunk houses for the 20 cowboys, and housing for the servants he brought with him from France. He built up another ranch sixty miles north of Wibaux and several line camps, thus the W Bar cattle ranged from the Little Missouri river west to the Yellowstone and from the Northern Pacific railroad north to the Big Missouri. Shortly after locating on Beaver Creek he induced the Northern Pacific to build stockyards at Wibaux, while he took the town of Wibaux in hand and began improvements in the little town. He built an office in Wibaux with a sleeping room and kitchen which is currently a museum. The office sported a lawn and many beds of flowers. Cowboys told of the Mrs. Wibaux inviting them to this spot for rest and refreshments after cattle were shipped.”

Wibaux was a real cowboy. He rode herd and took orders from his experienced foreman. He was also known to be a good and fair employer, although he could be “overbearing and haughty to those who tried to use his friendship to further their own designs.”

After cattle, Wibaux went into finance. He started with the State National Bank in Miles City and opened another in Forsyth. As president of the Forsyth bank, Wibaux was in the unique position of having the right to sign dollar bills to issue money. He was the only Frenchman who ever held that right.

Oh, and he also owned some gold mines in the Black Hills.

He started his philanthropy in his home country by becoming a major contributor to an important charity hospital. In the early 1900s, France had a high infant mortality rate among the poor due to nutrition issues. Wibaux was one of the major donors to the model farm program, which produced quality milk for the poor.

Those donations led to his being awarded the Legion of Honor.

When Cyril was 15, he and his mother moved back to Paris so Cyril could further education. Mrs. Wibaux and Cyril were in France when Wibaux took ill.

Wibaux was known for his stamina and good health so, when he first began to suffer poor health, he went to Chicago to consult the medical experts. Sadly, he was suffering from liver cancer. He died on March 21, 1913. His wife and son had come from France to be at this side.

While Cyril and his widow returned to France to live out their lives, Pierre Wibaux’s remains remained in Montana. He was cremated after his death at Chicago and buried at Wibaux, Montana.

Again, from the Cowboy Hall of Fame entry, the memorial he paid for is described as “cast in bronze, is over nine feet in height and is mounted on a huge granite slab above his tomb. He is represented wearing a buckskin jacket and trousers, a Stetson hat, and the chaps of a cowboy. His rope lays coiled at his feet and one hand rests on a rifle at his side while the other holds a pair of field glasses through which he seems to be gazing over the countryside.”

In addition to leaving a large sum of money for that memorial in Wibaux, he also left Miles City $10,000 to establish a park in his name.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or mcreporter@midrivers.com.)

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