Note: In September, on a visit to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, I was enthralled by exhibits in the building’s second-floor Cattle Raisers Museum. It’s worth a trip if you have not been there.
The West lives on . . .
Although most of my adult life has been lived in large cities, much of it as a transplanted Texan, a fair part — perhaps the better part — of my childhood was spent in Miles City, a small town at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers in dusty Eastern Montana. It has a long and varied history, very little of it serene and comfortable, but it was nowhere near as wild as other early settlements of those early years in the Old West.
It was from a site near the rivers that General George Custer began his 1876 march into history at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That same year, Fort Keogh was established there in a continuing attempt to subdue Indian tribes. The town, named for the original commander, grew up around the fort and welcomed the Northern Pacific Railway in 1881.
Cattle, armies and rail lines . . .
Miles City also became the northern terminus for cattle drives that originated in Texas, taking a huge toll on men and stock alike. During the final decade of the century, the need for troops declined, and by 1907 they had all been reassigned. That year a second rail line was routed through Miles City. The Milwaukee Road became the last transcontinental rail to cross the state to the Pacific.
Partly because of the railroads, Miles City emerged as a primary U.S. Cavalry remount center in the years preceding World War I. In 1914, the Miles City Roundup was established, and the outpost city’s reputation as the most important horse market on the world stage was born.
It was renowned because of the surrounding open range, but also for the many banks and bars along its Main Street, and for other creature comforts, among them both juicy steaks and comfortable beds in real hotel rooms. In the early days, it was a favored destination for cowboys and trainmen, some notable lawbreakers and a fair number of law-abiding citizens and families. As time passed and the world changed, Miles City survived, but it didn’t exactly thrive.
Saddling up for cattle drives . . .
Then in 1995, Miles City became the end point of the Great American Cattle Drive, a six-month historical reenactment “performed” by 300 head of cattle and 24 cowboys, along a route that threaded its way through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming on the way from Fort Worth north. The days of the open range were gone, but the long stretches of uninhabited land and the big skies remained, even though mid-90s cowboys closely paralleled the path of modern highways.
Today, Miles City is perhaps best known for its annual Bucking Horse Sale, held the last full weekend of May for the past 68 years. It is still the place where much of the nation’s rodeo stock gets a start. The reputations of legendary modern cowboys, broncs and bulls are sometimes born in Miles City. It’s a dusty, quirky small town in a state with few residents. It still retains much of its unpolished character from decades past, and that only adds to its appeal in my somewhat biased view.
The past intruded on my consciousness as I strolled through the Cattle Raisers exhibits. But it was the lifesize Longhorns, the talking bovine portraits, and the display of impressive, unique saddles that stole my heart.
The saddle that drew my attention was custom-crafted at Miles City Saddlery. My first pair of boots was made there, and the saddlery still exists in a prime location on Main Street, almost 110 years after it opened. I could not touch the saddle’s leather nor feel the embossed patterns, much less sit astride it. But it is a work of art, even though the documentation notes that it was probably much too fine to ever have been a working saddle, even for a well-to-do cowboy.
Moving on, moving west . . .
I read cattle drive descriptions and viewed trail maps, examined worn hats and well-used spurs. I learned the histories of huge Texas cattle ranches and the stories of the hard men who shaped the land and raised those cattle to build their legacies. I could envision the promise of those times.
My forebears were not cowboys; rather they worked the land and the railroads of the day, also the mines. They moved throughout the Midwest and West, from Virginia westward to Missouri; then on to Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, Idaho and Washington.
I still feel a kinship with the cowtown of my past, as well as with modern Fort Worth. That’s another reason why my recent visit to Wichita, Kansas was so memorable. Whether I chalk it up to genes or early environment, old cowtowns feel like home!
If you’re interested in Cowtown histories, read about these three as a good start:
And if you want to know more about cattle drives in general, read this one.