Heading south from Regina, Saskatchewan to Plentywood, Montana, the country seemed to change mile by mile. All the way from Edmonton through Saskatoon to Regina we encountered the sameness of farmland; lots of 160 acre homestead farms and lots of trees, planted as windbreak or around the frequent farmhouses. But Montana is open country, with lots of big spreads, both farming and ranching, and the trees generally keep to the few widely separated county seats. This is the only time we've crossed the border between the U.S. and Canada and felt that the character of the country changed immediately... Saskatchewan wheat field
The railroads came late to Montana - they were finished in the first decade of the twentieth century, slowly, without the benefit of free federal land. So they had to rely on settlers. One of our friends' grandparents came to Montana in the land rush of 1906. But 1907 - 1910 was one of the worst droughts in the state's history, and many of the settlers were wiped out.
You can feel the tension between ranching and wheat farming even today. But there's not much open range left, and the wheat is too valuable a crop to lose to a cattle roundup. So the cattle graze on the Montana pasture while the ranchers cut hay for the winter; the farmers alternate year to year between strips of coppery spring wheat and brown fallow land.
We stayed in the best motel in Plentywood, which didn't say much; part of the reason was no competition, as the sign at the motel across the street directed travellers to our motel to register! The man who was painting yellow stripes on the macadam parking lot had a Spanish accent, and we suddenly realized that there had been little or no Hispanic culture in the Canadian plains, but more in the U. S.
The next day we drove west from Plentywood to Scobey and then south through the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to Wolf Point. We couldn't understand why the Reservation was full of wheat farms, until we read something about the Enlarged Homestead Act, which evidently permitted farmers to homestead on Elk Indian lands. We're still trying to figure out how the Indians are or were compensated, and why it's still called an Indian Reservation.
From Wolf Point we headed to Glasgow, where we spent the night. Our motel was clearly the meeting place for local bigwigs; there was a group sitting in the lobby after breakfast the next morning. And many of the motels have small lounges with a few slot machines, which they advertise as CASINO.
Fort Peck, near Glasgow, at the junction of the Missouri and Milk Rivers, is home to the world's largest hydraulic earth-filled dam. It was constructed at about the same time as Hoover Dam, but here the motivation was primarily to provide jobs at the depth of the Depression - eventually there were more than 10,000 workers. Today the lake is a large and peaceful fishing spot. It wasn't as dangerous a construction job as Hoover Dam, but there was a period of sheer panic when a large amount of the dam slid down, killing 8 men. Fortunately the crew was able to stabilize the slide and finish the project.
As a recreation spot, the area offers fishing, lots of campgrounds, and a wildlife pasture where we spotted a herd of elk (along with three isolated males). Near the lake someone had put a large wooden box on top of a utility pole, and we watched two ospreys feed their young for a bit.
The nearby country is called the Missouri River Breaks, which refers to the corduroy type of land formed by dozens of washes and gullies and canyons Old church as streams empty into the river. It makes farming impossible, so for a while as we headed south along a branch of Fort Peck Lake there were only ranches, no farms. But as soon as we got further away from the river, the plateau took shape, and the top of the land was plowed and planted with fields of wheat, while the nearby washes were used as pastureland.
Antelope like the farmland, and we spotted first one, then another isolated buck with their outward-sloping horns; then suddenly there was a whole herd, and as we stopped to watch in fascination, they obliged us by leaping and bounding across the road in front of us.
By the way, our road was dirt, and no doubt this helped our wildlife viewing opportunity. Going south from Glasgow to Miles City we scarcely saw a half dozen cars, and everyone returned our waves. We also saw the smallest working school we've seen in the U. S. since we started full-timing. It consisted of a mobile home building surrounded by a fence and playground. Later when we stopped to talk to a young man flagging traffic for highway construction, he told us he had grown up in the country we had just driven through. Possibly he had attended that tiny school.
With all this open rural land and plentiful wildlife, we were unprepared for the urbanity of Miles City, which is well situated on the freeway and railroad and bursting with civic pride. It's also definitely a cowboy place. Each May they hold a bucking horse contest and horse sale, and Main Street is lined with boot shops, boot repair shops, a saddle-maker's shop and many bars and "casinos." A book store has just opened across the street from the library, to the delight of a loyal band of readers. The owner has just relocated to Miles City - he says he made some money with the internet in North Dakota, and, finding himself in Miles City, decided that the place needs a bookstore and coffee house, so he's making one.
We took the recommended walking tour (up one side of Main Street, around a couple of residential blocks and back down the other side) admiring the 1900s-era architecture from the boom days of Miles City, just after the railroad had arrived and the fields were producing record quantities of grain. We had just returned to the motel when the sun disappeared, the wind whipped up to a frenzy, and dark clouds hung over the city. Seems to be normal weather Miles City brands for a Montana summer. We heard that the wind velocity hit 70 MPH in Billings, a hundred miles west.
According to its host (who heard the story from his father), The Range Riders Museum was started in 1939, when a group of local citizens, concerned that cowboys would be forgotten by the passing of time, issued invitations to all the old-timers --- anybody who had ridden the open range before 1911. Lots of cowboys and cowgirls showed up, and they decided to make a museum. Now it spans a half-dozen buildings and is filled with an eclectic and wonderful collection of Old West and cowboy memorabilia.
We started with the Bert Clark gun collection, whose contents range from tiny derringers which can be tucked up a gambler's sleeve, to army weapons, shotguns and big game rifles. In many cases the ammunition is displayed with the gun, which is quite amazing since the guns are mostly nineteenth century, and quite a few of the cartridges are in calibers that are no longer made. Some of the items have been found locally by ranchers and explorers; one of the most recent is a rusty, partially dissolved gun found near Custer's army camp - it is still loaded and was in its holster.
Next we toured a room familiar to anybody who visits a small-town museum; cases of parasols and dishes and tiny shoes and rolling pins and chemist's scales and musical instruments and cameras and ... we began to get the picture that everyone within fifty miles of Miles City who had any antique or collectible or broken down old ranching equipment had donated it to the museum. There were horseshoes and rattlesnake rattles and varieties of barbed wire and brands and branding irons (incidentally, the streets of downtown Miles City are lined with trees, each of which is surrounded by an iron grating with local cattle brands, and a special "hitching post." ) There was a room full of saddles and pictures of rodeo stars, male and female, including many of those Miles City Hall of Fame who started the museum.
But we were just getting started. A facsimile of an 1890s main street with storefronts gave us "Gun Shop and Violin Maker" and a musical Conservatory and a barber shop and more. A small gallery contained a collection of 82 broad-axes, used for hewing timbers to make log cabins. One room was full of photo portraits of local ranchers, most with their brand displayed. Even more evocative photos were taken by Christian Barthelmess, a German emigrant hired by the Army in the 1880s as official military photographer for Fort Keogh. The display includes photos of life at the fort, of moving cattle, of military maneuvers, and some impressive formal portraits of Indians, mostly chiefs, but a few families. A diorama of Fort Keogh showed that it was a large outpost, led by Lieutenant-General Miles. The general, of course, sat astride a horse. Another model showed the tremendous roundhouse and outbuildings used by the Milwaukee line to repair its engines and stock.
We missed the buildings with all the old ranch wagons, but we had to leave something for the next visit. This is a wonderful old-time private museum which we recommend highly to you western tourists.