Two Highline Ranching Families
Part of the Highline in Northeastern Montana
To see labels, point to the image.
© 2003 National Geographic Oldings, Inc., TOPO!
The black line between Chinook and Frazer represents the main line of the BNSF (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) railroad, originally the Great Northern (see Fig. 9). It's 166 miles between those two places via US Highway 2. Chinook (pop. 1,386 in 2000), the seat of Blaine County, was founded by the Great Northern Railroad in the late 1880s. It is 55 miles north of the Missouri River, and 28 miles south of the International boundary. Frazer (pop. 452) at first was a way-station on the Great Northern; it gained a post office in 1907, and is still a shipping-point for grain. It lies 65 miles south of the Canadian border. Glasgow (pop. 3,253), the oldest community in northeastern Montana, was created by the railroad in 1887.
Dated arrows indicate several of the campsites occupied by Lewis and Clark on their route west in 1805. For more views of the Milk River valley, see The Missouri and the Milk, Encouraging Words, Milk River near the Bear's Paw, and Milk River and Panther Mountain.
Stockgrowing and the Coming of the Railroad
After the fur trade waned in the late 1840s, the raising of cattle and sheep was among the first enterprises undertaken by Euro-Americans on the Upper Missouri. As Lewis and Clark had observed, the grazing potential of these sweeping grasslands was enormous. On April 27, 1805, a few miles west of the Yellowstone's mouth, Captain Lewis admired "one of the handsomest plains I ever beheld"; on April 29, he exclaimed over an "extensive, fertile, and beautifull valley" of the river Clark named "Marthas" (now Big Muddy Creek); and on May 20, he rhapsodized over the Musselshell River bottom, with its "lands of excellent quality." Both captains repeatedly noted the "whol face of the country . . . covered with herds of Buffaloe, Elk & Antelopes." But before this grazing potential could be realized, adequate transportation was needed to bring the region closer to markets and suppliers. Fort Benton was the head of navigation for the steamboats plying the Upper Missouri, but getting goods to and from the port was a challenging proposition, with few roads north of the river and those impassable much of the year.
It was not until the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company (later the Great Northern Railway) traversed Montana's upper tier in the late 1880s that ranching on a large scale became practicable there. The coming of this railroad, known as the Highline because it was the northernmost line in the region, also allowed for the founding of many of northeastern Montana's towns. Many of them began as construction camps, section control stations, or market centers for the good of the railroad's profit margin. The Great Northern, like other railroads in the West, had to build its own customer base by setting up an infrastructure and luring settlers into the region.
Courtesy, the BNSF Railway
Originally captioned "When Our Gang Came Out from Supper," this photograph documents St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway workers in Montana Territory in 1887. In eight months, between April and November of that year, these men laid 642 miles of track.
In other regions of Montana, stockgrowing had begun much earlier. For example, John Francis Grant first wintered cattle in the Deer Lodge Valley—a broad mountain valley midway between the Missouri and Bitterroot Rivers, transected by an Indian road Lewis and Clark knew of but had neither reason nor time to explore—in 1857. Phillip H. Poindexter and William C. Orr, who registered the first brand in Montana Territory, drove cattle from California into western Montana in the mid 1860s, establishing their vast ranch along the Beaverhead River, and Bozeman-area pioneer Nelson Story brought a herd of 3,000 longhorns into southwestern Montana in 1866. Pioneer stockman George McCone brought one of the first cattle herds into the Yellowstone River country in 1882; the Northern Pacific Railway reached the Yellowstone River in 1880 and was completed in 1883, allowing McCone and other Montana stockmen quick and economical access to eastern markets.
Conrad Kohrs, who had purchased Johnny Grant's ranch at Deer Lodge and then expanded into the Sun River country, was among the first stockmen to take advantage of the northern rail line. When, in 1884, "the Sun River range was getting crowded with sheep," Kohrs moved two large cattle herds into the Judith Basin (Meriwether Lewis saw the Judith Mountains in the distance on May 24, 1805), onto what Kohrs called the Fort Maginnis Range. "[W]e had," he wrote, "many miles of country." Northeast of Lewistown, Fort Maginnis (1880) was the last military outpost built in Montana, following the Custer incident of 1876 that aroused fears on the High Plains. Then, in 1887, once the Great Northern reached as far as Havre, Kohrs only had to trail his cattle a relatively short distance to catch the train at Bowdoin or Chinook (before 1887, his cowboys had to trail the Fort Maginnis cattle all the way to the Northern Pacific line, at Custer on the Yellowstone River).1
The Newby Family
"It has all been worthwhile,
and I would go through it again,
but we earned everything we have."
An early rancher on the Highline, Emory C. Newby (no traceable relation to the author), did not arrive in the Chinook area until the late 1880s, at the same time as the Great Northern. (The Great Northern's transcontinental line was completed in 1893.) Of Quaker stock and the son of a farmer, Newby came from Henry County, Indiana. He and his wife Margaret settled in April 1889 on 160 acres near the new town of Chinook (see Figs. 1, 9)—"which then contained only two houses"; the Chinook post office was established that same year. As Progressive Men of the State of Montana reported, "He forthwith brought to bear his best energies, and devoted careful attention to the improvement of his place for the conducting of general farming and the raising of cattle." Surely the Great Northern, and its access to midwestern markets, helped make this prosperity possible.2
Arthur Davenport Newby
Age 16, Chinook, Montana
Courtesy Ed Newby
In a reminiscence, Emory and Margaret Newby's son, Arthur Davenport Newby, recalled those early years:
[Our father] met us when we arrived and took us out to the ranch. All along the trail (there was no road) we dodged piles of buffalo bones and he told us that the buffalo had been killed off by white hunters for their hides a year or two earlier. Our ranch was literally covered by piles of bones. They lay just as they had fallen when killed and most places one could step from one pile of bones to the next one without ever touching the ground. Prior to the killing of the buffalo thou- sands of them had roamed the Milk River Valley. . . . The year following our arrival the Indians gathered the bones and sold them to Easterners who took them to grind into fertilizer.
The day after our arrival my mother wanted to see what sort of fish Milk River contained and as our shack was only eighty rods from the River, she got a hook and line and we walked over to the river—but, oh, such a river. It was early May and the river was nearly full of thick, yellow muddy water. Mother said, "I see why they call it Milk River." It was as thick as cream and it was two months before we were able to catch any fish.
It was a wonderful country for a boy to grow up in. I loved to ride and there were no fences nor schools then so I had lots of time for riding and a wide free country to ride in.3
Arthur Newby remembered his first encounters with Indian traditions:
While riding south of the river I saw what looked like a large basket upside down on top of a little hill. It was woven of red willows . . . like a round-bottomed basket, but it had a little opening on the east side facing the rising sun. I got down on my hands and knees and peered in. There sitting facing the opening was a mummified face of an Indian staring back at me. All his possessions were about his feet. It was an Assiniboin Indian's grave. I can still shut my eyes and see that old and wrinkled face. It made me feel very queer inside. I was only about twelve years old at that time.4
Another Newby son, Terrell C., recounted in verse and prose his first years on the Highline. He wrote of the ever-present wind, claiming that as a small boy "I used to take a shingle under each arm and fly most of the way to school, two and one half miles." He too remembered the last vestiges of the great bison herds: "I have seen bones, stacked along the siding of the Great Northern R.R., higher than the cattle cars, in which they were to be shipped"[Fig. 4]. And he recalled ration days at Fort Belknap just across the river from the Newby ranch—and how the Newby children benefited from the disdain the Indians felt for Euro-American clothes:
The Government . . . gave all kinds of clothing to the Indians every month. Of course they would not wear the shoes, stockings, suspenders etc. and so they peddled them among the settlers. This is about the only way we small children would get clothes. I remember the coldest winter I ever experienced. I had no shoes to wear. All the rest of my brothers got a pair but the Indians did not have a pair to fit me so I had to do without.5
In an interview, family matriarch Margaret Newby—at the age of 95 in 1954—underscored the challenges the family faced in their first years on the ranch. Because of drought, they did not have a crop for six years, and once "they had a beautiful crop of oats that Emory Newby was very proud of and the hail came and ruined it." At first, they subsisted on canned goods and "all the fish they wanted to eat, white fish, pike and cat fish a yard long." The interviewer added, "Mrs. Newby spoke of the advertisements that made them think that Montana was a very wonderful place. 'But,' she said, 'they did not tell everything. Not a word about the millions of mosquitoes. And I could not go to a store and buy mosquito bar netting to put over the windows.'" The reporter continued, "They hauled their water from the river, made their own clothes, even their underwear. . . . Mrs. Newby said, 'It has all been worthwhile and I would go through it again, but we earned everything we have.'" Clearly this life was not for everyone.6
The Etchart Family
"Location, water, shelter for lambing and winter,
all were important factors."
Stone House Ranch
© 2006 Airphoto, Jim Wark
"The finest grass country" John Etchart had ever seen, looking east from the Stone House Ranch, south of Glasgow, Montana.
Stone House Ranch
© 2006 Airphoto, Jim Wark
The Stone House Ranch today.
To prosper on the Highline required (and requires) qualities of independence and determination, plus plenty of skill, hard work, and luck. Rancher Gene Etchart, recently retired at age 90, speaks of his lifetime's work running one of the largest cattle operations in northeastern Montana as "just like managing any other business."8 Barbara Cosens, who worked with Etchart in her role as a staff attorney for the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission (on which Etchart has served for several years), believes that Etchart's success has a great deal to do with his openness to new technologies, his willingness to embrace the new.9
His business acumen—and this predilection for innovation—come naturally to Etchart. Of French Basque heritage, he is the son of John (originally Jean) and Catherine Etchart, who came to the Upper Missouri in 1911 or thereabouts in search of new opportunities. (Lying within both Spain and France, the traditional Basque territory sits on the slopes of the Western Pyrenees Mountains, on the Bay of Biscay. Basque traditions of inheritance sought to preserve family landholdings intact, and generally property was transferred to a single male heir, usually the eldest. This meant that enterprising young members of Basque families—like John Etchart—traveled elsewhere to find their livelihoods.)
Before arriving in Montana, John Etchart had already spent a decade in the United States, first coming to California in 1900 and then—California having become too crowded to suit him—settling in Nevada, where he engaged in the sheep business. "Settling" is not quite the right term: On the wide-open range of Nevada at that time, John Etchart, together with a brother and a cousin, ran upwards of 20,000 head of sheep on a purely "nomadic" basis, moving camp each morning in search of the best grass and water. By 1910, Nevada was no longer so wide open; in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt had created the U.S. Forest Service and soon the Forest Service set limits on the number of sheep that could graze on the federal forests (often the best rangelands in Nevada). At that point, the three young Basque sheepmen sold their herd and returned to France.
There John re-encountered Catherine Urquilux, who he remembered as a little neighbor girl, and found that she had "blossomed into a beautiful finished young lady." John asked for her hand in marriage, was gladly accepted, and then returned to the States. While in the Pyrenees, he had encountered a fellow Basque who had recently sold a ranch in northeastern Montana. Before returning to Nevada, the rancher told John, "just take a look" at Montana. Gene Etchart recalls:
My Dad told me that when he first looked at the badlands country south of Saco . . . he was not all that favorably impressed until he came to the south hills surrounding the present Stone House Ranch. . . . he fell in love with it and purchased the ranch from the owner. . . . My Dad told me more than once that the country around the Stone House was the finest grass country he had seen . . . and that took in quite a bit of territory ranging from the Pyrenees Mountains through California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, and western Montana.10
Newlyweds John and Catherine Etchart
Etchart Family Album
Catherine and John Etchart in 1940.
Etchart Family Album
The Stone House Ranch, situated south of Glasgow close to the Missouri, was so-named because, in hopes of helping his new bride feel at home in the new country, John Etchart hired a pair of neighboring homesteaders, who were also stonemasons, to construct—out of local materials—a house and barn in the Pyrenees style. John had made a deal with Catherine. If, after two years, she did not want to remain in northeastern Montana, he would return to France with her. But both of the Etcharts fell in love with the country and the ranching life—and neither returned to the old country, even for a visit.
From the beginning, John Etchart was entrepreneurial, working hard to grow his business. In Montana, he started out raising sheep, and blessed with capital from the sale of his Nevada herd, he began to acquire neighboring ranches and homesteads.
He particularly sought to acquire lands that had springs or other permanent sources of water. In those early years, competition for the public domain was fierce; anyone could use it, without restriction. Herds of semi-wild horses and sheep bands owned by fly-by-night outfits vied for forage with the herds of, in Gene Etchart's words, "more legitimate tax-paying, landowning" ranchers. This led to overgrazing, and the situation, made worse by severe drought, continued for many years. As Etchart writes, it "invited the coming of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 to bring public lands under management to benefit an overgrazed resource. The Taylor Grazing Act marked the end of "the wide-open era."
Access to water was one key to success, and so was the ability to provide winter feed for one's herds (the itinerant sheep outfits, lacking wintering grounds of their own, were at the mercy of the often brutal weather). John Etchart acquired rich bottom lands along the Missouri, where he could raise his own hay, and also purchased hay from other Missouri River ranchers. The Stone House Ranch throve, and by 1920 it had expanded as much as it logically could south of the Milk River.
John began acquiring new lands to the north of Nashua, on Big Porcupine Creek. While these were excellent summer grazing lands, they lacked good winter range, and so John purchased a well-established farm near Tampico—one of "the first large irrigated places in the whole Milk River Valley . . . promoted as a model experimental farm" by Great Northern Railway magnate James J. Hill. There the Etcharts could produce plenty of winter feed. To expedite shipment of his wool, John built a set of corrals and a shearing plant southeast of the railroad stop of Hinsdale. In a peak year, they would shear as many as 30,000 sheep, including those of neighboring ranchers. The ranch continued to grow as opportunities arose, and the Etcharts gradually phased out sheep and turned to cattle, because the larger animals were less susceptible to predators and because skilled sheepherders became increasingly difficult to find.11
Etchart Ranches in Valley County, Montana, 1980
This map shows the ranches operated by the Etchart family as of about 1980. The two units north of U.S. 2 (the Highline highway) have since been sold. The Tampico and other southern units are now owned and operated by Page-Whitham Land & Livestock Company. All of the ranches consist of deeded private lands intermingled with lands leased from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, federally reserved school lands, and Valley County.
More than sixty percent of forage for wildlife and livestock is grown on deeded private lands. Fifty percent of the total range forage production is available for livestock, while one hundred percent of the production from those lands is available for wildlife forage and habitat the year around. As a community courtesy the Etchart family has always allowed free and open access to their ranchlands for all sportsmen, other multiple-users, and their guests.
Valley County, Montana, contains 5,062 square miles. In 1980 the combined Etchart ranches consisted of more than 370,000 acres, or more than 578 square miles.
1. Conrad Kohrs, Conrad Kohrs: An Autobiography (Polson, MT: privately printed, 1977), 80, 99.
2. "Emory Cecil Newby," Progressive Men of the State of Montana, Illustrated (Chicago: A. W. Bowen & Company, ca. 1901), 1744.
3. Arthur Davenport Newby, "Early Days in Montana," Montana Farmer-Stockman, May 15, 1955.
5. Terrell C. Newby, unpublished poems and prose, courtesy of Terrell Newby, Seattle, WA.
6. "Incidents in the Lives of the Emory and Margaret Newby Family in the Early Days of Chinook in Montana Territory (as told to a reporter)," publication name, location, and date unknown, courtesy of Terrell Newby, Seattle, WA.
7. Gene Etchart, The Way It Was: Truth, Rumor and Lore, (Glasgow, MT: privately printed, 1992), 39.
8. Gene Etchart, interview with the author, Glasgow, MT, October 22-23, 2006 (hereafter G. Etchart, Newby interview). An excellent interview with Gene Etchart by Brian Kahn, Home Ground Radio, was broadcast on Yellowstone Public Radio, December 26, 2006.
9. Barbara Cosens, conversation with the author, Helena, MT, summer 2006.
10. Gene Etchart, The Way It Was, 1.
11. Ibid., 42, 41.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust