One Ranchers Perspective

Page 4 of 4

Big Changes on the Upper Missouri Since Lewis and Clark

Ahen asked what he considers the most significant changes on the Upper Missouri in the two centuries since Lewis and Clark, Gene Etchart responds without hesitation. In Lewis and Clark's time and even when Gene's father took over the Stone House Ranch in the first decade of the 20th century, the region was a wilderness. "It is still largely unchanged," he adds, but there are several major differences: first, the bison grazing this landscape have been replaced by cattle; second, the formerly open "country is fenced up into pastures"; third, there are hundreds of small reservoirs built by stockmen (often in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies), making possible better distribution of grazing for the ultimate benefit of the range; and fourth, the public domain is controlled by laws, like the Taylor Grazing Act and the Montana Grass Conservation Act, aimed at keeping it productive.12

As the open range was fenced into pastures, ranchers realized that they needed to develop localized water sources within each parcel they managed. As an example, Gene points to an 85,000-acre ranch his family recently sold, where there are something in the vicinity of 75 small reservoirs; those on leased public lands the Etcharts developed in concert with federal and state agencies (the Etcharts maintained all 75, whether they were on public or private lands). At the time of Lewis and Clark, Gene notes, there would have been very few places in northeastern Montana with permanent water, and so animals, including the vast herds of bison, must have congregated in the river bottoms. These small manmade reservoirs capture rainfall and spring runoff and assure, in Gene's words, "better distribution of grazing by both livestock and wildlife.13

Historian Gerald D. Nash notes, "Before the Great Depression, all public land had been open to anyone wishing to use them for stock grazing free of charge." Under this policy, as Gene recalls, the public domain on the Highline (and elsewhere) was carrying too many animals and grew severely overgrazed. The Taylor Grazing Act, passed by Congress in 1934, was intended to "halt this injury to the public grazing lands" and to "stabilize the livestock industry dependent on the public range."14

With the passage of the Act, any rancher wanting to graze animals on the public domain had to secure a permit, pay a fee, and agree to follow certain guidelines. To receive a permit, a rancher had to have a permanent home base of operations and a sufficient source of feed to sustain a herd over the winter. These rules meant that itinerant sheep and cattle outfits, like those formerly found in northeastern Montana, could no longer use public grazing lands as their sole source of feed. Advisory boards governed each grazing district under the Act, allowing for a measure of local control.

At this juncture, Gene Etchart feels that the Taylor Grazing Act and related state laws have had a "tremendously favorable impact on Montana ranching, especially in the areas of large public lands concentration." He quotes pioneer New Mexico sheepman Floyd Lee as saying that the Taylor Grazing Act was the "most significant change in public land policy, in the history of man, that did not result in the firing of a shot or the spilling of a single drop of blood." Not only did the Act stabilize the ranching economy, Gene notes, but it has also "produced broad benefits for society as a whole . . . [including] increased property tax revenues, more revenue for local economies such as ranch suppliers, vastly improved wildlife numbers and availability," with the Milk River country gaining a reputation for excellent hunting, especially of whitetail deer and ringneck pheasants. Despite these benefits, Gene recalls, "Everyone using the big badland commons between the Milk and Missouri rivers . . . [was] affected in various degrees and some adversely by the base property and feed production requirements" of the Taylor Act. In fact, "many did not survive," in part because of another federal initiative, the construction of the great Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri and the consequent condemnation and loss by flooding of riverbottom lands that provided winter feed for many operations. Even the Etchart operation, with its large landholdings, found itself threatened by the conjunction of the two federal efforts.15

Hard Winters

Figure 16

The Last of the 5,000 or Waiting for a Chinook

Charles M. Russell

last of 5000

Used with permission from the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Helena, Montana

Charley Russell's watercolor, called The Last of the 5,000 or Waiting for a Chinook depicts one of Kaufman's last steers standing—humped up and emaciated—in a snowdrift, while hungry wolves lurk patiently nearby. Chinook is an Indian word denoting a warm, dry wind that unexpectedly descends the leeward side of a mountain range in wintertime, melting snow on the plain and making grass temporarily available to cattle and wild game.

Not just new federal projects and changes in federal law proved challenging. Drought, brutal winters, plagues of grasshoppers, and the world economic depression of the 1930s threatened the Etcharts' success. Particularly devastating was the winter of 1936, which killed one-third of the Etcharts' herd—already diminished because of prolonged drought and market forces. John would later joke that the "sheepmen here in northeast Montana had developed a sheep that could summer without grass or water and that if it were genetically possible to cross sheep with bears so that they could hibernate through the winter maybe a profit with sheep might be possible again!"16

Montana ranchers measured tough winters by the standard of the devastating winter of 1886-1887, which resulted in losses of between 50 and 90 percent of the territory's livestock herds. After a terribly dry summer and with cattle prices low, the Northern Plains went into the winter with too many cattle on a range out of which "every vestige of vigor and growth had been beaten."17 Fires on the range destroyed any grass remaining, and most ranchers had not put up winter feed for their animals. They expected the open range to provide adequate forage. The first storms hit in November, and storm after storm, with sub-zero temperatures, blanketed the plains until March. In his classic article on the winter's losses, Robert S. Fletcher wrote:

The cattle wandered around and attempted to rustle at first, but as the snow grew deeper and the crust harder and the cold continued intense, many of them gave up and huddled together under cut-banks or in the lee of cottonwood groves. Some drifted into the streets of the towns, standing about the livery stable manure piles where they could pick up a few wisps of straw.18

That winter, famed western painter Charles M. Russell was working for the OH Ranch in the Judith Basin, south of Fort Benton. Ranch owner Louis Kaufman of Helena had written the ranch foreman, Jesse Phelps, asking for a report of the condition of his herd. Russell later recalled:

Jesse says to me, "I must write a letter to Louie and tell him how tough it is." I was sitting at the table with him and I said, "I'll make a sketch to go with it." So I made one, a small water color about the size of a postal card, and I said to Jesse, "Put that in your letter." He looked at it and said, "Hell, he don't need a letter, this will be enough."19

The big die-off of '86-'87 brought change to Montana's cattle industry. First and foremost, the winter revealed the vulnerability of an industry—in a drought-prone region—dependent on range forage for the survival of its stock. Robert Fletcher noted, "Most northern cattlemen were persuaded that it was unwise to run cows and calves on the range without any provision for feed or shelter in case of a blizzard." This meant smaller herds "for which feed and shelter for at least part of the winter were furnished."20

Even with the most careful preparations, hard winters continued to threaten the livelihoods of Montana ranchers. John Etchart told son Gene about the winter of 1915-1916, during which the Etcharts lost about half of their herd of 16,000 sheep. In his own experience, Gene recalls the 1936 winter in vivid detail, and it is worth quoting his account at some length to understand the truly epic challenges that winter presented to the Etchart operation (and all of their neighbors on the Highline):

[W]e were caught by a bad snow storm with very deep snow early, probably late November or early December. Two bands of sheep were worked into Timber Creek which was the closest place where they might find food and shelter, while the rest were trailed single file through snow belly deep to a saddle horse towards hay on the Missouri River. . . . The weather stayed very cold and the snow kept piling up. The sheep could not forage along the trail and the going was exceedingly slow, causing them to lose weight and condition very rapidly. . . .

[They] finally made it to the river where they could be fed hay. The snow was very deep, probably in excess of three feet and it was difficult to get hay to the sheep. . . . [M]any of them perished right on the feeding grounds due to extreme cold. . . . the temperature went to 70 below every night for a week and 30 below represented the high temperatures. . . . I recall seeing magpies, which have to be the toughest varmints alive, inside a hay-roofed shed, that were so cold that they could neither walk nor fly. . . . I have never witnessed this phenomenon before or since.21

The first chinook winds that year came in mid-March, melting the deep snow, and the Etcharts began driving their surviving sheep from the Missouri to range near the Stone House ranchstead. Murphy's Law, in Gene's words, prevailed, and a "very bad" spring snowstorm caught the sheep in early April. Ironically, the sheeps' shelters served to capture enormous drifts, sufficient to "bury many of these weakened sheep alive":

Our crews worked frantically with scoop shovels to free these sheep. . . . To find them was like looking for a needle in a haystack because at first only those covered by a small amount of snow could be found. As days passed the rising heat from the sheeps' bodies and breathing created little hollow chimneys and gave a clue on the surface as to where to dig to rescue sheep, some as much as six to eight feet below the top of the drifts.

Of the sheep uncovered by the crews, few survived that had been buried for more than a week. In one band of yearling ewes alone, more than 300 died, "most . . . by suffocation."22

Another brutal winter hit in 1949, but things had changed. Instead of feeding with horse-drawn bobsleds and using horses to move men through the deep snow, the Etcharts now used "bulldozers, semi-trucks, airplanes, etc." to break trail, deliver feed where needed, and move from camp to camp. Even so, the '49-'50 winter challenged this new technology. Again, snow fell early and did not melt, and as January hit, the cold only deepened ("fifty below zero was not uncommon"), as did the snow (to nearly three feet). The cattle were stranded wherever they stood when the first storms hit, and feed stocks grew low.23

The Etchart crew prepared for the worst. They "built maybe one of the first ever cabs for a D7 Cat" (in the Etchart tradition of customizing machinery as needed), and with three trucks loaded with "fuel, groceries, cotton seed cake" and the Cat breaking trail, they headed to the south ranch to provide relief. After two days and a night of slow going, they finally hit a drift the dozer couldn't broach:

We were all cold and tired and loaded up the supplies that would freeze, along with five people into the cab of that D7 (which was not an easy job) and started our trip to the Carnahan camp. . . . The Cat without trying to doze the snow made a good snowmobile machine and walked right over the drifts.24

An important early aviator on the Highline, Gene kept "tabs on the situation using a little Aronica Champ airplane on skis:"

It hauled all the groceries, shuffled cowboys and sheepherders and was generally indispensable. The snow was so deep and hard that five miles was about the farthest distance you could travel with a grain fed saddle horse.

We got the roads open without County help. For several trips we used two D7 Cats which would start simultaneously, one from the south country and another from the Ft. Peck highway until they met. . . . When the Cats met in the middle we would usually have a bunch of trucks tailgating the southbound dozer and ready to go into Timber Creek where most of the cattle . . . were being fed near the artesian water.25

Gene notes that forty-five miles separated the starting points for the two dozers. "Always on these road-opening, snowplowing trips," the caravan of trucks included as many as thirteen vehicles loaded with hay, "a mixture of smaller trucks and semis." The smaller trucks were needed for the descent to Timber Creek; the road was simply too steep and rough for the semis.

That winter, despite its severity, the Etcharts lost almost no sheep while their cattle losses stayed in the 10 to 15 percent range, much lower than in '36-'37. The new technologies clearly had their uses.

Rapid Mechanization and Its Impacts

Figure 17

The Etcharts' portable hay elevator

hay elevator

Etchart Family Album

Figure 18

Beaverside Hay Stacker

beaverslide hay stacker

Etchart Family Album

A beaverslide hay stacker at work on the Etchart ranch at Tampico. John Etchart is driving the team that pulls a load of hay up the slide until it is dumped atop the stack. This stacker was built in the shop at Tampico from "plans borrowed from Big Hole ranchers."

Figure 19

Buckrack and Jayhawk Stacker


Etchart Family Album

Before mechanization: A horse-drawn buckrake with a jayhawk stacker on the Etchart Ranch. The two men atop the stack are shaping it with pitchforks.

The use of more sophisticated and powerful technologies continued to change the ways in which Highline ranchers did their work. As early as 1930, E. G. Nourse, writing in The American Economic Review, noted "Some Economic and Social Accompaniments of the Mechanization of Agriculture." Nourse saw mechanization as primarily a social as well as an economic good, because it allowed farmers and ranchers to grow ever more efficient and productive. He minimized the "shrinking of our rural population" as a negative impact of mechanization. He might have been talking about the Highline when he noted that "many lands classed as inferior in the horse age because of their remoteness from the railway shipping point, from the improved highway, or from the farmstead have had their accessibility, and hence their economic productivity, very much increased by the introduction of the tractor, the truck, and the automobile."26

The Etchart operation offers a prime example of the effective use of new technologies—not just during hard winters—in making this challenging landscape more productive,and rendering large-scale ranching viable. It also offers prime examples of how populations, human and animal, have shrunk as the dynamics of agriculture change.

Gene Etchart remembers back to the mid 1920s, when the range was still largely unfenced and horses were "almost the only affordable" form of transportation. Autos like Model Ts were unreliable, and the Highline "roads were gumbo soil and for the early autos nearly impassable in bad weather." Powerful work horses, mainly Percherons, did much of the heavy labor when the Etchart crew engaged in "farming, haying, feeding, freighting, sheep camp tending, and moving." Horses pulled the machines used in haying, including mowers, dump rakes, bull rakes, and stackers. But by the time Gene was in his teens, John Etchart had purchased Farmall gasoline-powered tractors for mowing; two of the Farmalls replaced fourteen horse-drawn mowers. A few years later, Gene recalls, when the self-propelled swather appeared on the scene, "one man operating it replaced the two tractor mowers and that man had time left over to help with other jobs such as irrigating etc." Gene goes on to note that, in the 1940s, as the pace of mechanization increased:

It didn't all happen simultaneously. The self-propelled baler made the pitchfork obsolete but didn't provide a way to pick up the bales. Leonard [Gene's brother and the family's most accomplished inventor] and Melford Arrotta designed and built [a] portable bale elevator.27

When the Etcharts weren't able to purchase or invent the technology they needed, they looked elsewhere for worthy innovations. For example, in the late 1930s, John Etchart sent his sons to the Big Hole Valley in western Montana to copy the design of the beaverslide hay stacker, a 30-foot-tall wooden ramp using a horse-powered basket to move hay to the top of a stack (thereby making much taller stacks possible). Developed in the Big Hole in the first decade of the twentieth century, the beaverslide stacker would find favor in seven western states and in Canada's prairie provinces.

While in the Big Hole, the Etcharts also learned how to convert a truck into a gasoline-powered buckrake to pile hay into mounds. A buckrake, with teeth 7 to 9 feet long, can be as much as 5 feet high and 14 feet wide. The Etchart gas-powered rake differed from its Big Hole cousins in that it was powered by a Model A Ford truck whereas in the Big Hole ranchers tended to use "old, big automobiles like Cadillacs," which proved too lightly constructed for the heavy work. This was a "simple and logical improvement," typical of the Etchart ingenuity. During the period when they used only horse-drawn buckrakes, the Etcharts needed twenty-two of them, driven by twenty-two men and powered by seventy-five horses. Today, Gene points out, "To do the same job . . . needs three very expensive machines and three good men to operate them."28

Although the Etcharts continued to use saddle horses until they sold their ranches recently, they found that "trail bikes and three wheelers cover a lot more ground without getting tired than do saddle horses." But it was another form of technology that truly revolutionized ranching on the Highline.29

Aviation Pioneers

Figure 20

Etchart Family


Etchart Family Album

Catherine and John Etchart with their two flight-instructor sons, Mitch (left) and Gene, and Gene's wife Elaine, in the winter of 1942-43.

Figure 21

Pilot Gene Etchart


Etchart Family Album

Pilot Gene Etchart checks on rams being trailed south.

Gene Etchart began flying in the late 1930s, and he soon extended his enthusiasm for aviation to other Montanans through the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) flight schools he and others ran in Havre, Glasgow, and Miles City prior to World War II. Gene took his first flying lessons in 1936 and first soloed the following year. By 1940, he was running the Havre flight school and training scores of aspiring Montana fliers. As a boy, Gene recalls, "airplanes always fascinated me. They were out of reach, almost magic, a challenge and represented the object of a young boy's fantasy." At the same time, he wondered if airplanes could be useful in the operation of a ranch, and quickly answered his own question: "Being astride a tired saddle horse a long way from camp . . . sure made a weary cowboy wish he were on an airplane that seemed to travel distance so effortlessly."30

With the start of the Second World War, Gene and his brother Mitch Etchart (who had followed his older brother into the air in 1940) took their pilot-training skills to California, where they signed on as civilian instructors in an Air Corps contract flight school. The brothers enlisted in the Army Air Forces Reserve Corps, but on April 17, 1943, before Gene could receive his commission, he learned that his father John had suffered a fatal heart attack. As the eldest Etchart son, Gene was called back to Montana to run the ranch, an essential occupation in wartime.

Gene did not give up flying. Rather he applied it to ranch work and trained his sons, "plus a daughter-in-law," as pilots, too. In fact, as of this writing (late 2007), just before his 91st birthday, Gene continues to fly. On the ranch, Gene mostly flew Cubs and Aeroncas, and he and the other Etchart pilots found the little planes to be a great help. In a recent interview, Gene recalled that, during winter in the early days, his father and a team of horses would head out to inspect the Etcharts' sheep camps ("there might be ten of them") in the Missouri Breaks. It would "take him a week or even ten days to make the circle of all those camps." After John's death, the younger aviator Etcharts—using planes with skis—could "visit every one of those camps and be back in Glasgow for lunch." The planes not only increased efficiency, but they also allowed the Etcharts to keep a better eye on their domain. If a hunter left a gate open or spring runoff damaged a fence, they could land the plane and make repairs or let their hands know about the problem. "We used our planes like they were pickups," Gene says. He recalls that when he started using "our small Aeronca plane to scout far and wide over range lands to spot cattle," the foreman on the Etcharts' North Ranch, Bud (Lloyd) Burger went along as a spotter and nicknamed Gene's plane 'the High Loping Buckskin'." Gene notes that Bud Burger was a "dyed-in-the-wool cowboy," who professed that "anything you couldn't do horseback wasn't worth doing," and yet he grew enthusiastic about the plane's "untiring range and ability to scope a lot of country in a short time." Burger would frequently call Gene for "what he called air support."31

Catherine Etchart: Ranch Matriarch

Figure 22

Catherine Etchart in 1955


Etchart Family Album

Figure 23

The Stone House Ranch

Paulette Etchart

stone house watercolor

watercolor, 2001

Courtesy Paulette Etchart, 2001

Although her husband contributed mightily to the success of the Etchart ranching enterprise, Catherine Urquilux Etchart played an equally central role in building, and sustaining, the ranch. As historian Jeronima Echeverria has written, Catherine—like many Basque women—was "particularly adept at eschewing traditional female roles when necessary." Immediately upon her arrival in Montana, Echeverria goes on, Catherine:

began learning to work a ranch, including butchering and salting meats, preserving fruit, washing clothes by scrubboard, fencing pastures, and raising a vegetable garden, as well as four sons. Despite John's protestations that she was working too hard, and the fact that he had hired a cook, Catherine took her place at the stove alongside the hired girl.32

In a moving tribute to Catherine in Montana The Magazine of Western History, Basque-American scholar Monique Laxalt Urza notes that, despite her husband's desire to release her from "working too hard," Catherine continued—throughout her long life—to rise at five-thirty:

to have the ranch hands' breakfast on the table by six-thirty, spending the morning hours at housework, helping the cook in the preparation of the noon and evening meals, tending her garden, canning her fruits and making her wine. As so many women of the day, she claimed that recreation was a foolish waste of time. In the evenings she took long walks in the country, alone or with a little ranch dog.

After John died, Catherine never moved into town from the irrigated place at Tampico, and when her many grandchildren would visit, "her idea of entertaining them was to have them work alongside her as she prepared the meals, cleaned the house, tended to her chickens and to her garden." Gene recalls that his mother was deeply religious, "solid and conservative in her Christian beliefs." When her granddaughters would marry, she wrote each of them the same note: "Love has no boundaries. You delight in doing things for each other, being kind. I crossed the ocean confident in my beloved. I never regretted it."33

Upon her death at age 90 in 1978, Catherine Etchart left behind a remarkable legacy. She could no doubt concur with what her husband John had written forty years earlier, when they were briefly apart while John had minor surgery: "We can be satisfied with our past, we have accumulated a ranch and livestock which will keep us and our family from the poor house if we just give them the chance."34

Largely Unchanged?

When we visit the cities along the course of Lewis and Clark's journey, whether they be St. Louis, Omaha, or Great Falls, we have little difficulty in imagining the dramatic changes that these urban places have undergone over the last two centuries. And yet, on the Upper Missouri, where the place, as Gene Etchart says, "is largely unchanged" (at least at first glance), the changes have been less obvious perhaps, but no less remarkable. Just as ranching brought fences and new water sources, cattle and sheep in lieu of bison, and machines that transformed human relationships to work and the landscape, so too would a next wave of settlement, the coming of the homesteaders, alter this place irrevocably.


12. G. Etchart, Newby interview.

13. Ibid.

14. Gerald D. Nash, The Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the Twentieth-Century West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999), 32.

15. Gene Etchart, "Some of the Impacts of Federal Legislation and Programs in the Milk River Country of North Central Montana," unpublished manuscript.

16. Gene Etchart, The Way It Was, 45.

17. Quoted in Robert S. Fletcher, "That Hard Winter in Montana, 1186-1887," Agricultural History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 1930), 124; original source for quote was Weekly Yellowstone Journal (Miles, City, MT), October 23, 1886.

18. Fletcher, "That Hard Winter," 125; Fletcher's source was again the Weekly Yellowstone Journal, various issues in January, February, March,and April 1887.

19. Quoted on "The Cowboy Poetry of Charlie Russell's Stagecoach" website,

20. Fletcher, "That Hard Winter," 130.

21. Gene Etchart, "Hard Winters," The John and Catherine Etchart Famly Album (Glasgow, MT: privately printed, 2007), 32-33.

22. Ibid, 33.

23. Ibid, 33.

24. Ibid, 34.

25. Ibid, 34.

26. E. G. Nourse, "Some Economic and Social Accompaniments of the Mechanization of Agriculture," The American Economic Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, Supplement, Papers and Proceedings of the Forty-second Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association. (Mar. 1930), 129, 118.

27. Gene Etchart, The John and Catherine Etchart Famly Album, 38, Photo Insert #24.

28. Ibid., Photo Inserts #25, 27.

29. Ibid., 40.

30. Pat Gudmundson, Gene Etchart, and Orval Markle, A Flying Start in the Big Sky (Miles City, MT: Star Printing Company, 1998), 72.

31. G. Etchart, Newby interview; Gene Etchart, The John and Catherine Etchart Famly Album, 40. See also Jim Gransbery, "Rancher's Passion for Aviation Spans 7 Decades," Billings Gazette, November 27, 2007;

32. Jeronima Echeverria, Ph.D., "Basque Pioneer Women," in Amerikanuak: Basques in the High Desert, ed. Robert G. Boyd (Bend, OR: The High Desert Museum, 1995); see

33. Monique Laxalt Urza, "Catherine Etchart: A Montana Love Story," Montana The Magazine of Western History, Winter 1981, 15, 17.

34. Ibid., 14, 17.

Note: I wholeheartedly thank Terrell and Ed Newby and the extended Etchart family, especially Gene Etchart and his wife Elaine, Joe Etchart, and Paulette Etchart & Jon Satre, for their generosity and insight and deep knowledge of ranching in northeastern Montana. My gratitude, too, to Barb Cosens, Moscow, Idaho, and Susan Cottingham and Joan Specking of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission staff for smoothing my way.—Rick Newby