Sheridan county: Its Shape and its Heritage

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SHERIDAN COUNTY: Its Shape and its Heritage
By Magnus Aasheim
IN NORTHEASTERN MONTANA, bordering North Dakota on the east and Canada on the north, lies Sheridan County, named for Genera Phil Sheridan of Civil War fame and later a leading military figure in the history of the West.
Sheridan County is a gently-rolling land lying a little over or a little under 2,000 feet of elevation. Its main river is the Big Muddy, which enters the County in the northwest and meanders through horseshoe bends and sweeping curves, its flow restricted by numerous beaver dams, then exits itself at the southwest corner to empty into the Missouri west of Culbertson. The county’s 1,720 square miles are nearly trisected today by highways 5 and 16. Its population has dwindled from some 10,000 in 1920 to estimates of under 6,000 in 1970. [*Since Daniels County was a part of Sheridan County in 1920, there is no census that covers the individual areas.]
When Montana became a territory in 1864, northeastern Montana was included in huge, unwieldy Big Horn County. A sub-division in 1889 placed the area into Dawson County. Four years later, Valley County was created and Glasgow was selected as the county seat with the Missouri as the southern boundary. Glasgow was too distant for the eastern residents, who voted on March 11, 1913, to create Sheridan County with Plentywood as the county seat.
Pressure for further division from various communities in the southeastern section resulted in creation of Roosevelt County in 1919 with Wolf Point as the seat of government. A year later, Daniels County, with Scobey as county seat, completed the dismemberment.
Before the coming of the homesteaders, this was cow country. While Hominy Thompson is credited with being the first white man to make a permanent settlement near Daleview in 1884, the big cattle companies were the first to capitalize on the miles and miles of free grass north of the Missouri River.
Edgar Syverud has written graphically of this period in his HISTORIC SHERIDAN COUNTY, published in January, 1939:
Just prior to the advent of the railroad, a few straggling ranchers had located at strategic points: the late-comers pushing on into the “north country”, where as one old timer puts it, “it was all empty.” Among the first of which there is record, on the Missouri, was the Star Ranch, near the mouth of the Big Muddy, owned by the Hedericks family of Fort Buford, started in 1881. This was closed out to the Diamond Cattle Company in 1904-05.
The Diamond Company’s operations were extensive, their saddle stock alone numbering in the hundreds. At one time, two herders were in charge of one hundred fifty head in the Clear lake area. Mosquitoes were a nuisance in the early years, more so than today, partially attributable to the tall grass which made ideal breeding grounds for the insects. The pests, a continual irritation to the horses, tended to make them drift into Canada, where retrieving was often difficult. Rather than lose any horses, the company would assign the task of keeping watch to two men.
[Photo: Government survey crews in 1904 near site of the Big Muddy School]
[p. 3]

The famous N-N, whose headquarters was in Texas, ranged its cattle in the vicinity of Homestead. Because loading facilities at Culbertson were not adequate for handling the large numbers shipped in the fall, the cattle to be marketed forded the Big Muddy at Homestead at a spot later known as the N-N crossing, then were driven to Kenmare, North Dakota for shipment on the Soo Railroad.

Other outfits in the area during the great open-range period included the Stevens Cattle Company, which grazed in the Medicine lake country during the summer months and returned to headquarters near Towner, North Dakota for the winter. The Slimmer and Thomas Cattle Company, with headquarters in St. Paul, was in the business of furnishing steer stock for interested ranchers, while the K.P. Cattle Company was primarily concerned with contracting beef for eastern packers.
Northeastern Montana was not merely the cowman’s last frontier, it was his paradise. The numerous ponds and lakes on the benchlands and the Big Muddy with its many sub-irrigated tributaries and rough breaks, provided an ideal range for livestock. Here was plenty water; here was grass everywhere up to the horse’s belly, tall and nutritious, lush not only for pasturage, but in abundance for winter feed.
No wonder those who were being squeezed out in other sections by the surge of land seekers saw in the vast expanse that was to become Sheridan County an ideal spot for their operations! The influx came from many parts of the west; some from the Deer Lodge area and the Judith Basin either herded their stock in or shipped to location. The number of these rugged individuals is quite impressive but to list them here would be repetitious, since they are entered, for the most part, in the biographical section of this book.
All was not a bed of roses, however, for the stockmen. In 1901 and again in 1902, devastating prairie fires, started from embers from Great Northern locomotives on the mainline, burned the forage and cover. On one occasion any unusually long train overloaded the steam engine; to get more power, the fireman removed the cinder screen on the smokestack. As a result, fires started all along the tracks from Glasgow to Culbertson.
Prairie fires not only destroyed forage for that year, but set the growth back for several succeeding years. Following these fires, since the burn was so widespread, it was necessary for the herds to be take to the Missouri River section until the grass could recover.
Prairie fires were a continual threat, not only to the stockmen, but to those who tilled the soil, for they also owned a few cattle and horses and were concerned about their feed supply stacked for the winter to come. Those who owned plows and horses broke furrows for protection prior to the fire season, which was usually in the fall after the grass had matured. This was not always adequate, however, since high winds and rolling weeds often carried flames over the barrier. To protect themselves against the possibility, the pioneer farmers would gradually widen this protective area by what was called “back firing.” Since fire was an ever-present hazard, the gunny sack and a barrel of water were available at all times for added protection.
[Photo: Camp Cook at work in northeastern Montana.]
The stockman had no plow but he did own a horse; upon spotting a fire, he would kill the most accessible critter and skin it out. The riders would then drag the hide, hair side up, down the fire line. The Glendive Museum has on display a drag made something like a metal scouring pad. About six feet [pg. 4] square, it consists of a series of interwoven metal rings. If there were no hides available, two horsemen would pull the drag over the fire. It was always good policy for someone to follow up and make sure all the embers were out.
Some of the winters in northeastern Montana were unbelievable mild. This was unfortunate at time for the beginning stockman, because it gave him a false security: he would not always provide adequate feed supply for a long – and sometime severe – winter. Moreover, there were those who didn’t put up any feed because this required considerable effort. These operators felt winter loss was to be expected as part of the hazards of the business.
The winters of 1903 and 1906 were especially severe and losses were heavy; some stockmen lost their entire herds. High winds and huge drifts made it impossible to get the hay to the stock even if it were available.
Bill Crohn, one of the early residents, had his herd on the Missouri breaks and lost over 200 head. John Egeland, who later homesteaded seven miles southeast of Reserve, spent the winter of 1906 feeding cattle on the Steve Scott ranch south of Medicine Lake.
In later years, he related his experience: “We would haul out seven loads of hay every day for the herd; in March we ran out of feed and the cattle had to rustle for themselves; first came a sleet storm which was followed by a cold spell and one of the worst blizzards I have ever seen. It was too much for the hungry cattle and dead animals were found everywhere. That spring ‘skinners’ would remove the hides, let them freeze flat and would then haul them into town in a hay rack; they would be paid a dollar for each hide; the rancher didn’t get much out of the deal but the dogs and coyotes lived well. . .”
Veterinarians were not obtainable for ailing livestock in the early part of the century. If any because ill, they were on their own except for an occasional dose of epsom salts administered by a layman who had acquired some aptitude and reputation for curing sick animals.
It did not require a specialist, however, to diagnose a ravaging scab that infected the cattle in North Dakota and eastern Montana. A government order decreed the animals in the area should be treated in a creosote solution. The stockmen operating in the region built a huge vat near Homestead and filled it with the antiseptic. A tremendous operation which took three weeks to complete, it was reputed that 80,000 cattle had been dipped – the biggest roundup in the area’s history. When it was all done, many questioned if the operation had spread the malignancy rather than cured it.
This country was suited for sheep and horses as well as cattle; each operator had his problems and each contributed to the economy. The sheepman, however, had the advantage of two crops – wool and mutton. Good shepherds were hard to find as were good shearers. Shearing time was hard work but the shearers broke the tedium with contests to determine who could clip a “woolly” the fastest. As a cowboy gained a reputation in calf-roping, so would an expert shearer acquire a name as a champion.
Those who went into the business of raising and selling horses had a lucrative income as long as times were good and the farmer could afford a draft horse. It was not uncommon for a horse to sell for from $200 to $500. In early homesteading days this business was very profitable; as time wore on, most farmers raised their own stock and the horse trader gradually lost his market.
[Photos: The Big Muddy, Sheridan County’s main waterway, threatened to overflow its banks in the picture above, taken on April 23, 1907. Below, Soo Line crews are plowing snow east of Outlook during the severe winter of 1915-1916. Drifts reportedly 17 feet high in places, snowbound the train in Outlook for a month during this historic winter.]
[Pg. 5]

IN MAN’S STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE, his main problems have been with forced of nature. During the stockmen’s era, however, man also found himself on guard against desperadoes. There were bank robbers, horse and cattle thieves, and some downright “ornery hombres.” An early pioneer once commented: “When we saw a stranger approaching (usually on horseback) our first thought was to our guns.”

Even during the relatively recent period of 1910 to 1915, there was a feeling of fear about strangers and prowlers in the night. Some “characters” of the time made history by their actions, usually because they could not live within their means. Many cattle rustlers were at one time cowboys or horse wranglers.
Jack Winnefield, later known as “Kid Trailer,” was a homeless youth who tagged along with the herds of cattle as they were driven into the territory. The cowboys felt sorry for him and since he was likeable, they gave him enough to live on. Since he had a habit of “trailing along,” he was given the nickname. Jack became an excellent fiddler and was often called upon to play for dances; on one occasion he was doing so at the Sherman place when the law appeared and took him away on a felony charge. The crowd was very unhappy to lose its music and proceeded to get another in attendance “under the influence.”
The man was Sam Jones of the notorious Nelson-Jones gang which had a hideout near Daleview. Jones was induced to pursue the deputy and bring “Kid Trailer” back to the dance. This was indeed a challenge, and in a show of heroics, Sam Jones took out into the night and caught up with “Kid Trailer” and his captor and at gun point released the prisoner.
Everyone was happy at the Sherman place for the rest of the evening, but it was the beginning of the end for Jones. A reward was placed on his head; after a series of close calls and continual running, Sam sent word to the Tande ranch near Scobey that he was in need of supplies. Upon going there, Jones was met by the law. Deciding to resist capture rather than serve time, he was shot and killed.
In conversations with old-timers, it seems that Jones was not entitled to this untimely end; in fact, one rancher who knew him quite well, was critical of those who had double crossed him. The law finally picked “Kid Trailer” up again and he served time here and in Canada. It was said “Kid Trailer” returned to his old haunts many years later and confided to acquaintances he had “gone straight.”
There were many other individuals who could be mentioned as contributing to disorder and lawlessness. One, Tom Ryan, felt cattle rustling entailed too much work and it was a slow way of getting rich. Thus he schemed a bank hold-up at Crosby, North Dakota which turned out to be rather unprofitable, since the time clock on the vault was set to open the safe later. In his get-away, Ryan was wounded in the leg and was last seen at the Bill Ator ranch north of Antelope where he had his wound dressed before going on his way.
Another member of the nefarious tribe of outlaws was “Bloody Knife” who was denied membership in the Jones-Nelson gang because of his blustering nature. He had many people scared but those who really knew him considered him a coward. He met an untimely death at Crosby while “shooting up the town.” By his actions, he was trying to intimidate the farmers into paying for horses he had sold them; however, because of crop failures, they were unable to do so.
Photo: High hill near Daleview where Dutch Henry’s men used to sit and watch for approaching lawmen.
Another with a questionable reputation was Dutch Henry. Unable to read or write, he was presumably made a victim of conspirators. As a result, he went “bad” and joined the Jones-Nelson group.
Ed Sherman was not all bad, either, as some would have us think. His biography shows a “good side.” However, he did serve time and was generally feared. At the time when farmers were getting started, they had only a few acres planted to grain. Cattle and horses roving the countryside and wanting a change in forage would trample the fields and ruin the crop. This happened to Carl Hestetune, who had squatted on a quarter section five miles southeast of Reserve. Sherman’s horses were a continual pest and Hestetune, in anger and desperation, shot two of them. Sherman immediately offered one of his best teams for information as to the identity of the culprit; Hestetune, aware of Sherman’s reputation, proceeded to dispose of his rights to the land and left the country.
This list of non-conformists is far from complete. Moreover, one must not forget there was many a reputable stockman who said, with a wink of his eye, “a man is a chump to eat his own meat when the neighbor’s tastes so much better.”
Painting: A painting by the late Ethel Hurst of

Dutch Henry’s hideout near Daleview.
[Pg. 6]
Photo: When the road was under snow a sleigh had to be used. John Sandvig in the driver’s seat.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION with the outside world induced a group of ranchers in what is now the Plentywood area to petition the Post Office Department for mail service. Their request was favorably received and a spot was selected on the Stewart ranch on a little rivulet that now bears the name of Plentywood Creek. Martha Stewart was appointed Postmistress and the spot became known as Plentywood. The post office remained there until 1905, when it was assigned a new location six miles east, at which time George Bolster was induced to be Postmaster.
In April of 1902, the Post Office Department entered into an agreement with George Ator of Plentywood to carry the mail twice a week from Culbertson to Plentywood and to deposit mail to the settlers along the route. The contract gave the distance as sixty miles (it was actually only 54) for which there was $1400 annual compensation. The agreement was for the period from July 1, 1902 until June 30, 1906. The July 24, 1902 issue of the Culbertson Searchlight carried the following notice:








Passengers one way $3.00; round trip $5.00

Small packages, 25 cents. Over 25 pounds 1 cent per pound;

Discount for part way.
Photo: Sandvig Brothers Stage at north end of Medicine lake bridge in the spring of 1907. Horse fighting flies is “Old Blue.”
The stage followed pretty much the same route as Highway 16 does today. Avoiding the Big Muddy flat, it was rather a tortuous trail, meandering up and down the low foothills, avoiding an occasional boulder and crossing the many creeks emptying into the Big Muddy. In summer the road was dusty and full of chuck holes; heavy rains would make the journey slow and tedious. Overflowing creek banks and floating ice would make crossings hazardous during the spring break-up.
Compounding the problems of the spring thaws would be the question of whether to begin the day with a sled or wagon. The Plentywood area might have adequate snow for sleighing while bare ground might greet the driver farther south. In winter, snow would build up in a narrow section of the trail from runners packing newly-fallen snow. Occasionally the sleigh would slip off the trail and roll helplessly on its side. The passengers would suffer little in the mishap and would lend a willing hand to righting the conveyance. The stage suffered many of these minor accidents but continued to deliver the mail and its passengers.
In Feburary, 1906, John Sandvig was the successful bidder to operate the stage from July of that year until June 30, 1910. In a letter to Earl Sandvig on June 24, 1962 he relates some of his experiences:
Dear Earl:

I kept no records but wish myself I had some of them now. A Mr. T.J. Hocking ran a paper in Culbertson for awhile and I had him print some tickets for my stage trips. I charged $5.00 to go to Plentywood and $2.50 to Medicine Lake. My [pg. 7] wagon was built by a blacksmith at Culbertson sold by Bruegger at Culbertson. I received $1100.00 for carrying the mail per year, 2 times a week and when Gov. increased the service about Sept. 1908 to three times a week they also increased by earnings at the same rate. I started July 1, 1906 till July 1, 1910.

My best month was March in 1909 when I took in $1100 from passenger service alone. But I had lots of expense as I had to keep my horses all shod and in the summer time the shoes would wear out in 6 weeks. Of course they lasted longer than that in winter.

I carried 15 passengers at one time and that was my reason for having my tickets printed. I had the postmaster at Culbertson sell tickets to fill my wagon then quit selling.

One time my father was headed for our Plentywood ranch and the seats on the stage were all sold out so I couldn’t even take him.

The seats were lengthwise of the box, each side seating 7 persons, with one with me in front. Before I started making 3 trips per week I used a 3 seated buggy made by Studebaker and sold by Bruegger.
Photo: The first Plentywood postoffice on the W.A. Stewart ranch six miles west of the present townsite.
For the most part, Sandvig did most of the driving but occasionally employed assistants who would receive $40.00 per month. Stops were made at various places along the route, depending upon weather conditions. Among the earlier camps or rest posts were the Sherman ranch, Tyler’s and Sheep Creek south of Froid and McCabe. Since Medicine Lake was about a mid-way station and a good four-hour run for a span of horses, it became the more popular spot to rest and exchange horses.
The steeds had to be fast and sturdy to cover the distance as quickly as possible. Sometimes this meant harnessing animals that were spirited. There were times when the horses would take off at the last provocation much to the discomfort of the passengers.
In mid-summer of 1908, a frisky foursome hitched to the stage was leaving Culbertson with Nellie Stevens, later of Antelope as passenger. The vehicle struck a chuck hole and the excited horses lurched forward; in the hubbub no one noticed that Nellie’s suitcase with all her wardrobe had gone overboard. Since a search did not locate the missing travel case, Miss Stevens asked $150.00 damages.
Mr. Sandvig offered to settle for $100.00, which Miss Stevens rejected. In the resulting lawsuit, the first trial ever held in Medicine Lake, the defendant was doomed from the start. The jury was all-male, as was the audience. Young girls were a novelty in this pioneer community; besides, Miss Stevens was both winsome and attractive. Nellie won her case, but had to pay the attorney $100.00.
After Sandvig completed his agreement with the postal department, Henry Winch was awarded the contract, commencing July 1, 1910. On the 14th of October of that same year, daily service was instituted, but its days were numbered. The new Great Northern Branch Line was in the process of construction. The following year the railroad took over carrying the mail and passengers and the Culbertson-Plentywood stage line closed its operations. An era closed with it.
Photo: The “Grimsrud Rock,” where the Plentywood-Culbertson stage operating from 1902-1911 dropped the mail for the area settlers. This rock, a half mile north of Al Folsom’s, is plainly visible from Highway 16. Pictured is Gordon Grimsrud, son of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Grimsrud, early pioneers.
[At pg. 8]

IN 1887, THE MANITOBA SYSTEM, under the expert guidance of James Hill, had built a railroad from five miles west of Minot to Helena. This unprecedented construction feat took 7-1/2 months to complete and used an average crew of 8,000 men. The 3,300 teams of horses consumed a total of 590,000 bushels of oats. The ambitious Jim Hill had visions of commanding a transportation empire from the Twin cities to the Pacific coast. His railroad, which became known as the Great Northern in 1890, soon became the dominant factor in the development of the northwest.

It was two decades following the completion of this trunk line before settlers in any appreciable numbers utilized the rails into northeastern Montana.
When it became apparent the land would be opened for settlement, the Great Northern, as did the Soo Line, offered special transportation rates to would-be settlers. By 1907 the movement of land seekers was only a trickle; gradually the tide increased as reports of rich, abundant land reached friends and relatives in the neighboring states. The original Homestead Act was amended in February of 1909 to allow a second quarter section of land for settlement. This added incentive, plus good crops in 1909 and 1910 and the opening of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in 1913 and in 1917, gave the final impetus to the mass movement of people to northeastern Montana.
The two competing railroads, the Soo and the Great Northern, soon realized the need for an extension of services into the new territory. Extensive plans and surveys were made by the Great Northern which probed the possibility of a route from Williston by way of Zahl, North Dakota, through Coalridge and then to Plentywood. Another possibility was directly northwest from Williston to Medicine Lake and thence to Plentywood. Both were rejected for the route finally adopted.
The Soo line also made various surveys; one would have the road go through Westby thence to Plentywood, south to Medicine Lake and southwestward; another of its possibilities would have brought the rails from Carpio, North Dakota, to Medicine Lake and then southwest.
The Jim Hill juggernaut outmaneuvered its opposition and began grading the Bainville-Plentywood section in the fall of 1909; track laying began April 20, 1910 and was completed to Plentywood on July 31 of that year. The line was formally turned over to the company for operation on March 13, 1911.
In 1913 the Soo Line was entering Montana at Westby and moved quickly westward toward Whitetail with plans to continue on to Scobey. However, to forestall this extension by the Soo, the Great Northern rushed an extension of its lines west from Plentywood and completed the project in November.
Since 1893, northeastern Montana had been part of Valley County. As the population increased, it became known as “ponderous, enormous Valley.” Many matters could be taken care of only at distant Glasgow; there was jury duty, taxes to pay or protest, and various official matters stemming from land transactions that required a trek of two hundred miles for some residents. The people became more and more vociferous in their demands for a seat of government closer to them. Adding to the pressures was the desire of ambitious community leaders to get the county seat in their little village.
One attempt at division made in 1908 was turned down by the voters in 1909, mostly because of opposition from Bainville and Plentywood. A petition in 1910 was rejected because the proposed new area would not come up to valuation requirements.
In April, 1912, William Powers of Bainville, assisted by John Lundquist and others, circulated what became known as the Lundquist petitions. Dan McKay of Glasgow and Vandalia, who had become known as the county splitter, assisted with the movement. The Valley County Commissioners approved the application in November. Immediately the ground was laid for organizing the new entity if such were approved
[Photo: Barnstorming for the County Seat.]
[pg. 9]

by the electorate. At a meeting in Bainville, Mr. Powers successfully proposed “Sheridan” as a name for the new county over such other suggestions as Roosevelt, Riverside and Gateway.

A convention was called for Mondak on February 11, 1913, for the purpose of selecting candidates for the proposed new county. The 140 delegates representing all sections of the area concerned agreed to the selection of a non-partisan ballot. The nominees chosen were: for Senator, H.C. Walker, Poplar; Representative, R.S. Richardson, Antelope; Sheriff, T.A. Courtney, Antelope; Commissioners, F.A. Weinrich, Mondak; Eli P. Hanson, Coalridge; Harry D. Loucks, Redstone; Treasurer, J.W. Anderson, Froid; County Attorney, Paul Babcock, Culbertson; Assessor, H.B. Hill, Mondak; Surveyor, Olaf Bergh, Redstone; Superintendent of Schools, Irene Murphy, Enterprise; Coroner, Harry Sparling, Medicine Lake; Public Administrator, Niels Christensen, Dagmar; Clerk of Court, L.J. Onstad, Coalridge; Clerk and Recorder, Ben Johnson, Poplar; County Central Committee, Hans Dixon, Dagmar, Carl Gilbertson, Redstone, Joseph Dolin, Medicine Lake, R.R. Ueland, Antelope, J.W. Schnitzler, Froid, F.W. Catlin, Culbertson, Bill Reek, Scobey, H. Goodale, Outlook, H. Walker, Poplar, and H.B. Hill, Mondak. George L. Ryerson acted as chairman and William Powers as secretary.
On March 11, 1913, the vote on division was held and carried 2,098 to 110. The non-partisan ballot also won. On March 21, 1913, the Valley County Commissioners declared Sheridan County created and named Plentywood the temporary county seat. The notorious county seat fight between Medicine Lake and Plentywood quickly developed and culminated in a narrow victory for Plentywood in the general election of 1914. Medicine Lake protested the election and the controversy was finally settled by a decision of the Montana Supreme Court on March 19, 1917.
The Montana statutes were not always clear in their directions for the operation of a new county. If the laws made no mention or were unclear as to procedure, it would be necessary for the official actions to be entered in the books as an “emergency.” Sheridan County’s new officers were a determined lot and began their tasks with vigor. Borrowing equipment and improvising materials were the order of the day. One can only imagine the confusion when impatient residents came with their requests to record marriages, mortgages, deaths, land transactions, births, and other vital business.* [*See the Ben Johnson biography for more details.]
On April 4, 1913, Sheriff Tom Courtney and his deputy, Richard Burmester, answered what appeared to be a routine request to come to Mondak and prefer charges against a Negro who had been disturbing the peace and was known to be carrying a gun. In attempting the make the arrest, the two officers were killed. The gunman, realizing escape was impossible, surrendered and was immediately placed in the town’s jail.
The reaction was sudden and violent; the residents broke down the jail doors and escorted the killer to the nearest tree. An enraged citizenry from miles around flocked to the little town. Upon finding vengeance had already been wrought, the crowd could show its contempt only by kicking and spitting at the mangled corpse which had been dragged mercilessly through the street. Other colored laborers on the bridge project, sensing the feelings of the town, quickly left the construction area.** [**See Burnester and Courtney biographies for more detail.]
[Photo: Most sensational crime in the history of the town was the murder of two police officers by a crazed construction worker, J.C. Collins. This picture depicts the apprehension of the offender in front of the Mondak jail. He was soon afterwards unceremoniously hanged by outraged citizens.]
Two officials elected at the special election March 11, 1913, did not have an opportunity to serve: Representative R.S. Richardson of Antelope and Senator H.C. Walker of Poplar. The 13th Legislative Assembly had adjourned on March 6, 1913; if a special session of the Legislature had been called, these two men might have been given an opportunity to act.

[Pg. 10]

THE GREAT INFLUX OF SETTLERS created an early demand for a new media; if the numbers of papers printed is an indication, the need must have been great. In 1908 the PLENTYWOOD HERALD put out the first publication; after two decades of operation, it sold out to Harry Polk in 1927. It is the only periodical that has continued operations till the present time. A year later, Joe Dolin introduced to MEDICINE LAKE WAVE. It was very competitive to the HERALD and at one time boasted a circulation of 2,500. The Dolin family established several subsidiary papers in neighboring towns, including the ANTELOPE INDEPENDENT (formerly THE ARGUS), THE COALRIDGE CALL, THE DAGMAR RECORD and THE HOMESTEAD BROADAXE.
THE REDSTONE REVIEW started operations in 1912 and was primarily concerned with printing local news. At one time it was an eight-page weekly and also published a subsidiary, THE RAYMOND NEWS, whose existence was short-lived. THE REVIEW encountered financial difficulties in the late thirties and discontinued operations. THE DOOLEY SUN and THE ANTELOPE INDEPENDENT were initiated in 1913 and stopped publication in the early twenties. THE SHERIDAN COUNTY FARMER was started by Dr. Storkan to counteract the influence of the well-known and controversial PRODUCER NEWS, but was unsuccessful in its objective. Outlook had its PROMOTER and its OPTIMIST, Homestead its PIONEER and Westby its NEWS. Archer boasted two issues of THE LIBERATOR and Daleview had its RECORD which was a temporary adjunct to THE PRODUCERS NEWS. There were also THE SHERIDAN COUNTY NEWS and the PLENTYWOOD PIONEER PRESS to bring the list of Sheridan County news media to twenty.
Telling the story of THE PRODUCERS NEWS is, in effect, relating two decades of Sheridan County history. The writer is prompted to do so because of an early personal experience. While attending school in the western part of Montana in the late twenties and early thirties, many new personages were met. Upon being introduced, they would often comment, “So you come from that ‘red’ country.”
Since one is not apt to be very concerned about politics in his formative years, the first accusations were shrugged off as being another “conversation bit.” However, as the “red” label continued to be mentioned, a gradual resentment toward the charge developed; one found himself not only on the defensive but also challenging the accusation, for if the county were “red,” maybe everyone who came from there was considered to be so. A summary of the political and economic conditions during the times may give an insight as to why Sheridan county bears the stigmatic “red” label even to this day.
From 1916 to 1920, crops were either rusted out or dried out. Threats of war and our final involvement added to the distress. Everyone was pressured to buy Liberty bonds; in fact some were forced to borrow to invest in government securities. If one didn’t, he was called pro-German. If one criticized the war, he was accused of having German leanings. Tensions rose when fathers were required to register for the draft; mothers could visualize being left to tend the farm and care for the household while the head of the family was called to replenish the ranks of the army.
Eugene Debs, expressing vocal opposition to the war and demanding drastic social and economic reforms, was gaining a few followers. However, receiving a more attentive ear were organizers for the Non-Partisan League, who came into Montana from North Dakota early in 1917.
The League, as it came to be called, stood for state ownership of agricultural processing plants, state inspection of grain and grain dockage, exemption of farm improvements farm taxation, state hail insurance and provisions for rural credit banks.* [*Robert L. Morlan, the Non-Partisan League, 1915-1922 p. 26.]
The program offered some hope for better things, but the success of the League lay in its leader, A.C. Townley. He had a dynamic personality and a tremendous ability to organize. He proposed a program for agriculture that would free it from the shackles of the grain trade. A large crowd had gathered in Medicine Lake to hear Townley when he was scheduled to arrive early in the afternoon of July 3, 1920, by plane.
Many had not seen the speaker and very few had seen an airplane in flight. There was great anticipation as the assembled farmers looked skyward, not knowing for certain from which direction his plane would arrive. For an hour they waited patiently and some were beginning to doubt whether he would come. Finally a speck appeared in the sky to the southward. Immediately there were cries, “There he comes; there he comes!” From the applause one would have thought this was the coming of another Messiah. The League program was well received in Montana in spite of the $16.00 assessment; by 1919 it had 20,000 dues-paying members.** [**Robert L. Morlan, the Non-Partisan League, 1915-1922 p. 277.]
Although the Socialists and the Leaguers did not agree on the method of reform and the extent of change necessary, they were a practical group and realized their only chance for political success was to join forces. It was the union of these two in 1918 that spearheaded the formation of the People's Publishing Company whose function would be to publish a periodical that would carry their program to the people.
Thus was THE PRODUCERS NEWS brought into existence with Charles Taylor of Minnesota imported as editor. Taylor had spent some time on the farm, had been editor of the BORDER CALL of International Falls, Minnesota, and had spent six years in Wyoming recuperating from tuberculosis.
Taylor was, like Townley, a personable individual with an impressive and handsome physique. His rhetoric was convincing and his manner charming. Extolling the virtues of the common man, he editorially championed the cause of the farmers and the laborers in his fight for economic equality. Taylor was a brilliant man but possibly lacked modesty; the paper he edited at one time proclaimed him Sheridan County’s most distinguished citizen. Indeed, the people held his ability in such high esteem that he was elected to the State Senate in 1922 and again in 1926. In the latter election he had, as had many other League members two years before, switched from the Republican ticket to the Farmer-Labor slate.
The League did not have a political party, its members who ran for office did so on whichever ticket they felt had the best chance of winning. They were obligated, however, to vote [at p. 10] for the issues they believed were beneficial to the farmer. In Sheridan County the Leaguers first chose to run on the Republican ticket and were successful. Sensing their strength, they entered their candidates on the Farmer-Labor ticket in 1924, electing all but two nominees. They repeated the performance in 1926, losing only the County Superintendent and County Commissioner. Considering that economic conditions were generally good throughout the twenties, it is amazing the voters would support the liberal views as proposed by THE PRODUCERS NEWS. However, insects, hail, bank failures, lack of credit and other misfortunes kept many in financial difficulty.
“Red Flag,” as Taylor soon came to the called, and Sheriff Rodney Salisbury, developed a harmonious relationship since they were both in agreement that the ills of the world could be solved by adopting the Soviet philosophy. Before he was elected sheriff in 1922, however, Salisbury had been careful about publicly expressing his sympathy. He administered the law for six years and during that time, he and Taylor had things “under their thumb.”
At this time bootlegging was a profitable business; making of beer and moonshine replenished dwindling bank accounts, prostitution and gambling represented easy cash. The right kind of sheriff, under the circumstances, had many opportunities to accept money under the table. The accusations were loud and clear that those who “cooperated” did not have to fear the law; those who refused to pay off found it difficult to continue operations. In all fairness to Salisbury, this happened in other counties during the period; however, the combination of a leftist editor and an unscrupulous sheriff made the situation in Sheridan County more ominous and vicious.
Editorials and front-page coverage by THE PRODUCERS NEWS were often crude. In fact, many articles bordered on the incredible. Pity the many who found himself in “Red Flag’s” disfavor. One of the more ludicrous occasions involved the proprietor of the Elgin Café, Jim Popescu, who had dropped his advertising from Taylor’s columns. Jim found this was not the thing to do, for soon THE PRODUCERS NEWS was denouncing the Elgin Café for serving food contaminated with flies and cockroaches.
The editor felt the care owner had not yet been properly chastised. One day, during the noon rush, a mouse was “planted” in a bowl of soup by a “wobbly” who had been hanging around the town for some time. The would-be diner gingerly lifted the dripping carcass and held it high above his head with exclamations of disgust. Him, hearing the commotion from the kitchen, barged into the dining area and put the maligner on the run. This was not the end of the incident. The paper continued its harassment of a defenseless proprietor for weeks.
Senator Taylor had not served in the Montana Legislature very long before he and the lobby for the Anaconda Company locked horns. He attached “the Company,” as it was referred to, for running the State. As those who were friendly to Taylor were called “reds,” so the political opponents of Taylor were accused of wearing the “Copper Collar.” One individual who came into disfavor had the misfortune of having initials “L.J.”; he was continually referred to in THE NEWS as “Loud Jabber.” Another who was quite broad in the hips carried the initials “L.S.”; the imaginative editor knew the public would soon expand the moniker “Lard S.” which Taylor used in referring to “L.S.”
The reading public enjoys the sensational; even if it realized most of the attacks were exaggerations, it was entertaining. Moreover, since “it was in the paper,” there might, in the monds of many, be some truth in it. During this repulsive process, many good people in Plentywood were hurt. But THE PRODUCERS NEWS was accomplishing its purpose; it was the most widely-read paper in Sheridan County and the advertisers could do nothing but recognize the fact.
During the latter part of the decade, however, criticism of the paper became more vocal as more readers began questioning its purpose and sincerity. On November 30, 1926, an incident occurred that did not enhance the prestige of the Salisbury-Taylor alliance.
This was the last day for paying taxes without penalty; consequently the receipts were heavy. According to law, on the last day for receiving taxes, the Treasurer’s office was required to remain open until 6:00 P.M. to accommodate any late payer. The rest of the County personnel had left at 5:30. Minutes prior to closing, two masked men entered the office and commanded Treasurer Engebret Thorstenson to lie face down on the floor or “You’ll get what the man at Wheelock got.” Anna Hovet, his deputy, was ordered to do likewise. In an interview with Miss Hovet fifty-four years later, she said, “It was a horrible experience and I didn’t recover for a year.”
Taken from the vault was a reported $60,000.00 in bonds and $45,000.00 in cash. The robbers were never apprehended and the County Attorney was forced to start legal proceedings against the insurance company to collect the loss. The unusual circumstances surrounding the holdup and the amount of money involved prompted the bonding company to make extensive investigations; it did not reimburse the county until three years later. The critics of the Taylor-Salisbury group suggested it was an inside job. The incident was a choice conversation piece for years afterward.
By election time in 1928, the change in public opinion was evident. The Farmer-Labor group and its discredited leadership had lost its appeal; the people had become weary of the attacks on organizations and especially on individuals. Economic conditions also contrived to bring a change in thinking. This was one of the biggest crop year in the history of Sheridan County. Continuously cropped land produced up to forty bushels; laid-over breaking and fallow went as high as fifty and one report said sixty bushels. Nationwide as well as locally, conditions were economically favorable. Herbert Hoover won a smashing victory for the Republicans. The former Farmer-Laborites did not feel secure on that ticket, so they ran independent of party affiliation. It didn’t help; the Republicans easily took Sheridan County offices except for two Independent and one Democratic post.
Prosperity, however, was short-lived. The following years saw crop production on the decrease. The year 1929 produced a fair harvest, while 1930 was less. Then came 1931, a complete failure, ushering in the era of the “dirty thirties.” The block system of farming was an invitation to disaster; strong winds, together with a long dry spell and a top soil destitute of ground cover, made history. Fence lines and abandoned machinery sifted in with drifted top soil; housewives closed their doors and windows in a vain attempt to keep out the air-borne dust. Extent of the havoc is still in evidence where fence lines drifted in, expose only a foot of a four and half-foot fence post. In 1931 only patches of fallowed ground were harvested; good feed for livestock was practically non-existent. As a last resort, weeds and brush were [pg. 12] mowed for feed. At the Sidney fair that year, one farmer displayed a Russian thistle as a symbol of the year’s production.
Times were tough and THE PRODUCERS NEWS made the most of it. Here was another opportunity to champion the cause of the oppressed for, “had not the capitalistic system proved a failure?” Bankers and Wall Street were blamed for taking advantage of those county officials, teachers and merchants who had to take as high as 25% discount on their hard earned warrants. There was some risk involved in making these loans since it was possible the school district or the county might default on its payment; however, the lending agency taking this discount and holding these warrants for a year was getting a yield of 41%. A feeling of frustration and desperation once more pervaded the populace.
The people were not afraid to work, for in their former homelands they had labored from daylight until dark to eke out an existence. In northeastern Montana, they had forseen a better opportunity for themselves but more particularly for their children. But years of toil and hardship seemed to have gotten them nowhere; there were many who had lost their homesteads and many more were on the verge of doing so. If they were to lose their homes, there was no place to go. Some decided to fight it out here.
The Holiday Association was organized in the early 1930’s to protect those who had mortgaged their property and were in danger of losing it.
In Divide County, North Dakota, a sheriff’s sale was attended by a large group of farmers who had membership in the Association. The bidding was anything but spirited and woe be to him who made a realistic offer on any article. A cow might receive a bid of 10 cents, a tractor 25 cents. Even the auctioneer might be cooperative by lowering the hammer quickly on the first bid. Naturally, the holder of the mortgage lost practically all he had loaned. However, the farmer kept his equipment and livestock and was able to remain in business. The auction and threats of more like ti caused holders of mortgages to have second thoughts about foreclosing.
In 1932, the Communists launched their own ticket in Sheridan County. The opponents started to marshal their forces with the Democrats and Republicans making plans to join hands. (Later this became known as the Unholy Alliance.) During the campaign, conflicts of interest and ideology reared their embarrassing heads and threatened many times to break up the coalition.
At stake, among other issues, was the county printing contract. Friends of THE MEDICINE LAKE WAVE and Harry Polk’s HERALD may have had the same political leanings, but each was very much concerned about getting his man in for Commissioner. A tussle also developed between the Democrats and Republicans as to which party should be entered on the ballot, a typical case of in-group fighting developing. The candidate for Superintendent of Schools refused to go along with the fusion and ran on the Democratic ticket, whereas the Republican Party won the other coalition nominees.
At this time, as if out of thin air, the Liberty Party entered the political picture and started to solicit aspirants for office. Sponsoring the fledgling organization was a brand-new publication, THE LIBERATOR, which printed its first issue in October of that year. It indicated its place of publication as Archer. Mr. Taylor was quick to sense the purpose of the budding movement and immediately began a counterattack. In the November 2 issue of THE PRODUCERS NEWS he said, “Harry Polk ‘God Father’ of County Liberty Part.” He continued to charge the purpose of the new setup was to “divide the Communist vote.”
The election of 1932 became one of the most highly contested in Sheridan County’s history, gaining state-wide recognition and surely enhancing the “red” image. Headlines in THE PRODUCERS NEWS November 2 issue shouted: VOTE COMMUNIST NOVEMBER 8. The eyes of Montana were focused apprehensively on the results.
To what extent the fusion ticket and the introduction of the Liberty Party influenced the outcome is difficult to ascertain. One can, however, mull over the returns and wonder: 3,297 votes were cast for sheriff. Of this total, the Republican candidate received 1,553, the Communist 1,042 and the Liberty Party nominee 702. If the Democratic party had entered an aspirant, it might have meant victory for the Communist entry. In the other county races, the picture was similar. It is interesting to note that former Sheriff Salisbury ran for Governor on the Communist ballot and garnered 795 votes, whereas Taylor, who had served as Senator for eight years, acquired 883 in a futile bid for State Representative.
The election was not the end of THE PRODUCERS NEWS nor the demise of Taylor. However, the latter was relieved of his position on the paper and replaced by a more militant Communist. Under the new leadership of Erik Bert and later Alfred Miller, the Soviet program was pushed more aggressively. By the 1934 election, however, it was evident that it was at last losing its strength. Subscriptions dropped drastically. In a futile attempt to salvage a lost cause Charley Taylor was reinstated. He endeavored to create a new image but the public would not buy it. The February 19, 1937 issue, more than two weeks late, was the last.
THE READER MIGHT WONDER why so much space has been allotted to one of twenty periodicals. One must recognize, however, that if THE PRODUCERS NEWS were not always the most dominant, it was surely the most controversial news media for nearly two decades. And it might also be said Charley Taylor was THE PRODUCERS NEWS. This combination was foisted upon a disillusioned people. Not only dreams of quick riches but initial prosperity in the early years of settlement overpopulated the region. Then came crop failures through hail, frost, drought, rust and insects; compound the adverse forces of nature with bank failures, low prices, high transportation and production costs. The sum total of reverses created a condition which many felt had to be changed.
Divide County, North Dakota, or neighboring Daniels could just as well have had the “red” tag if they had had a Charley Taylor and his sounding board, THE PRODUCERS NEWS. Actually, the most trying times were the 1930’s and his program should have gained in popularity in that period. But nationally a new leader came upon the scene in the form of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who offered new hope in his “New Deal.” Communism gradually faded into oblivion.
It is difficult for those who did not experience the extent of the hardships of the 1930’s to comprehend the forces that were at play. Repossessed machinery went begging; a twelve hundred combine used a couple of years would bring $150.00, butter brought 10 cents and eggs, if they would have them, 2 cents. Sales tickets from the Hoven Grain company at Antelope show wheat purchased for 23 cents, cattle shipped to eastern markets would not sell for enough to pay the freight. In order to dispose of the surplus beef, a federal agency [pg. 13] purchased livestock, slaughtered the animals and reportedly buried the carcasses.
In the fall of 1937, the late Bert Selvig of Outlook commented, “It is more difficult to find 25 cents today than it was to dig up $25.00 in 1928.”
In retrospect, it is fair to say that those who experienced the decade of the 1930’s were seeking something better. They didn’t want Communism but many were ready to adopt its philosophy if there was nothing else. When another program was advanced within the framework of the Democratic system, however, they immediately reached for it and quietly sought to forget the past. It is to be fervently hoped that this lesson in history will not be forgotten.
For three decades, Sheridan County has seen unprecedented years of agricultural production. At no time has there been a complete failure as in 1931, 1934, and 1937. World War II and subsequent conflicts, together with support prices, compensation for grain storage, reimbursement for proper soil conversation practices and other Federal assistance have helped bring stability to agriculture and small business.
The cost-price squeeze is, of course, gradually making the position of the farmer, stockman and small businessman more vulnerable. Economic pressures are eliminating the small operations as they made ghost towns out of communities like Midby, Archer, Daleview, Comertown, Dooley, McElroy and Monota. Sheridan County could well become, if the trend is not checked, a vast expanse of grain strips dotted with an occasional set of seasonally-used farm dwellings. Livestock in rising numbers but lessening ownerships, will utilize the marginal lands and breaks along the Big Muddy and its numerous tributaries. There will be less roads to repair and fewer churches and schools to support. Gradually traces of the pioneers and their struggles will be obliterated or all but hidden in the vast stretches of eastern Montana’s rolling plains.
[Photo: A combination of block farming and high winds created drifts of soil on this farm north of Raymond during the “dirty thirties.”]

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