GVC History Archives
By Albie Gordon, 1971
Picturesque to a fault is the section of Golden Valley County known as the "Big Coulee Valley." A portion of the country which is situated eight miles south of the little town of Ryegate. This particular section might have been designed by nature for the home of an exclusive clan, so careful was she to isolate it from the adjoining bench land by large rims that tower for hundreds of feet into the air on either side. This valley is about five miles wide, fourteen miles long and through its center a creek fed by springs winds its way and peculiar as it seems a great depth has to be gone to get water.
It is not necessary to have trees and foliage to make scenery of which the eye will never tire. There are a few trees on the rims of the valley and some foliage but these are lost sight of in the fantastic rock formation along both sides of the valley. For the distance on either side, there is hardly and outlet from the valley and at only six places can vehicles get up or down.
Imagine two large crosscut saws laid side by side with the teeth pointing inward and you will get an idea of the shape of these rims. Each point is entirely different in shape from its neighbor. "Locomotive Butte" for instance. As you look straight at this peak, it has a resemblance of a large railroad locomotive as you see it coming up the track, the only thing necessary to complete the sameness would be the issuing smoke from its mountain peak. As you watch fleecy clouds and see them change shape until you can imagine any picture desired, so it is with these rims. While each rim does not resemble something of the handicraft of man, their boldness and size never become tiring to the eye.
John T, Murphy
Ninety-two years ago, it might be said, was the first time that the feet of a white man ever trod this valley, and that person was John T. Murphy, then a rider of the plains, looking for stray stock from the south country. History has it that he came to the bluff, known as "Locomotive Butte," and looking down into this great valley gave him a thrill as to its possibilities for the wintering of stock. He immediately secured control of this and other range, and from this foundation was built the great Montana Cattle Company, which eventually went out of business when homesteaders crowded in, making several millionaires during its existence. It was in 1879 that this happened and Mr. Murphy named the valley "79" which became the headquarters of the company and which still bears the name.
A business organization that grew into such proportions as the "79" didn't just happen. It took the leadership of a man who had faith in his own ability, honesty, sound management, keen understanding and a slight touch of a gambler.
Mr. Murphy, a Missourian, as a boy was not afraid of work or to face the hardships of a frontiersman. As he grew older he had the urge to go West with all its glamor and excitement. He gradually worked his way to Montana when just a lad of twenty-one. he wheeled a wagon-train of merchandise into Virginia City, Montana Territory. His commodities brought fantastic prices in the booming miner days of 1864. This was just the beginning of his success in mercantile business, mining, banking and land and cattle business.
In the selection of his associates, he was always careful. Records show the list of names including Cornelius Hedges, Russell B. Harrison, Ebenezer Sharp, Charley Broadwater, Joseph Woolman, L.A. Walker, W.E. Cullen and John Turton, all successful business men. Two bankers outside the state, were Tom Full and John Lienberger of St. Louis who were co-partners.
Official records show that Murphy in partnership with a Mr. Floweree first engaged in the cow business when they brought a small herd form Oregon and then turned them to graze in the Great Falls area. Later he interested others in his plans and in that way started his "79" Ranch. He honored the year by officially recording the company brand.
The first home ranch was on White beaver Creek north of the Yellowstone between Reed Point and Columbus. Andrew P. Wheat (alias Charley Farley) came into Montana as trail boss of first Texas longhorns to be turned loose on range bearing "79" brand.
Later the headquarters moved to the Big Coulee Creek, south of Ryegate, where he had purchased land. The company hauled all its building material from the Snowy Mountains. They brought 125 saddle horses plus many teams. The other livestock included sheep as well as cattle.
Then in succession he added to his holdings the "River Ranch" on the Musselshell, near Barber, which has since been in the hands of the Eklund family for over fifty years. The fourth base was "Painted Robe," eight miles upstream on a creek by the same name west of Broadview and still owned by the family of O.C. Richards who bought the land.
Much land was purchased from the Northern Pacific between 1892-1898; more than a 100 sections were involved, 65,000 acres. At the same time he leased state school land in his grazing empire. He had access to free grass for a good many years by establishing "drift" and line fences until Uncle Sam cracked down on the Montana stockmen.
Later in his operations in the Big Dry country, he bought a few "nester" homesteads, and worked on a rental basis with the Northern Pacific and state land. At one time the "79" grazed over 800,000 acres. Headquarters at the head of Big Dry Creek became more and more important as open range and water began to decline on the Musselshell range.
During the first operation near Great Falls, the cattle number showed 3100 head and 23 horses. By 1880 the Montana Cattle Company was better organized and had purchased "four trail herds" of Texas yearlings. In 1882, the first of the cow-calf operations began with 3000 head of Kansas Durhams added. The biggest increase came in 1885. In a report given by Secretary Russell Harrison to the stockholders in that year, it showed "a total of 32,000 head more or less not including calves. In 1890 showed the biggest livestock count in our history" with over 40,000.
As free grass dwindled so the decline came in the herds of the "79" cattle. Sheep replaced some of the cattle operations. From 1903 to the abandonment of the Montana Cattle Company, there were probably less than 10,000 head on the range mostly in the Big Dry area for summer and back in the Big Coulee for winter.
At its peak the ranch made shipments of six or seven complete train loads of steers and fat cows to the Chicago market. This was considered routine for many years. At first the principal shipping point was Merrill and stock went to John Clay, a long time friend and an old cowboy. When the Great Northern was built, Lavina became the important shipping point. In 1909 the entry of the Milwaukee opened up new stockyards in the big Dry area.
During the life span of the "79" Ranch, thirty-five years, they had a payroll list of more than a hundred names with a small turnover of employees. The ranch was noted for having thoughtful, considerate managers, good roundup cooks, very fine food and a very good string of horses and equipment. There was always surety of pay. For this reason the cowhands were willing to stay for longer periods than was customary for the nomads of the rangelands.
When John T. Murphy died in his home in Helena in 1914, Montana lost one of her highly respected pioneers. At his funeral were many whom he had employed, served with or befriended. Many were the men and boys who had spent time around the camp wagons bearing the "79" brand.
Members of his family played an important part in the "79" operations. His brother, Joseph Murphy, was manager for the first six years and later his son, William, served until his death in 1904.
Among some of the men employed at the Big Coulee Ranch were Ben Brown, Tom Powell, Watt McCool, Delos McBride, Bill Ballinger, Nick Dickerson, Roy Conelly, Pete Nelson, Pete Francis, Art Wiley, Dave Good. Personal characteristics were often responsible for names like "Bilious Bill," "Porky" Reynolds, "Nosey" Ben Cowen. When Charles Russell first came to Montana in his middle teens, he was called Kid Russell.
Seventy-Nine Ranch Cowboys
Like all human beings, cowboys differed from one another, coming form different walks of life, but as a class they had certain characteristics in common. Among them, it is true, some were tough characters who had respect for neither God nor man. However, this was not typical. Some were young and some well past the normal age for living an outdoor life. A sense of equality was honorable. Honesty was a fine virtue and there was sincere loyalty toward the brand for which they rode. They were trustworthy even when faced with death trying to guard stock from drifting with a blizzard or riding at full speed in the darkness of night to turn a stampede. They were self-sufficient, often working where decisions had to be made on the spot. They were proud.
Most cowboys were neat in their appearance, though their clothes were not always ironed. They were respectful and most abided by law. Some saved their money and later invested in small outfits of their own. They read a great deal since there was little other recreation. The characteristic they universally possessed was their wit and love of humor. They found much amusement in playing practical jokes on one another.
Sam Young recalled that when he spent his first night in the "79" bunkhouse, the cowboys spit tobacco juice in front of his bunk; not to be outdone, he took a shovel of hot ashes from the heater and spread them over the juice causing them all to leave the bunkhouse.
The spring roundup was in May. The range was thoroughly combed and the spring calf crop plus any mavericks were branded. When this was completed, attention was turned to hay making, fence repairing and horse breaking. One cowhand recalls knowing a cowboy by the name of Fresh. One day he made a bet that he could drive a team of four raw broncs across the flat bridge at Old Lavina. The horses were tied down and harnessed for the event. What happened I'll leave to the reader's imagination. Later Fresh became a sheepman but always walked like a stove-up cowboy.
Not all men on the Ranch did their work on horseback. Perhaps the most important one was the cook and did his work on foot. Sometimes his patience was worn pretty thin and as one cowhand expressed himself, "Only a fool argues with a skunk, a mule, or a cook."
When Dave Good was cooking there, Mrs. Sam Young sometimes sent one of her children to buy coffee. It was Arbuckle Coffee. Each 3# sack would have a peppermint candy in it. Dave would save the candy and each time would give the children a dozen sticks of candy. Mrs. Young had no trouble getting her children to go for the coffee.
The "79" came to an end in the Big Coulee in 1911. The cattle were rounded up and moved to the Big Dry where a few sections of open range still existed. Certainly John T. Murphy was one of the most prominent, progressive and success-business men that Montana ever had.
"They Gazed on the Beartooths" by James Annin
Ryegate Reporter, 1913 and 1915
"Before Barbed Wire" by Mark H. Brown and W.R. Felton
Prelude to the Last Roundup, Montana Historical Society
Many interviews with early residents of the Big Coulee
*This is an excerpt from the book "Dawn in Golden Valley," 1971, compiled by Albie Gordon, Margaret Lehfeldt, and Mary Morsanny.