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Famous Montana ranch has colorful history N Bar touches lives of many since 1885 beginning

Lewistown News-Argus **
Sunday, December 17, 1995
Christmas Edition by Carrie Mantooth

    For more than a century, the N Bar Ranch has played a central role in the lives of generations of Central Montana men and women.

    This beautiful expanse of land  on Flatwillow Creek has, in owner Tom Elliott's words, "assumed an identity of its own."

    The N Bar, Elliott said, has become part of the landscape, and part of the people and culture of its region.

    The Elliott family has owned the ranch since Jan. 1, 1964, but after listening to Elliott talk about the N Bar, one realizes that "Owner" is not an appropriate title.

    "It's fascinating to think of all the lives that have been touched for the better or worse over a century of time by this economic unit we call a ranch," he said.

    "But it goes far beyond being based as a business. With it's principles and ideas it assumes a life of its own over a period of time."

    With that perspective, Elliott said he no longer considers himself as an owner, "I'm part of something. Part of a whole flow of things. It's very exciting."

    Listening to Elliott talk today, you sense the long history of the N Bar and hear echoes of the many people that have shaped it over the years.

The Newman Brothers

Although N Bar headquarters was established in 1885, the story of the N Bar actually dates back to 1878 with two brothers.
    E. S. "Zeke" and Henry H. J. Newman were originally from Texas and were some of the first ranchers to settle in the Nebraska sandhills and to trail cattle from Mexico and Texas into Montana.
    In 1878, the Newman brothers obtained a government contract to supply several reservations with beef.  To meet the terms, they ran 10,000-15,000 head cattle on their Nebraska spread.
   In 1882 the brothers' Niobrara Cattle Company expanded north, and they trailed 12,000 cattle with the N Bar brand into Montana's Powder River Valley. The Niobrara Cattle Company also had cattle at the mouth of the Musselshell River with the N Bar brand.
    In 1885, a prairie fire devastated the Newman brothers' land in Nebraska and they drove the rest of the N Bar cattle to three Montana ranges.
    But that wasn't the end of the Newman brothers troubles.
     Two drought summers in 1885 and 1886 left Montana ranges in poor condition. Cattle prices were low, and many cattlemen were hanging on to their sock in hopes of higher prices.
    Thus, the range was overstocked with little forage when one of the worst winters on record occurred in 1886-1887.
    About 60 percent of the Montana Territory's cattle were lost in the storm, an event captured simply but powerfully by Charlie Russell's painting "Last of Ten Thousand."
    The combination of disasters was too much for the Newmans to recover from, and they sold their remaining cattle with the N Bar brand to a man named Thomas Cruse, who had purchased the Montana Sheep Company in 1885. That purchase included 2,842 acres on Flatwillow Creek at the site of the present day N Bar Ranch.

First owner is Thomas Cruse

    The N Bar headquarters were established in 1885 by Tommie Cruse, an Irish immigrant who struck it rich when he hit the motherlode near Helena.
    In the mid-1850s, Cruse, at the age of 20, immigrated to New York from Ireland. He spent seven years there before moving to the California gold fields.
    In 1867, Cruse was 31 and had found his way north to prospect at Last Chance Gulch at present day Helena. After years of digging with little success, Cruse hit the motherlode 22 miles northwest of Helena at Marysville. He recorded his stake on May 19, 1875, naming it Drumlummon.
    "He was an extremely wealthy man, one of the wealthiest in the United States," Elliott said. Cruse expanded his horizons by establishing a bank and getting into the ranching business.
    In the fall of 1885, Cruse purchased the Montana Sheep Company including the land on Flatwillow Creek, and 13,779 head of sheep.
    Included in the sale price of $93,600 were the land, sheep, 20,000 shares of stock, oxen, the B5 brand, plows, saddles, fence poles and other ranch supplies.
    Cruse bought the Newman brothers' Musselshell herd of cattle and the right to use the N Bar brand in 1888.
    According to Linda Grosskopf, with Rick Newby, in the book, "On Flatwillow Creek, The Story of Montana's N Bar Ranch," somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 head of original N Bar cattle survived the 1886-1887 blizzards to find their home on Cruse's spread on Flatwillow Creek.
    Cruse continued to buy land during the 28 years he owned the ranch, until he had about 19,000 acres. Most of his purchases were in small tracts of land from original homestead patentees.
    Grosskopf said he used the then-common technique of using one's "friends, relatives, and employees to file, prove-up and sell to you the desirable tracts - usually those surrounding water."
    Cruse purchased about 25 percent of his holdings through the services of The Collins Land Company, a Helena firm. Half of that land came from H. A. Hyde of San Francisco, owner by homestead patent of tracts of land in the Sierra Forest Reserve in California.
    A government act made provision for lands to be reconveyed and relinquished to the U.S. and substituted with "in Lieu" lands located elsewhere. Hyde ended up with several thousands acres of in lieu lands in Central Montana.
    P.M. Collins Land Company sold Cruse five tracts of Hyde's Montana land between June 1900 and February 1901.
    "When laid out on a standard piece of township-and-range graph paper, Cruse's N Bar holdings are spread over an area fourteen miles long (from Range 20 East to Range 33 East) and six miles wide (from Township 12 North to Township 18 North) and do not look like much, at least to an untrained eye: a long string of 40 acre blocks lying diagonally across two-and-a-half townships, apparently randomly placed," Grosskopf said in her book.
    However on an engineer's topographic map, Grosskopf said what emerges is a "beautifully laid out ranch, purchased one select piece at a time to take maximum advantage of the available water, hay ground, and natural protection."
    Cruse's 40-acre blocks were on both sides of major creeks" North and South forks of Flatwillow Creek, Spring Creek (not the Big Spring Creek near Lewistown), Durfee Creek, and the South Fork of Elk Creek.
    The N Bar wasn't limited to Fergus County, however.
    "The N Bar actually grazed from here to Miles City," Elliott said. "There were no fences and few property owners except around the water holes."
    Elliott said those early years in ranching were "pretty wild," with the ranch employing hands who were primarily single.
    "These are stories like the one of Cowboy Annie, who rode with the N Bar crew. She was the ranch prostitute. And of Teddy Blue Abbott, who lived here pretty much. That was a different era in the cattle business."
    The N Bar is believed to have then had an affiliation with the Climbing Arrow Ranch of Bozeman, Elliott said.
    "There are wagons here with the Climbing Arrow brand, and they used to drive cattle back and forth to Bozeman."
    Cruse was an absentee owner and hired a manager for the ranch. Elliott said he still had definite ideas about how things should be done. One of those ideas was that oxen be used for ranch work.
    The N Bar still had plenty of horses, however, raising hundreds each year, They also are reported to have raised horses for the French army and for Indians in Oklahoma when they turned over land to the government.
    Cruse made his millions in mining but proved himself to be successful in banking and ranching as well. He is also remembered for being the major contributor to the building of the St. Helena's Cathedral in Helena and the state capitol building.
    His life took a tragic turn shortly after he purchased the property on Flatwillow Creek in 1885.
    In 1886, the 50 year old bachelor found the love of his life and married Margaret Carter, who was half his age. The Cruse wedding was held at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Helena and was reported by newspapers to be the social event of the season.
    The celebration was short-lived however.
    "The story of Tommy Cruse is a tragedy in a sense," said Elliott. "Because the love of his life - his wife - died shortly after childbirth."
    Margaret Cruse was only 24 when she died and left Cruse with an infant daughter, Mary Margaret "Mamie."
    Cruse hired his niece, Mary Cruse Rae, as governess for Mamie, and she grew up in the shelter of their Helena mansion.
    Mamie was reportedly resentful of the confines placed upon her by her father, and at the age of 17, attempted to elope with a young man. The couple got as far as Elliston before her father brought her back home.
    After attending several boarding schools, she met Alvar de Comeau O'Brien in New York. They were married in 1909 in Helena and then moved to New York, residing at both the Hotel Knickerbocker and Waldorf-Astoria, according to Grosskopf.
    She reportedly received $250,000 a year in allowance and her husband quit his job. Cruse discontinued the allowance, and Mamie moved back home. The couple divorced in 1911. Just five months later, Mamie married again, to Harry C. Cotter. This marriage only lasted 18 months.
    At the age of 26, just seven months after her divorce from Cotter, Mamie died. Elliott said Mamie had abused laudanum and that contributed to her death.
    "When he lost her, that was the end of his life for him." Elliott said. Curse died a year later.
New owners for the ranch     Cruse had apparently intended to sell the ranch several years before he died.
    An April 13, 1909, article in the Great Falls Tribune said, "The largest undivided tract of land in Fergus County and one of the biggest stock ranches in Montana, the N Bar belonging to Col. Thomas Cruse, is soon to be cut up into small farms.
    A sale to a Wisconsin company in 1910 fell through, and he then sold the N Bar to Antone Holter and his son, Norman, of Helena and Austin Warr, a Lewistown businessman in 1913.
    Holters were the principles, with Warr holding a fourth interest. The partnership sold the livestock, but kept the brand, and incorporated as Judith Farms Company.
    Holter was a Norwegian immigrant who had started lumbermills in Virginia City and Nevada City. He later expanded his operations to include sawmills near most of Montana Territory's gold camps, including mills in Helena, Great Falls, Sun River and Fort Benton.
    He invested in a number of other businesses including hardware stores, real estate, waterworks and electrical companies, smelters and mines.
    Warr was born in England, immigrating to America with his parents when he was 4-years-old. He grew up in Kansas, and later moved to Little Rock, Ark., to manage a lumber company.
    in 1891, at the age of 25, he moved to Lewistown and worked as a bookkeeper at T. C. Power and Bro. Mercantile.
    His first business venture was to establish a local telephone company. In the early 1890's he accepted a position at the Bank of Fergus County, and by 1916, was made president.
    "They actually bought the ranch with the intent of subdividing it," said Elliott of the Holter partnership. "They tried for many years to colonize the ranch."
    Considerable efforts and finances went into plans for a Mormon colony and for a colony of Canadian Mennonites.
    "They developed an extensive irrigation system and set up a townsite," Elliott said. They even had plans for a creamery and had mapped out streets in what was to be the town of Warr.
    "Fortunately for us, they were unsuccessful in that project."
    The company had began subdividing into 160-acre tracts, and managed to sell some tracts.
    "They weren't of a practical size to farm and with the economic conditions of the late 1920's people weren't able to make a go of it," Elliott said.
    Judith Farms Company continued to hang on to the ranch by operating it as a sheep and milk cow operation. "The Holters owned the ranch 50 years and were never successful, " Elliott said.

Jack and Eugene B. Milburn    

The glory days of the N Bar had faded under the management of Judith Farms Company, but in 1930, the ranch began to turn around when Eugene B. Milburn - who was a close friend of the Holters - bought out Warr's interest.
    In January 1930, Jack and Gene Milburn purchased the Warr family's (Austin was by then deceased) 25.83 percent interest in the N Bar Ranch for $16,500.
    Gene had made money in the old fields in California, and bought the majority of the shares with the stipulation that his brother, Jack, be made manager.
    "When Jack Milburn came in, he reassembled the ranch to operate it again as agricultural land, "Elliott said. "That's probably its highest use."
    Elliott said Jack was "a very dynamic guy and was very successful in putting the ranch back together into a cattle and sheep operation. That's really the foundation of what the ranch is today."
    The Milburn brothers were genuine Americans.
    Their mother, Eugenie Bliss Milburn, was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., and had lineage to be a Daughter of the American Revolution.
    Their father, George Roszelle Milburn, was a Yale-educated lawyer. They lived for a time in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, where he served with the Department of the Interior.
    In 1882, when Gene was about 2, the Milburn family moved to Hardin, where George Milburn was responsible for moving the Indians from Absarokee to Crow Agency and was their first agent.
    In 1884, the family moved to Miles City and George set up his law practice and became justice of the peace.
    "Jack" was born there. In early 1901, the family moved to Helena where George had been elected to Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Montana.
    Jack and Gene's mother died of pneumonia shortly after the family's 1901 move to Helena. Their father died in 1910, when Jack was just 16.
    According to Jack's son, Jack Jr., who still lives in Lewistown, Jack moved to Butte to live with Gene and his wife following his father's death. He them attended Montana State College at Bozeman and took civil engineering, graduating in 1916.
    Jack entered the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a flying cadet during World War I.  He was sent to France in 1917, and to Germany following the war.
    Upon his return to the states, Jack was hired as manager of the Reeder Ranch at Craig, where he worked for 10 years, and married Dorothy Cosier in 1927. Their son was named George Roszelle III, but he was called "Jackie," from the start.
    Jack, at the age of 35, became the manager of the N Bar. He took on the N Bar during the dry years.
    "Times were tough," said Jack Jr., in a tribute to his father. " The place was in debt for more than it was worth and carved up beyond all recognition of a working ranch.
    "You were able to put it back together and make a paying outfit out of it. This was a big assignment, made no easier knowing you were a young stranger stepping on a lot of old timers' toes."
    When Jack took over, the N Bar consisted of 10,000 acres of land, 2,500 sheep and 15 cows.
    Jack moved his wife and son to Lewistown in January 1930, but they were unable to go farther until spring. Jack commuted by train to Grass Range and from there traveled by stage to the ranch.
    Once the roads were passable, Dorothy and young Jack moved to the ranch and lived in one room of the old cookhouse until a house was completed.     The ranch is reborn     Jack made numerous changes when he took over as manager, including reacquiring the pieces of land that had been sold out of the middle of the ranch during the colonization scheme.
    Jack Jr. recalls about 5 Mormon families who were the most successful in their farming. "Dad traded them for land farther away from the main ranch, " he recalled.
    "Some had filed, but not always proved up, so Dad would buy them out."
    He also sold the outlying pieces purchased by Cruse - some of which reached nearly to Jordan.
    Jack plowed and reseeded alfalfa hay fields and began rebuilding the cattle herd and expanding the sheep operation.
    The water situation was also improved. He initiated a water development program on the N Bar and 35 earth-filled dams were built in the 1930s to provide stock water and water storage.
    Fifteen springs were also cemented to prevent cave-ins and underground pipes that filled long, wooden tanks were laid to use the spring water.
    Although Jack had plenty of experience in the sheep business from his days at the Reeder Ranch, he began to set his sights on the cattle operation.
    The N Bar had a herd of up to 9,000 sheep, but sold them gradually until they were out of the sheep business in 1946. Angus cattle put it back on the map
    In 1930 Jack struck a deal that would put the N Bar on the path it still follows today.
    In October, Jack made a deal with W.A. Acton on the Airyland Angus Ranch in Lewistown to winter 100 head of cattle for 22 head of cattle. All of the cattle were bred to a registered bull.
    "Dad would say that, with the backing of his partners, it was sheep that sustained and put the N Bar back on the map."
    The arrangement for wintering the cattle was repeated in 1931, with payment of 30 cows, and in 1932, with 40 cows. Jack continued to build the Angus herd and in 1934, bought seven more cows from Acton, but this time, they were papered.
    By 1935, the N Bar Ranch was running an Angus herd of 150 cows and they registered their first Angus.
    By 1941 and the start of World War II, the N Bar had been rebuilt to 40,000 acres and the cattle herd numbered 600. Jack Jr. said there were as many as 2,000 cattle in later years.
    Aubrey Holter died in 1945 and his share of the operation was purchased by Reno Sales of Butte. A new corporation was them set up and called the N Bar Ranch Company.
    In 1947 the N Bar held its first annual production sale in Lewistown, trailing the cattle to town. The next sale was also held in Lewistown, but the third annual sale and subsequent sales have been held at the ranch.
    "The N Bar was one of the first ranches to hold a production sale on the ranch," Jack Jr. said.
    Jack was gaining notoriety as the man who turned the N Bar around, but Jack Jr. said he was also known for his activism in several organizations.
    "He became prominent because of his interest in the American National Cattlemen's Association (now called the National Cattleman's Association) and the Montana Stockgrowers, and served as president for those organizations. He was also elected Man of the Year in Livestock in 1953.
    Jack Jr. recalls that his father was a leader, but he worked right alongside his men.
    "Every day he saw everybody except the sheepherders, and he saw them once or twice a week. And he worked with them, he didn't just touch base."
    He said his father was an excellent horseman. "He was really good at riding and was a good judge of cattle." Jack Jr. said his sister, Marilyn, was also a fine horsewoman.
    Jack Jr. said he has many good memories of growing up on the N Bar Ranch. He attended the N Bar School for a year and a half, and then the Tyler School until eighth grade before boarding in Lewistown during his high school years.
    He said most of the hired men were single and stayed in the bunkhouse.
    "I used to go to the bunkhouse and listen to the men tell stories and play cards and the smoke was so thick you could cut it. They were my friends, but I wasn't supposed to be there.
    "They would tell pretty wild tales, and I'm sure some of it was for my benefit."
    The men all ate their meals in the cookhouse. "The dinner bell rang every day, three times a day for almost 80 years," Jack Jr. said. "I've eaten a lot of meals there, that's for sure."
    He also recalls going with his dad around the ranch in a pickup he'd adapted from a car.
    "He took out the trunk and put a very small box there. It was fun riding with him and one of the hands, Frank Long. Frank would go out tending camp - taking food and supplies to the sheep camps."
    Eugene Milburn died in 1956 and Norman Holter died in 1957, and another era would soon come to an end.
    Jack Jr. earned a degree at Montana State University and then served in the Korean War.
    He had worked on the ranch from the time he was a boy, and was an assistant manager for 11 years, but developed multiple sclerosis. He, his wife, Mary and their five children lived on the ranch until it sold.
    A third generation of Milburns also worked on the N Bar - Jack and Mary's oldest son, Tim worked there for over a decade and is a former forman.
    The partners in the N Bar sold the ranch officially on Jan. 1, 1963.
    "The ranch owners were getting old and didn't have anybody to leave it to," Jack said.
"That was mainly the reason for them selling. They saw a chance to be able to get out of it and to get a pretty good price at the time."
    The N Bar changed hands again, selling to L. E. Elliott of Roswell, N. M., for $1.5 million.

The Elliotts    

"There had been talk of selling the N Bar for quite some time, and the owners had began searching for "the right people."
    Lawrence and Edna Elliott of Roswell, New Mexico, had also been looking for just the right ranch. In about 1960, they had made the decision to diversify out of the oil business and into the agricultural business.
    "My granddad spent the last five years of his life looking for the perfect ranch. He'd looked in Mexico, Canada, British Columbia," Elliott said.
    He was on his way back from looking at a ranch in British Columbia and stopped down in Billings in his single engine plane. He heard there that the N Bar may be for sale and flew directly to the ranch.
    Jack Milburn introduced himself to Elliott.
    "My granddad said, 'Jack Milburn huh? I used to know a Milburn in California, any relation?" He had in fact known Gene Milburn in California through the oil business.
    Oil wasn't the only business Lawrence Elliott had been involved in. He had spent much time in Mexico, where he "took a mule string into the mountains looking for silver and gold," said his grandson.
    Lawrence Elliott was born in 1891 in Los Alamos, Calif. His parents' marriage was dissolved in 1892 and his mother worked as a seamstress and nurse. The four Elliott children lived with their grandparents on a small California farm.
    Lawrence quit high school and went to work full time, and moved to New Mexico. After World War I, he moved east to Santa Fe.
    Tom Elliott said his grandfather was "a professional gambler in the 1920s." He  also opened a billiard hall and started bootlegging.
    It was in Santa Fe that he met Edna Rich. The were married in 1920. In 1922, they bought a hotel in Santa Fe. The couple got into the oil business in the 1920s.
    "Granddad bid on the installation of the first sewer system in Santa Fe, but he had no idea how to put a sewer system in," Elliott said. "That just about broke them, but he managed to do it."
    Elliott speaks highly of his grandmother, Edna, who is in her 90s and living in Roswell, N.M.  "She is very meticulous and orderly. Granddad would make the deals and she's follow behind cleaning up the details."
    She is also a business person in her own right. She and another woman started a federal abstract company in 1928. "She tells about getting a stool to get up to look at the books, she's a very small woman," Elliott said.
    Frank Elliott, Tom's father, was born in 1924.  The Elliotts lost a lot of money during the depression, and moved to Roswell, N.M. in 1932.  they moved on to Reno and tried to open a casino, but according to Frank, "But, in a year, the Mafia drove them out. It ended up really bad."
    The Elliotts worked their way back into the oil business with an office out of their home.
    Frank Elliott attended the New Mexico Military Institute and served as a commander of a tank platoon, during World War II. Following the war, he completed his education, graduating as a petroleum engineer in 1947.
    He married Elizabeth Ann Cannon in 1948 in Oklahoma and they had three children, Steve, Tom and Susan.
   Lawrence Elliott was never to spend a night at the N Bar as its owner, The Elliotts took possession of the ranch on Jan. 1, 1964, and he died in May.
    Jack Milburn remained at the N Bar in an advisory capacity for some time. Edna lived on the ranch a few years and with her business mind, was a real asset, according to Hank Rate, who managed the ranch for a time in the mid-1960s.
    "She was instrumental, totally instrumental, in the development of the system of identifying the 1,150-1,200 cows that there were on the place," he was quoted as saying in On Flatwillow Creek. Every cow and calf were tagged and Edna kept the records.
    The Elliotts instituted changes, but they were gradual, said Elliott. They modernized procedures including retiring the beaverslides and buckrakes and replacing them with machinery.
    The Elliotts began performance testing each animal and artificially inseminating. Jim Carrig took over as manager in 1967 and stayed 11 years, and was instrumental in implementing many of the changes. Tom Elliott takes over     In 1978, Tom Elliott became general manager. Tom was born May 18, 1951, in Santa Fe, N. M., and attended New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell before finishing college at Colorado State in 1973.
    He spent every summer on the ranch from the time he was 13 until Army boot camp in 1970. He returned to school for a master's degree in business administration from Duke University, graduating in 1976 and returning to Montana.
    Elliott said that when they took over the ranch in the 1960s, the technological revolution was hitting agriculture.
    "This process, however, signaled the end of a more graceful era, a time when the bunkhouse was full of fascinating characters - world old men, down and out bums, cowboy dandies, young bucks, and wide-eyed innocents like myself." Elliott is quoted in On Flatwillow Creek.
    From the late 1970s to mid 1980s, Elliott said they struggled with many factors.
    He said they didn't have a clear vision for the cattle breeding program. They shifted from breeding N Bar cows to popular show ring bulls to line-breeding moderate size Angus cattle with high fertility, low birth rates, superior maternal characteristics and optimal growth.
    Elliott also began to try to find peace with his surroundings in an industrialized age.
    "It reached the point where it was very expensive to operate and it seemed like all the money was going to someone outside the ranch.
    "The mindset was dominating nature. I'd walk out every day feeling like I was at war with the resource we were trying to manage."
    He said that mindset shifted in the late 1970s and early 1980s to finding ways to work with resources to achieve production goals - sustainable agriculture.
    Elliott began to explore ways on which farming and ranching could build healthier soil, produce more nutritious food, while nurturing a sense of family and community.
    The N Bar had been spending large amounts of money battling a leafy spurge problem without much success, In 1983-84, Elliott began to look at ways to battle leafy spurge without herbicides.
    He observed that sheep liked to eat leafy spurge and even thrived on it.
    "John Lehfeldt of Lavina approached us and we got together to try a small band of sheep. It was enormously successful. "Now the N Bar runs about 4,000 ewe/lamb pairs with Lehfeldt to control leafy spurge.
    They have also used flea beetles to control the noxious weeds since 1988.
    Although the N Bar is best known for its registered seedstock business, they also have diversified the ranch, raising organic potatoes, wheat, barley, oats flax, buckwheat and lentils.
    They are also in a cooperative raising organic beef for specialized Montana markets with O Bar M.
    A guest service and outfitting service are another off-shoot of the N Bar ranch.
    The N Bar Ranch has come a long ways from the open range days of the last century.
    Whereas 100 years ago, the ranch employed mostly single cowboys, today the N Bar employs 10 families and four single people.
    What's the future of the N Bar?
    "Twenty, 40, 50 years from now, I hope the N Bar is thriving, supported by a vigorous, prosperous community raising our children in an environment that's as healthy and close to nature as possible," Elliott said.

Copyright 1998-2006 - Ann Kramlich and Betty Distad - All Rights Reserved

** Consent to post the stories and photos for non commercial use from the Lewistown News Argus was graciously granted by Dave Byerly owner and Publisher. These stories and photos may not be used by any commercial entity for any reason without consent from the  Lewistown News Argus.