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Lines drawn on the plains .... Birth of Petroleum County no easy task

Lewistown News Argus **
December 15, 1996
Christmas Edition by Sarah Crowley

     The front-page headline of the Winnett Times thundered like a prairie hailstorm.

     "Petroleum County - 'Yes' -  New County Goes Over the Top with Record Breaking Majority  Vote. Let the Knocker Bury His Hammer and the Booster Boost Harder and Longer Than Ever. You Are Now Residing in the Banner County of the State and Don't Ever Forget It."

     Editor C. J. Doherty must have been dancing a jig when he printed those shouting words in the Nov. 7, 1924, edition. His rampant enthusiasm is understandable. The election that carved Petroleum from Fergus County was but three days past. The victory represented some three years of blood, sweat and nasty fighting between the infant county's supporters, like Doherty, and opponents who were sneeringly dubbed "anti-divisionists" in his newspaper.

   The creation of Petroleum County was no easy birth. Labor pains included four legislative attempts, three petition and election drives, two district court cases and three Supreme Court appeals. When it was over, the new county encompassed 1,064,950 acres or about 1,680 square miles. Roughly the size of New Jersey, Petroleum's prairie land was amputated from Fergus County, which has undergone several such operations since its inception.

    Incorporated in 1885, Fergus County originally covered 7,524 square miles. At its longest distances it stretched 130 miles east to west and 90 miles north to south. Since then, Fergus has lost portions of itself for the shaping of Petroleum, Musselshell, Judith Basin, Wheatland and Golden Valley counties. Today, it's still an impressive 4,253 square miles, but Fergus' lines have been reduced to 90 miles east to west, and 70 miles north to south.

    Back in 1920, Fergus County officials were in no mood for any reduction in acreage. Apparently, the county was heavily in debt. In 1924, at the height of the battle for Petroleum County, Fergus' outstanding warrants totaled $442,754.82, with outstanding bonds at $1,872,000.

    By comparison, Judith Basin (created in 1920) listed warrants outstanding for only $17,938.34 and bonds at $360,000. Moreover, the Fergus school district was so financially shaky, a plan was proposed to close the county high school to keep the rural schools running. Revenues had to be raised, which meant spiraling taxes.

    "They thought their taxes were too high," said Lorraine Bauer, a long-time Winnett resident now living in Lewistown. Former Petroleum County manager, Bauer was appointed in 1970. At the time she was the state's only county manager and the only woman county manager in the United States.

    During her tenure, she was assessor, treasurer, county superintendent of schools, public administrator and any other job that was required.

    (Petroleum County adopted the county manager form of government in 1943 when the county was in such financial straits that the prospect of reuniting with Fergus was a possibility. Speaking of taxes, Bauer recalled that revenue sharing money helped to rebuild the Petroleum County Courthouse basement when she was in office.)

    Bauer believes high taxes and severe weather conditions contributed to the push for a new county. The summer of 1918 was dry and the winter of 1919-1920 terribly harsh.

    "The drought was bad for farmers and people were leaving. That was another reason. And you're a hundred miles from anywhere there."

    That far-flung distance was the primary force, said Ruth Freburg. Born at Flatwillow in 1916, this Winnett woman's parents were homesteaders. She lost them both as a child, and was raised by her brother.

    "Homesteading was hard on them. And it was hard for homesteaders not to have a courthouse closer than Lewistown. I think how rough it must have been for my folks to take care of county business. No car and you had to take a lumber wagon to Lewistown," said Freburg.

    Former librarian at Petroleum County Community Library, Freburg was instrumental in producing "Pages of Time, a history of Petroleum County."

    Published in 1989 by the Petroleum Library, the book contains an excellent section on the county's formation. "The Struggle to Become a County' was written in painstaking detail by library board member Marjorie W. King. (Unfortunately, King died earlier this month, on Dec. 3 [1996]. Her devotion to the county will be remembered by her colleagues.)

    The 1924 election establishing Petroleum County wasn't the first such attempt. This was the period of  "county busting" in which 27 new counties were conceived in Montana after 1910.

    Anxious folks in eastern Fergus County were agitating for their own province in 1919. That year, a proposal making Cruse County from a portion of Fergus east of the Judith Mountains was killed in House legislation. A similar fate befell a movement for a smaller McKinley County in roughly the same territory.

    The Issue of Cruse County popped up again in 1921 when J.H. Charters, Fergus County representative from Grass Range, introduced House Bill 162. Ever watchful against county proliferation, the "Fergus County Argus" on Jan. 14, 1921, announced, "Opposition Develops to New Counties - Scheme For Slicing Fergus May Be Revived" The paper reported "not less than four and as high as 20 new counties are being prepared to be placed on the legislative griddle .... So far, only two of the schemes have crept into the light of day. One is to take a slice from eastern Fergus County."

    Embracing Roy, Forest Grove, Becket, Grass Range, Winnett and Cat Creek, this Cruse County was nailed forever in the 1921 Senate. Proponents for a new county in eastern Fergus determined to risk formation of their dream through the process of petition and election. It means bringing out the heavy artillery. In this case, a fireball "county splitter" named Dan McKay.

    A Glasgow bricklayer, McKay's claim to fame was in creating counties across Montana. Sergeant-at-arms in the 1895 Montana Senate, he had had political ties and had assisted in splitting a dozen counties when Petroleum was forged.

    His operation was simple and effective. He's hire himself out for a flat fee and expenses of mounting a county-forming campaign. McKay handled all aspects, from initial planning to petition signing and the exhorting of folks in the proposed county's area.

    McKay set about the Petroleum project without delay. He told the Winnett Times (Nov. 4, 1921), "In the division of eastern Fergus County we often meet the argument that this is not the time, and that we should wait a while. Yet they who complain never set the time or venture to say what that time will be. As a matter of fact, they do not wish the time to arrive at all."

    McKay and his committee settled in "Petroleum" for a name and decided the boundries wouldn't extend as far west as Grass Range. The also kept an eye on certain legal requirements. Such as : the county line must be at least 15 miles from the parent county's courthouse, and the assessed value of the new county must be $4 million. Also, 58 percent of the voters in the new area must sign petitions before the natter could come up for election.

    Petitions flew immediately, but the operation took longer than even McKay expected. The signed documents weren't presented to the Fergus County commissioners until April 18, 1922. To confound the campaign, the opposition manufactured "withdrawal petitions." That is, a petition to remove a person's name from the original petition. Ever resourceful, McKay issued "withdrawal from withdrawal" petitions. That tactic would backfire in June 1922 when withdrawal-from-  withdrawal petitions were ruled invalid. Two hundred names were deleted and the necessary 58 percent were lost.

    Howls of outrage ensued. The Winnett Chamber of Commerce prepared to take the case to the Supreme Court, which said it had no jurisdiction over the case. The problem went to local district court where Judge Rudolph Van Tobel ruled against the petitioners.

    Boosters then decided the case should return to the Supreme Court. That took money so a finance committee assembled to raise the necessary funds. All sorts of money-making schemes were hatched. Editor Doherty trumpeted them all in the Winnett Times.

    A North Dakota native, Doherty came to Winnett in 1921. His writing bears a delightful rabble-rousing tone, ideally suited to booming the Petroleum County cause. Even his fundraising appeals sound like a clenched fist, as in this Sept. 29, 1922, promotion: "$10 Tag Day Winds Up County Division Finance Campaign, Saturday, Oct. 7.....Upon payment of $10 you will be tagged, this showing that you have done your bit towards county division."

    Doherty made a point of how Judith Basin County had reduced its taxes by 40 percent after breaking from Fergus. "Fergus County has a total indebtedness of $2,306,364, the total interest of which amounts to more than Judith Basin County's entire tax levy."

    In that tax vein, Doherty took a shot at the Lewistown Rotary Club after its president, Ralph Reynolds, voiced the opinion that new counties increase, not decrease, the burden on taxpayers. "It is indeed interesting," he wrote, "to hear Lewistown politicians tell how to reduce taxes... especially when they lead the anti-county division party in Lewistown....Petroleum County is being created by a desire of the people to reduce their taxes, something which cannot be done in Fergus County as long as men like those who represent the Rotary Club sit idly by and countenance exorbitant taxes."

    The fund-raising was successful and the case went before the Supreme Court June 26, 1923. Alas, the court handed petitioners defeat by declaring it impossible to withdraw from a withdrawal.

     So it was back to square one for poor Petroleum. McKay was set loose again with a new batch of petitions while the proposed boundaries and name were reconsidered. A boundary between ranges 23 and 24 in the terrain's southern half and between ranges 22 and 23 in the north was decided. This eliminated any trouble from Grass Range residents who, Doherty wrote, "agreed to lay down the hatchet and permit eastern Fergus to conduct their campaign for county division without opposition outside the confines of the proposed new county."

    The new name? Several were nominated. "New County Must Be Named Soon - Could Be Called 'Necessity,' " joked the Aug. 17, 1923 Winnett Times. Among the candidates were Cruse, Frantz, California (after a Cat Creek oil company), Flatwillow, Teigen, Corn, Harding, Ford, Dixon, Walsh, Pershing, Wilson, Sun, Star and Grasshopper.

    Petroleum won out. Petitions continued to circulate and fund raising kept the coffers jingling. "County Division" dances were the rage in the fall of '23. At the Aristo theater, the Winnett Orchestra played "sweet and low when the moonbeams beam and stardust when the starry eyes shine. Special selections at your request. Place your tip in the county division fund basket."

    Things were going great guns. By September's end, 68 percent of voters had signed petitions. However, it seems that a few anti-divisionists in the Roy area were causing trouble along the intended northwest boundary line. "This is being closely watched," said the "Times." "If any men take to the field Petroleum County advocates will immediately retaliate with plans that are formed and held in readiness for just such an outbreak." The article did not divulge just what those plans were.

    On Oct. 10, 1923, an election petition signed by 71 percent of voters was presented to the Fergus commissioners. A hearing was set for Nov. 2, postponed and rescheduled for Nov. 20.

    Editor Doherty was elated. As the campaign for countyhood waxed hotter, Winnett Times headlines grew larger and more strident. The Oct. 12 edition was no exception. "Petroleum County Petitions Now On File," raved the lead story. Just beside it, as if giving Lewistown further insult, were the results of the Central Montana Fair. Winnett area competitors walked away with 26 prizes, more than anyone else. "Eastern Fergus-Petroleum County. Where the Tall Corn Grows and the Crude Oil Flows," screamed that particular headline.

    The outcome looked increasingly bright for Petroleum County supporters, despite continued propaganda floated by opponents. The Winnett Times noted one October attempt to spread rumors that Cat Creek oil field had gone dry, supposedly to frighten residents into second thoughts about the county's future prosperity.

    Nevertheless, the Nov. 20 hearing went well. The petition was approved and an election scheduled for Feb. 23, 1924.

    With the elections seemingly secure, the proposed county's denizens began to consider the housekeeping aspect of running their own business. For example, how much salary for elected officials. County commissioners' pay was set at $8 a day plus 10 cents a mile to and from the county seat. The sheriff would receive $2,000 a year.

    Prospects looked rosy, but not everyone was convinced. The Denton Record of Dec. 14, 1923, noted, "It would appear to us over this way that things are too good to keep. In view of the past it would be well for the sponsors of the new county to watch their step and not count too many chickens before warm weather......It sounds a little fishy when the board of commissioners so readily decides that the petitions are well and good."

    Sure enough. an attorney for the opposition, Charles J. Marshall, filed a suit Jan. 3, 1924, against the petitions validity and requested a temporary injunction."

    "Who is Paying Marshall?" demanded the Winnett Times story outlining the lawyer's contentions. First, Marshall claimed the proposed county's valuation had been based on an incorrect date. According to Petroleum County backers the 1922 assessment - the only one available - had been used because the 1923 valuation was not on record.

    Second, Marshall said oil royalties had been incorrectly valued. And third, the suit claimed that notices of the hearing had not been published the necessary two weeks before the hearing date. The case was actually filed by Lewistown resident W. F. Garry, who testified that the county clerk hadn't written an order for the Fergus County Argus and Winnett Times to publish notice of the original hearing. Therefore, the notices appeared without published designation. Above all, the notices were discounted since the two-week publication requirement wasn't met. The Argus ran the notice 13 days before the hearing; the Times published it 12 days before.

    To worsen matters, the president of the Mid Northern Oil Company (a Cat Creek concern) and his attorney showed up to declare for the anti-divisionists. This action negated previous oil company promises that they wouldn't embroil themselves in the county fight.

    Judge William J. Ford listened to the oilmen's disapproval of the "creation of Petroleum County because they feared their taxes will be increased." The Winnett Times snarled: "The superior officers of the company do not live here neither do the spend their money here.... their only interest in eastern Fergus is to suck the oil from her field."

    Judge Ford ruled in favor of the anti-divisionists and made the temporary injunction permanent.

    Doherty's headlines were bigger than ever after that judgment. "Framed! Petroleum County People Now Stand at Bay - Judge Ford Hands Out Blanket Recession - Read it and Weep - We Did."

    With the slogan, "We have just begun to fight," the frenzied Petroleum proponents pushed forward to the Supreme Court and launched a third petition drive before the case went before that body in May of '24. Chief Justice L. L. Callaway upheld the injunction in his June ruling, basing his decision on the niggling technicality of the hearing notice dates of publication.

    Never daunted, the Petroleum County defenders had the bit in their teeth. Within a week of initial circulation, more than 65 percent of eastern Fergus County had autographed the third petition.

    This time, it looked as if the county bid had a fair chance. An election date was et for Nov. 4 following approval by Fergus commissioners. No one contested that decision, except Attorney Marshall who turned the air blue with "eloquent thunder... and wilted the rafters in the roof of the courtroom. His pleading fell on deaf ears."

    That was in August. In July, Editor Doherty smelled victory and promoted a "Queen of Petroleum County" beauty contest in celebration. Never mind that the election was still four months away.

    Whoever she might be, the new monarch would reign over a county that included more than northern territory than in earlier petitions. An exclusion of 2 3/4 townships, including the Valentine Post Office, was also allowed five days before the fateful day, Doherty urged his readers to "Put Petroleum County Over in the Big Vote - Three Years Struggle Comes to an End Next Tuesday A Fight for Economic Future and Self-government."

    Individuals in the 17 precincts voted Nov. 4, They cast their ballots 983 for and 235 against the new county. Winnett received 80 percent of the vote for county seat.

    Petroleum County became a reality Feb. 24, 1925, 90 days after the election. Its new officials found themselves housed in a temporary courthouse - the Eager Mercantile Co. - that had been rented from owner Elmer Eager. The county offices moved to their current location in the "Winnett Block" building on Main Street in 1929.

    Those new officials were: R.J. Woods, state representative; Gary Schellenger, state senator; J.W. Beck, county commissioner; (six-year term); Robert P. Hays, county commissioner (four-year) George A. Burr, county commissioner (two-year); Ella V. Millsap, clerk and recorder; Perry Baker Sheriff; William F. Kindt, treasurer; Kuyphauson E. Park, assessor; Ida S. Rigg, clerk of the court; Amanda Swift, superintendent of Schools; Nick Langshausen, attorney; John W. Woods, surveyor; John Sinclair, public administrator; and Dr. J.L. Alexander, coroner.

    True to the tempestuous history of Petroleum County, those new officers would soon find themselves ousted when the 1925 legislature passed a bill changing the boundaries of Fergus and Judith Basin counties. This bill abolished Petroleum County. It was off once more to the Supreme Court, which declared a section of the act invalid, restoring Petroleum County to its new-found glory.

    After all the trials and tribulations, Petroleum County was at last a legal entity - with its very own queen. That was none other than the winsome Miss Adeline Brady, whose photo was published in the jubilant Winnett Times Nov. 7 edition.

    "Miss Adeline Brady, elected first queen of Petroleum County last September is now a queen in fact." gushed Doherty's copy. This charming young lady reigns over the youngest, healthiest and most prosperous county in the state of Montana.

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.