21 September 2005

Eternal Shep: Fort Benton's Faithful Dog

By Ken Robison, Historian
Overholser Historical Research Center

[Published in The Fort Benton River Press 6 Jul 2005]

In the months since my article in the 29 Dec 2004 River Press exploring the identity of Shep’s owner, we have received dozens of letters, emails, phone calls, and visits. While the identity of the sheepherder remains illusive, we did learn much about Shep and his legend. Here is a sampling of what we learned.
We know now that a respected veterinarian examined the dog and concluded that Shep was an Australian Shepherd. Ed Shields, the Great Northern train conductor who first pieced the story together in September 1939 with the help of station agent A. V. “Tony” Schanche and section foreman Patrick McSweeney, wanted a vet to check over the newly famous dog. Shields tried, without success, to get Shep aboard the train to bring him to Great Falls. Failing that, Shields brought vet George Morrison, who operated Dr. Morrison’s Animal Hospital in Great Falls, by train to Fort Benton several times a year to examine Shep. A phone call from Jeff Morrison, of Hobson, the son of veterinarian George, brought this information to light.
From the United States Australian Shepherd Association internet website [www.australianshepherds.org], we find a description, which closely resembles the photos we have of Shep: “Black is one of the basic coat colors in Aussies. They may also have white markings on faces, chests, legs, and under parts. Copper points are also commonly seen on the face and legs. Aussie may be solid black, black and white (black bicolor), or black, copper and white (black tricolor or black tri). Black Aussies usually have brown colored eyes, although they may occasionally have one or both eyes that are blue.”

Movie film footage of Shep exists. With delight we received a phone call from Fred Arnst in Oregon telling us that his father, Dick Arnst, used a 16mm movie camera to film many people, events, and scenes around the Fort Benton area during the period 1940 to 1942. The movie film included Shep. Dick and Donna Arnst converted the 16mm movie to modern DVD and VHS formats. The two and one half minutes of Shep coverage show: the arrival of a Great Northern train; Shep meeting the train and walking up to check out the arriving passengers; Shep posing with station agent Tony Schanche; Shep doing tricks like rolling over and chasing his tail, each time rewarded with a treat by Schanche; and Shep strolling into the Fort Benton station. What a thrilling experience to see Shep “in action” 63 years after his death, The film sequence concludes with coverage of Shep’s funeral: the Boy Scouts from Troop 47 in formation with pall bearers John G. Lepley, Don Bradley, Don Colburn, and Charles Berens; taps sounded by senior Scout patrol leader Kenneth Vinion; mayors Ed Shields of Great Falls and Richard Miller of Fort Benton; Shep’s railway friends who had befriended him; and sadly, the little casket bearing Shep being lowered to his eternal resting place.
Shep continues to help Montana’s deaf and blind students. We knew, of course, about donations in Shep’s name over the years to the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind. In the 1940s Ed Shields began to sell a Shep booklet to the passengers on Great Northern trains. Sales were brisk, so Shields decided to donate the proceeds to the School for the Deaf and Blind. We did not realize that the “Shep Fund,” begun by Shields in Shep’s name, remains to this day a part of the Foundation for the School. From the beginning, funds sent to the school in Shep’s name were used to buy recreational necessities and extras for the students, which other funding simply could not cover. In an email, Morris Miller tells us that he received Shep Fund assistance while a student at the School in the 1950s. He remembers some Easter candy, for example, and states, “I have always felt kind of a personal closeness and connection with the Shep Story!” We do not know exactly how much money Shep has brought to the School, but we do know it totaled some $55,000 by 1969. We believe the total now must be well over $100,000. Remarkably, over the past decade almost $300 a year continues to come to the Foundation designated for the Shep Fund.
Shep’s legend spans our globe. At the Overholser Historical Research Center, we are constantly amazed at the global reach of Fort Benton’s famous dog. Our Center is the repository for a wealth of information about and photographs of Shep, and we receive about 50 Shep queries and requests each year. A sampling of recent Shep projects around the world includes the following:
--The Russian magazine Droug (Friend) will carry an article on Shep with our photos when it is issued later this summer. This project began with an email that read:
“Hello! You disturb from Russian magazine for fanciers of dogs Droug (Friend). I’ll would write article about dog Old Shep. At me to you the request. You could not send me historical photos Old Shep that it was possible to print them in magazine? In article I shall necessarily make a link to your site. Beforehand many thanks! Best regards, Elena Patrusheva”
After pondering the meaning, we recognized that this was a request for Shep photos. Our positive reply to Elena’s email urged that we continue the email exchange in English, since her English is better than our Russian.
--A children’s book on Montana A B Cs by Sneed Collard III, B is for Big Sky: a Montana alphabet came out in 2003. Author Collard was amazed at the positive response that the letter “S” received—the letter being illustrated with Shep and his story. Because of the reaction, the author is now working on a full-length children’s book on Shep. The text and illustrations will tell the Shep story when the book comes out in 2006. Sneed spent a day at our Center researching the Shep story and acquiring photos for his illustrator.
--A new edition is being prepared of Gayle Shirley’s popular Four-legged legends of Montana. The chapter on Shep is being updated with new information and photographs provided by our Center.
--A new work of fiction, Cold Train Coming, by Larry Barkdull features a fictionalized account of Shep and a dustcover with one of our best Shep photos.
--The English Shepherd Advocate published by Vivian Flynt in the U. S. will carry an article on Shep by an Australian author together with our photos. The article by Paul Springthorpe of South Australia, entitled “Shep—My Story” is from Springthorpe’s new book, It’s a Dog’s Life.
--A new book edited by Karen Pfeiffer, The Romance of the Collie, will carry the Shep story with our photos. Karen Pfeiffer is also the author of The Legacy of Lassie.
--The 2006 fund-raising daybook calendar for the Mikal Kellner Foundation for Animals in Helena will feature Shep.
--Stuart Beveridge of Draper, UT is working on a book about Shep, which will include photos provided by our Center.
New photos and new information. Our story in the River Press triggered a variety of other useful contacts. Richard (Dick) Stafford of East Helena, who in times past taught at Helena High School with his friend Ralph Henry (aka Eric Thane), provided us with the earliest photos we have seen of the original Shep memorial at his gravesite. Henry wrote about Montana history for students, and he was also an accomplished photographer. The package Dick sent contained eight excellent photos of the Shep memorial together with many other non-Shep photos to add to our archives.
Chuck Shinkay emailed to tell us that his father ran the dining car on the Great Northern train #235-236 between Great Falls and Havre until the service was discontinued in the mid 1950s. As a child, Chuck would ride the train with his father. He remembers the train crews pointing out the Shep monument on the hill overlooking the station and telling the story. Two years ago, Chuck took his oldest grandchild to Fort Benton to hear about the Shep story.
We heard from Sidney Kurth of Billings through his letter to the River Press about his time from April to November 1937 when he worked at the Fort Benton station. Sidney remembers that Shep would come out from under the wooden platform and meet the train. At that time Shep was aloof, not friendly, but very attentive to all the activity. After Shep had looked over the passengers and the train departed, Shep would go back to his “house” under the platform. Kurth’s observations tend to confirm that Shep early on was a loner, and only after several years began to warm up to Agent Schanche and the rail men. Certainly, by about 1940 when Arnst’s filming occurred, Shep and Schanche were good “buddies.”
Irene Schanche Bowker of California, the daughter of depot agent Tony Schanche, heard about our article through a friend in Lewistown. Years ago, Irene wrote a story from Shep’s viewpoint. She would read it to children when she taught in a grade school in Denver. She found that “The pupils loved it, and most of us had tears in our eyes at the end (including me, even though I had read it over and over.)”
Nicholas Scott Rose, formerly of Billings and now Great Falls, recently built the first known diorama of the Shep story. His three-dimensional model of the train station has people inside and outside the depot, a freight train just arrived at the station, and Shep sitting nearby on the platform looking off into the distance, waiting for a passenger train and the return of his master. Let us hope that Mr. Rose displays the Shep diorama at the Fort Benton museum complex for all of us to share.
Gar Wood of Loma, with the help of Kathleen “Alex” West and our Center, is assembling a DVD that will explore the Shep story and the origins of the legend.
We’ll leave this update on Shep without discussing the mystery of Shep’s owner. That is a complicated and continuing saga that we’ll cover in the near future. We’ll discuss also some dissident views from a handful of skeptics of the legend.
We have learned much during the past months, yet, there is always more to know. We can use more views and photos of Shep and of the people and places important in his life. If you have photos, please contact the Overholser Research Center by phone 622-5316, by mail at Box 262, Fort Benton 59442, or by email at riverplains@fortbenton.com. If you or your family can’t part permanently with the photos, we’ll be glad to scan them into our digital photo archives and return the originals to you. We welcome also personal stories relating to Shep—all of your stories and memories are important. Remember, the legend of Shep is not just a Fort Benton story but one of the world’s great animal stories.


(1) Australian Shepherd with black color coat [U. S. Australian Shepherd Association]

(2) Australian Shepherd [U. S. Australian Shepherd Association]

(3) Shep [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(4) Original Shep Monument erected April 1942 by Ed Shields and Great Northern workmen. [Photo taken by Ralph Henry, Overholser Historical Research Center]