10 September 2007

The Legend of Tillie the Moonshiner

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 16 May 2007]

This continues the series of historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

Tillie Wallace was no angel. She got caught—the only lady known to be prosecuted for running her own moonshine operation in Montana during Prohibition from 1919 to 1933. But Tillie was more than a moonshiner. She was also a mother, a widow, a homesteader and rancher located northwest of the bustling cow and railroad town of Square Butte in southern Chouteau County.

“Tillie” or Mathilda J. Wallace was born in Minnesota in 1879, married at age 17, and in 1910 lived in Minnesota with her husband Joseph and 8-year-old daughter Carmilla. By 1912 Tillie was a widow, and she and Carmilla headed west on the Great Northern Railroad to homestead in southern Chouteau County.

In the early years all went well for homesteader Tillie, and in 1919 she proved up her claim to receive patent to 317.45 acres. Over the years, Tillie acquired more land and her place became known as the Tillie Wallace Ranch, but then the hard times of the 1920s struck. A friend of hers that she owed money to agreed to furnish her with a still and let her pay off what she owed him by making moonshine whiskey. Tillie agreed to the deal in hopes of paying off the mortgage and saving her farm. She set up the still in a crude granite stone shack with a metal roof hidden among the large granite boulders some 75 feet above her ranch buildings. The shack’s location gave a clear view of The Sag, both east and west, with a towering cliff wall in back.

Tillie was in the moonshining business for several years before
Federal agents J. Q. Adams and Richard Ginn [what a great name for a revenuer] raided the ranch late Saturday afternoon January 2, 1932. The agents searched the ranch, seized a completely outfitted 75-gallon still operation in the stone shack, and destroyed six 50-gallon barrels and three 10-gallon kegs. She admitted to the officers that she had been in business for some time and that she had ‘run off’ the last batch about two weeks ago.

In April 1932, Mrs. Mathilda Wallace went before Judge Charles N. Pray in District Court in Great Falls on a charge of “possessing machinery to manufacture liquor.” She pleaded guilty, insisted that she has never sold any whisky except to two people, and emphasized that she did not drink herself. Her lawyer related her sad tale of financial troubles and her efforts to save the farm. The agents testified that they found cobwebs over the barrels and that the still hadn’t been used for a long time. Legendary Judge Pray fined Tillie $50 and then empathetically suspended the fine after placing her on probation for three years.

Around the time of the raid on the Tillie Wallace Ranch, the same federal agents also successfully raided the Smoke House pool hall and “soft drink” joint in the town of Square Butte. The agents arrested 81-year-old William Fitzmaurice for violating the national prohibition law by “possessing liquor and maintaining a nuisance.” They seized one-third of a gallon of moonshine whisky hidden in an ice cream container in the back room.

The same day in April 1932 that Tillie went to trial before Judge Pray so did old William Fitzmaurice. His attorney made a strong plea for leniency, and Fitzmaurice pleaded guilty. As the story unfolded, the unidentified owner of the pool hall had left town to go down to Canastota for his health, so he hired Mr. Fitzmaurice to run the place while he was gone. Fitzmaurice had lived in Cascade County for thirty years, and his lawyer told the Judge that his client didn’t know the whisky was there until the officers raided the place.

Judge Pray looked at the old man, whose eyes were clear in spite of his years. The prohibition agent confirmed the statement of Mr. Holt and said he had never heard of anything against Fitzmaurice. When they went there, they were after the proprietor, and they were still looking for him. Judge Pray fined Fitzmaurice $50 on his plea of guilty and then suspended the fine on three years’ probation.

By 1932 the great social experiment of prohibition had failed, and the country waited anxiously for repeal. The federal agents brought the moonshiners and bootleggers in, and the courts, in many cases like those of the two Square Butte operations, let them go. In Tillie Wallace’s case, she was unable to keep the ranch going without the moonshine income and in 1935 she sold out for $10.

p. s. Tillie Wallace may also have been a murderer. We are tracking down rumors and will tell you more about this later.

[Sources: Set in Stone The Square Butte Granite Quarry by Henry L. Armstrong and Marcella Knedler; GFLD 4 Jan 1932, p. 8; GFLD 27 Apr 1932, p. 8; US Census 1900-1930]


(1) Tillie Wallace Still Site [Photo by Henry L. Armstrong]

(2) Typical Still and Moonshine Equipment [Great Falls Tribune Photo]

(3) “First Woman ‘Moonshiner’ Is Arrested” [Great Falls Leader Photo]

Cowboy Up! The Master Saddlers of Fort Benton

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 31 January 2007

This continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

If early Montanans rode “tall in the saddle,” that in measure was due to the work of the master saddlers of Fort Benton. During the 1870s ranching began to develop in historic Choteau County, and by the early 1880s open range ranches extended in every direction from Fort Benton. Ranches meant horses, and horses meant an increasing demand for saddles, bridles, harnesses, and other equestrian equipment.

The large mercantile houses in Fort Benton like T. C. Power & Brother offered saddles and other supplies to ranch customers in Montana and southern Canada, but it was only a question of time, before saddle makers would open for business in Fort Benton.

We may never be certain when the first saddle and harness maker opened shop in Fort Benton to fill the rising need, but we do know that L. H. Rosencrans moved from Helena to Fort Benton to become the first known saddle maker in 1876. L. H. Rosencrans, saddler, was open for business by February 2, 1877. His wood frame shop, built by Gus Senieur, was located next to the Benton Record office on the corner of Front and Bond (today’s 14th) streets. Rosencrans’ first ad carried in the February 16th Benton Record stated he was prepared to take orders for any style of harness, saddle, bridle, halter, collar, belt, or whip and that he was prepared to make old harness or saddles “good as new.” His shop over time became known as the Pioneer Harness Shop.

The 1860 Wisconsin census gives insight into Rosencrans’ origins. In that year John and Mary Rosencrans lived in Beloit, Rock County, Wisconsin with a large family including twin boys, Lucius and Lucian, born in April 1847, and a son Milo, born in 1851. Lucian H. Rosencrans arrived in Helena in 1866, one of the first saddlers in Montana Territory, and he remained in Helena for the next decade before moving on to Fort Benton. In June 1880, Lucius, sometimes Lucas, or most often simply “L. H.” Rosencrans lived in Fort Benton and was employed in the saddle and hardware business. In the census of 1880, his twin brother Lucian lived in Helena, and their younger brother Milo was a stock raiser operating out of Fort Benton.

L. H. Rosencrans worked in Fort Benton until June 1883 when he sold his business to William Glassman. He married Marcella that same year 1883, and they remained in Montana until about 1890. The Rosencrans then moved on to Freeborn County, Minnesota with L. H. still working as a harness maker.

William Glassman sold his Cheyenne Saddle Shop in Helena in early 1883, moved to Fort Benton, and on the 13th of June of that year bought the Rosencrans saddlery. William Glassman was born in Davenport, Scott County, Iowa in November 1858 of parents born in Germany. He came west by way of the cattle country of Colorado and Wyoming, and in 1878 was in Miles City. In Fort Benton, Glassman operated his saddle and harness shop at Front and Bond streets. In October 1885, he departed Fort Benton, eventually moving on to Utah. There he went into the real estate business and became active in Republican Party politics. In 1900 Glassman worked as a journalist and lived in Ogden, Utah with his wife Evelyn and two children. William and Evelyn Glassman were married about 1883, and their oldest child, Ethel, was born July 1884 in Fort Benton. Their son, Roscoe, was born in Utah in May 1891. Glassman became a leader of his party in Utah, was elected speaker of the lower house of the Utah legislature, and served as mayor of Ogden.

August Beckman, Fort Benton’s second saddle and harness maker, arrived May 17, 1878 from St. Louis with his family as deck passengers on the steamboat Red Cloud. Beckman had graduated from one of the largest saddle and harness firms in St. Louis. By late May of 1878 his stock of goods had arrived, and Beckman opened the New Harness Shop on Front Street. In June 1880 Beckman, born about 1840 in Germany, worked as a harness maker and lived in Fort Benton with his wife Louisa, also German born, and their four children, all born in Missouri.

In late 1880 Beckman built a two-story 35x40 brick building for his saddlery on Franklin Street between Baker (16th) and Power (17th) streets. His wife Louisa ran a boarding house, the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and restaurant on the upper floor. August Beckman sold his business to S. J. Kline on May 30, 1888, and went into ranching on the Teton River in the 1890s. Both August and Louisa passed away in the 1890s.

The Davidson & Moffitt harness store operated in Fort Benton from 1881 to 1883. This Fort Benton store, managed by John Moffitt, was a branch of the Helena business of A. J. Davidson. The January 1881 Holiday Edition of the River Press, reported that Davidson & Moffitt had recently completed a one-story brick building during 1881 and would add a twenty feet addition in the spring of 1882. Their store was located next to Murphy, Neel & Company, at Front and Arnoux (12th) streets. Davidson & Moffitt were agents at Fort Benton for the celebrated Concord harness and kept in stock “everything required by a horseman.” Besides their saddle and harness business, they dealt in wool, hides, and robes. The store closed in September 1883, and the River Press later purchased the building.

The longest in business and best known of Fort Benton saddlers was Joseph Sullivan. Sullivan with partner V. K. Goss moved to Fort Benton from Deer Lodge at the urging of Johnny Healy. The 1881 Holiday Edition of the River Press reported that this new firm had just commenced business in September in a building formerly occupied by J. J. Kennedy meat market. By July 1882 Goss ended the partnership and returned to Deer Lodge. The well-known sign, “Jos. Sullivan, Saddler’, hung for years over the door of the 1865 building that had housed the Blackfeet Agency and treaty of that year, located on Front Street next door to the Benton State Bank on St. John (15th). The front face of this historic building was log; an addition of adobe was added, and later a third frame structure was added to the rear.

Joseph Sullivan made friends with the cattlemen of the open range, and Charles M. Russell was a special friend. Sullivan died in Fort Benton in April 1940 after 59 years in the business, operating his renowned shop a bit until just before his death. The old building he occupied the entire time was saved and moved to Great Falls by Charles Bovey as an important part of Frontier Town at the Fair Grounds. Jos. Sullivan’s Saddlery was later moved on to Nevada City where it stands today.
Vanderlyn K. or V. K. Goss was born about 1854 in Michigan. In June 1880 he lived in Helena, working as a harness maker, before he moved on to Deer Lodge to form a partnership with Joe Sullivan. After his short time in Fort Benton, Goss married Miss Lou Watson of Mason City, Iowa in early July 1882 in Fort Benton and returned to Deer Lodge to resume business.

Joseph Sullivan was born in Ireland in December 1857 and came to the United States in 1860 as a child. Some sources claim that Sullivan was born at Port Chester, New York about 1860. Young Sullivan visited a brother in St. Paul in 1880 and kept going west to Montana Territory, arriving late that year. For a time he worked in a harness shop in Bozeman, before joining with V. K. Goss to operate a saddlery in Deer Lodge. Joe Sullivan married Rosa V. McQuillan, an early Fort Benton teacher, in 1885 in Dubuque, Iowa, and they had two daughters, Marie B. and Mary G.

Shortly after coming to Fort Benton, Sullivan received an order for 500 lightweight saddles for the North West Mounted Police, so he hired five or six more workers to help meet that order. At that time he had about a dozen employees. Sullivan made saddles for the big T. C. Power concern. Sullivan once said that two cinch saddles were most popular when he first came to Montana, but the mode changed to the three-quarter rig, one cinch. In the words of Joel Overholser, “Sullivan saddles went as far north as Edmonton and south to the Colorado line, and every puncher on the northern ranges knew or knew of Joe Sullivan . . . Joe Sullivan was a crusty old timer; a friend recalled that cowboys would hock their outfits to him to prolong a spree, get a tongue lashing later and be sent back to work with saddle and gear—they usually paid up next time.”

In a tribute to Sullivan in 1940, Overholser wrote, “The death of Joseph Sullivan, pioneer Fort Benton saddler and harness maker, marks the severing of another of Montana’s links to her colorful and picturesque past . . . The men who built the saddles which were cinched onto the hurricane decks of Montana broncs never received any part of the credit going to the cowpuncher who had made a good ride, but they deserved some of it, for when they built their saddles, they built them to last. Joe Sullivan was one of the last of these old-time saddlers.”

A one-time employee of Sullivan’s, Arnold Westfall, operated his own shop on Front Street between St. John (15th) and Baker (16th) streets for a quarter century, from about 1904 to 1931. He made some of the saddles sold by T. C. Power. Westfall was born in August 1862 in Iowa, came to Fort Benton in 1891, and married Hannah E. Johnson in 1893. Hannah was born in Norway and immigrated to the United States in 1881. Arnold and Hannah Westfall had a daughter, Ethel L., born October 1893 and a son, Arnold J., born in February 1898. In 1931 Westfall suffered a stroke and had to close his business. He passed away April 23, 1933.

Little is known of Sam J. Kline (or Cline) who came to Fort Benton in June 1882 to work for Sullivan & Goss. At some point in the 1880s, Kline opened his own harness business on Franklin Street. In May 1888 Kline moved his shop from Franklin to Front Street. Other saddle and harness makers also may have opened their own businesses in Fort Benton over the years after working for Sullivan or other saddlers.

Through the decades, the saddles of Fort Benton’s talented artisans have retained their interest and prestige with ranchers and collectors. Modern day master saddle maker, Dr. Richard Sherer of Denver, triggered this article after he restored a saddle by William Glassman and saddlebags by Joe Sullivan and asked for biographic information. Closer to home, you can see seven Sullivan saddles, some dating from the 1890s, and three Westfall saddles in our remarkable display of historic saddles at the Museum of the Upper Missouri. They are a fitting tribute to the great saddle makers of an important era in Fort Benton’s history.

[Sources: Benton Record (BR) 5 Jan 1877; BR 2 Feb 1877; BR 16 Feb 1877; BR 2 Jun 1878; River Press (FBRP) Holiday Edition 28 Dec 1881; FBRP 16 Jun 1883; FBRP 1 Jan 1884; FBRP 12 Aug 1885; FBRP 21 Oct 1885; FBRP 23 Jan 1901; FBRP 21 Jan 1942; FBRP 5 Aug 1970; FBRP 14 Aug 1974; Sun River Sun 14 Feb 1884; various U.S. Census; Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port by Joel Overholser]


(1) Fort Benton’s first saddler, L. H. Rosencrans, advertised in the Benton Record

(2) Testimony for William Glassman saddles by cowmen in the Judith Basin in the Sun River Sun

(3) August Beckman’s “New Harness Shop” Ad in the Benton Record

(4) An Ad for Davidson & Moffitt from an 1881 River Press

(5) An Ad for Sullivan & Goss from an 1881 River Press

(6) Joe Sullivan standing on the left in front of his famed “Jos. Sullivan Saddler” store on Front Street in Fort Benton with friends artist Ed Borein, rancher Julius Bechard, and an unidentified man

(7) Arnold Westfall, Fort Benton saddler

Hope & Opportunity: Homesteading in Montana 1909-1920

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 11 July 2007. The article accompanied a Homestead Photography Exhibition at the entrance to the Museum of the Northern Great Plains during summer of 2007. This Exhibition will be in the Great Falls Public Library during May-June 2008.]

This continues the series of sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

The men and women who came to claim free land in Montana through homesteading faced many trials and tribulations as they worked through the good and bad times. Visual insight into the experiences of these hearty men, women, and children will be on display throughout this summer at the entrance to our Museum of the Northern Plains. The exhibition is built from the broad collection of imagery and memorabilia held at the Overholser Historical Research Center and the River and Plains Society Museums. This community collection of photography belongs to the people of Fort Benton, and it will continue to grow through your generosity. If you have photographs of the towns, ranches, farms, rivers, and people, stop by our Overholser Center. If you can part with them, we will add them to the collection. If you can’t part with them, but are willing to share them with the community, we’ll scan them into our digital photographic archives. Meanwhile enjoy the exhibition this summer as you reminisce about our forefathers when you visit the Museum of the Northern Plains, the Montana State Agricultural Museum, and the Homestead Village.

When Abe Lincoln signed the original Homestead Act into law in 1862, he reportedly announced, “This will do something for the little fellow.” The Act allowed “the little fellow,” men and unmarried women, American citizens age 21 or over, to claim up to 160 acres of public land and make homes for themselves and their families. David Carpenter filed the first homestead entry in Montana by 1 August 1868 on a claim just north of Helena. The first woman to file a claim was Margaret Maccumber of the Gallatin on 8 September 1870. Five years were required to patent or receive title to the land in those early years.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that homesteading in Montana dramatically began to increase. Hardy Webster Campbell developed dry land farming techniques and the Great Northern Railroad promoted homestead settlements in Montana. In 1909 Campbell pronounced, “I believe of a truth that this region [including Montana] . . . is destined to be the last and best grain garden in the world. Good farming can be done here even better than in the humid region, but the work must be understood and carefully applied.”

Congress passed an Enlarged Homestead Act in 1909 allowing 320-acre claims and more flexibility for homesteaders to work at other jobs part of each year away from the claim. In 1912 the “prove-up” period was lowered from five to three years. With extensive advertising and promotion the homestead land rush to Montana was under way. Among the homesteaders pouring into Chouteau County during this period were my Robison grandparents, who with the related Applegate and Withrow families came by rail from Missouri to the Square Butte Bench area.

Many homesteaders came, but far fewer stayed. The wet years of the mid-1910s turned to dry years toward the end of this first decade, and the term “free land, no guarantee” became all too true. Our farmers of today are largely descended from the hardy first generation of homesteaders, who held down their debt in bad times, tenaciously worked hard and acquired more land in good times. We hope you enjoy our sampling of the images of these pioneer homesteaders as they arrived by Great Northern train, located their claims, built their claim shacks, established schools for their children, and carried out their daily work in the fields and in the homes.

Through the generosity of the McCardle family, you will see a model homestead, based on the A. J. McCardle homestead located near Flogan Coulee in the Hawarden area east of Geraldine. Built by son Leon McCardle, the model shows the 1912 sod claim shack build by his father. The other buildings are also built of sod, and the model provides an excellent example of an original homestead in Chouteau County.

Although many photographers took the photos in our collection of homesteading photography, two of them left an exceptional record of the own homesteading experience. Willard E. Barrows was an exceptional and prolific photographer. Barrows came from Nez Perce, Idaho, filing a homestead in the Pleasant Valley Community, February 7, 1910. Barrows lived and recorded nearly every aspect of the homestead period from 1910 to 1920. His interest in photography continued until the late 1940s. (Willard E. Barrows 1873-1951)

Using 4 by 5 inch dry-plate glass negative photography, Alexander DuBois recorded his adventures in Montana from 1914 to 1920. Alex came from the Midwest where he had taught high school and acquired the name “Professor.” Whether he was cutting timber and making ties for the Great Northern at Belton, visiting and recording the life of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Baker at their Upper Highwood ranch, or working on his own homestead near Teton Ridge, Alex DuBois captured the action in a remarkable series of photographs. Alex and his wife Alma left their homestead and Montana by 1920, and moved to the Midwest where Alex worked as an electrical engineer in Chicago and Minnesota. (Alexander DuBois 1866-1966)

Among the photographs on display are several by Willard Barrows showing the arrival of the family in an emigrant car, loading their belongings on to wagons, moving on to the claim, breaking sod with a Case Steam Engine, a four-horse team pulling a bottom walking plow, three horses and two boys on a walking plow, celebrating Thanksgiving in 1912 inside the claim shack, building a sod claim shack, the LaBarre country school and the first Pleasant Valley school, wash day on the prairie using some clever “pedal power” techniques, children playing around the claim shack.

Photographs by Alexander DuBois show him building his claim shack, tents and claim shacks in winter, hauling and stacking hay, breaking sod and plowing with an eight horse team, a binder and team of horses cutting oats, stacked wheat in the fields, and a threshing outfit on the move complete with a cook house and milk cow.

Animals were important on the homestead. DuBois took many animal photographs including one striking photo of his wife Alma holding a young coyote pup in her arms inside the claim shack. Children are shown playing with toys inside and outside the house.

The chance for free land and opportunity proved irresistible to many. But homesteading was not a free lunch. It involved hardships that are difficult to imagine today. Setting off into an unknown, undeveloped area that to many appeared as a barren and harsh landscape was but the first of many challenges to face them. Some hoped for a second chance and a better life in an occupation for which they were ill prepared. Some were lured by the railroads with advertising for “a land of milk and honey.” Over time about 25% survived and succeeded in their homesteading experience. The other 75% failed, lost their land, and moved on. Those that persevered and prevailed paved the way for future generations. Descendants of these hearty homesteaders today live on the farms and ranches of Chouteau County.

(Sources: Montana’ Homestead Era by Daniel N. Vichorek; Homestead Days by T. Eugene Barrows)


(1) A Threshing Outfit on the Move. Photo by Alex DuBois [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(2) Sohn’s Binder & Team Cutting Oats. Photo by Alex DuBois [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(3) Young Coyote in Arms of Mrs. Alma DuBois. Photo by Alex DuBois [Overholser Historical Research Center]