15 July 2008

"Shorty," We Hardly Know Ya

By Ken Robison

Shorty Wallin is a tall mystery! Several months ago I received a query from Dr. Paul Fees of Cody, Wyoming asking what we had on "Shorty Wallin." He came to us because he'd come across a "Charlie Russell style" illustrated letter that Shorty had sent to Vic Alexander, a buddy of his working for the Hollywood Saddlery in California in the 1940s. The letter read:

"Howdy Vic:
How would you like to be camped in a log house like this, up here in the cow country. You've been here so you savvy what i mean.
You an i we rode for a spread one time heap long time back many moons in the belt mts.
This feller standin here is a crow Indian buck. He owns a heap of range. He keeps fat for he lives on wild meat the year round includin Buffalo meat Elk & Deer,
Well i am still on the pay roll on this old cow spread. There is 300 antelope on this mans range. Including some 5000 rattle snakes that live in the rocks. Well Vic tell your lovely wife & girl hello. I am your very Meek & Humble wild Range Critter
From Black Hawk Shorty Wallin."

Shorty Wallin’s sketch of the Square Butte Ranch in 1943

Shorty’s sketch of a Crow Indian

All I knew was that Shorty Wallin wrote a letter in August 1943 with a return address of Square Butte Ranch [the W. P. Sullivan Ranch in those days] in an envelope postmarked at the post office in Square Butte Montana. We had nothing on Shorty Wallin in our files at the Overholser Historical Research Center, so I turned to old-timer Frank Mayo of Square Butte. Frank didn't let me down.

In the early 1940s, Frank was about 11 or 12 years old and helped out during haying season on the Sullivan Ranch. The Ranch was a big outfit surrounding the tiny town of Square Butte at the eastern base of Square Butte Mountain. Frank remembered Shorty Wallin as a cowhand working on the Ranch in those days. Shorty was short, perhaps 5 feet two inches, with broad shoulders and a little potbelly. He was graying some with bushy eyebrows and about 40 years of age. Frank recalls that Shorty had been a jockey in his younger, thinner days. He rode well and was a good, but not "top hand." Shorty liked to go drinking with the boys. On occasion he’d go to the town bar drinking on a Saturday night and not show up back at the ranch until the next Saturday.

One time Frank was helping hay on the Ranch. Shorty was driving a buck rake and inadvertently brought a rattlesnake in with a batch of hay where they were stacking. The rattler stirred up the horses, and the excited horses bolted breaking a broad beam on the stacker. The boss W. P. Sullivan was furious, and the snake hid inside the haystack.

Frank remembers that Shorty kept some "art stuff" in the bunk house, and he had the impression that Shorty "wanted to be Charlie Russell" but didn't have the talent.

One more clue about Shorty comes from Dr. Fees who believes that Shorty once worked on another ranch in southeastern Montana, the Bones Brothers Ranch near Birney in Rosebud County. The Bones Brothers Ranch, long owned by the Alderson family, is on the National Register of Historic Places for its historic association with the evolution of the livestock industry in the Tongue River Valley and with the development of dude ranch tourism. One of the Alderson brothers, Floyd Taliaferro Alderson, had a long career as an early cowboy actor under the name Wally Wales. Ironically, Floyd Alderson’s favorite hobby was landscape painting.

That’s about all we know of Shorty Wallin, the drifting cowboy. Where he came from and where he went remains a mystery. If you know, share your Shorty Wallin stories with us at riverplains@mtintouch.net.