21 July 2010

“With cattle on a thousand hills and prairies”: The Remarkable Milton E. Milner

By Ken Robison

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

Long before the great A. B. Guthrie published his book “These Thousand Hills,” this cowman’s term was used by Judge F. E. Stranahan in a fine tribute written in 1934 to perhaps Montana’s least known, yet greatest open range rancher—Milton E. Milner. Friend to his many young cowboys as well as to the rich and famous, Milner roamed the hills of Montana and the cities and sights of the world. Painted by Frederick Remington and Charles M. Russell, investor and perhaps originator of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, M. E. Milner left a legacy through foreman W. P. Sullivan that extends on down to today.

More about Milner and his amazing accomplishments later, but meanwhile here is what Judge Stranahan had to say in the July 24, 1934 Grass Range Review under the headline, “Judge Tells About Ownership and Operation of Old Milner Livestock Company
“I have just sent out the last check that has paid the final distribution of the full par value of the capital stock and have accomplished the dissolution of a corporation that has written “finis” to one of the greatest cow outfits of the west, the Milner Cattle company, and I have been asked to write of this outfit and of its founder, Milton E. Milner. I am glad to do this, because I have read some articles that were not very complimentary to the latter.

“Mr. Milner was one of the pioneer cattlemen of Montana. In the earliest annals of the business he formed a co-partnership with John M. Boardman, and the firm of Milner & Boardman ran cattle for a time on the Shonkin range. After this partnership was dissolved, Mr. Milner entered the business on a much larger scale and formed his corporation. He was the only stockholder of it in the west. All others were eastern people, and the company operated in northern and eastern Montana, with ranches of many thousands of acres at Shonkin, Square Butte and other places, now owned by William P. Sullivan, who was formerly one of Mr. Milner’s foremen. The roundup and shipping points were principally in Chouteau and Valley counties.

“With cattle on a thousand hills and prairies, with scores of range riders to care for them, this corporation ran its life out and expired by lapse of time just as death ended the career of its organizer 21 years ago. The open range was then closing, and his work was done. For the stockholders and executors of the Milner will, I took charge and renewed the corporation mainly for the purpose of liquidation and closing out business affairs where Mr. Milner left them. Since its renewal I have been secretary of the liquidating corporation, and during that time, besides sending out checks for annual dividends, the original investment of each stockholder has been paid in full twice over, but that was not a marker to which they received in dividends when the company was a going concern.

“The business under the Milner management was a prosperous one, chiefly, I think, because his first great care was for those who actually did the work, for in their hands and subject to their loyal and efficient service, all the profit producing assets of the company reposed. His secondary anxiety was for those whose money was invested, and they revered him for his high character, his strict integrity and his careful business methods to such an extent that they named their children and their grandchildren for him.

“The Milner brand of humanism stood out in bold relief where the workers in the business were concerned. I have never heard of his like outside of fiction. To the men who handled the cattle he was like a loving father and no service on his part was too great for their comfort and advancement. If a young cowpuncher in his employ showed himself worthy and inclined toward a better education, Milner would take him out of the saddle and put him through school or college and pay all his expenses. Such a case came under my observation while carrying on the Milner estate and I enjoyed the privilege of watching over the young student in an Iowa college and of handing him $1,000 cash upon his graduation, in accordance with the provisions of Mr. Milner’s will.

“At the old Fort Benton ford of the Missouri river, where the Crow and Blackfeet war parties crossed to rob and fight each other for possibly a thousand years, the Milner outfit was crossing a beef herd for shipment many years ago. Charlie Mudgett was foreman of the drive. Charlie was one of those splendid cowboy characters now being sung and told of in song and story. Some of the beef animals were inclined to stall and turn back and refuse to take the water. To prevent that mishap, Charlie rode into swifter water than he expected. His horse’s feet were swept from under him and Charlie drowned. The grief of the employer at the loss of such a young man seemed boundless. A silver coin found in the pocket of the dead man was made into a watch charm and worn by Mr. Milner. He supported and cared for Charlie’s mother throughout his life as though she were his own and made provision for her in his will, when he could not longer care for her in person. But the most unusual gesture of affection and regret was Mr. Milner’s direction that, upon his own death, his body be cremated and its ashes strewn upon the waters of the ford where Charlie Mudgett lost his life. That was done.

“The ever popular romance of the wild west, now carried on almost exclusively by drug store cowboys, probably found its origin in the mind of Mr. Milner. One of the chief stockholders of Milner Cattle company was Nate Salsbury [Salisbury], a famous New York actor and theatrical man. On one occasion Mr. Milner suggested to Salsbury that he organize a show company to portray that wilderness of the western region. Salsbury was in doubt about it. It was a novel proposition. He told Milner the theatre was the glamorous land of make believe where some greater pretender who could lead and hoodwink the people in a most realistic manner was necessary to the success of such an enterprise, and where in all that wilderness out there could such a fakir be found.

“Milner told Salsbury he did not think that would be a stumbling block, that we had out here in the west one of the finest lookers and one of the biggest showmen he ever saw, who was called “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and so the great wild west show was born. Salsbury took it around the world with wonderful enthusiasm among his audiences until Bill thought he was the whole show and would quit unless it was turned over to him. Bill could fake Indians, stage robbers and cowboys, but the balance sheet and the show went on the rocks. Bill went broke but, like the soul of old John Brown, the romance, so auspiciously started, still goes marching on.

“Another nationally appreciated actor was James O’Neill, who was also a stockholder in the Milner company. He was a handsome man. I have seen him, some 60 years ago, fill a theatre to overflowing with ladies on a Saturday afternoon matinee. At the outset he put $7,000 in the company and often said it was usual for him to never again see a dollar of his ordinary investments, but that Milner had given him back his money so many times over that he was almost ashamed to take it. His son, Eugene O’Neill, world famous writer of plays, succeeded to his father’s shares upon the death of the latter.

“Mr. Milner may have indulged in some crochets. Who has not? Some people were not favorably impressed by him. He did not always follow their lines of conduct. His name had been Miller but he said he knew so many Millers who had misbehaved and there were so many pesky insects of that name who fluttered in such an annoying way around his reading lamp at night that he went into court and had his name changed to Milner. While he entertained the highest respect for the religious beliefs of others, he had none of his own. He did not take kindly to the supernatural. He was a man of education and refinement and possessed of considerable wealth and he was courteous and genteel and rather inclined to be chivalrous to the members of the fair sex. He never married. His life was lived in the rough and his idea was that the rough was no place for a lady. He contended himself with his large family of cowboys. He was a lover of the beautiful in flowers, plants and works of art and on his winter jaunts he gathered articles he keenly enjoyed in his ranch homes--quaint jewelry, garnished with precious stones; fine linens, tapestries, and choice fabrics of various kinds and beautiful etchings. In his will he said he would leave a list of his most intimate friends who were to receive gifts from his collection but he forgot to make up the list. His chief executor, A. H. “Bert” Davis, a foreman of the company, was so intimately acquainted with Mr. Milner’s desires that he made the distribution without the list.

“Mr. Milner had become so thoroughly attached to his cowboy family that he left the bulk of his fortune to them and the memory of that manly man is still green in the hearts of the beneficiaries of his bounty. What matters it, then, that no kindred hand soothed his last hours, that no storied urn marks his last resting place, that no animated bust tells his story and that the great river still sweeps his ashes downward to the sea." [Source: Montana Newspaper Association 23 Jul 1934 The Grass Range Review]

In his early career as a painter, Remington took a number of opportunities to paint portraits of westerners at work. In 1889, Remington accepted a commission from Milton E. Milner to show him and an associate, Judge Kennon, out searching for new cattle range in Montana Territory. Prospecting for Cattle Range is an example of Remington's early style, featuring realistic details, tight use of line and clearly articulated shapes.

Lot 2263
Frederic Sackrider Remington
American, 1861-1909
Trotter, circa 1885
Inscribed Dear Milton/I present to you this oil/reminisce of your past cowboy life/I am sure you miss it/Memorable fine days we will/treasure always/Remember?/Frederic R. (lr)
Oil on canvas mounted on canvas
30 x 22 inches
Milton E. Milner
Thence by descent in the family to the present owner
This work is accompanied by a letter of authenticity from the Remington Examination Committee.
Sold to a buyer from Florida for $67,000

Milton E. Milner, the original owner of the present work, was a shareholder in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Company, incorporated in 1887. A Montana cattle rancher, Milner commissioned Remington in 1889 to paint him and an associate out searching for new cattle ranges in the Montana Territory. Located near Fort Benton, Montana, the Milner ranch was incorporated in Montana as the Milner Live Stock Company in 1884, and was eventually renamed the Milner Cattle Company.

The pose of the horse and rider in Trotter is similar to that of another pair depicted on the left of the painting commissioned by Milner, Prospecting for Cattle Range (Collection Buffalo Bill Historical Center). The Frederic Remington Examination Committee, which has authenticated the painting, has suggested that there may be a relationship between the two works.