06 January 2011

More Tales of the Remarkable Rancher Milton E. Milner

By Ken Robison

Milton E. Milner, who ruled the open range of Montana during the late 19th century, was larger than life. Yet, Milner remains shrouded in mystery. We are only just beginning to understand the scope of his life, his friendships, and his world travels. This Montana cattle baron truly roamed the hills of Montana and the cities and sights of the world. One clue to the great M. E. Milner comes from the writings of Elizabeth Shiell of Pendroy in this article she wrote in 1930, describing Milner’s ranch house in the Sag:

Ruins of Pioneer Ranch Home Remind of Enormous Holdings Once Managed by M. E. Milner. By Elizabeth Shiell. Pendroy, Dec. 11.—Strange and varied tales have been told of ranch life in Montana and among the most unusual is that about the habits and customs of the late M. E. Milner, who lived on a ranch about 17 miles south of Fort Benton in the Sag, the name of the valley through which Shonkin creek flows.

A lover of fine liquors, Mr. Milner kept a well stocked wine cellar. An admirer of ornate architecture, he built a house of many nooks, corners porches to jibe with the trend of the times in quality construction. Rich furnishing testified to his leanings for the extravagant things of the day and stained glass windows revealed his liking for the artistic. Though materials had to be hauled to the ranch by wagon from Fort Benton, Mr. Milner boasted of having perhaps the first bath room on a Chouteau county ranch.

More than that, Mr. Miler was living a life of his own liking in other ways. He was a bachelor. Whether he bore a dislike for women that might have been caused by a misfortune in younger life is not known, but he apparently was proud of the reputation he gained by never allowing a woman to visit his ranch other than possibly the wife of a foreman, who at one time was said to have been his housekeeper. Other than that single reference, his home gave shelter to none but men. A Chinese cook presided over the household most of the time.

The ranch house was built in the late seventies. One’s first impression as he drives over the rim of the hills surrounding the Sag would be that there are two houses, so many are the corners and porches and at so many different elevations is the roof raised. Rough stone fireplaces and ornaments of stone furnish still more angles and projections. Strange as this description may seem for a ranch house, the building has a simplicity of design when compared with other houses of the day that were fashionable on some ranches of wealthy landowners or that were built by wealthy men in towns. One could not guess the style of architecture. Parts of it would remind on of Swiss chalets, but other impressions are of the truly Montana ranch style.

Coming toward the ranch house one drives through green meadows dotted with trees and bushes. A large grove of elms and silver maples not far from the creek hides the house from immediate view from lower planes, and one must follow an unfenced trail along railroad tracks, through a gate and across a field before coming to the big, rambling gray log structure built by Mr. Milner some 50 years ago. His was one of the first cattle ranches in what then was the territory of Montana.

A visit in the house compels one to conduct quite a thorough inspection, so intriguing are the many observations possible in the home of this early day land baron of north central Montana.

All rooms are plastered except the dining room, which is paneled in dark wood, and one other that is unfinished. Many windows are of colored glass. All are screened and there are two screened porches.

Although arrangements of the rooms is inconvenient, the house boasts of such conveniences as built-in cupboards, dressers, chest of drawers, closets and the like. In the kitchen is a sink and a trap door leads to a cellar. There is also a small cellar—perhaps a wine room—under the unfinished room. The latter room probably was Mr. Milner’s den. Until a few years ago he kept a large collection of bottles, now lost or destroyed.

Some of the rooms are small and dark, but there are several large light and extremely pleasant compartments. There are three fireplaces, two of brick, and one of green and white glazed tile—and a bath room, probably the first in Choteau county.

Just as legends have been spoken and written of other subjects of early day life in Montana, so have peculiarities of Mr. Milner become legendary in this section of northern Montana. One hears that he was constantly having the house remodeled. The large unfinished room was being redecorated when he died.

Now the large house is occupied by employes during the haying season and whenever men are working in the vicinity. However, the most pleasant room, the one with the green tile fireplace is furnished for the Shonkin school teacher. Closed doors of the unused portion of the building give a mysterious and gloomy air to the house and most of the outbuildings are hidden from view by dense underbrush and tall weeds. On strolling about the place one is apt to come upon a sunken cellar or the ghostly, cobweb hung door of the smoke house.

Gardens that once were the pride of the ranch people are now overrun with weeds and tall grass and half hidden, are upright water pipes once used for irrigation. Water for the house and grounds was furnished by an artesian well from which a tiny stream still flows. Barns and corrals are used more often than other parts of the grounds and do not have the deserted look, but many trees in the yard are dying, with new ones growing in a way that may eventually reduce the once well-kept grounds to the state it was 60 years ago.

As peculiar as Mr. Milner was in many things, he had an interest in some things that would surprise even his friends. He would build bird houses about the grounds and would transplant bulbs, hollyhocks and other flowers. He would set out ornamental trees and would do many other similar things. Yet he would discharge a man on a moment’s notice, was overbearing and tyrannical and he spent most of his later days away from the gardens he so carefully planned and cultivated, when he developed his ranch from the wilderness of earlier days. [p. 8] [GFTD 12 Dec 1930]

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