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]

Milton E. Milner Ranch Holdings

"Milner’s Holdings Described by Hinsdale Writer; Early Day Foreman Still Lives on Ranch. By F. B. Gillette.

Hinsdale, Dec. 17.—A recent Tribune story described in complete detail the big ranch home built by the late Milton E. Milner, a pioneer land and cattle baron, at the Shonkin ranch. The article also refers to the fact that Mr. Milner owned other ranches in the Milk river country, one of these on Square creek near the Missouri river and opposite the mouth of the Musselshell and another in Square coulee on Larb creek near Hinsdale, these being the ranches which served to cause Mr. Milner’s claims to the immense area east of the Little Rockies between the Missouri and Milk rivers to their junction as his range.

The hard winter of 1886-1887 practically put Mr. Milner out of the cattle business but he restocked the following year with Texas cattle and in 1890 W. W. Jaycox, now living on his Truax coulee ranch, was engaged as manager for the Square Cattle company, of which Mr. Milner was sole owner, in the Missouri-Milk river range. He continued in that capacity for 20 years, when Mr. Milner closed out his business because of his advancing years.

Shipped 15,000 Yearly. In the bonanza days of the cattle business in the northwest range states, cattle were “roughed through” the winters, no thought being given development of hay ranches, nor was more native wild hay put up than was necessary to winter a few teams and saddle horses. Several seasons were necessary to “climate” Texas cattle, and severe winters of the northwest made this an expensive process.

Jaycox prevailed upon Milner to accept his own theory that northern Montana was cut out for a maturing range rather than for a breeding country, whereupon Milner purchased young Oregon steers by the trainload for many seasons and shipped them to his Milk river range. Soon Milner was shipping beef cattle by the trainload to the extent of 15,000 a season and his wealth accumulated.

Traveling widely throughout the United States, a familiar figure in many of its great cities, especially Chicago, Mr. Milner had long been a cosmopolitan and raconteur above the average. His European travels and expeditions into spots of historic beauty gave rise to fantastic ideas in decoration of the big house on the Shonkin ranch and upon his return to the ranch from these trips, he frequently imported mechanics and artisans with instructions to decorate and finish certain rooms in certain “periods.” Often the work when completed fell short of his notion as to what it should be, whereupon it was ordered town out and a different plan adopted.

Water was piped to this ranch from an elevated spring at a reported expense of $10,000. Ornate fences and hundreds of miles of barbed wire fences, an abomination to the true range cattlemen, offered another outlet for expenditure of large sums of money.

Small and dapper, Milner nevertheless, was a man of character and was arbitrary and quick to wrath, despite which he retained the loyalty and devotion of his foreman and employes of long standing, to a number of whom he made substantial bequests in his will. To the mother of a cowboy drowned while on duty in his employ, he paid a pension as long as she lived.

Victim of Regulations. Milner usually appeared on the range about the time the beef roundups were due at shipping points but he exercised only nominally the prerogatives of the “owner.” In the chill of late October, a bed tent was used where earlier in the season each cowpuncher rolled out his own bed in camp wherever the notion struck him.

On one beef roundup Milner dropped into camp, in which, by the way, there was a hard and fast rule that there should be no talking, no smoking and no lights after 8 o’clock in the bed tent. This rule was to insure rest for all hands, as each man stood night guard two house on and four hours off. Milner was full of stories of Paris, London, New York and colorful adventures amidst the white lights and protracted his tales interminably after the hour of 8. After the courtesy due a guest had been exhausted, a couple of dog tired cowpunchers, after a whispered pre-arrangement, seized Milner from each side, dragged him unceremoniously from his bed and, throwing him over a bedroll, held him down securely, while others piled out of their own beds to chastise him, whaling him with stiff leather legs of a pair of chaps. In the darkness he could not recognize his assailants, but with sunrise he admitted the justice of his punishment.

On another occasion, between Malta and the Little Rockies, Milner arrived at the beef roundup and an engrossed were the roundup hands in his stories that they deserted their places in the circle in which the cattle were held awaiting cars. On his return to camp from Malta, Jaycox found the roundup spreading towards all points of the compass with no one on guard. Finding Milner in the center of an admiring, circle of cowpunchers the foreman ordered the “owner” back to camp and scattered the men to their posts. Milner wended his way to camp, stretched out behind the bed tent, after telling the cook “that Jaycox had hurt his feelings,” and forgot his injured sensibilities in slumber.

They tell another story about the cook. While moving camp, he met a long string of freight wagons and teamsters on the Zortman trail and imbibed too freely from whisky flasks. He was unable to cook supper and did not revive sufficiently to cook breakfast, the following morning. When ready to move camp again after the meal. Jaycox wrote out his check, rolled him, and his bed to one side of the road and drove off.

Disposed of Ranches. Milner, with the approach of age, finally sold the Square Butte and Shonkin properties about the time the Milwaukee built to the coast, the railway company purchasing real estate for town sites and one ranch for a clubhouse for officials.

The Square coulee ranch on Larb creek was sold to the American Cattle company, the “Milliron,” and later passed into the hands of Tom Garrison of Saco.

The Square creek ranch near the Missouri has passed into the hands of John Etchart of Glasgow and forms an integral part of his immense ranch in the old Carpenter and Gibson area.

Jaycox, a packer in the Crook-Merritt campaigns against the Cheyenne Sioux in the seventies, cowhand and roundup boss between the Platte and Powder rivers about the time of the “Johnson county war,” sheriff at Casper, Who. In days of heroic deeds and a cowman in north Montana for the last 40 years, now lives on the Truax coulee ranch south of Hinsdale. Well up into the seventies, Jaycox is erect, active, keen of intellect, deliberate in speech, bronzed by years of exposure and has kindly gray eyes and a mass of gray hair. In his remarkable memory is a mine of information on happenings and characters in the range country from Cheyenne to the Canadian line for the last 60 years.
[p. 4] [GFTD 18 Dec 1930]