Story and Photography by Ryan T. Bell
Driving east on U.S. Highway 87 from Great Falls, Montana, it doesn’t take long for the landscape to look like a Charlie Russell painting. Belt Creek aligns with Belt Butte like they appear in Romance Makers, a quintessential Charlie Russell painting.
I found the spot with the help of the C.M. Russell Auto Tour booklet, a travel compendium to Montana’s “Charles M. Russell Trail” (russellcountry.com). The 100-mile route between Great Falls and Lewistown is scattered with landmarks found in Russell’s iconic artwork.
I pulled over on the side of road and held the picture of Romance Makers up against the landscape. Everything was in place: the cottonwood tree-lined banks of the river, the rocky outcroppings of the butte, even the Highwood Mountains in the distance. I could just imagine a party of mountain men riding across the grassy benchland.
Charlie Russell’s artwork captured the world of the frontier West. Northern Montana’s landscapes bring these paintings back to life. And what better way to experience Charlie’s world than to pick a favorite Russell painting and set out to find where it was created.
For my pilgrimage, I pursued The Last of 5,000, a haunting image of a starved-out steer in the dead of winter. Chasing it would take me to the Judith Basin, the heartland of the Charlie Russell story, where I hoped to meet people living in the tradition of Charlie’s West. And, it’s the 125th anniversary of the deadly winter of 1886, the season that inspired Charlie to paint it.
I tossed the auto tour booklet on the passenger seat and drove my truck back onto the Charlie Russell Trail.
When Charlie Russell first came to Montana in 1880, he didn’t arrive by way of Highway 87. He traveled by train from St. Louis, Missouri, to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he hopped a narrow gauge train to the end of the line on the southwest boundary of the Montana Territory. There, Russell caught a stagecoach north to Helena, and then rode horseback through the mountains to the grasslands of the Judith Basin. All told, the journey took him one month.
I left my home in southwest Montana and arrived in Utica in five hours. The small town is the epicenter of the Charlie Russell story. In his day it was a lively frontier outpost. But the bustling Main Street depicted in A Quiet Day in Utica was library quiet, and many Russell-era buildings were half-crumbled to the ground. On the bright side, at least Utica wasn’t a tourist trap – it was still ranching country.
I followed Main Street out the back end of town where it met up with the Judith River and wound into the Little Belt Mountains. Twelve miles later, I passed through the wagon wheel-clad gate of the Circle Bar Guest Ranch (circlebarguestranch.com), home to Charlie Russell seekers since 1920. Owners John and Debi McTurk invited me to join them and head wrangler Floyd Forbes for breakfast. Forbes, a Russell expert, gave me a rundown of the artist’s first years in the valley.
“When Charlie came up from St. Louis, his brain was filled with images of the Wild West,” Forbes said. “He didn’t know how hard it would be to make it out here.”
Charlie’s first job was tending sheep not far from the Circle Bar Ranch. But he was a bad shepherd, by Charlie’s own admission, and he lost the job after only two months.
Starving and broke, Charlie wandered aimlessly along the Judith River, contemplating his next move. Maybe he’d quit Montana and return home to Missouri, he thought.
Serendipitously, a mountain man named Jake Hoover found Russell and took pity on the youngster. He invited Charlie to live with him in the mountains, and Charlie did for the next two years. Russell apprenticed under Hoover, learning the skills of the frontiersman. When he returned to paid cowboy work a few years later, as a night wrangler for the Judith Roundup, Russell was competent enough to keep the job.
“Why would a seasoned mountain man like Hoover take a gunsel like Charlie under his wing?” I asked Forbes.
“Because Charlie was just a sixteen year old kid. He reminded Hoover of himself when he came into the territory. Besides, Jake lived alone and could use the company.”
“If Hoover hadn’t come along,” Debi McTurk added, “Charlie Russell wouldn’t have become the Western artist we know today.”
After breakfast, Forbes and McTurk rounded up the Circle Bar horses so we could go see Charlie Russell country the way it was meant to be viewed, from the back of a horse.
“Old Charlie, he rode all throughout this country,” Forbes said.
Forbes would know. He’s tracked Russell through the Little Belt Mountains since 1971, when he moved from New York to Montana.
“I was like Charlie, I wanted to be a cowboy.”
In 1989, Forbes hired on to wrangle for the Circle Bar, and his passion for Charlie Russell went full throttle. He joined forces with George “Sonny” Trask – owner of the Jake Hoover cabin – to explore every game trail, stage line, wagon wheel rut and Indian route going to and from the Pigeye Basin.
“Sonny and I backtracked from the Hoover cabin, searching for the trail Hoover and Charlie used to get to Utica,” Forbes said.
Their research showed that Charlie had seen Sioux and Blackfoot Indians coming and going from Hoover’s cabin. So they followed an old Indian hunting trail, and discovered the setting of Russell’s When I Was a Kid. They’d found Hoover’s trail to Utica.
Sonny and Forbes hatched the idea of an annual Charlie Russell Ride. Guests would ride out from the Circle Bar Guest Ranch to see the different trails, landmarks and artifacts they’d discovered.
“We held the first Russell Ride in 1990,” Forbes said. “There was only one rider. He fell off his horse on the first day, and we took him to the hospital. The next year went better.”
The Russell Ride ran for the next ten years, becoming an institution among Charlie Russell aficionados. However, both the ride and the guest ranch went defunct in 2001. Debi John McTurk bought the Circle Bar in 2009 and are breathing life back into the historic outfit. They have plans to resume the Russell Ride in summer 2011.
We rode our horses to the top of Porcupine Hill where there was a sweeping view of the Pigeye Basin.
“Of all the paintings Russell did, there’s not one featuring Red Hill,” Forbes said, pointing to a prominent landmark to the northeast.
“It’s the prettiest sight at sunset, when it glows bright red. Charlie rode through the Pigeye Basin for years, but he never painted it. I think he chose not to because he didn’t want people coming here and spoiling it.”
We rode back to headquarters and unsaddled the horses in front of the Circle Bar’s big red barn. I asked Forbes what he knew about The Last of 5,000, but he suggested Sonny Trask was the man to ask.
I’d planned on seeing Jake Hoover’s Cabin anyway, so I called up Sonny and scheduled a visit. I could barely make out his directions through the static of his cell phone.
“Take South Fork Road…(crackle)…mountain meadow… Trask Ranch sign…can’t miss it.”
After driving for eight miles through dense forest and narrow canyons carved by the South Fork of the Judith River, I began to think I was lost. Then, the mountains spread and a grass meadow unfurled like a fairway. If I were a golfer, I’d have reached for a five iron.
Trask showed me around his property. The first stop was a log building located in the front yard of his modern ranch-style home.
“For Jakie (Sonny’s name for Jake Hoover) to sell the land to my granddad, he had to build a home to prove up the homestead,” he explained. “Charlie helped him and my granddad build that house.”
According to Trask family history, Charlie sketched charcoal drawings on the log walls. Sonny’s grandma wasn’t fond of Charlie, and she whitewashed over them.
“We asked some experts if there was a way to save the drawings, but there isn’t.”
The tale was an example of a recurring theme in Charlie Russell country: the spurned wife who destroyed a piece of Charlie Russell artwork in effigy. Russell was a rowdy man who had an undesirable influence on otherwise happily married men. Naturally, that rubbed their wives the wrong way.
One comical incident involved the painting Cowboy Camp During the Roundup. It was commissioned in 1887 by James R. Shelton, owner of the Utica saloon. Charlie had an ongoing feud with Mrs. Shelton and to pester her he painted the figure of a man in a “delicate” position in the background. (Sonny heard that it was a man urinating on the side of a building.) The painting hung in the Shelton home for a while before Mrs. Shelton spotted the figure. When she did, she was irate with Charlie.
“Russ, you just paint that thing out right now!” Mrs. Shelton demanded. “No one but you could do that.”
He fixed the faux pas, but later snuck back into the Shelton home to return the painting to its original state. Mrs. Shelton spotted it again, and called Russell back to repaint it. This happened four or five times so that today there’s supposedly a conspicuous bump where multiple layers of paint were applied to Cowboy Camp During the Roundup.
Trask and I walked a mowed-down trail to the river where the Jake Hoover Cabin stood. It was evident that Sonny took his gatekeeper job seriously. When the logs rotted out and the roof caved in, he salvaged what materials he could (the rock fireplace, the sod roof, the hand-carved door hinges) to build a replica cabin in its place. During the process, he saw first-hand the mountain man’s ingenuity.
“Jakie dug a trench under the cabin from the doorway to the fireplace and filled it with river rocks. When he built a fire in the fireplace, the rocks heated up like radiant heating. He could be gone for two or three days, and return to a warm cabin.”
The cabin had two rooms. On one end was a meat storage room where the logs didn’t have chinking so that air could circulate. The opposite end was a one-room dwelling, about 12 X 16 feet in size. It must’ve been close quarters for two men to live in during the winter. And yet, Russell kept up his artwork, improving dramatically during that era of his life.
“What do you know about the painting The Last of 5,000?” I asked Sonny.
“Well, Charlie painted it during the winter of 1886,” Sonny said. “He was herding cattle for Jesse Phelps, manager of the OH Ranch near Utica. The cattle owner, Louis Kaufman of Helena, wrote Phelps asking about the condition of his 5,000 head of cattle. Most of them were dead. Charlie painted the picture of an old steer, starving to death and about to be eaten by coyotes, for a response. Phelps sent it to Kaufman without a note.”
“Where was that steer grazing?” I asked.
“On Red Hill,” Sonny said. “Me and my dad used to run cattle in that country, and Red Hill was the best winter grass. That’s where a steer would go to make his last stand.”
“That piece of property belongs to the Wertheimer Ranch now,” he added. “They’re good folks. I bet they’ll let you go up there.”
I’d been fortunate on my journey that the people I met were willing to show me around and to share their stories about Charlie Russell. The Wertheimer Ranch was no exception.
I pulled up in front of a white barn where a man was shutting the barn’s sliding door. It was Paul Wertheimer, manager of the ranch. He had just finished shoeing his horse. I introduced myself and told him the purpose of my visit.
“Tomorrow we’ll gather cattle on the backside of Red Hill,” Paul said. “You can ride along, if you want.”
Twenty four hours later, I was seated on a well trained ranch gelding. It bore Paul Wertheimer’s brand, Bar N Bar, on the left hip. Paul and his nephew Mark rode similarly handsome geldings.
To a visitor like me, it was like riding on hallowed land. But what did working cowboys like Paul and Mark think about Charlie Russell?
“I like his artwork, and I appreciate the way he painted cowboy life,” Mark said. “He got it right: the horses, the gear, the cattle. You can’t say that about a lot of Western painters.”
Mark had a point. Macabre as it sounded, the steer in The Last of 5,000 was anatomically correct. Every bone in his emaciated body was correctly placed.
“Have you guys seen winters as bad as that one?”
“Oh yeah,” Paul said. “But the difference is that technology helps us survive. We have machinery to put up hay in the summer, and to feed cattle in the winter. They didn’t have that in Charlie’s day.”
In a lot of ways, the Wertheimer Ranch is an example of how the winter of 1886 changed Montana ranching forever. It’s estimated that 50-60% of Montana cattle died that winter. Outfits like the H-O, where Charlie worked, watched helplessly as their herds died by the thousands. To recover, cattleman learned to irrigate, to put up hay, and not to overgraze the land. There have been bad winters since, but Montana cattle have survived.
In fact, it had been a particularly lush summer and the Wertheimer rangeland was the color of a Green Bay Packer football jersey. It was hard to conjure the bleak winter landscape of 1886. But trade green for white, and this is what Charlie Russell saw on that fateful winter day. Here it was; where The Last of 5,000 met his demise.
Before leaving Utica, I stopped off at the Oxen Yoke Inn, a local watering hole known for their “bigger than the bun” hamburgers. The interior was, predictably, decorated in a Charlie Russell motif. The bathroom was wallpapered floor to ceiling with Russell prints, and they had graffiti on them. Not typical graffiti, like a cowboy with a penciled-in mustache or a phone number to call for a good time. Rather, livestock brands drawn on the animals in the pictures. The wall was practically a brand registry of the entire Judith Basin. I found one horse sporting Paul Wertheimer’s Bar-N-Bar. That poor bag of bones steer in The Last of 5,000 had multiple brands. And some joker had pencil-branded “E = MC2″ on the shoulder of a bucking horse in A Quiet Day In Utica.
As I drove the Charlie Russell Trail home, I wondered if it was sacrilege to defame Charlie Russell artwork on his home turf? But, Charlie loved of a good joke, so I suspect not. He’d laugh and be glad to know that the rowdy spirit of the frontier is alive in the twenty-first century. Hopefully, Charlie would take it as a sign of our appreciation and the fact that when we look at his artwork, we see ourselves.
Books on Russell
Charles M. Russell, Peter H. Hassrick
Trails Plowed Under, Charles M. Russell
The Life and Work of the Cowboy Artist, Harold McCracken
The Story Teller’s Art, Raphael James Cristy
C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, MT (cmrussell.org)
The Utica Museum, Utica, MT (theuticamuseum.com)
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX (cartermuseum.org)
Circle Bar Guest Ranch (circlebarguestranch.com)
Russell Country Montana (russellcountry.com)
Montana Tourism (visitmt.com)
Ranch Web (ranchweb.com)