“You have to push a lot of ground behind you to get places in this state.”
I’m some 600 road miles from home on the other side of the divide when I read these illustrative words of Bob Fletcher’s on the Montana historical highway marker at the Wibaux rest area on Interstate 94.
Fletcher, an engineer for the Montana Highway Department, authored the original 100 or so markers that, beginning in 1935, the department placed along state roadways to tell motorists about Montana’s colorful history.
“The signs,” says another marker at the same rest stop, written by a modern interpreter, “were intended to tell a good story in a style reminiscent of a cowboy leaning against a car spinning a yarn to a greenhorn.”
And well they do.
“When a top rider from this part of the country is forking the hurricane deck of a sun-fishing, fuzz-tail,” Fletcher wrote on the Powder River marker, “some of his pals are prone to sit on the top rail of the corral, emitting advice and hollering ‘Powder River! Let ’er buck!!’ by way of encouragement.”
On a marker describing the lost frontier town of Junction, he says, “Calamity Jane sojourned there a while and helped whoop things up. She had quite a dazzling social calendar.”
And, for the tourist who might not understand the difference between “a dogie (not ‘doggie’ – dudes please note),” he further explained on the Cattle Brands marker, “A dogie is a little calf which has lost its mammy and whose daddy has run off with another cow.”
Fletcher began the Ekalaka marker this way to describe the town’s location, which in the 1930s was literally the end of the road.
“Some people claim an old buffalo hunter figured that starting a thirst emporium for parched cow punchers on this end of the range would furnish him a more lucrative and interesting vocation than downing buffalo. He picked a location and was hauling a load of logs to erect this proposed edifice for the eradication of ennui when he bogged down in a snowdrift. ‘Hell,’ he exclaimed, ‘any place in Montana is a good place for a saloon,’ so he unloaded and built her right there.”
“They were accomplished horse thieves and kept themselves well provided with ponies,” Fletcher tells of the Crow people, his fondness for these first inhabitants of the area apparent on the Crow Indians marker that once stood at Crow Agency. “Horse stealing was a highly honorable and adventurous practice amongst the western Indians.”
And it is out here, in this most sparsely populated area of Montana, that Fletcher gets downright poetic on the Big Sky Country marker in Broadus.
“Don’t fence me in,
Gimme land, lots o’ land
Stretching miles across the West.
Don’t fence me in,
Let me ride where it’s wide
That’s how I like it best.”
Later in the day, hustling through Baker, a busy, noisy, traffic-jammed, bursting-at-the-seams boomtown on the edge of the oil fields, I think of Fletcher’s laments about the loss of the real West that he saw on the horizon some 70 or 80 years ago.
“Civilization,” he wrote on the Buffalo and Indians marker out this way, “is a wonderful thing, according to some people.”
Click here to see a gallery of photographs from the southeast region of Montana.