An old-timer once complained to me about a man who was “all hat and no cattle.” The same could be said of some so-called Western towns that claim a few kitschy tourist traps, overpriced hotels, and threadbare myths make them cowboy. Th is old-timer had spent his entire life ranching in the vicinity of Miles City, Mont.—a town that remains one of the most genuine and authentic cowboy towns in America. Make no mistake—Miles City is all cattle.
Downtown lies beneath the sandstone bluff s of the Yellowstone River in the southeastern corner of the state, about 300 miles northeast of Yellowstone National Park and 200 miles north of the Dakota Black Hills. Th e surrounding northern Great
Plains are a rugged and arid ecosystem marked by short-grass prairie, eroded badlands, winding rivers, and abundant wildlife. Th ere’s enough open space to clear your head of everything but the sound of wind on grass.
Of Miles City’s 9,000 citizens, most work the land in one form or another. Agriculture and ranching are the economic engines in the region, although one of town’s largest single employers is the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory. This United States Department of Agriculture facility is “dedicated to developing ecologically
and economically sustainable range animal management systems that ultimately meet consumers’ needs.” Fort Keogh administers 55,000 acres—90% of which are covered by native rangelands that support more than 1,000 head of cattle. Like their neighbors, much of the staff works horseback.
Heading north on Highway 59, you’ll pass the Range Riders Museum and cross the Tongue River before the road quickly narrows down into Main Street. The Olive Hotel will be on your left, just across from a prominent water tower emblazoned with a back-busting bronco. Built in 1899, the Olive is where Gus McCrae dies after having his leg amputated in the epic miniseries adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. In 2004, when my older brother Matt moved to Miles City to work as a grassland ecologist at Fort Keogh, he stayed at the Olive for an entire month. They charged him a total of $300 for his stay.
I lived in Miles City for a while, and I still visit several times a year. One of my favorite things to do is walk down calm and quiet Main Street. But visit during the third weekend in May, and you’ll be in a press of people at what the local paper refers to as a “three-day cowboy Mardi Gras”—the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, when Main Street gets closed off . Usually, though, all you’ll see are diesel pickups pulling livestock trailers. A lot of locals do their business on four-wheelers, as well, often with a blue heeler or two riding on the racks. The town’s most prominent fi nancial institution
is Stockman’s Bank. Other holders of prime Main Street real-estate include Miles City Saddlery, which dates back to 1909; Kickin’ Ass Hat Company, which produces handmade hats and off ers “refurbishing” services of old hats; and the Cowboy Cobbler, where the owner wears a leather apron and breathes new life into old kickers.
My wanderings on Main Street usually conclude with a saloon visit to Range Riders, the Bison Bar, or the Montana Bar (or all three). Th e front window of the latter features a full-size mount of a bighorn sheep that was killed in the area about 100 years ago, just about when the bar opened. In the foyer, you can put your finger up to a hole that was blasted through the glass back when you were supposed to check your guns at the door. The booths are upholstered in black cow leather, which only recently replaced the horse leather that had covered them for an unknown number of decades. The walls are hung with the heads of famous and prize-winning cattle, including a steer that used to lead the cattle drives up from Texas. The actual bar is a finely chiseled masterpiece that originally came up the Yellowstone River by steamship.
Two doors down, the Bison Bar has missed only one day of business in the past 67 years—a brief panic on May 18, 1980 when Mount Saint Helens erupted 780 miles to the west. It’s a great place to catch up on local news and gossip, like the multiple conversations I’ve had there about a mysterious “wolf-like” creature that kills sheep
north of town. I’ve also heard about cattle rustlers getting busted, and about horse thieves who hadn’t been busted. A guy once told me about the 130-pound paddlefish he’d caught on the Yellowstone River, and another guy went on about hunting coyotes outside of town and having felt something sharp under his fanny when he sat down under a rock ledge. When he turned around to investigate, he discovered a stone spear point made by Ice Age mammoth hunters.
Miles City’s history is as gritty and tough as any place on the Plains. It’s named for Colonel Nelson A. Miles, who was hastily dispatched to eastern Montana in July 1876. Just one month earlier, on June 25, Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors had annihilated General Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. (Chief Gall, a Hunkpapa Sioux who rode into the battle with a hatchet, is said to have claimed that all of Custer’s 210 men were killed in the amount of time “that it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner.”)
The defeat was utterly humiliating to the U.S. military. Th e nation bristled for vengeance. Colonel Miles selected the confluence of the Yellowstone and Tongue Rivers, one of the wildest corners then left on the American frontier, as the base of operations for punitive expeditions against the renegade Indians. And he named the battlement Fort Keogh in honor of an Irish-born Captain who had died on Custer’s battlefield with his horse’s reins still gripped in his hands. Keogh’s horse, Comanche, had multiple axe and rifle wounds and was one of the few to survive the battle.
Fort Keogh was a military success. By 1880, most of the tribes that had once claimed the region as their hunting grounds, including the Sioux, Blackfeet, Crow, and northern Cheyenne, had been “pacified” and moved to reservations that now occupy some of the least hospitable and poorest corners of Montana. Fort Keogh went on to experience an influx of settlers and commerce, leading to growing pains—primarily alcoholism. Whiskey was so prevalent on Fort grounds that Colonel Miles banned its distribution within a two-mile radius. A resourceful whiskey peddler set up shop at the requisite distance, and eventually aggregated the town that now carries the Miles name. (Fort Keogh was transferred to the USDA in 1924.)
The Northern Pacifi c Railway reached the fort in 1881, thereby tapping into the core of the “northern herd”—the last large buffalo herd still roaming the Great Plains.
A reported half-million buff alo were said to have roamed within 150 miles of Miles
City, and hundreds of hunters flooded into Miles City that winter. Buffalo hides
became a major, if short-lived, export item. Within two years of the railroad’s arrival,
the buff alo were decimated and did not warrant much of a chase.
When the renowned hunter and naturalist William T. Hornaday visited Miles City in 1890 in hopes of collecting a buff alo specimen for the Smithsonian, he found that town residents had abandoned buff alo hunting completely. The hunters, reported Hornaday, “had either hung up their old Sharps rifles, or sold them for nothing to the gun dealers, and sought other means of livelihood. Some…became cowboys.”
Wild buffalo may no longer migrate across the Yellowstone River, but that hardly means that the wilderness has vanished. My friend Paul Faber, owner of Faber’s Taxidermy, puts it this way: “Right now is the good ol’ days.”
My brother and I recently field dressed an antelope so close to Miles City that we could see the water tower. Later that same fall, we harvested both whitetail and mule deer on public-access land within 30 minutes of downtown.
This May, Miles City will host the 60th annual Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. While the tradition was formalized in 1950, it actually dates to 1914, when an informal group of stock contractors began gathering every spring to buy and sell bucking broncs for the upcoming rodeo season. Since then, the Bucking Horse Sale has morphed into one of the biggest and best cowboy parties in the nation. Known simply as “Bucking Horse” to
locals, the event is held on the third full weekend in May. Spectators come in from around the country and the world, doubling the population of town for those
Bucking Horse features non-stop action, with steak dinners, packed saloons, live music, and a parade. But the event remains true to its roots—it’s all about the horses. Every year, about 200 broncs are brought to town and sold. These include some soured and ornery saddle horses, but many of the broncs have never felt the weight of a man. Th e animals are debuted for potential buyers at saddle and bareback competitions held in front of packed audiences. Judges rate the performance of each horse (and rider), and the owner of a prime bronc can come away with good money. Nyoka Twitchell, a Bucking Horse organizer, sums up the spirit of the event: “The riding competitions are open to anyone willing to get on.”
The most popular Bucking Horse events, however, are the wild horse races held each night at 6 p.m., when mayhem rules. All at once, nine wild racers are released from stalls on a racetrack, along with nine teams of three cowboys each. The teams compete to be the first to catch, saddle, and race one of the broncs around the track.
“There are always a lot of wrecks,” says Twitchell. “It keeps the crowds coming.”
On Saturday night, after the wild horse race, traffi c on Main Street is shut down and five or six bands play live music up and down the street. People dance through the night, and it gets hard to tell whether the saloons are overflowing into the streets or the streets are overfl owing into the saloons. It’s the party of the year. But for a town like Miles City, the “cowboy Mardi Gras” is not a one-off . Here the Western lifestyle is for real.
Plan It: Great Plains
Visit the bar at Miles City’s Historic Olive Hotel and marvel at the wall-sized mural depicting the aftermath of Indian warriors on the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Fort Benton’s Grand Union Hotel dates back to 1882, and received a full restoration for its 117th birthday. Its deck overlooks the Missouri River.
Built in 1894 by Seth Bullock, the lawman elected to clean up Deadwood after the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, the Bullock Hotel is among the area’s finest.
The Rough Riders Hotel, in Medora, N.D., is operated by the non-profit Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and features Roosevelt-themed art, a conference room, and newly renovated bar and lounge.
The Circle B Chuckwagon, in Rapid City, S.D., pairs live shootouts, music, and meals. 800-403-7358, circle-b-ranch.com
Some of the finest steaks in Montana (no joke) can be had at The Rex, in Billings.
For excellent steaks with plenty of local color, try Jamestown, N.D.’s Frontier Fort Bar and Grill. 701-252-7492
The Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills may one day rival nearby Mt. Rushmore. 605-673-4681, crazyhorsememorial.org
Visit the High Plains Western Heritage Center, in Spearfish, S.D.
The Range Riders Museum, in Miles City, was founded in 1942, and is open April through October. 406-232-6146
Float the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. Upper Missouri River Guides, 800-783-2770, uppermissouri.com