Harley O’Donnell died Thursday morning, after a brief illness, his three daughters close at hand. Harley was born in Billings, Sept. 11, 1920, the second son of Ignatius and Afton O’Donnell. The family lived on Hesper Farm, west of Billings, and the boys attended Elder Grove elementary and Billings High School. In high school they took an interest in raising turkeys and, later, took over the farm.
Harley married Lucile Thiel Nov. 9, 1941, and Lucy not only nurtured three daughters, but worked side-by-side in the turkey business. Together they built it into the only commercial-scale turkey operation in Montana. Many area residents will remember ordering their holiday turkey, delivered fresh, from O’Donnell’s Turkey Farm. Or, as an elementary student, may have visited the farm around Thanksgiving to be toured around by Harley and given a golden wish-bone.
Active in the community, Harley was a 4-H Leader and active in the Elder Grove School, Yellowstone County Farm Bureau, Yellowstone Historical Society, Pioneers of Eastern Montana and the Western Heritage Center. He was a board member of Parmly Billings Library for ten years.
After he retired, Harley became interested in Montana history. It seemed natural, since his grandfather, I.D. O’Donnell, was a pioneer and had been instrumental in the introduction of irrigation to the Yellowstone valley and the western states. I.D. had made Hesper Farm into a showcase for irrigated agriculture, introducing new crops, notably the sugar beet. He later helped build the sugar factory in Billings along with numerous other public institutions. Hesper Farm held a treasure trove of antique farming equipment, historical documents and I.D.’s personal manuscripts.
Through tireless research, Harley became an expert on local history, self publishing two books. The Big Ditch is on the first irrigation canal dug in the valley that brought row agriculture and greenery to the semi-arid landscape. The second book, Montana Monographs is based on a series of interviews done by his grandfather in the late 1920s with pioneers who came to the state in the 1870s and 1880s. Harley’s third manuscript, his grandfather’s biography, is awaiting a publisher.
Harley took an interest in a little known sandstone rock inscribed in the early 1800s with signatures of Manuel Lisa and John Colter. He felt strongly that the inscription rock should be protected from the elements and designated as an historic site. Designation apparently required the physical evidence of Lisa’s fort, located on the Yellowstone River somewhere in the vicinity. Harley and a group of dedicated volunteers have persisted for years in promoting the preservation of the rock and trying to locate the elusive fort. To this end, Harley spearheaded the formation of the Yellowstone Basin Preservation Society.
Throughout his active life, Harley always had time for his family. Lucy was his lifelong love. He remained close to his daughters, was a second father to his grandsons, an indulgent great-grandfather, and had just been introduced to his great-great grandson. We will all miss him so much.
He was preceded in death by: I.D. O’Donnell Jr. and Edith Afton (Orton) O’Donnell (parents), I.D. O’Donnell III (brother), Lucile Mae (Thiel) O’Donnell (wife of 64 years) and infant son Harley,
Harley is survived by daughters Sue Carol (Ronnie L.) Delger and Patricia Jeanne Wiggins (Billings), and Dawn Lucile (Charles Bill) Remington (Smithers, British Columbia); grandchildren Kimberly (Jim) Coonis (Sheridan, Wyo.), Derek Delger (Bree) (Billings), Kelly Johnson (Dallas, Texas); eight great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.
Memorial Services will be held at the Smith Funeral West Chapel, 304-34th Street West, Billings. Services will commence at 2 p.m. followed by a reception. Internment will follow at Mount View Cemetery.
Memorials in Harley’s name may be made to Yellowstone Basin Preservation Society, 2212 Hoover Lane, Billings, MT 59102 or Yellowstone County Museum, 1950 Terminal Circle, Billings, MT 59105.