Fromberg bar owner honors cowboys, local history

2006-05-31T23:00:00Z Fromberg bar owner honors cowboys, local historyED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
May 31, 2006 11:00 pm  • 

FROMBERG — Shirley Smith's establishment is called The Little Cowboy Bar and Museum, but you could think of it as a shrine.

It's a shrine to all the cowboys and cowgirls and rodeo riders that Smith has befriended over the years. And it's a shrine to Smith's corner of the world, the farm- and ranchland that stretches from the foothills of the Beartooths to the Pryor Mountains in the Clarks Fork River valley.

The low-slung bar on Fromberg's main drag has a green stucco front covered with red hand-painted brands, dozens of them from ranches around the valley. A weathered pair of silver-and-black cowboy boots has been converted to a set of planters, and an ancient saddle sits on a cross-bar over the hitching post.

Inside is the long, narrow tavern that Smith bought in 1972. It is crowded with photographs of cowboys and bronc riders, and many of the photos bear autographs or inscriptions. Behind the barroom is the museum — a 20-foot-by-40-foot room Smith added on when her collection of memorabilia got too large.

The museum is packed with oddball curios, conversation pieces and artifacts of local history, but mostly it is a celebration of rodeo cowboys, many of them from Montana and northern Wyoming. There is Turk Greenough's cowboy hat, Bud Linderman's bareback rigging, Bill Dygert's saddle, hat and bull rope, and an ornate leather cowboy hat once worn by Paul Holzum, a rodeo announcer in the 1930s and '40s. Other mementos, newspaper clippings, posters and photographs commemorate rodeo stars like Benny Binion, Rex Allen and Freckles Brown.

On a cowboy's trail

It was love that started Smith's infatuation with cowboys and the rodeo. She fell for a cowboy, Al Smith, and followed him from Wyoming to Montana in 1969. Shirley Smith eventually married Al, her second husband, who worked as a hand on the Greenough Ranch in the Sage Creek area of the Pryors. Through Al, Shirley Smith became good friends with most of the Greenoughs in the area, including Turk, Bill, Alice and Marge, all of whom are in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

A lot of that family tradition was distilled into Deb Greenough, a former world-champion rodeo cowboy who grew up in Fromberg and now lives outside Billings. Greenough remembers being a kid and winning a rodeo buckle for the first time. As soon as he got home, he ran down the street to the Little Cowboy Bar.

"Shirley was definitely one of 'em I couldn't wait to show," Greenough said.

A lot of other cowboys must have felt the same way. People were always bringing her collectibles and keepsakes, feeding a habit that Smith developed as a child. She spent her first seven years in a 10-foot-by-12-foot shed outside Byron, Wyo., with three siblings and her parents, though her father, a truck driver, sheep shearer and coal miner, was often away from home.

Sometimes people from town would come out and dump their garbage near the family shack. The kids would hide until the people left, then pick through the trash in search of treasures.

"I'm a pack rat," Smith says. "I just love pretty things."

As her own collection of "pretty things" grew, cowboys, friends, customers, townfolk and tourists kept giving her memorabilia to add to her collection. Before she knew it, she wasn't just a bar owner but a collector, curator and director of her own museum.

Deb Greenough said he was always amazed at how much Smith collected and how well she displayed it.

"She's taken the past and preserved it," he said. "And that's pretty darned nice because I'd never have the patience to do it."

The place to be

Shirley Smith is as much an attraction as her bar and museum. She still dresses like an old-time rodeo queen: her perfectly coiffed hair and profusion of turquoise jewelry, the fringed leather vest, handmade just up the street from the bar at Leather Legends. Under Smith's ownership, the Little Cowboy Bar has been one of the major gathering spots in Fromberg for more than 30 years.

"We've done everything in here but birthed a baby, and one day we got pretty close," she said. "We've set bones. I've pulled teeth. I've taken stitches out. I've taken ticks out of kids' ears. Lots of ticks."

Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Smith makes turkey, ham and potatoes, and other people from the area bring in salads and side dishes. Then she lays the food out in the bar and invites all comers.

"Anybody that doesn't have anywhere to go — friend or foe — we feed 'em," she said. How many people usually show up? "Well, Smith said, "we don't have many leftovers."

She is so well-known in the valley that in the mid-1980s she served one term as mayor of Bridger.

"They wrote me in," she said. "I think it's because my name was easy to spell."

Another honor came her way in 2001, when she was chosen as Ms. Senior Montana at a competition in Las Vegas. As for how old she is, that's none of your business.

"Age is a word, not a condition," she said. "I gave up aging a long time ago."

It must have worked, if you listen to Deb Greenough.

"She always had the prettiest smile and the bubbliest face," he said. "She never seemed to age, that woman."

She has a no-nonsense outlook to accompany her pretty smile. Some of her patrons are pretty rough fellows, but her bar is generally peaceful.

"Most of 'em I've pretty well housebroke," she said. "No, I don't allow any fighting in there. I've got too much memorabilia."

One regular at the bar is Guy Sower, a retired farmer from the Edgar area.

"I don't know whether you call it farming or not," Sower said. "I raised hay and sheep, and I raised hell, I guess."

Until he retired, Sower said, "I never was much of a guy to go into bar." Now he likes to stop in once a day, mostly for the chance to visit.

There's lots of visiting to be done at the Little Cowboy and lots of stories to hear. Smith will tell you about the ghost of the bar's former owner, Hank Deines, who haunted the place until the day his wife died, years after his own death. She'll tell you about her encounters with famous actors and the visitors from all over the world who've signed her guestbook.

She'll talk about Earl Durand, a local outlaw in the old days, and Tom Horn, the Wyoming bounty hunter and stock detective hanged for murder in 1903. She has stories about the old homesteader's cabin she moved onto a patch of ground a stone's throw from the Little Cowboy. Most of all, she'll tell you about the cowboys and rodeo people she's known.

"Every cowboy, every picture, we've got a story," she said. "Someday I'll put it in a book."

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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