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Jim Wempner

Jim Wempner, an organizer of the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive, reminisces in his ranch bunkhouse about the 1989 event. A fund set up by the organizers after the cattle drive still benefits rural Montana.

Jim Wempner likes the idea that the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive created a legacy that lives on today.

Wempner, a retired banker and rancher, helped organize the cattle drive that celebrated Montana’s 100th birthday. The drive kicked off 23 years ago, on Sept. 4, 1989.

The centennial event started in Roundup and ended up with a parade down Main Street in Billings, six days and 60 miles later. A massive undertaking, the cattle drive involved 105 drovers, 2,812 cattle, 208 wagons, 3,337 horses for 2,397 cowboys and cowgirls, and 79 horse wranglers.

The cattle were sold at auction, and after the bills were paid, the $125,000 that remained went into a fund to help students, then rural communities.

Wempner, 85, sits in the bunkhouse on the 1,000-acre Eagle Cliff Ranch he owns, off Ford Road in Lockwood, and relates how the philanthropy came about.

His voice has some gravel in it. Thanks in part to getting thrown off a horse more than once, his gait is slower than it once was.

Wempner is at a time of his life when he wants to make sure that everything is in order, including the money from the cattle drive.

His bunkhouse is filled with memorabilia, with framed pictures, paintings and cartoon drawings. One depicts an episode in his life drawn by cartoonist Stan Lynde, a friend.

In 1987, Lynde and cartoonist Barry McWilliams approached Wempner with an idea for the cattle drive.

Wempner had his doubts.

“But Stan was a good personal friend of mine and I appreciated his thought, so I didn’t want to say I thought he was nuts,” Wempner said with a laugh. “Then I got to thinking about it, ‘my gosh, that’s not too bad an idea.’ ”

So the trio put together a video and they started showing it around Montana, drumming up support for the idea. They also formed the nonprofit Latigo Foundation.

Not everyone was convinced the cattle drive was a good idea. People expressed skepticism that it could be pulled off, but the trio didn’t let it faze them.

“You know Montanans,” Wempner said. “When you tell them they can’t do it, that’s when they do it.”

When the three men took the idea to Gov. Ted Schwinden to get the idea sanctioned as a centennial event, they also heard about the Community Development Foundation, which was trying to get sanctioned.

“On the way home, Stan and Barry and I got to talking about that,” Wempner said. “We decided if we ever get this thing going and made any money, we would give it to the foundation for the benefit of rural Montana.”

Despite a few complications, the cattle drive was a big success. Wempner recalled the parade down Main Street in Billings, thronged by thousands of onlookers.

“It was 5 o’clock in the morning and it had rained that night,” he said. “It was still kind of misty, but the sun was starting to come out. And we came off of the Sindelar place onto Highway 87 and that string of cattle and the people yelling ‘Happy birthday, Montana.’ That was something.”

As promised, the organizers put $125,000 into the Latigo Fund, handled by the Community Development Foundation, which eventually became the Montana Community Foundation. At first, the money went for scholarships to agriculture students.

“That was good to do, but it was only helping one person, so we kind of changed it over to where we would give it to something good for the larger community,” Wempner said.

Since its origins, the fund has grown to $205,000, said Linda Reed, president and CEO of the Montana Community Foundation. A total of $58,000, the earnings from the fund, has been granted to individuals and a few organizations.

Money has gone to such efforts as a rural community conference held in Bozeman, the Yellowstone River Parks Association and ZooMontana, Reed said. It also helped renovate the Dupuyer community hall, purchased park and trail signs in Roundup and helped Valley County with bus service along the Hi-Line.

The money has been given in sums as small as $1,000 and as large as $10,000 she said.

For years, Wempner, Lynde and former Meagher County Commissioner Jamie Doggett, who also helped with the cattle drive, sat on a Latigo committee to help decide where the money went. Now responsibility to make those decisions has formally been turned over to the Montana Community Foundation.

Wempner is fine with that.

Reed said she is glad to continue what the cattle drive organizers began.

“It’s just completely visionary what they did to leave this legacy gift for Montana,” Reed said. “It will be around forever. It’s a way to keep the memory of that event alive.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.