Broad smiles and quiet congratulations, many spoken in Crow, celebrated the return Wednesday of a dryland ranch on the outskirts of Billings.
The return to the tribe comes about 70 years after the land was sold to a white rancher.
Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote agreed at Tuesday’s public auction in Billings to pay $989,400 for the 1,933-acre Hairpin Cavvy ranch, outbidding about a half-dozen others.
“It feels good,” Old Coyote said. “Instead of tribal lands receding, we’re actually gaining some lands back and that’s our whole intent.”
The vast Crow Reservation ranks fourth highest in the number of acres that have been sold off to non-tribal members, according to a December study by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Hairpin Cavvy ranch lies five miles southeast of Billings off U.S. Highway 87E, a land of ponderosa pine, sagebrush and rimrocks near Pryor Creek.
After the tribe completes its purchase from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Crow leaders will decide how to use the ranch. The land could continue to graze horses or cattle, Old Coyote said. Or the property within sight of downtown Billings, with a single water well and two springs, could eventually be used for housing.
“A lot of tribal members live in and around Billings, so that might be a potential site for tribal members,” he said.
In the 1950s, the Crow Tribe sold the land to R.B. Fraser, a cattle and horse rancher and owner of a local Hudson car dealership. His daughter, Carol Fraser, an accomplished European-trained horsewoman, built a riding arena and taught dressage. She also paid franchise fees to Kampgrounds of America and once operated the ranch as a riding and camping facility, according to Carol Fraser’s niece, Rene Rosell Yarbrough, of Billings. KOA said it has no record of the ranch being an official campground, although there were plans there to develop a ranch/campground prototype.
The Fraser family sold the ranch once and then it was purchased by James Leachman, a Billings cattle and horse breeder who named it the Hairpin Cavvy after his horse brand.
Last December, after a weeklong trial, Leachman was found guilty of abusing his horses and sentenced to five years in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, with all but 120 days suspended. Acting as his own attorney, Leachman has appealed his conviction and has until May 10 to present his opening briefs to U.S. District Judge Susan Watters.
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In 1979, the FSA made an emergency $1.7 million loan to Leachman and his company. When payments were missed, the agency foreclosed.
In 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull ruled that the Hairpin and the Leachman Cattle Co.’s larger Home Place Ranch farther east be sold to help pay delinquent debts.
Leachman fought the sale all the way to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which upheld Cebull’s decision.
In the summer of 2010, the FSA purchased the Hairpin at a U.S. marshal’s sale. After a year passed without Leachman being able to redeem the ranch, the FSA received the deed.
As required by law, the FSA first tried to sell the property to a beginner rancher, but only one incomplete application was received, according to FSA farm loan program specialist Marilyn McMullen of Bozeman.
The FSA then tried to sell to the highest bidder, but all three bids were deemed not worthy, she said.
Finally, the agency decided to sell the property at a public auction run by Musser Bros. Auction.
Nearly 80 people showed up for Tuesday’s auction at the Hilton Garden Inn. Twenty-six people brought a $50,000 cashier’s check required to bid, and about seven were active bidders, according to auctioneer Merton Musser, who would not disclose their names.
A neighboring ranching family, the Stovalls, bought the Home Place Ranch. Two years ago, the Crow Tribe seized about 800 of Leachman's horses for trespassing on tribal lands and sold them at auction.
Although the FSA did not receive the Hairpin’s latest appraisal price of $1.1 million, the agency got close to breaking even, McMullen said.
“I’m pretty happy that the Crow Tribe bought it,” she said. “It thrills me.”