With a slight twist of history, the Powder River County seat might have been named Trautman instead of Broadus.

Broadus is named after a rancher linked to Powder River County’s early cowboy days.

But members of the Trautman family were the town’s main founders and benefactors.

After working as a cowboy for the N-Bar Ranch in Texas, Oscar Broaddus came to Montana in 1885 to work for the operation’s northern property along the Powder River where thousands of cattle would graze, according to “Beyond Echoing Footsteps,” a history of Powder River County published this year.

After the Montana N-Bar Ranch closed out when a devastating winter and drought killed large numbers of cattle, Broaddus eventually built a log cabin at the mouth of Baking Powder Creek, south of present-day Broadus.

With more people moving into the valley, regular mail service became important, so Broaddus started a successful petition to set up a post office at his house with the help of his brother, John, according to Celeste Gerleman, Oscar’s great-grandaughter, who lives just across the Wyoming border south of Broadus.

A slip of a bureaucrat’s pen probably dropped one “d” from the official post office name.

That post office, subsequently operated by other people, closed in late 1905. 

Oscar Broaddus later took a claim at the current site of the town of Broadus, where he built a two-room log house.

In 1905, Broaddus sold that property and house to Gustav Trautman.

Broaddus and his family continued to farm and ranch nearby. Oscar died in 1934, after living 49 years in Powder River County. His son, Horace Broaddus, helped start the local historical musuem.

Trautman, a Baltimore native and former glove manufacturer, arrived at his property on Thanksgiving 1905 with his wife, Margaret, aboard wagons drawn by two, four-horse teams.

Trautman  established a post office at his home in 1906, calling it the Broadus Post Office, because that name was familiar to local residents and was registered in postal directories, Gerleman said.

In 1908, Trautman built a log store and stocked it with supplies from Miles City. The next year, he doubled the size of the original 20-foot-by-20-foot foot store.

In 1910, he built a frame store not far away.

The businesses did well. When the frame store burned in 1917, it held an inventory valued at $10,000.

Trautman began ranching as he continued as a merchant.

After he died in 1918, his formidable wife continued to expand the fledgling community’s prospects.

During Broadus’ early years, the town was part of Custer County.

The expansion of the Homestead Act in 1909 to include land suitable for dry-land farming opened up more land in Eastern Montana, bringing in more homesteaders.

Former Broadus Mayor Lyman Amsden’s parents homesteaded at Kingsley, 10 miles north of Broadus. So many people were in the area between 1916 and 1924 that his grandmother had 150 regular customers at a store she operated.

Some homesteaders brought international diversity to southeastern Montana.

Broadus resident Twila Talcott’s Italian grandfather, Secondo Chiesa, came to the area in 1909, and her father, Joe, came with the rest of his family in 1913 to homestead near Boyes, where several other Italian families also settled.

Talcott’s extended family included her cousin, the late Bill Chiesa, who was the longtime manager of MetraPark in Billings.

By 1919, enough people had settled in the southern part of Custer County that residents petitioned to create their own county along the Powder River.

During the campaign to choose a headquarters for the local government, Margaret Trautman promised to give 80 acres of her original ranch to the town if it became the county seat. That probably persuaded local voters to favor Broadus in the 1920 election.

The donation not only expanded Broadus, but also determined the way the community would look in the future.

Trautman stipulated that the streets should be wide enough to turn a team of horses around in, a feature that remains today. Even with diagonal parking on both sides, Broadus streets have a luxury of space.

Trautman, who died in 1943, also donated lots for three churches and two cemeteries.

Although some buildings, including those by Trautman, had been constructed in the area by 1919, no buildings were on the expanded townsite. That quickly changed as several homes and businesses — including a bank, lumber company, hotel, barbershop and pool hall — were added.

The first school in Broadus was erected in 1920.

The town flourished into the 1920s, then, like the rest of the country, was hit hard during the Dust Bowl Days.

In the 1930s, grasshoppers and Mormon crickets decimated crops at his family’s homestead, Amsden remembers.

The insects’ appetites were so voracious that they chewed on fence posts.

One time, when Amsden’s family was away from home to see a ball game, their dog jumped through a window, breaking the glass. Grasshoppers came inside and chewed the curtains.

Broadus experienced an economic boom during the late 1960s when the Belle Creek Oil Field in the southeast corner of the county was active, said Joe Stuver, publisher of the local newspaper, The Powder River Examiner.

The population of Broadus grew from about 500 to between 700 and 1,000 during those years.

During the boom, an addition was added to the high school, and a new courthouse was built. But, once oil production declined, so did the population.

Today, agriculture, mainly cattle ranching, is the mainstay of the county’s economy. Local businesses get a bump each fall from hunters who flock to the Powder River Valley in hopes of bagging elk, antelope and mule and whitetail deer.

Truck traffic passing through the crossroads of U.S. 212 and Montana 59 at Broadus also helps the local economy. On average, 350 trucks a day pass through the Broadus weigh station, said Lori Ryan of the Montana Department of Transportation.

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This summer and fall, construction of the Bison natural gas pipeline through part of the county increased truck traffic and brought workers to Broadus, filling local motels and rentals in town.

Outside of ranching, there’s little to hold local kids after high-school graduation, Stuver said.

Still, some do come back.

Kali Hayes, 21, returned to her hometown after 2-1/2 years at Black Hills State in Spearfish, S.D., 120 miles away.

She graduated from high school in 2007, one of 26 students in her class. While taking a break from college, she works at the Montana Bar in Broadus, known for the wild-game heads ringing the upper walls.

Julie Amsden Riley is another local high-school graduate who came back home. Riley now works part-time as a county extension agent.

Residents are waiting to see if coal at nearby Otter Creek is developed, which could produce another boom and bring more jobs.

Arch Coal Inc. has leases to mine coal in the Otter Creek area, although it still has to develop a plan and environmental studies need to be completed, which could take five years or more.

Some town residents, however, are concerned about changes that a coal boom could bring to the small, tightly knit community.

Residents talk with affection about the friendly people, good schools and dedicated teachers in Broadus.

“It’s a wonderful community,” Stuver said. “If anyone needs something, people bend over backward to help them. It’s the old rancher-cowboy philosophy.”

Broadus still has the feel of a cowboy town, with several few false-fronted buildings and covered sidewalks.

The line between town and countryside is blurred, with rolling rangeland and Powder River bluffs in sight from nearly any place in town.

Along with the possibility of Otter Creek coal development, the biggest local news was the town’s centennial celebration this summer.

The town’s true birthday is hard to pinpoint.

The town didn’t really get started until 1919, when it became a county seat, and wasn’t incorporated until 1946.

Because of the fluidity of the town’s early history, it was decided to celebrate the centennial this summer when an all-class reunion was planned, said David Gardner, a Broadus CPA who was chairman of the centennial committee.

The party was a rousing success, drawing as many as 2,000 former residents, quadrupling the population of Broadus for the weekend.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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