Subscribe for 17¢ / day

MELVILLE - No one would use the word "stoic" to describe William Henderson Donald. Rather, his grandchildren smile today as they recount their late grandfather's zest for life and his flamboyant ways.

"My grandfather liked to have a good time," said grandson Bill Donald, his words understating the colorful life of the man for whom he was named.

The story of William Henderson Donald marks the beginning of a ranch that has survived for nearly a century. It is also the story of three William Henderson Donalds, three generations of men who have shaped their lives in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains.

Had it not been for Bill Sr.'s journals - 20 years of handwritten records - the tale would likely have been relegated to the footnotes of history.

• • •

Bill Donald, the patriarch, was a New Yorker of Scottish ancestry who had just graduated from Princeton when he came to Melville in the spring of 1909.

"He just always wanted to be out West," his grandson said. "He was a romantic."

In an early letter home to his businessman father, Bill Sr.'s words, written in flowing cursive hand, reflect his boundless optimism. He tells of a young neighbor buying up 6,000 acres for $35,000 and he describes the booming activity at every city along the rail line, from the Dakotas to Montana.

"Out through here they are making money hand over fist," he wrote. "They talk about making 20 to 50 percent on their money every time."

It's obvious the young adventurer was intrigued by the culture, taking special note to describe the broad-brimmed hats, gaudy handkerchiefs, high-heeled boots and tremendous spurs worn by the locals.

"Afraid that I will have to go in for it too pretty soon as I can't ride around like a tenderfoot," he wrote to his father.

• • •

When Bill Sr. arrived in the Melville area, the Lutheran church there - the state's first Lutheran church - was barely 23 years old. He worked at area ranches and stuck it out until he could buy his own. At the foot of the Crazy Mountains, along Sweet Grass Creek, he set up his headquarters for a guest ranch and Hereford operation.

Beginning with a few thousand acres, he amassed a patchwork of holdings that included land as far west as the timberline in the Crazies and property several miles east of Highway 191. The man who would one day chair the state Livestock Commission and sit on the state and national Stockgrowers' Boards also bred Morgan horses that he sold to the Army.

During his years on the ranch, Bill Sr. began to chronicle his ventures. Beginning in 1922, he made a daily habit of jotting down comments about ranching and weather. As the years rolled by, his notations grew livelier and he began adding sketches at the bottom of each entry.

The tiny scenes vary from brandings to a bear breaking into their lunch during a trip into Yellowstone Park. For all his skill as an artist, "he could not draw a cow to save his life," Bill said, laughing.

• • •

While Bill Sr. relished life in Montana, Alma, the wife he brought out from New York, did not. According to Bill, Alma's plans to establish a home for wayward boys didn't work out. The Donalds' marriage didn't work out, either. The couple had one son, Bill Jr., and divorced a few years later. Alma, who chronicled her Montana years in her novel "Love and Three Squares a Day," packed up and moved to the West Coast.

"The ranch life drove her crazy," Bill said. "It was a pretty short trip for her."

Meanwhile, Bill Sr., who remained single for the rest of his life, didn't lack for female company.

"He was kind of a ladies' man," Bill's wife Betsy, said with a grin.

Bill Sr.'s journals describe a lively social scene in Melville. With several guest ranches in the area, ranch life was punctuated with dancing, drinking and card playing.

"Feeling kind of rough this morning," reads one of his entries. "Had a flock of cocktails last night."

A contemporary of Will James, Bill Sr. and the renowned author and artist became fast friends.

"He (James) was supposed to come out here to dry out," Bill said. "I think he picked the wrong spot."

• • •

During good times, Bill Sr. traveled extensively, with frequent jaunts to New York and even to Mexico and the Caribbean. But when the Depression hit, Melville felt it. In July 1937, Bill Sr. writes that he had no choice but to move his Herefords to winter range because the "hoppers had devoured all that was left of his summer pasture."

Yet, less than a year later, he noted that the countryside was rebounding.

"Went down to lower ranch," he wrote. "Have not seen lower ranch looking so well in years. Lots of grass and water running in coulees."

That same year, he describes an outing to Chico Hot Springs with friends.

"A few drinks of good scotch, excellent dinner and an argumentative game of bridge till about 10 p.m., when we all adjourned to the swimming pool - still arguing," he wrote.

By the 1940s, the gregarious rancher's life took a solemn detour. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, he traveled to medical clinics - even meeting Lou Gehrig - in hopes of finding a cure for what was draining the strength from his legs.

As his world unraveled, Bill Sr. was forced to sell the ranch off in pieces. One parcel, the lower ranch, he sold for $2.50 an acre. The ranch headquarters on Sweet Grass Creek stayed in the family, but only by a shoestring. The Donald family patriarch sold the place to the sister of his son's wife.

• • •

Long before Bill Sr. passed away in 1945, son Bill Jr. was already dreaming of following in his father's footsteps. While attending high school in Seattle, he wrote in his yearbook that he dreamed of owning a big cattle ranch in Montana.

"He had a vision," Bill said of his father. "His intent was always to come back."

When Bill Jr. returned to the Big Sky state, he met Ann Carberry, a young girl from New York who was vacationing at a neighboring dude ranch. The two married and started from scratch, leasing a ranch in Two Dot.

By 1954, Bill Jr. was able to buy his first place in the Melville area. Situated on Cayuse Creek below Porcupine Butte (where Bill and Betsy now live) he incorporated the Cayuse Livestock Co. and began raising Angus cattle and Rambouillet sheep.

As years passed, Bill Jr. began to add to his holdings. He never bought back the lower ranch - the place Bill Sr. had sold for $2.50 an acre - but he bought a ranch to the west of it for $24 an acre. About then he was probably feeling land rich and cash poor, Bill said. Then, a few years later, after the deaths of Ann's sister and her husband, Bill Jr. and Ann inherited the main ranch on Sweet Grass Creek.

"It took a lifetime of work for Dad to piece this back together," Bill said. "It was his goal to pass it on. And by all accounts he succeeded."

• • •

Bill Jr. passed away in 2006, but the Donald legacy lives on in the third and fourth generations. Bill and Betsy work the ranch from the Porcupine Butte place and Bill's sister Elli and her husband, Paul Hawks, run a small guest ranch, the WD Ranch, from the original ranch headquarters on Sweet Grass Creek.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Bill continues to expand ranch boundaries. He admits that today's ranch, which surpasses his grandfather's in size, is "pushing the envelope," but he's leased more ground to make room for the kids to "come home."

Their son Josh - the first in seven successions of Donalds not named Bill - works with his father from his home on Sweet Grass Creek. And son Wyatt manages a leased ranch near Cody. Meanwhile, Bill makes a frequent dash to Columbus to keep an eye on the cattle they run on the Beartooth Ranch.

Sadly, the days seem too short for anyone to follow their patriarch's meticulous habit of recording the events of the day.

"I've tried it a couple of times," Bill said, smiling. "But I guess I just don't have the discipline."

0
0
0
0
0