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Winter Comes to the Dawson Ranch : The Montana Cattleman of the '80s Is Both Master of His Land and Its Hostage

November 02, 1986|DAVID LAMB | David Lamb is a Times staff writer.

In the first cold glint of dawn, when frost clings to the high-country meadows and the autumn winds are sweet with the smell of newly cut hay, the ranch houses that reach through Montana's Boulder Valley appear from the road to be not much more than silhouettes lost in the shadows of cottonwoods and rolling hills.

Then, as if on prearranged signal, bedroom lights flicker on one after another, and soon men in sharp-toed boots amble out onto their porches, coffee cups in hand, collars of sheepskin jackets pulled high. Their faces are turned toward the west, toward the snow-dusted Bull Mountains, and they know they must hurry to cut and stack the hay and drive the cattle to lower ground before nature seals both men and animals in a capsule of winter isolation.

These men who stand there now in the half-light of dawn, who roam the valley in pickup trucks and on horses, tending their cattle as mindfully as parents do their young, sleeping for weeks on end in sheds with newborn calves before the first thaw of spring, are the guardians of an American legend. They are the Montana rancher-cowboys of the 1980s--as likely as not college-educated these days but still tough as a chunk of overcooked beef--and they are both masters of and hostages to the homesteads their ancestors carved out of raw wilderness in Boulder Valley a century ago.

Jack Dawson, 46, sets down his coffee cup and tucks a pinch of chewing tobacco alongside his gum. "Don't know what I'd do if I couldn't look out at this land every day; surely don't," he says. His Dodge pickup is loaded with barbed wire and fence poles and he climbs into it, moving slowly out onto the range, across a stream, past tightly wrapped, round bales of wild hay as tall as a man. His dog, who has scampered into the back of the vehicle, yelps unmercifully.

"Badger," he yells, rolling down the window, "keep still!" The dog ignores him, and Dawson notes with a smile, "He minds about as well as my wife."

Last season, Dawson says, was spooky. The hay ran out in the dead of winter, and he and his brother and father had to truck in feed at $82 a ton to save the herd. His banker told Dawson he had lost $10,000 on the year. His accountant figured Dawson's taxes and said he owed the government $5,000 and, with beef prices down, Dawson wondered if he'd ever get comfortably ahead. But at least this year the summer rains had been generous across Montana, producing good crops of alfalfa and wild hay for winter feed, and there was hope that the farm crisis that is creeping west across the Great Plains could be held at bay a bit longer.

Dawson, a former professional rodeo rider and still the best bronc-buster and roper in Boulder Valley, slips the Dodge into four-wheel drive. In the meadow ahead, his 83-year-old father, George, is in the cabin of a stalled cutting tractor, and Jack's brother, Dave, 40, is laboring over the machine, pulling clods of dirt and lumps of hay from its bladed mouth. Jack's inclination is to bang the $30,000 machine with a hammer and cuss a bit, a technique he finds remarkably successful with equipment that costs megabucks but has never been as reliable as a good team of horses.

"I'm plugged up," his father announces, glancing at the sky and fearing rain or, worse, snow. "Damned gopher mound. Can't see 'em too good out here, and now I'm plugged up."

"Okeydoke," Jack says.

George Dawson's Quebec-born father, John, left Deadwood, South Dakota, after years of prospecting and moved to Boulder Valley in 1882, when Montana was still a territory and the valley, according to a door-to-door census by Assistant Marshal Harim Cook, had a population of "48 white males, 42 white females, no colored males, no colored females, no blind, no deaf, no idiots, no insane."

John Dawson carried with him tales of his friend Wild Bill Hickok and a scar from a poisoned Indian arrow, which George remembers as "a homely-looking thing."

Land was mighty cheap then--160 acres cost only a registration fee of $34 if you stayed on it five years--and John Dawson laid claim to a homestead, the same one that is now the 8,000-acre Dawson ranch. Here he met and married another settler's daughter, Alice Porter from Virginia, and they had 13 children. The youngest was born when John was 79.

As the Dawson family grew, so did Boulder Valley. Irish Catholic settlers, many direct from Ireland, poured in, and whole deer would be consumed at weddings and wakes. A stagecoach line to Helena was started, and a post office was built not far from Dawson's log home--Coldsprings, it was called, though Coldsprings today is not on any map. In the fir-covered mountains just up the road, the mining town of Elkhorn boomed to a population of 2,500, boasting its own rail line to Boulder, a grand fraternal lodge and nine saloons.

"They was evidently drinkin' people," George Dawson now notes.

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