In the heart of north central Montana there’s a quiet place where the western Bear Paw Mountains meet the eastern Montana plains. It’s a place called Blaine County.
On first glance, there isn’t much to Cleveland…except for a tiny saloon (when it is open), a schoolhouse with one room, one student, and one teacher, and a few shacks that are habited only during hunting season. And it would be perfectly fair for someone passing through Cleveland to think nothing special ever really happens there. But that isn’t accurate. Not because people seldom ever pass-through Cleveland. That part is true. But because something special happens there every single day.
In the spring, when the stiff winds from the south melt away a long winter’s snow, neighbors and friends−often separated by many, many miles−come together to help one other to gather each other’s livestock so they may be branded.
Gathering families, neighbors, and friends together on the plains in the rural areas of the United States to brand cattle is a tradition that dates back to when settlers from Europe first arrived here to raise cattle, and it is a practice few people outside of central Montana ever get to see. It is a technique for marking livestock so its owner can be identified here on the open plains where cattle from different owners often comingle together. In this practice a cowboy uses to capture and secure a calf by roping it from the seat of a horse, then others will wrestle the animal to the ground, laying it over onto its side, and then while holding the calf down, others will apply a branding iron that had been heated in a fire.
The cowboys and cowgirls of Blaine County are real working cowboys; not the ones you see on guest ranches whose primary goal is to entertain tourists. No, these are the men and women who fight Montana’s harsh weather, work hard to raise their families, and face head-on whatever else the “good Lord” throws at them just so they can put food on the plates of people half a world away.
And often, with a smile.
There are some who say the traditional lifestyle of the American cowboy is fading away. And with it, an of America’s past.
At the beginning of the previous century as America rose to prominence, 1 in 10 lived in urban areas. Today, the reverse of that is true. Ranching families like those who live in rural Blaine County are a microcosm of how American life used to be and in many ways a hallmark America’s past.
Many of the families who live there bristle at the suggestion that their traditional way of life may soon give way to something more efficient, and equally soulless. The thought of raising cattle and working the land without using the traditions handed down to them from previous generations seems positively farfetched to them. But the evidence to the contrary is everywhere.
The art of twirling a rope and capturing cattle with a lasso is gradually being replaced with the use of cold, chutes and mechanical contraptions called branding tables. Horses are being replaced with all-terrain vehicles, or as some call them, “Japanese quarter horses.” And experienced cowboys, who for more than a century have represented the spirit and grit of the American West, are seeing their ranks thinned by hired hands and school kids who have spent more time riding around in the back of a pick-up truck than they have on the back of a horse. Sure, ranchers will still raise cattle, but make no mistake about it; the traditional way of life of the American cowboy is in jeopardy. And so is the chance for others to witness it.
Guest ranches in Montana offer a glimpse into this way of life, but far from the prying eyes of tourists are real working ranches with real working cowboys. There is where men and women don’t get up at sunrise; they get up before sunrise. Their daily activities don’t revolve around the timetable of city folk who have flown in from opposite coasts hoping to experience something straight out of a western American movie they saw growing up as a kid. No, here in Blaine County, and elsewhere across Montana, you can still see the gritty reality of life on America’s ranches every single day.
The romantic spectacle of the cowboy’s hard work is also seasonal. In February and March herds of cattle are kept close to home so cowboys and cowgirls can watch closely as cows give birth to calves. Then in May ranchers invite neighbors to help brand their cattle. And their only pay is a cold sandwich and a warm promise that the favor will be returned when they brand their own cattle in the following weeks. Soon after, cowboys will drive their herds over the hills made green by the spring rains to large, sprawling fields of grass where they will feed during the summer. Then in autumn, when the winds shift and the temperatures drop, their herds are gathered once again by the cowboys and cowgirls who ride sorrel, chestnut, and palomino-colored horses and bring in the herd so it can feed on the hay during the cold, dark throes of winter. This is the way it has been in the Bear Paw Mountains for over a century. And if the ranching families here have any say in the matter, it is how it will be done for another century.
But it may not be their call.
If in fact this idyllic way of life ever does disappear, the ranchers who live in the Bear Paw Mountains, and elsewhere across Montana, will still raise cattle and people will still eat their meat. But America will lose much more than just traditions. America will also lose a slice of its character and a touchstone upon which our country was founded. Neighbors helping neighbors. Sons and daughters learning the ways of their parents…who in turn learned it from their parents. Hard working men and women who still find joy in the sweat of manual labor and who know the beauty of raising something with their hands. All of which takes place many hours removed from the nearest city and influence of the rest of America.