Located south of Miles City where Ash Creek, Foster Creek, Liscom Creek and Beaver Creek meet the Tongue River is one of state’s more storied ranches. Started by William Nefsy, and then later added to by his son-in-law, C.M. Coffee, the Tongue River Ranch is as much part of Montana’s history as it is integral to the lives of those who grew up there and continue its traditions on and off the ranch today.
C.M. Coffee’s son, Bill Coffee, is the CEO of Stockman Bank and his daughter, Caren Coffee, is Executive Vice President. The bank, which C.M.’s children run today, is as much woven into the history of the family as it is the ranch.
William Nefsy purchased control of the Miles City Bank in 1953. He had the goal of creating a bank that served the needs of everyone in the area with a focus on the agricultural community and small businesses that were integral to the economy of Miles City. That goal led to the creation of Stockman Bank, which owes its name to the ranching industry and to the pioneers that settled this country so long ago. Today Stockman Bank serves most communities and agricultural areas in the state.
While one might think the world of banking is a long way from the world of ranching, Bill says he frequents the Tongue River Ranch and it is seldom far from his thoughts. “I spend time on the ranch in the spring and the fall,” Coffee said, but added, “I do more playing now than I did growing up on the ranch, and have a greater appreciation for its solitude and beauty.”
The Tongue River Ranch is a family operation that continues a tradition of ranching that runs deep throughout much of eastern Montana. While Bill spends his days running Stockman Bank and its 34 branches across the state of Montana, Bill says his sister, Caren, and mother, Virginia, are the backbone of the ranch. In addition to Caren’s duties at the bank, she oversees all aspects of the extensive operation, manages day-to-day, and is hands-on virtually every day. Regularly providing support and guidance for the ranch, Virginia still does a significant amount of cooking for the operation, sometimes feeding up to 30 hungry hands. She also pays bills, assists with bookkeeping, and is available 24/7 to care for anything needed.
William Nefsy first acquired what would become part of the Foster Creek unit in the early 1960s and then added the Liscom Creek unit to the Nefsy Ranch in the 1970s. Smaller parcels would later be added in the years that followed until his death in 1997.
C.M. Coffee was also a rancher. He moved to Montana after being honorably discharged from United States Army Air Corps not long after World War II ended where he was a tail gunner in a B-24 Liberator. C.M. competed in rodeos in every event except bull riding, winning many saddle bronc, roping, dogging and all-around titles in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico before moving to Montana. After C.M. arrived in Montana he successfully competed in many of the top venues in the area, including the Calgary Stampede, Wolf Point Stampede, and Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. However, C.M.’s first love was always ranching.
For decades, both Nefsy and Coffee managed separate operations, but upon Nefsy’s death the two ranches merged and became what is today known as the Tongue River Ranch. Coffee continued to add to the ranch up until his death in 2015.
For many years, the ranch raised Hereford/Angus cross cattle, but in the late 1970s when much of the rest of Montana was doing the same, the Tongue River Ranch started to slowly make the transition from a Hereford/Angus herd to one that was predominantly black Angus. Today Coffee’s Tongue River Ranch raises certified natural cattle, which are mostly black Angus animals, but many still have a cross of the ranch’s Hereford/Angus history contained in their blood. The mother cows, or dams, have been developed since the 1950s with only the addition of purebred bulls over the last 60 years; almost entirely Angus for the last 30 years.
The Tongue River Ranch includes irrigated land used to raise feed for the herd.
“We grow alfalfa, natural grass and mixed hay, and some corn, which is chopped and used as silage in the feedlot,” said Bill. It is located mostly in Custer County, but some is located in Rosebud County, as well. Generally bounded by the Tongue River on the north and the Custer National Forest on the south, in addition to its herds of cattle, it is teaming with wildlife. On any given day you can see elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, bear, bobcat, pheasant, grouse, wild turkey, and/or waterfowl. “And, unfortunately, mountain lions, too” Bill added.
“At the end of the day you can see the fruits of your labor on the ranch. I guess I miss that most.” Bill said. “When the sun goes down you can see the cattle were moved from one pasture to another, or the long length of fence you fixed. In banking, rewards can take longer to achieve and aren’t always as obvious. Sometimes you don’t see your hard work pay off for weeks, months, or even years.”
Bill was quick to admit, though, that there are many things he learned on the ranch that translate well into his current job as CEO of Stockman Bank. “The work ethic you learn on the ranch is most valuable. And the ability to be flexible is also important,” he said. “Flexibility and the skill to adapt are necessary every single day on a farm or ranch, and those lessons have proven very valuable to me in my job at the bank.”
“One of the toughest things about being a rancher is that you need to be a business person, a cowboy, a vet, a farmer, a mechanic, a carpenter, a plumber, and an electrician…often all in the same day.” Bill said. “And while I am no longer on the ranch every day, I will never lose that appreciation for ranchers, farmers and other businesspeople who have to juggle everything they do to succeed.”
Bill and his wife, Vicki, have two children, Colt and Abby, both of whom are in college in Bozeman attending Montana State University. Colt is majoring in marketing with minors in both finance and entrepreneurship. Abby plans to graduate with a double major in accounting and finance. And while both may follow their family’s footsteps into the world of business, they too still spend much time working on the ranch. Both ride horses and return to the ranch in the spring to help with branding and again through the summer and fall to help with what other work needs attention there in Tongue River valley. The ranch is certainly a special place for the entire Coffee family.