May 11, 2005
Nightfall on Thunder Butte Creek
One day "Dutch" Parot came by the Crowley house and asked if John would be interested in taking care of their ranch for a month, while they took a trip out of state. Mr. Parot was going to pay a dollar a day, which was a welcome windfall at the time, so John agreed to help out.
On the first day, Mr. Parot escorted John around the ranch. He pointed out all the chores that had to be done, including treating sores on the buck sheep, feeding grain to some old hospital sheep they kept around the ranch, bringing in the milk cows and penning them up with their calves at night, etc.
Everything went smoothly the first day. As it grew dark, John tied the horse in his stall in the barn, about 300 yards from the house. He had earlier corralled the cattle and locked them in for the night. As it was getting dark, John lit the kerosene lamp, fixed himself something to eat, and settled down for a long evening of reading.
If you have never been in an isolated country setting when it gets dark, it is hard to describe. The creeks and flats come alive with giant cottonwood trees, buffalo berry bushes, and willows. The night gets very black, very fast. It can feel intimidating.
Soon after John had settled down to read, he heard the horse stomping his feet in the barn, snorting, and acting very disturbed. The old hospital sheep that had been down by the barn started to bleat and ran past the house. Then, John heard the cattle stampede out of the corral. The fence parted with a ripping sound, and the cattle could be heard running over the hill behind the house. It was pitch black outside by this time and John was not about to go out and find out what the problem was. He didn’t even have a flashlight.
The Parots had a friendly, mid-sized dog that John had fed and kept outside that night. As John sat riveted to the couch, the dog came tearing through the screen door like a shot. He just tore the screen out of the door as he came through, and then hit John in the chest as he jumped into his lap. Then, the horse tore himself loose in the barn. John could hear him whinnying as though in terror, and then there was a splintering of boards as he kicked a hole in the side of the barn. Then came the sound of his hooves thundering over the hill behind the house as he ran full tilt in the direction the cattle had taken.
John ran to the door and stood in the doorway as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. As he stood there, he thought he heard the plaintive voice of an old lady calling a name, as of a child. It sounded like she was calling, “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy….”—at least that’s the name John thinks he recalls hearing. John stood paralyzed with fear as he witnessed a pale gray figure floating along the picket fence in front of the house. Although it was hard to make out details, the grey form seemed to resemble an old lady. At this point, John called out to her, "Lady, what do you want?" She ignored him and continued to call out the name until she reached the garden gate. Then, she just melted away into the darkness.
John had an old 1925 Chevrolet automobile parked out in front of the house. He remembers literally flying out to that car, cranking it violently, racing the car across Thunder Butte Creek, and through the ranch gate, without stopping. He didn’t stop until he got back to the Crowley ranch house. The Parot’s dog followed him, and spent the night at the Crowley place.
The next morning John returned to the Parot ranch with his father. They found the place a mess. The fences were torn down where the cattle had been penned. The horse had destroyed the inside of the barn, and the dog had ruined the screen door on the house. His father helped John repair the damage, and John continued to do the chores at the Parot ranch every day without incident until the Parots returned home. They came out to the Crowley’s place and retrieved their dog. The Crowleys said not a word to them about what had happened, and they asked no questions. John has told this story many times, but it remains a true mystery to this day.
May 10, 2005
The Train Whistle Blows No More
It’s amazing to think about it, today, when most of our notions about steam locomotives come from old Western movies. But, the steam locomotives were every bit as powerful as the diesel technology that followed. They had a much more voracious appetite for fuel and water, though, which spelled their doom in the end.
When John Crowley was young, he used to sit on top of Thunder Butte and listen to the old steam train pull in and out of Faith. According to John, “It was over 20 miles away. You couldn’t see the train but you could hear the whistle as it echoed across the plains—the most lonesome and mournful sound one could ever imagine.”
After World War II, more farmers, ranchers and people in the towns began to buy cars and trucks. Declining use of the trains had an impact on business. Passenger services were the first to go. Finally, railroad officials decided to cut all service to the area. Between 1979 and 1980, all of the rails and ties were pulled up on the Mobridge to Faith line. That was over 25 years ago. Still, it's sad to think that the train whistle will never be heard from the top of old Thunder Butte again.
May 09, 2005
Toughest Guy on the Prairie
Joe Crowley During WWII (Click for a Larger View)
Joe Crowley was a tough guy in his youth. Years before Superman, the Man of Steel, was popularized on television in the 1950’s, Joe enjoyed a reputation around Thunder Butte as an “iron man.”
Maybe the way he spent part of his childhood helped toughen him up. According to the family, when Joe was nine, he hired out to a sheep man to help with the lambing. When the lambs were born—often in the middle of the night—Joe would put the ewe in a little tent with her lamb to keep the lamb from getting cold. Joe used to spend lonely nights out on the prairie, in chilling rain, with only the sheep for company. He did it willingly, though, to help the family earn money.
Once, when Joe was a little older, he and Tommie were out roping and riding wild steers near the butte when all of a sudden Joe got thrown high in the air from one steer. When he came down, he ran at the steer and tried to hit him—even though he had bones poking out through his skin, where they had broken.
Not far from Thunder Butte was a coal mine. The locals would go there in the fall and mine coal for the winter. One fall, when Joe was 17 or 18, he was working at the mine. He came home with a huge, gaping hole in his back where another miner had struck him in the back with a pick axe. Whether this happened by accidental or not, the rest of the Crowleys were never sure. Mayme poured whiskey in the wound and bandaged it. Although it must have hurt like hell, Joe never said a word. Within a short time he healed up.
One year, at the Fall Roundup in Faith, Joe rode a couple of bucking broncs. Then, he entered the bulldogging trials. When one steer raced across the arena, Joe dove off his horse to catch the steer’s horns. At the last second, the steer changed directions and Joe landed on his head. He was knocked out cold. A couple of other cowboys pulled him over into the shade, but he didn’t regain consciousness for about an hour.
Joe was at a barn dance near Lemmon one night when a fight broke out—not a rare occurrence in those parts. A guy by the name of Sam Irons billed himself as the toughest man in the area at the time, and there was always some young fellow willing to try him in a fight. Joe was standing at the edge of the crowd, watching the fight. Joe’s girlfriend was standing behind him with her arms around him and her head on his shoulder. Suddenly, Sam Irons swung at someone. Sam missed and hit Joe in the head. Joe’s head snapped back and knocked his girlfriend out cold. True to form, Joe then stepped in fought Sam and a couple of the other guys who had been challenging Sam. Afterward, he and his girlfriend went back inside and danced as though nothing had happened.
Joe had his share of fist fights at country dances, both before and after the incident with Sam Irons. He had a lot of scars to prove it. Unlike today, fighting was considered sport in those days—at least it was out in the prairie settlements. There always had to be a guy in the area known as the local tough, and fighting was how it was determined. So, Joe was not considered a brawling bad guy or a thug.
Joe had his moments in his youth when he could be a real ne’er-do-well, as do many of us. One of the more embarrassing incidents occurred when he was hired by the City of Faith to be their Town Constable at the Fourth of July celebration one year. They gave him a badge, a revolver, and a bunch of shells. Along in the early hours of the morning, Joe got real bored and shot out some of the street lights. That was the end of that job.
In June 1942, Joe joined the Army and shipped out to Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Joe got into bar room fights every once in awhile while he was in the service, as did a lot of the fellows. Someone got hurt real bad and died after one of those brawls. It left Joe chastened. Later, after the war, Joe moved to Alameda, California, and tended bar at a small place called the Buckhorn for years. He lived a mostly quiet life with his wife, Mary, in a small rented house. Despite his new surroundings, though, Joe looked the wizened old cowboy until the end of his life—tall, lanky, cowboy boots, a western shirt, and a cowboy’s string tie.
May 08, 2005
Plenty of Wild Fish on the Prairie
One day, after a big rain, Gene and his new pal Tony were were riding a couple of old cow ponies south of Thunder Butte Creek. Gene noticed that the mud puddles on the prairie were swarming with what looked like minnows—little fish. He asked Tony what they were and Tony told him that they were “wild fish.” Since you don’t see fish out on the open range every day, especially wild ones in mud puddles, Gene jumped off his horse and started stuffing all of his pockets with fish. When the boys got back to the Crowley place, Mayme made Gene empty his pockets, and the now lifeless fish spilled out. Of course, they weren’t fish, after all. Mayme explained what pollywogs were, and how they come to inhabit mud puddles after a good rain.
After that first summer, Tony was with the Crowleys much of the time for the next three or four years. Tony and Gene always remained great friends as they were growing up, even though Tony sometimes pulled Gene’s leg with tall tales about the prairie wildlife.
May 05, 2005
Return to Thunder Butte
Early in the trip, as we crossed Nevada, I marveled at the vast, rugged expanses and deserts filled with scrub brush and an occasional cactus. I remember telling Grandma how beautiful I thought the desert was. Grandma was in her late seventies, had seen a lot, and wasn’t impressed. She had lived much of her life in empty lands—especially the country in and around Thunder Butte. She said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Everyone fell into an uncomfortable silence after that. Maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I have been fascinated with big, empty places ever since.
We stayed in a variety of campgrounds along the way, always pitching a tent alongside the trailer. In Ellis, Kansas, we camped in a little city park along Big Creek. That night was the first time, too, that I had ever seen fireflies. When we left the next morning, we drove off leaving my seven year old brother, Sean, in the rest room. We got about an half hour down the interstate before anyone realized that we had left him behind. I’ll never forget the look on his face when we returned a half hour later and found him sitting next to the rest room, tears streaming down his face. He thought that we had left him and were never coming back. Everybody felt bad for him.
Ellis Lakeside Campground (Click for a Larger View)
We drove to Missouri to see my Uncle John, where he was raising three little boys all on his own, and spent a night in Hannibal, Missouri. The air was so thick with humidity that you couldn’t stay dry. In fact, we all felt drenched trying to slumber in our sleeping bags that night. We traveled up into Illinois to see my Aunt Kathy and her family, and then on into Wisconsin to see still more cousins. Then, we doubled back, heading west into the Dakotas. I’ll never forget how flat and empty the land felt. We stopped to visit my Uncle Neal in Faith, South Dakota, as we traveled on towards Thunder Butte. Neal used to be the Police Chief in Faith. We spent a couple of days visiting Neal and his wife Chubby.
After a day or so in Faith, we drove up to Thunder Butte. We left the trailer in Faith and headed up the highway towards the butte. Of course, then—as now—the roads to the butte are not all paved. We turned off the paved road at some point within site of the butte and onto an old ranch road. Even with the 4-wheel drive engaged, I think my Dad worried a great deal about whether we would bottom out in the ruts, or tip the truck and camper over. The truck really lurched over the road. We were all thrown about in the camper. And, we just barely crawled along at a snail’s pace on that rough track.
Finally, the butte loomed in our view as we drove up on top of a little rise. It seemed huge. Dad stopped the truck, and all of us kids spilled out of the back of the camper. Dad pointed in the distance to where he thought the old homestead was, but didn’t want to risk driving any further. My Mom set about making lunch, while Grandma refused to get out of the camper. My dad tried reasoning with her, and I could hear her raising her voice, “You’re not going to leave me here! You brought me all the way out here just to leave me, didn’t you!” My grandmother was in the throes of some kind of panic attack caused by the site of the old butte. Despite all of my Dad’s entreaties, Grandma wouldn’t get out of the camper to take a look at the place she had lived almost thirty years—from 1913 to just after the start of World War II. That was when I knew that life must have been pretty rough for her, living out by the butte. She never had talked about it much. She never wanted to return to the butte. She never wanted to go back.
I walked aimlessly away from the camper to think about Grandma’s troubles, as well as to take in the view of the countryside around me. Not far away, I spotted something sticking out of the dirt through the sparse prairie grass. I thought it was a rock and kicked at it. Then, I reached down and pulled at it. It was an old strip of leather. I kept pulling, and within moments had pulled an old cowboy spur out of the ground.
As I rejoined the family to show off my find, we were all attacked by a swarm of flying ants, and had to climb back into the camper to escape. My Grandma was still going on about how we were trying to leave her “out in this god-forsaken country”—a place that she thought, somehow, God had forgotten. That’s the way she thought about it. And, the attack of the flying ants only proved it. She hadn’t been meant to come back. We didn’t stay long. Dad started up the truck and we slowly made our way back to the paved highway, the butte receding into the distance.
I’ve kept that spur and have never forgotten Thunder Butte. In my mind, sometimes I climb to the top of Thunder Butte and take in the empty land all around me. Mostly, all you hear is silence. People had rough lives out here. Most of those who came before me are gone. But the butte lives on. So do we.
When the Lakota were corralled onto reservations in the 1800’s, they did not easily comprehend the notion of land ownership that is so fixed in our society. To them, men belonged to the land, and the land was part of who you were. In a way, that is how I feel about Thunder Butte. The butte was a part of my family, and it’s still part of who I am.