Thunder Butte

October 08, 2006

Neal Crowley, Last God of the Prairie

Neal and Dorothy (Click to Enlarge) 

Everybody liked my brother Neal. Sometimes I think he was kind of worshiped from the day he was born. He was sort of South Dakota royalty. Yet, he never claimed any special talents, abilities or possessions. Neal was just big. As an adult, he was about six feet, two inches and two hundred twenty pounds. He had hazel eyes, dark brown curly hair, and a big square chin that many tough guys had tried to hit, only to find themselves crumpled in a corner.

My earliest memories of Neal were about the time he was in fifth or sixth grade. He and my brother Joe used to pull me in a back window of the school house. I was three or four years old. They would put me in a vacant desk in the back of the school room. This went on for weeks. Whenever I was playing around the school house, they would pull me in. One day, after this had been going on for a long time, the teacher asked the class, "who is that child in the desk in back?" The kids would always kid the teacher into thinking I belonged there.

My memories of Neal are pretty dim up until the time he was about 15 years old [as I was very small]. He came in to get ready for a country dance one day and discovered that his dress pants had gotten wrinkled where they were hanging. Neal was upset. He threw a few things in a bag, saddled his horse, and was gone for about a year. He had ridden about eighty miles to the north, near McIntosh, South Dakota, to the ranch of Tom Duncan. Of course, they hired him on the spot. Nobody could resist Neal. He worked there as a ranch hand for most of the year. The Duncan's had two adopted children, Dale and Lois. I met the two of them when we started high school and they remained my friends throughout their lives.

Next, Neal hired on with John Barthold in Perkins county. He worked there for a long while. The Bartholds had one son, Manny, who wrote me about a year ago from his home in Shreveport, Louisiana. Like everyone else, they thought very highly of Neal. But Neal was always looking to greener pastures.

He next worked for Jack Kelly in the area of Rabbit Creek, thirty miles to the southwest of Thunder Butte. This was an area inhabited by the last of the cattle barons who had settled this area when they dropped out of trail herds heading for Montana. Jack Kelly was a well known rancher who had built up a nice spread and had two sons about Neal's age, Merle and Wayne. Wayne was unfortunately the last alleged outlaw shot and killed in the West. He was shot by sheriff Floyd Short who had pursued him into the Slim Buttes. But, that is another story. Wayne's daughter Tiny, was my childhood playmate. We visited with Jack Kelly, Jack's grandson, several years ago in South Dakota. He is Merle's son. They are a fine and upstanding ranch family in that country.

For most of the years that Neal worked ranches in the area, he had numerous pursuits. He organized the Thunder Butte Indians, a baseball team. He organized and produced Rodeos, boxing matches, and holiday celebrations. Throughout this period Neal was trailed by kids. All the country kids loved him. He was frequently bringing some poor, half-starved waif home to our mother, who always welcomed them and as if they were members of our own family.

About the same time, Babe Joyce of Faith became a friend of Neal's and encouraged Neal to become a boxer. One of Neal's first important fights was in Usta, where he was matched to fight Babe Joyce. Babe was big, tough and fast, and he won the decision over Neal. Bu that was Neal's only loss, ever. A young Irishman named Billy Cavan, straight out of Ireland, started coaching Neal. Billy was lightweight, fast as lightning, and quick on his feet. He drilled these qualities into Neal and in short order Neal was winning every fight he could get--usually via the knockout route.

One of his first fights, which I witnessed was against a huge farm boy from near Lemmon. This guy was supposed to be unbeatable. Well , after the fight he was hospitalized with a broken jaw, three broken ribs and a lot of minor contusions. And he was a good fighter. Neal would have become one of the nations leading fighters of that time, but he would not train. He not only was liked by all the citizens, but he was loved by all the girls. Social life and training do not go hand in hand. He was never beaten in the ring, he just stopped signing for fights. He had been increasing his cattle herd, he was busy with productions and he took on a herd of sheep. Then he met Dorothy Tidball from Faith. She was tiny, cute and right out of college and Neal fell hard. We actually tried to talk him out of it , but they married. Following their marriage, about 1939 they took up residence in a sheep wagon with their small herd of sheep, they managed for several years, there and on another ranch they leased along the Moreau river.

(to be continued)

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Sunday, October 08, 2006


John Portnoy told me about your blog site. I'm married to his neice, Connalyn Avis (burdick). Her mother and father are Inez(portnoy) and Jimmy Burdick formerly from Lemon S.D. John told me about the fight that he had with John Crowley many years ago. It was an interesting bit of history.

Post a Comment