Thunder Butte

October 29, 2006

Ghosts of Thunder Butte Follow the Family?

My family is filled with ghostly lore beginning with the days when the Crowleys lived around Thunder Butte. There was the face in the window the night brother Tommie died. There were the spook lights on the prairie – appearing like a pair of headlands traveling in deep snow where no car could go. There was the spectral lady who targeted a neighbor's place one night. Whatever these manifestations are or mean, perhaps they have followed the family as it moved to California and other places. Or, maybe they can simply be found across the country and are part of what makes the landscape so haunted this time of year—as we approach Halloween.

When I was a child in the San Francisco Bay Area, the house was prone to strange noises when no one else was home. Sometimes we thought that there was more to this than simply the settling of the house. Sometimes it might have been the small and barely noticeable earthquakes that regularly rippled the landscape. Other times we were not so sure. Once, when I was about 12 and had to get up early on weekend mornings to deliver newspapers, I was getting dressed in darkness one winter morning when suddenly a caterwauling howling, almost an earsplitting horrible moan literally seemed to grip the house for what seemed like an eternity. I was frozen in the pitch blackness for a moment before running to my sisters' bedroom to see if they were OK. Of course, they had been sleeping peacefully, and only protested when I woke them up. I've never headed for the door and jumped on my bike so fast to head out into the early morning gloom to pick up my newspapers.

The backyard was a place of mystery and very scary on dark, stormy nights. We kept a variety of animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and pigeons. All had to be fed, and we took turns—putting it off until as late as possible in the evening, and then running through the darkness to complete the chores—all the while feeling that we were being watched from the shadows behind the trees and bushes. We had an outbuilding we called “The Barn,” which was a place we were all frightened of. It was gloomy, filled with spiderwebs, and someplace we were afraid to play or be caught alone. Sometimes, on windy nights, the door would come free and begin banging as though something in the dark inside of the barn was beckoning, calling for us to come out into the night and meet whatever mysteries lay hidden inside. Woe to the one of us chosen to run out into the darkness with a flashlight to re-latch the barn door.

Some of my sisters believe the property currently inhabited by my parents in the Sierra Nevada foothills is haunted. There is a local story told about some miners who were murdered or somehow met a grisly fate on the property or somewhere nearby during Gold Rush days. But, this may simply be a tale used to help rationalize what some in the family have experienced. One of my sisters tells of sleeping in the basement and being awakened by the television turning itself off and on. Other times, belongings have been moved only to turn up in another corner of the basement. She and others in the family feel that there is a presence in the basement that is at turns mischievous and frightening. My dad, who keeps an office and his camera collection in the basement won't reveal what he really thinks, saying simply, “Oh, it doesn't bother me.” My mother, on the other hand, won't go down to the basement and when asked about it, says “I don't like it”—apparently fearing to give voice to any ideas about what might be happening. Whatever the phenomenon is, it doesn't seem confined only to the basement. One night, when my parents were away, two of my sisters were in the house when the kitchen cabinets started banging for no apparent reason. They both fled the house and would only return reluctantly in broad daylight.

Happy Halloween!

--Mike Crowley
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October 09, 2006

More Thunder Butte Poetry

Here's a poem written by cowboy poet, John Crowley, that describes a real event one night years ago at the family's homestead on Thunder Butte Creek:


The blackness of the night wrapped around us like a shroud,
Clammy and evil, full of dreadful sound
The scream of woman with mortal wounds
Full of snickering--Why? I only wish to live the night
To not succumb in fear to this anguish all about

The creek called Thunder Butte, runs full and rippling in the dark
Forested thick with trees that screen the evil lurking there
There eyes glow fierce, then disappear amid the undergrowth
But howls persist, like the banshee of legends mark
She comforts me, but trembles as the panther tears and rips
The splintering roof, starved and after one fat child.

I'm crying now, and clutch my mom, the one protection from
This demon of the night who will not stop until he's done, but
A little shanty ranch house can`t withstand the onslaught of this
mad gargoyle tearing there, one thought in mind, only one
This fat child and why he fears the dark.

My mother not yet done, grabs an old and rusty 12 gauge gun from
Beside the bed, one loud explosion, blasting these little ears
Another hole appears, the moon shines through our flimsy roof
Where panther and twelve gauge spanned the years, to spell
Out doom for that old puma, sobbing, snarling off into the gloom.

--Mike Crowley
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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
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October 07, 2006

Thunder Butte Poetry

Cowboy fiction writer and occasional poet John D. Nesbitt has written a little poem that features a reference to Thunder Butte. Titled, "When My Pony Sheds Again," it can be found here.

--Mike Crowley
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