Bertha Muzzy Bower: A Montana Pioneer
By Kate Baird Anderson
Bertha Muzzy was only seventeen when she arrived in Great Falls with her family and friends in 1889. Half her life was over before she achieved the independence and professional writing career she dreamed of, earned by her inspired creation of the fictional Flying U Ranch and its crew at just the right time. She left Montana for good in 1907 with her second husband and writing partner, their baby daughter and her youngest son from the first marriage.
Later, Hollywood and the Los Angeles area became Bower's home base. Before she was done, she searched for fresh experiences and story material in Nevada and Oregon. But Montana was where B.M. Bower's story really began. There the pioneering spirit inherited from her stalwart Yankee ancestors helped her open a brand new trail as a woman and as a writer in the world of Western pulp fiction.
Everyone in our immediate family called my generous, sweet voiced grandmother "Bower", by her own request. That baby girl born in Great Falls grew up to be Dele Baird Newman, my mother. We lived with Bower for several years before she died in our Hollywood home July 23, 1940. She wasn't your everyday grandmother. She sent me to a special private school until the money ran out. She paid for my piano lessons and gave me books instead of toys for gifts. At her generously laden table we enjoyed unusual dishes like her own superb cheddar cheese soufflé, Black Bottom Pie delivered fresh from Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant, globe artichoke leaves dipped in melted butter, or dried lichi fruit and candied ginger from the cart an old Chinese gentleman pushed down our street every few weeks.
Bower introduced me to movies in the grand film palaces of Los Angeles, complete with live stage shows. She loved good solid cars, and took us on long scenic drives up or down the coast. And every morning as I left for school I heard the tap-tap-tap-of Bower's typewriter as she worked on her latest story. That discipline was one of several secrets of her successful forty-year career.
I was too young then to understand much about that career or Bower's personal history, but I did know that many fans believed B.M. Bower was a man. Some still do. Bertha Muzzy Bower was in fact a very feminine woman with a sometimes conflicting "masculine executive mental quality", as one acquaintance put it later. Her first publishers enforced the ban on revealing the truth; afraid it might spoil a growing market for her work. She never liked the deception.
Because of that early ban, most of Bower's fans never learned of her true identity or the real source of her stories. She came to Montana just in time to personally witness the swift, dramatic change from the wild, free open range of the 1880's to 20th century cultivated fields, farms, and ranches girdled with barb wire. She understood and wrote about both lifestyles and viewpoints from the inside. Readers also liked her clean but effective language. The vulgar speech, unnecessary violence, overwrought drama and bawdy sex many Western fiction authors fed the public were incompatible with Bower's high personal standards. Instead she created honest, sympathetic but unsentimental portrayals of everyday life in the West as she knew it, lightened by ironic humor.
Yet much of Bower's personal past was a mystery even to us. She never mentioned the Muzzy family's early years in Montana or the frustrations of her first marriage. I had to visit Montana myself to find the key to that story. And a fascinating story it is.
First, we must go back over a hundred years to a sunny, pleasant day in Central Montana. The year is 1889. A noisy, smoky railroad train just down from Havre grinds to a halt in front of a temporary box-car station marked "Great Falls." A young woman steps down from a dusty passenger car. Bertha Muzzy, known in her family as "Bert," stands barely five feet tall, her naturally wavy bronze-auburn hair properly styled atop her head. A dark travelling costume covers her well-rounded, small-waisted figure. Large hazel-grey eyes shine in her full, round face above a determined chin. Her erect posture and curious but calm expression yield no clues to her true feelings about the windswept, relatively treeless High Plains grasslands and desert the train has passed through. The Muzzy family is a long way from the well-watered green fields and woods and sky-blue lakes of Otter Tail County, Minnesota.
Tall, dignified Washington Muzzy, Bert's father, helps his wife Eunice down to the platform. His eyes are piercing sapphire blue, his hair black touched with silver. He's eager to start dry land farming though he's already sixty years old, a veteran of many boom-and-bust years of farm life in rural Minnesota. He's also a Republican activist in the progressive Farmers Alliance movement. Mrs. Eunice Miner Muzzy is the same height as daughter Bertha. Her rich brown wavy hair is heavily streaked with silver under a modest bonnet. She has borne ten children and homesteaded more than once already.
Kate Muzzy emerges behind her mother. She's thirty-six years old, short and slender, a hard-of-hearing, sharp-tongued spinster. Mr.Joshua Epler, his wife Hannah and daughter Mae follow the Muzzys. Last off is fifteen-year-old Newton Muzzy, the youngest Muzzy child, nicknamed "Chip" because of his fondness for Saratoga-style potato chips.
The weary travelers enter a town "wild as you want", Bower wrote in Adventure Magazine in 1926. Great Falls in the broad Missouri River Valley is officially only four years old. Homes and buildings are scattered over a meticulously laid out street grid anchored by Central Avenue, a broad expanse of grey adobe clay and sandy earth boasting boardwalks on either side. Central runs east from the station, giving new arrivals a view of substantial multistory brick and stone buildings, many still under construction, among more modest frame stores and some fancy saloons.
Mayor Paris Gibson has envisioned Great Falls as the future commercial hub of Central Montana, "a second Minneapolis" made possible by the branch railroad line built by his friend James J. Hill. The Great Falls Water Power and Townsite Company covets the river's roaring cataracts for generating electricity that will soon illuminate and energize "The Electric City." Within a year water will flow through city mains. Telephones are being installed. A city-county school system is expanding and churches are taking shape. A subscription library association offers books on loan to the public for a modest fee. A streetcar line has started. Great Falls is booming.
Along with their worldly goods, the Muzzys, Eplers and other hopeful pilgrims in that first wave brought dreams of turning the undeveloped grasslands and valleys into a new Garden of Eden. Their main resources were combined lifetimes of farming skills, solid family values and great determination. High Plains country was about to be tamed. Alarmed ranchers, the worried survivors of The Big Die-Up winter of 1886-'87, called the newcomers "honyockers" and "sodbusters." Around Great Falls the first of those sodbusters were already growing grain on thousands of acres of former prairie to supply the new Cataract Mill, the first commercial flour mill in central Montana, run by river power.
Challenge was nothing new to Bert's parents. Muzzy and Miner ancestors had been among the earliest British immigrants to the New World Colonies. Many fought for freedom in the American Revolution and later moved west with the advancing frontier.
Calvin and Betsy Meacham Muzzy and their eight children, including Washington, were some of the first white settlers in the 1840's in Northern Illinois. Washington and Eunice had moved their own growing family up to the newly opened Big Woods in southern Minnesota Territory in 1857. The Muzzys and their relatives literally carved out homesteads by hand. Bertha, the last girl of nine surviving children, was born in their old log cabin near Cleveland, Minnesota, November 15, 1871.
The exact location of the Muzzy homestead near Great Falls had always been a mystery. In 1996 information from Dick Gannon, a B.M. Bower fan and third generation rancher, led to the Cascade County Historical Society Archives. Dick had discovered the place "where B.M. Bower lived" on a boyhood horseback ride. Old land records pinpointed the area where the Muzzys, the Eplers and a third family, the Bowers, were close neighbors southwest of town. The Archive records showed Washington Muzzy as first owner of the northeast quarter of Section 33, Township 20, Range 3 East, on the present-day Flood/Sun River Bench high above the Missouri River.
A deep coulee runs down the eastern side of the former Muzzy land, carved by a spring of good water high up under the bench edge. Washington Muzzy must have been impressed by the upper coulee's magnificent view of the city and river valley below. I certainly was. The buildings are long gone. But a foundation of huge stones show the barn's location on the south end of a broad shelf extending out from the spring. A stone-lined well remains surprisingly intact near the center of the shelf. One enormous cottonwood shelters the back of the area.
Vigorous tree-size sprouts rise high around a single twisted silver-weathered trunk, all that is left of the trees my great-grandfather had planted. Every August, the branches are burdened with tasty little Lady apples, their cream-yellow skins streaked with rosy red concealing sweet-tart white flesh. Dick and his friends remembered sampling the fruit and feeding the "crabapples" to their horses every September.
Mr. Muzzy had located on what was then known as South River Bench. According to Bower, he bought the land from a railroad, The Montana Central Railway, the branch line from Havre near the Canadian border to Butte. The railroad ran southwest from Great Falls through Kate Muzzy's northwest quarter of Section 34. Her property added rich bottom land to the family homestead totaling three hundred and twenty acres.
Joshua and Hannah Epler and their children had been good friends and neighbors of the Muzzys in Minnesota for many years. Mr. Epler was several years younger than Washington Muzzy, also involved in the Farmers Alliance and Republican politics. Mae Jacoliah Epler filed on an L-shaped piece of the bench in Section 32 just west of the Muzzy land, where the Epler family more than likely homesteaded. Mae's claim ran south almost to the edge of the bench above the railroad track and the river. John Z. Comer had settled earlier in the valley just below the bench.
(Christian) Lewis and Harriet (Hattie) Walters Bower had come west from Ontario, Canada, across the border from Ohio, their original home. They occupied the northwest quarter of Section 33 next to the Muzzys, possibly before the Minnesotans arrived. Their oldest son, William Irwin, had been born in Ohio in 1861. Three more sons had been born in Canada, Clayton Joseph in 1868, Owen S. in 1871 and Edwin L. in 1875. Lewis Bower had been a chair maker and woodworker in Canada, a craft he shared with Mr. Muzzy. The Bowers may have hauled water from the Muzzy's spring before they dug their own well.
Mae Epler was a slim, attractive twenty-four-year-old woman, a schoolteacher back in Minnesota who seemed on the verge of being a spinster. She and William Bower were soon keeping company. In May 1890, William and Mae married in Great Falls, with Clayton as a witness. Mrs. Bower quickly filed a second claim in Section 28 adjoining William's quarter in Section 27. That protected their water rights by including the head of William's spring-fed coulee creek. The couple became neighbors to the north of the Muzzys. The following year, 1891, Mae bore William a son, Roscoe Epler Bower.
Bert Muzzy was impatient to be out on her own, but opportunities for paying work were scarce. Reuben Millegan and his son Willard had homesteaded about fifty miles due south of the Muzzy place in 1885, in the shallow, nearly treeless Trout Creek valley just west of its confluence with the Smith River. By March 6, 1889, Milligan Valley had enough children to justify organizing School District 15. The first Milligan school board offered $75.00 for the term from November 5, 1889 to March 6, 1890, plus bed and board. Bert qualified easily for a teaching certificate and moved to Willard Milligan's place.
The fledgling teacher made do with a small, hastily converted log outbuilding. Her eight to twelve pupils (depending on weather and distance) included big rough boys. Many years later, Dele asked how her mother had handled discipline problems. Bower replied with a twinkle in her eyes, "Those boys may have been too big for me to spank with a switch, but thank goodness they never found that out! I just looked them in the eye and they toed the mark!"
The North Wind Do Blow, B.M. Bower's novel of 1937, describes a young schoolma'am's first teaching term in Central Montana based on Bert's real experiences. She places the story where the Milligans lived, with Square Butte to the northwest. Her Eastern born, gently reared, greenhorn schoolma'am deals bravely with openly hostile students, clumsy male admirers, confusing local customs and ferocious weather. In the "schoolhouse" a tacked-down piece of tarpaper substitutes for a blackboard. During winter storms the wind and snow blow through the log walls of the smelly former milk shed. The young teacher learns to keep a rag handy to wipe off the dirt raining from a sod roof onto books, desks, and people.
Residents of the fictional community consider the well-mannered, pretty little teacher too "high-minded," a charge that may have applied to Bert herself. All ends well in the novel, though possibly not in real life. The Milligans were staunch Republicans, hard working farmer-ranchers and devout Baptists like Bertha's parents. But the residents of Milligan Valley may have been more rough-and-ready than Bert was used to. Her health may also have been affected by the winter's confinement indoors, a not uncommon complaint. She left for home at the end of the term.
South River Bench and the Missouri River valley also needed a school. District 17 was organized early in 1890. Joshua C. Epler, Lewis Bowler and John Z. Comer were the first appointed school board trustees. William I. Bower was appointed clerk. Lewis Bower dropped out the next year, but the other three men served District 17 for several years. The regulation shack on May's first claim was probably the first schoolhouse in District 17, a common practice where wood for building was scarce and expensive.
The Comer family's first home was a sturdy sod roofed log house in a valley draw below the Epler claim. Six year old Grover Comer began travelling up to the South River Bench School around 1902. He remembered teacher Mae Epler Bower vividly. He said Mrs. Bower always drove a horse and cart to school and usually carried a black satchel. Most of the contents remained a mystery to the students. But when Mrs. Bower got to her desk, she would pull out a Holy Bible and small-caliber pistol. She laid the book and the weapon on the desk corner, ready to hand for any emergency.
Bert Muzzy had spent most of 1890 visiting Idaho relatives, helping on the homestead and recovering from the past winter's stress. After a dispute with Kate that December she shocked both families by eloping with Clayton Bower. He was twenty-two, a handsome devil with a stylish full mustache and intense dark eyes. He filed on an island below South River Bench later named Bower Island. It was inaccessible except when the river was low, but had precious timber and good grass for running cattle. The newlyweds made peace with their families and lived at the Muzzy place for a while.
Drought and grasshopper invasions and a severe national depression in the 1890's made tough going for the hopeful families on South River Bench. Making the wasteland into another Eden had proved to be far more difficult than anyone had expected. Lewis and Hattie Bower decided to move into town around 1892. Lewis rented a small house on Fourth Avenue on the south side and took a job as cook at the Cascade Hotel. Erwin found work clerking at a downtown store. Owen stayed on at the farm. On weekends the family went back to the Bench and did what they could to keep the place up. Lewis and Hattie welcomed another grandchild late in 1893, Inez Mae, born to William and Mae on October 26.
Clayton and Bert finally set up housekeeping on the west side of the river south of First Street. Most of the railroad section hands and yard crews lived in the community of simple rental houses served by a school, stores and other conveniences. Daughter Bertha Grace was born in 1891. Their first son, Harold Clayton, arrived January 11, 1893. Clayton had been driving a delivery wagon for Malt Brothers general store. But that spring a streak of bad luck began. The Great Falls Water and Townsite Company evicted the little family in May for "refusal to yield possession," likely due to falling behind in the rent. Bert wouldn't have taken the experience lightly. Three years later and here they were with two babies, no home and no job. They had to move back to the Bench while Clayton looked for work.
By 1896 Lewis and Hattie had moved to a house at 520 First Avenue North, a much better address. Owen had moved down from the Bench to join the family. The three men clerked at Strain Brothers General Store, the prestigious place to shop at 400 Central. Every day they went to work in neat business suits, dress shirts with proper neckwear and polished shoes. The new costume was a far cry from muddy boots and heavy farmer's overalls. Clayton had changed to a better position as delivery man with Strains. He and Bert took over Lewis and Hattie's house at 414 Fourth Avenue South. It was too close to the south side tenderloin district of low-class saloons, pawn shops and the girls of the Red Light District, but the best Clayton could manage.
Early in 1896 Washington Muzzy decided to visit his sisters and brother in Northern Illinois. Martha Muzzy had married John Sutcliffe and lived in Wheaton, just a few miles south of the old Calvin Muzzy homestead in Bloomingdale Township, Du Page County. Younger brother Harrison, almost Wash's twin with his black hair and piercing blue eyes, had also married and lived in Wheaton. Henrietta lived in Chicago. Somehow during the visit, Washington was severely injured. He died soon after. Martha, a charter member of the First Baptist Church, and her husband John purchased lot # 107 in the Wheaton Cemetery for $6.00, a princely sum in those days. At the old cemetery on Warrenville Road a simple worn headstone is still visible, bearing only "Wash. Muzzy, (illegible lettering), 1896." Other carving on the stone honors Mr. Muzzy's four years of Civil War service with the 4th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
Washington's sudden death was a great loss to the families on the bench. Bert had been especially close to him as the youngest, unusually bright daughter. Chip was a tall, handsome fellow, just twenty-three. He had learned farming, carpentry, woodworking and other skills by his father's side. He became the man of the family and reluctantly took over the Muzzy homestead.
The winter of 1896-97, Chip Muzzy courted and proposed marriage to pretty Elvina Fisher. She was one of six children born to the Frederick Fishers. The family had come down from Canada like the Bowers, and settled on the north side of town in the Boston and Great Falls Addition. North and eastside residences were mostly simple frame cottages with generous yards protected by picket or pole fences. Many people kept milk cows, and a horse or two for transportation. Small barns and out buildings, chicken houses and such, stood at the rear of properties. Vegetable gardens and root cellars were also common.
The Muzzy wedding took place at the Fisher home at 11:30 a.m., March 18, 1897. The Reverend Sprague Davis of the Methodist-Episcopal Church of Great Falls officiated. Among the wedding guests were Mrs. Eunice A. Muzzy, Kate E. Muzzy, Clayton J. and Bertha M. Bower, (who obviously wanted to be known by her own name), Elvina's sisters Agnes, Sarah (Mrs. James B. Finlay) and Ruth (Mrs. A. F. Nielson). The newlyweds were soon at home on "The Muzzy Ranch" in the plain frame house Chip built for his bride above Muzzy coulee. Elvina had a son, Elmer Newton, December 19. A few days later, Roy Noel Bower was born to Bert and Clayton on Christmas Eve.
By the fall of 1898 Clayton Bower had lost his job with Strain Brothers. He decided to move his family to Big Sandy, ninety miles northeast of Great Falls, where he joined the Great Northern section crew. The move effectively separated both Clayton and Bert from their relatives. They missed the birth of William and May's third child, Beulah Elanor, on December 16, 1899.
Like many cowtowns in the West, Big Sandy's first business had been a tent saloon erected beside Broadwater and MacNamara's freight warehouse on Big Sandy Creek. An adjacent spring-fed pool on the creek furnished the only sweet water in the area, surrounded by large natural meadows of native grass.
Jim Hill's Montana Central Railway built right along the wagon road to Fort Benton in 1887. MacNamara joined Thomas Marlow in the general merchandise business. They built a big white store next to the tracks, a mile or so south of the warehouse and stockyard sprawl. By the time the Muzzys and Eplers rode past in 1889, eight more tent or rickety shack saloons had joined the original big Sandy watering place, strung out on the main drag beside the new store.
By the time the Clayton Bowers arrived, the tents and shacks were long gone, replaced by a few larger permanent-drinking establishments. The population still fluctuated from around a hundred souls in the off-seasons to noisy crowds during spring and fall shipping seasons. The saloons, a barbershop, a couple of handy hotels, some red-light houses down at the end of the street, livery stables and MacNamara and Marlowe's general store served all comers.
Life in Big Sandy was quite a comedown from the bustle and conveniences of Great Falls. The Bower children could at least start a decent education in the new white frame schoolhouse, crowned by a fine bell tower. But local well water was alkaline, sulphery and loaded with red iron particles. Good drinking water had to be bought off a wagon. Fuel was local coal or fast-burning dead pine hauled in from the Bear Paws. The nearest doctor was in Fort Benton. Big Sandy did have one surprising advantage for Bert, though it took her a while to find it.
A young Canadian, Bertrand William "Bill" Sinclair, hired on at the Tingley's Cross H the same year the Bowers arrived in town. Cornelius MacNamara had started ranching by then, over east on Eagle Creek. He began competing with the Tingleys for water nearer Big Sandy and a cut of the meadows for his growing herds. A tug-of-war had started between the two families. Then the sodbusters began to invade land that had been free and open to all for grazing.
The northernmost remnant of the Wild West had also become a sanctuary for men in trouble with the law, down in the Missouri breaks and badlands. Some hired on as ranch hands for a season or two, no questions asked. They were welcome most anywhere as long as they minded their manners, did the work and kept their pistols holstered.
Others were true outlaws. Until he fled south after killing Pike Landusky, Harvey Logan and his equally touchy brothers had operated a more-or-less legitimate cattle and horse ranch, the 4 T, southeast of the Bear Paws. As Kid Curry, the Missouri farm boy gone bad began robbing and rustling all over cattle country with Flat Nose George Curry and the Wild Bunch. Lonny Curry ran The Club Saloon in Harlem, trying to go straight. Butch Cassidy was an occasional visitor until he skipped down to South America.
Good subject matter lay all around Bert Bower when she decided to write short stories, as she says in Lonesome Land of 1911, "to save my sanity". She had to test her ability to earn a living without Clayton. She had gotten to know most of the townsfolk, many of the ranchers, and some of the homesteaders. She started sending her stories out in 1900. She wrote a new one and sent the old ones back out once a month, almost without fail. She had little success until 1902.
Clayton became jealous of his wife's popularity at dances and socials around the area. He seemed unaware that she was one of very few respectable, attractive white women within a hundred miles in that sparsely populated area. The people of Big Sandy accepted and some appreciated her intelligence and energy. After all, she had taught school around Great Falls, was very well-spoken and had a good private library, another rarity in cattle country. And then she laid claim to being a writer. She must have added a bit of spark to otherwise mundane small town life.
Bertha Bower was a sympathetic, careful listener, a good dancer and a good cook. Her contributions to the food tables at socials were among the first to go. A few minutes enjoying her ready smile and fine sense of humor must have been a rare treat for any female-starved man--as most of them were. Respect for good women was the well-enforced rule. In truth, Clayton had little to fear beyond a few cow-eyes aimed at his wife from the younger men, and open appreciation from the more mature.
While Bert struggled with her writing, her difficult husband and his money troubles, life at the Muzzy Ranch was not any easier. Eunice needed medical care. Elvina was pregnant again and wanted to be closer to her parents. Chip needed work in town to make ends meet. The demands of the High Plains climate had defeated the best of his efforts to make the homestead pay. Reluctantly he moved the family to a pleasant house near Joshua Epler and his wife, north of Central. The Eplers had also given up farming on the bench. Chip's second son, Laurance Noyce, was born in Great Falls February 23, 1900.
Lewis and Harriet Bower and sons Owen and Edwin held out until 1902 when they left for the Seattle area. Owen Bower soon married and found unimproved forest land on Fox Island near Gig Harbor and Tacoma. Edwin Bower settled with his parents in Spanaway, nearer Seattle, and began his education as a Methodist minister.
Elvina Muzzy bore a third son, Thomas Jedediah, October 16, 1902, in Great Falls. Eunice, Kate, Elvina and the children stayed behind when Chip decided to visit the Bowers in Washington and look for a better situation. He suffered a setback when he fell sick in Tacoma and had to stay in the quarantine hospital called "the pest house" for several weeks. By 1903 he had found land and had a house well underway in Tacoma's much kinder climate. That left William and May Bower and their children as the last of the original group on South River Bench.
Clayton had moved Bert and the children into a lonely hayfield cabin about a mile out of Big Sandy by then. To help with rent, the family agreed to board one of Cornelius MacNamara's cowpunchers over the winter so the man could tend the TL herd calves. Bill Sinclair was the boarder. He had left Tingley’s to be a top hand and horse breaker for MacNamara. The tall, handsome Canadian Scot was labeled "The Fiddleback Kid" when he first arrived, from the brand on his horse. The nickname stuck. Young Bill favored pretty ladies, good whisky, good literature and Socialist philosophy. He saw cowpunching as a dead-end occupation, borrowed Mrs. Bower's precious books and started writing under her guidance. He was twenty-two, nine years younger than his hostess.
Robert Ellsworth "Bud" Cowan was another talented MacNamara top hand who later played a major part in Bert's life. Clayton and Bert had hosted "musical evenings" when they lived in town. Bud could play most any musical instrument and was always welcome at the Bowers’. Around 1903 Bud married the local schoolteacher, Gertrude Ragan. Their courtship may have been the real-life version of Weary Davidson's on-again, off-again romance in the early Flying U novel The Lonesome Trail.
Bert continued to write her stories in the little hayfield shack she whimsically named "Bleak Cabin." Her sales had improved to the point that she could afford to accept Chip Muzzy's invitation to visit. Bert packed up the Bower children in August, 1903, and boarded the train for Tacoma. The two families went over to Owen's partially cleared Fox Island homestead where the children played in an exotic green landscape full of ferns, huge tree stumps and felled logs. Bert may have begun her plan of escape from Clayton then. She stayed in Washington for two or three weeks.
Once back home Bert settled down to intensive writing. The Flying U ranch and its crew were born that winter, aided by Bill's expert advice on the finer points of cowpunching. His friendship helped Bert find her best and most successful subject--real Western ranch life, Big Sandy style. Before she was through, she would become the first woman to make a living writing Western fiction, work that bypassed many of the accepted formulas for success.
The Bowers' last year in Bleak Cabin was anything but sunny. Clayton took exception to his wife's friendship with the unusual cowpuncher. The winter of 1903-04, Bill Sinclair retired to a line shack away from the hay field, where he struggled with his first potentially saleable story and rode over to tend the calves. He called on Bert when his chores were done to help her along and borrow another book. Late in the winter, he critiqued Bertha’s novelette, "Chip of the Flying U" and found it accurate and most readable.
1904 brought a birth, a death and surprising changes to the scattered families. Chip and Elvina Muzzy welcomed their fourth son, Alonzo Miner, to their Tacoma home on October 17. But back in Great Falls, Joshua Epler fell sick early in the year. May and William Bower took him and Hannah into their home where Joshua died in June. Though William and his family held out for three more years, Montana's unforgiving environment would finally defeat the Midwesterners’ dreams of creating another Garden of Eden. At the same time, another equally ambitious dream was being fulfilled.
Bert made the decisive break away from Clayton in 1904. She sent "Chip of the Flying U" to the editor of the upcoming first issue of Popular Magazine, earning a very large fee. Clayton had begun calling his writer wife "my little red-headed gold mine." One day he arrived at the cabin in a drunken rage and terrified his family. The record is silent except to say he committed an unforgivable act. With the sales proceeds from "Chip" and Bill Sinclair's help, Bertha headed for sanctuary with Chip and Elvina in Tacoma while she sorted out her life.
Bill quit cowpunching that fall. He joined Bertha for a trip to San Francisco, where she signed her first short-story writing contract for Popular Magazine in January 1905, a personal triumph. At last she would have a steady income for a few months. The divorce from Clayton Bower was final in March. He agreed to take custody of Grace and Harry, while Bert promised to take Roy when she was settled in Great Falls.
Clayton lost no time finding a more satisfactory replacement for his rebellious first wife. July 4, 1905, he married Lulu Pearl Ortensia in Victoria, British Columbia. He was thirty-six. Lulu was twenty. They settled on a ranch near Westport, Washington. Four more children were born to them. Grace married an Australian composer, Mr. Wingarten, and moved to Sydney, severing contact with her mother. Harry left home in his late teens.
Young Grover Comer had turned twenty-one and started his own hauling business in the Great Falls area while Bert gained her freedom. He bought three mares from her during July 1905, possibly part of her divorce settlement. The new wagoner got his first stock at a very good price and Bert got extra cash for her next move. Many years later Grover was the "old timer" who told young Dick Gannon about the B.M. Bower home site.
Bill Sinclair had asked Bert to marry him more than once despite the difference in their ages and the encumberment of children. When she could support herself and Roy and was free, she accepted. Bertha Muzzy Bower and Bertrand W. Sinclair were married August 13, 1905, at the Great Falls Methodist-Episcopal Church. The Reverend C.D. Crouch officiated. Kate Muzzy and friend Herman B. Woods, age twenty-six, stood up with the couple, dutifully signing a flowery marriage certificate now in the Bower papers.
Many area people still recall "Heem" Woods. He had homesteaded on Truly Bench above the Smith River Valley, but he didn't do much farming. He seemed to know everyone in the area southeast of Great Falls. He was a boy when Bert Muzzy taught at the Milligans’, but he remembered her well. He was an interesting and informative friend for both writers. Heem hunted and fished and walked the countryside like an old-time mountain man. He knew everything about everyone, and played his lively fiddle at many an area dance and entertainment.
The Mint Saloon in town was Heem's favorite hangout for card games and storytelling. Bill Sinclair and Charley Russell were also regulars there. Hugh Hastings is the present owner of the Truly townsite and Heem Woods' homestead up on the bench. He treasures his boyhood experiences with Heem as a kind of adopted uncle who taught him to hunt and fish.
The Bertrand W. Sinclairs lived quietly in a rented two-story home at 111 Sixth Street North where they concentrated on writing. Bert's first book and greatest success came out in 1906. George W. Dillingham of New York City published Chip of the Flying U as a full-length novel with illustrations by Charles Marion Russell, the Sinclairs' good friend up on Fourth Avenue North. Chip soon rivaled Owen Wister's The Virginian of 1902 in popularity, and is now considered the second Western Fiction Classic.
Della Frances Sinclair was born in Great Falls during a howling blizzard on January 24, 1907. The disastrous winter of 1906-07 proved to be a repeat of The Big Die-Up in northern Montana and southern Saskatchewan. Successive storms buried most everything in deep snow, ice and record cold. Bill had started a horse herd on land in eastern Valley County where they hoped to move in the spring. The precious breeding herd was lost, and with it the Sinclairs' dream of living in the last unspoiled open range. Late that year they headed for the San Francisco area.
That bitter winter also convinced William and May Bower to leave South River Bench for California. In 1907 the family moved to Los Angeles with Hannah Epler. May continued teaching in public and private schools in the Los Angeles area while the children grew up. She also worked toward several college degrees.
By 1908 the Sinclairs were settled in a substantial seaside house in Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco. Bill Sinclair's first book, Raw Gold, came out that year, published by Geo. Dillingham. About that time Bert got some sad news. Eunice Muzzy had died at Chip's home in Tacoma. Her death was offset by the arrival of the daughter Chip and Elvina wanted. Edna Ruth was born June 21, 1909.
Roy Bower grew up with little sister Della in Bert and Bill's various California homes as the two authors continued their climb up the ladder of Western fiction success. Then factors beyond their control broke up the rare partnership. Bert rented a house in San Jose and resettled her household late in the summer of 1911. Harry turned up to introduce his fiancée, Julia Tanner, to his mother. They married there with Bert's blessing. Harry was eighteen.
Bert had changed book publishers that summer. In August she had signed with the prestigious Boston publishing house, Little, Brown & Company, and was on her way alone. The Sinclairs divorced in 1912. Roy struck out his own soon after. Bill Sinclair remarried, settled in Vancouver, British Columbia and became a well-regarded Northwest Coast author. He never returned to Montana except in his stories.
Della stayed with her mother. In 1920 Bower lived in Hollywood and married Bud Cowan, the Big Sandy cowboy. Della became Dele in her teens and eventually married an engineer-surveyor for the Los Angeles aqueduct system. I was born in 1929 three weeks after Black Thursday. Harry stayed on the West Coast, over the years marrying at least two more times. He turned up between wives at Bower's new household north of DePoe Bay, Oregon, to help her and Bud do essential repairs to the dilapidated cabins of the former fishing camp. Roy Bower brought his third wife and young daughter up to the North Point camp in 1932 and joined the local salmon trolling fleet. Dele and I arrived soon after. In October 1936, Roy died a hero's death attempting to rescue a fellow fisherman in a bad storm. A granite memorial commemorating the event still stands at the north end of the bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Mae Bower devoted the rest of her life to teaching and helping young people. She later headed Education Departments at Pasadena and Pomona Colleges where her pupils called her "Mother Bower" in tribute to her support and encouragement. After she earned a Ph.D. in the 1920's she traveled to India to help establish a Bible Training School for missionary workers, sponsored by the Heart of India Mission Band. May and William had separated during those later years, but never divorced. He died in January, 1933. May continued to live in Los Angeles County until her death in 1959.
Steven Bower, a descendant of William and May's son Roscoe, furnished new information about the Muzzys, Eplers and Bowers. Edith Gemberling, Grover Comer's daughter and family historian, provided the surprising connections with B.M. Bower. Jan Kilcup, Chip Muzzy's granddaughter, graciously shared vital data and photos from the Muzzy family papers.
Though Bower never lived in Montana after 1907, her associations there continued to be important. She kept in touch with Montana friends, including Nancy and Charlie Russell. In 1921 she and her third husband, Bud Cowan, had reopened and operated a legendary silver mine in Nevada for several years before the Depression forced them to retreat to Oregon.
Thirty-eight of Bower's sixty-six hard-cover novels are set in Montana. Whenever she lost interest in a subject she always returned mentally to the place that had inspired her first and best known work. Montana gave Bertha Muzzy Bower her calling and a special vision of The Wide Open Spaces. In sharing that vision with millions of readers she did Montana proud. And Montana can be proud of her.
Families and individuals covered in "B.M. Bower, A Montana Pioneer":
Bower--(Christian) Lewis, wife Harriet Walters; children William I., Clayton Joseph, Owen S., Edwin L.; Clayton and Bertha Muzzy's children Bertha Grace, Harold Clayton, Roy Noel; William and May Epler's children Roscoe, Inez Mae, Beulah Elanor; Roscoe's great grandson Steven.
Comer--John Z.’son Grover.
Cowan--Robert Ellsworth, wife Gertrude Ragan.
Epler--Joshua, wife Hannah; daughter May.
Fisher--Fredrick, Mrs.; daughter Elvina.
Muzzy--Calvin, wife Elizabeth "Betsy" Meacham; children Martha Morse, Washington, his wife Eunice Amanda Miner; their children Kate, Bertha, Newton "Chip."; Newton and Elvina Fisher's children Elmer, Laurence Noyce, Thomas Jedediah, Alonzo Miner, Edna Ruth; Elmer's daughter Janice Marie Kilcup.
Sinclair--Bertrand William, wife Bertha Muzzy; daughter Della Frances, Dele's daughter (Sara) Katherine Baird Anderson.
Sutcliffe (Wheaton, Illinois), John, wife Martha Morse Muzzy.