Harry Rutter Was a Cowboy
He Drove Cattle to Montana, Put Away Outlaws, and Got the Girl
BY PAT HILL
Though his 2009 induction into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame simply states Harry Rutter was a cowboy, long-deceased friends and surviving family members agree that Rutter was quite a man out of the saddle as well.
JoAnn Russell of Bozeman is Rutter's granddaughter. She has assembled a collection of writings ranging from books to primary documents such as letters relating to her grandfather, a collection that can cover a large dining room table when displayed.
Russell was five years old in 1939 when her already-celebrated grandfather passed away.
“I just barely remember him,” Russell told the Pioneer. “My mom took care of him in the end until he died.” But Russell remembers hearing many stories about her grandfather, who was also a rancher, lawman, and civil servant, as well as a husband and father. Many of those tales are contained in her documentary collection regarding Rutter.
After cutting his teeth in the wild and wooly cattle country of Kansas and Texas, Harry Rutter first came to Montana trailing Texas longhorns north for the Nyobrara Cattle Company. He told that story and talked about more Montana adventures with Russell's aunt, Georgia Rechert, in 1931 for her story about Rutter titled Cowtales, which is available for viewing online in its original typewritten format via the Montana Memory Project.
“In 1884 came the thrill I had been looking [for],” Rutter told Rechert, “…to take a herd from Texas and deliver it safe into northern territory…to grow up on the fattening grass of Montana's lonely acres.” Rutter said that the 3,000 head of cattle the Nyobrara cowboys trailed north to Montana that year was “part of one of the last big cattle drives from Texas.”
“We had a crew of ten or twelve cowboys to handle 3,000 cattle,” Rutter said. “The number of miles the herd could make in one day depended on the grass and water supply. It was usually between 15 and 20 miles a day.” He told Rechert that after the herd reached Ogalala, Nebraska, which he described as “a dispersion point,” the herds that had been following each other on the trail from Texas scattered out like a fan, and the Nyobrara crew began to miss the home country.
“When we started northwest from Ogalala we felt like we were really severing connections with our native land,” Rutter said, “and after we reached Montana and experienced a few months of that terrible winter of 1884-'85, we began to think that the Mexicans knew what they were doing when they turned back from Ogalala…my first winter in Montana was a memorable one.” He told Rechert, “I've been in Montana forty years and more now, and I haven't known a colder winter than that one of 1884.”
Cold or not, Rutter had made it to Montana. The Treasure State would enchant him within a year, and Rutter knew it was where he wanted to settle down and plant roots. He ventured into the Milk River country for the first time in 1885, encountering “as fine a grazing country as could be found.” He found himself back in that neck of the woods by 1889, working as range foreman for the Neideringhaus Brothers, one of the largest cattle outfits in Montana at that time.
“There must have been 80,000 head in their grazing territory that extended from the Missouri to Canada, east to Dakota and west to the head of the Musselshell bearing the N-Bar-N [Neideringhaus] brand,” Rutter told Rechert.
By 1897, Rutter was ready to strike out on his own; he said that “…there was something on my mind at the time that was more important to me than any business in the country. I was making plans for a home and I was anxious to be independent.” He filed a homestead claim in his beloved Milk River country on a “desirable section on Rock Creek in '97,” and went to work as undersheriff in Valley County the following year.
“With the country still alive with cattle thieves and a nest of train robbers that job was a lively and absorbing affair,” Rutter said, “and it kept me worried.” Rutter told Rechert that he wasn't particularly concerned about the hazards of the job, but worried instead that it was demanding too much of his time. “I was afraid of losing out on the other project I was interested in and getting a home…I was worried about the girl.”
“I had my girl all picked out and I wouldn't have taken a substitute if I had had all of New York instead of Glasgow [Montana] to pick from,” Rutter said. Elsie Clough was the daughter of a Great Northern railroad engineer who had moved to Glasgow with his family when the railroad built its “high-line” route across Montana [tracks that comprise the only train route left in the state offering passenger service].
Rutter got the outlaws and the girl. He married Elsie in 1899 and they had three children together.
“After [the wedding] I could concentrate with better peace of mind on ridding the locality of the lawless class that was holding us from becoming civilized,” Rutter told Rechert. He served as Valley County undersheriff until 1911, and helped to bring about the end of one unsavory bunch of thieves in 1903 after a jailbreak that nearly cost Rutter his life.
“Of the officers that helped to suppress outlaws in northeast Montana, Harry Rutter stands out among them all,” recorded Montana rancher Art Jordan. “He deserves more credit than he ever got.”
In 1913 Rutter was appointed to serve as Postmaster in Hinsdale, a small town in the Milk River country near his ranch. He served as Hinsdale's Postmaster until 1922. The following year, the 64-year-old Rutter went to work for his old boss Sheriff Sky Small at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, where Rutter supervised prisoners making license plates. Rutter returned to Hinsdale in 1936 to serve as assistant postmaster; his son Stubbs held the top job at the Hinsdale post office at the time. In 1938 he returned to his ranch to live out his last days.
“I see Grandpa as a working cowboy…he loved horses,” JoAnn Russell said. “He was pretty independent…he knew how to take care of himself. He was committed to the law. I think he was just a simple man who did his job.”
Russell's daughter Suzanne told the Pioneer her great-grandfather's legacy “makes me feel like I belong here [in Montana].”
“I'm one of the 'city cousins,'” she said, “but my cousins from Hinsdale are still cowboying. I go to the ranch whenever I can. The old house my great-grandparents lived in is still standing there. It's cool to have a badass in the family.”