Montana Bill Roberts was selected as the recepient of the 2011 Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame Legacy Award for District 2, which includes Dawson, Garfield, McCone, Prairie, Richland and Wibaux counties. His name was submitted by grandson Mike Correll, who was inspired by his grandad’s cowboy stories.
By Kay Braddock
“Hoping I may ever remain contended, happy and free.”
As he marked his 23rd birthday on July 20, 1895, Albert (Bill) Roberts, who would later become better known as “Montana Bill,” penned those words on a piece of paper he kept in his saddlebag.
The inscription, found on the now tattered remnants of paper, is one small portion of a collection of writings authored by Montana Bill that his grandson Mike Correll has held onto. Correll, a former Miles City resident, who was raised on a ranch near Ismay, now lives in Bremerton, Wash.
“Over the years I’ve read and reread all of his stuff so much,” Correll said.
The collection includes diaries, an unpublished manuscript and numerous poems — many of which appeared in the Miles City Star and in the Billings periodical “Bit and Spur” in the 1940s and 50s.
Dubbed as Miles City’s “Cowboy Poet Lariate” by then Miles City Star editor Lee Hannify, the writings of Montana Bill were popular for their accurate and sincere portrayal of the life and spirit of the cowboy.
It was a lifestyle Montana Bill was familiar with and one he reverently held onto in his latter years. With the passing of the cowboy age, symbolized by the replacement of open ranges with fenced lands and the increased modernization of cities, Montana Bill sensed his period of belonging had elapsed.
“He was just kind of aching for those times and that place,” Correll shared, recalling the impressions his 83-year-old granddad left on him, as a 10-year-old boy.
Although Correll knew his granddad only in the last few months of his life, Correll remembers the influence he left. In particular he recalls being mesmerized by his granddad’s stories.
“Seemed like we spent just an awful lot of time together and it was basically spent that way,” Correll shared. “He talking and me listening.”
Correll and his mother, Daisy Mae, moved to Miles City from Grand Rapids, Mich., in April 1956 so she could care for her ailing father. The two moved in with him in a small apartment housed inside the Brath Hotel.
Many of their afternoons in the spring and early summer months of 1956 were spent together. Correll remembers walking to the theater with his granddad to watch matinees and afterward resting on a park bench listening as his granddad narrated vivid images of old cowboy days.
“I was kind of captivated by him and he was older and needed somebody to tell his stories to and he found the audience,” Correll shared. “He had a lot of old friends that would happen by that knew he wasn’t well and would come by and visit. And of course, I got to meet them and listen to their stories, too.”
Call of the cowboy
As an Ohio farm boy, Bill Roberts longed for the life of a cowboy — rustling cattle in the wide-open spaces of the West, experiencing the searing elements of nature and working alongside men who knew and loved the wrangler way of life.
When he wrote the July 20, 1895, birthday note to himself, Roberts had ventured away from his childhood home only a couple years earlier. It wasn’t until his 21st birthday that his parents finally acquiesced to their youngest son’s requests to leave their Ohio farm.
He worked with relatives in Iowa for a few years before heading west. By his 27th birthday he was working for the TV Ranch in Mandle, Wyo. He would later head south, ultimately working the Yellowstone Division of the XIT Ranch in Texas. It was while working in Texas, that Roberts would have his first opportunity to come to Montana accompanying a trainload of cattle. It was during this trip that he earned the nickname “Montana Bill” by fellow cowboys, likely due in large part to his natural attraction to the state, aroused by stories he had heard from other cowboys trailing cattle to Montana.
Arriving in Glendive on June 14, 1902, he worked for the next four and a half years for O. C. Cato, the Montana XIT manager. It was while working at the Montana XIT Ranch that he made several trips from the Fallon area to Chicago accompanying cattle to market. His work at the XIT also provided him opportunity to work alongside other well-known cowboys, including John Armstrong, Bill Mushfeller, Phelps White and Bob Fudge. In his book “Texas Trail Driver” Fudge recalled his experience working with Montana Bill when the two men and five others were called out to the upper Missouri Breaks to gather 500 steers to trail them 100 miles to the rail for shipping.
It was early December and the weather had turned cold.
“A cowboy is usually in the best of humor in the worst of weather, he knew his calling,” Fudge’s written recollection begins, “but this Montana Bill was the best-natured cowboy I ever worked with. He was always in good humor.”
It was a portrayal that paralleled Montana Bill’s description of a cowboy’s temperament in many of his own writings.
After Montana Bill met Norwegian native Anna Vaule during one of his trips to Chicago, the couple married in Glendive on December 22, 1906. Following a stretch as foreman at the Bird Ranch, the couple, along with their firstborn child, Daisy Mae, moved to Ismay in 1909, where he began and managed a livery barn for the next 23 years.
Montana Bill, Anna and their 10 children then moved to Miles City, where he worked for the state highway department. He became a member of the Montana Cowboys Association and was one of the original board of directors for the Range Riders Museum. He was the first curator of the Range Riders Museum when it opened its doors in 1948 and he remained actively involved with the facility until the early 1950s.
Montana Bill died June 13, 1956, while resting on a park bench outside his apartment.
It’s a memory forever etched in his grandson’s mind.
Honoring the man he loved
As the youngest of five children, with his closest sibling 11 years older and his parents divorcing when he was only 1, Correll, 65, can now better appreciate why, the grandfather he knew for only the waning months of his life left such an impact on him.
“It’s amazing that he had that kind of influence on me,” Correll shared. “When I went back to put all of this stuff together, I realized I only knew this man a couple of months.”
But looking back, Correll sees the valuable roles shared between the two.
“I could sit there by the hour and listen to him talk,” Correll said. “I guess we were a good match that way.”
Correll also attributes much of the intimate connection he has with his granddad to the many hours he has spent pouring over the writings Montana Bill left behind.
“I think because I’ve read all that, that I probably feel like I’ve known him longer than I actually knew him,” Correll shared.
Over the years, between his moves throughout eastern Montana, including a 10-year stretch in Miles City, into western Montana and now his current residency of Bremerton, Wash., Correll has carried many of his granddad’s belongings with him, including his collection of writings. There have been spells of intensely reading the materials, followed by periods of time of setting it all aside.
“I kind of jump in and out of it,” Correll acknowledged. “It’s kind of an ongoing project for me.”
After a recent visit with those familiar with the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, Correll was encouraged to submit his granddad’s name as a 2011 Legacy Award inductee nominee, which honors those who have made a notable contribution to the history and culture of Montana through 1960.
His unsuccessful attempt at nominating his father-in-law into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame left him a bit hesitant.
“That was the first taste I got of doing it,” Correll shared.
He and his wife Beth compiled a written historical account of his granddad, noting the specific contributions Montana Bill had made to Montana’s culture, including his involvement with the Range Riders Museum and one of his published poems. The materials were then submitted to the MCHF.
It was later he would learn Pierre Wibaux, a prominent cattle owner and ranchman during that time period, had also been submitted for the Legacy Award in the same district, which includes Dawson, Garfield, McCone, Prairie, Richland and Wibaux counties. Initially apprehensive after hearing of the notable competition, Correll found reassurance in the concluding stanza of his granddad’s poem.
It reads: “And when the battle’s over Be it lost, or be it “win”, He’ll look at you, and take it With his regulation grin.”
In a letter dated June 20, 2011, Correll and his family were notified that Montana Bill had been selected for MCHF’s 2011 Legacy Award for District 2.
Shortly after the death of his granddad, Correll’s mother became reacquainted with schoolmate and Plevna-Ismay area rancher Dave Bickel. The two eventually married.
“I went from being a 10-year-old living in the city, to being a 10-year-old on a ranch,” Correll shared, pointing to the unique changes he experienced after moving to Montana with his mother.
But it was his time with his granddad that left him with lasting memories.
“As I sat there with him and he talked, the way he talked, when looking back on it, it was almost like a guy that just had kind of given himself up,” Correll shared.
At 83, the days of being a cowboy had disappeared for Montana Bill. And he wasn’t much impressed by what he saw around him.
“All I knew was in listening to his stories, he really felt like his day was gone by,” Correll shared. “He didn’t like the cities. I remember that. There was just nothing good about modern life. He just yearned for all those old cowboy days.”
Even his time reliving his cowboy days through his work at the Range Riders Museum had passed.
“He put his life in that museum,” Correll said, recalling the detailed work his granddad had contributed, including identification labels listing items throughout the museum that were written with his distinct scroll penmanship.
“It really broke his heart,” Correll said of Montana Bill’s departure from the museum.
The day Montana Bill died, he had entertained several visitors earlier while sitting on the park bench in front of the Brath Hotel. Among those visitors was his doctor.
Correll recalled the doctor telling his granddad, “‘Bill, you know, your heart is good. You should live another 10 years.’”
“And then all of the sudden it just seemed like everybody was gone but he and I,” Correll recalled. “And then that’s when I decided I needed to go over and play awhile.”
Thirty minutes later he returned from the playground across the street. He found his granddad slumped over.
Along with a shared love for the written word found in poems and journals, Correll believes he shares another natural inclination with his grandfather. There are three kinds of people, Correll recalled another elderly gentleman advising him. There are yesterday people, tomorrow people and very few today people. He and his granddad, Correll believes, fit in the same category.
“I think that’s true,” Correll said of the philosophy. “I’m married to a today person, but I think I’m a yesterday person.”
It’s likely the reason why he continues to find himself drawn to his granddad’s words.
Published Sept. 14, 2011