Maynard Lehman missed the job he held in Montana in 1923. He didn’t mind the pay—$40-$60 a month—if he could hunt coyotes to supplement his income. He didn’t decide to write about his experiences as a cowboy until he was 75, but wrote more than twenty books well into his 90s.
Lehman grew up on his parent’s ranch in North Dakota, twenty miles south of the Canadian border. There his family raised and broke horses for the American Express Company in Milwaukee. His father was not “what you would call a regular cowboy,” he said, “but I guess I grew up with horses in my blood. I went to work as a cowboy away from home when I was thirteen.” Not exactly a tenderfoot, he had worked for a neighboring ranch the previous summer.
His first riding job was to help swim 300 horses across the Missouri River to Culberton, Montana. “I was a good-sized kid and could rope and ride with the best of ‘em.” Adding three years to his age, he told everyone he was sixteen. “I worked there until the horses more or less got used to the territory. Otherwise, they would have kept right on going. I then went to work for the Cantanio Ranch, downriver a ways, and I stayed there the rest of the summer.”
Cattle herds of 12,000 to 15,000 were not uncommon during the later years of the nineteenth century, but the Cantanio Ranch only ran 2,000 head, which grazed between the Red Water and Missouri River. The young cowpoke worked until the end of summer, then returned home to attend school. His classes were scheduled after his assigned chores, which included helping his father with thrashing and harvesting.
Young Maynard managed to complete eight grades in five years, but by the time he reached high school, the horseback ride was twelve miles through North Dakota snow. The weather, however, was not the reason he quit his studies. Unable to start school until after thrashing season, he couldn't catch up with the other students. “And nobody offered to help.” Frustrated and discouraged, he decided his education was over. The following January he left school in 40 degrees below zero weather to find a job.
That spring he arrived in Miles City, Montana, where he went to work for Van Venerable, a horse buyer for the Hansen Packing Plant at Butte. There he worked on horseback in the area between the Mespaw and Pumpkin Creek, which later became the first BLM Project.
“Van bought three thousand horses from the roundup and turned them out on Laney Creek on the Powder River with the rest of his herd. I worked for him until there were no more horses to bring in to ship,” Lehman said. The cowboy then worked several ranches in the Powder and Tongue River areas for the next 18 years.
He soon learned that he couldn’t keep a steady cowman’s job if he returned home each fall to help with the family harvest. “That’s when I went to work for the Quarter Circle JK Ranch and only went home for a visit.”
His fiddle was his most prized possession. He also owned “a saddle, bridle, chaps, 35-foot lariat, spurs, bedroll, extra pair of socks, and enough Bull Durham to last two weeks.” The fiddle often accompanied him, “but if it wasn’t standard equipment, it stayed behind in the bunkhouse.” From the age of 12, he played the violin and accordion for dances and later performed on the organ.
“The winter I was fourteen, I hung up my saddle and traveled with a road troupe that showed movies along the Canadian border in North Dakota and Montana. Joe Alberts traveled with us and wrestled the big bear. But when spring came, I was back in the saddle.”
(Continued next week . . . )