Industrial level irrigation is crucial to the vast grain supply of the West. People know little about the history and implications. To keep the subject manageable, I'm focusing on Valier, MT, headquarters of the Pondera Canal Company and its history.
THIS BLOG IS NOT AN ORGANIZED NARRATIVE BUT A STORAGE SPACE FOR RESEARCH AND THOUGHT. NOT MANY IMAGES. COMMENTS WELCOME.
Friday, October 23, 2015
THE CONRAD BROTHERS
THURSDAY, APRIL 28, 2005
The Conrad Brothers
Let’s do some Conrad begats.
In the beginning were three brothers: William, Charles and John. In 1868, William (16) and (14) were sent to Montana by their father, Colonel James Conrad, an officer in Mosby’s Raiders and once a plantation owner. He kept John two more years until he turned 14. The first two soon found work with Isaac G. Baker, merchant, river master and whiskey trader. They supervised ox teams, built trading stockades, and John, as soon as he came, handled the gold dust and acted as a courier and road escort. He was six foot three. By 1873 he brothers had a controlling interest in the Baker Company and were operating eight trading posts spread out clear to the Arctic Circle.
Charles Conrad found his first wife at one of the Canadian forts in the 1870’s. “Singing in the Middle,” a Blood Indian, and formally married her. In 1876 she gave birth to a son, also named Charles. She drifted off and remarried to an Indian but died in childbirth in 1881. Charles Jr., at his mother’s request, was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Montreal and raised there. By then Charles Sr. was a 37-year-old prosperous trader and banker. Letitia Stanford arrived from Nova Scotia with her mother and and sister to start the Select School for Ladies and Children. Charles Sr. married her and built her a red brick house on the corner of Washington and Sixteenth Street in Fort Benton.
In 1882 Lettie had a son and they named him Charles. So now Charles had two sons, Charles Edward, the half-breed (metis), and Charles Davenport, the all-white. Charles Senior, known by the Indians as “Spotted Cap,” had a reputation as a special friend of the Indian and gave advice in the sale of the Ceded Strip (Glacier National Park) to the government. It had to do with how the payout was made; whether it was good advice depends on opinion.
William became deeply involved in cattle ranching, though all the Conrads were ranchers for a while. The village of Valier was once part of the Conrad Circle Cattle Company, specifically the Block Hanging Seven. Founder of Conrad, William helped develop irrigation along the southern edge of the reservation. Lake Frances, next to Valier, is the man-made impoundment lake for that system which starts at Swift Dam in the mountains. He cooperated with Jesuits to bring in Belgian grain farmers and occasionally worked behind the scenes (unsuccessfully) to move the reservation boundary farther north so that the work done there at Blackft expense would be part of his system.
There was a Fort Conrad at one point, but it was eaten by the flooding of nearby Marias River. Charles Sr. ran it, as one among a string along the Whoop-Up Trail, now commemorated by markers. The whole complex was based on running what passed for whiskey. James Willard Schultz (sometimes accused of using “grass”) was a friend of the Conrads, especially Charles. Mounties were specifically sent to close the whiskey trade and in 1874 they had about succeeded. Joe Kipp, Schultz, Hiram Upham, and Charles ran the fort for a few years, then sold it to a rancher in 1885. The buffalo had been used up in 1883-84, so there was nothing for Indians to trade.
But the prairie was emptied for the great open-range cattle operations. In 1878 the three Conrads put half a million dollars into cattle. William ran these operations and was not sentimental about feeding Indians. For a good price the Conrads supplied over five million pounds of beef for Mounties and reservation Indians in 1880. By then they were thinking about railroads and coal.
In 1890 James J. Hill was building tracks and Charles Conrad agreed to found a town that would provide a meeting point -- the result was Kalispell. In 1892 Charles Conrad opened a bank and built the fabulous house that appears in “Heavensgate.” He enjoyed inviting Indian leaders to formal dinners, complete with crystal, silver, china and linen. Then all repaired to the Great Entry Hall where there they settled before the huge fireplace to share cigars and stories. Charles’ daughter Alicia said that she would crouch on the stairs to listen, watching the firelight play across their faces and make their eyes glitter. She also remembers the first appearance of her half-Indian brother, Charles Edward, who picked her up and swung her over his head. She loved him.
Neither of the junior Charleses was a success. Charles Edward, handsome and proud, married Marie Blanche Lionais, a French girl from a fine family, in Montreal’s cathedral with the archbishop presiding. Charles Sr. gave the newlyweds a fine house and created a trading company for his son. Edward ran it into the ground. More money was sent, but it was never enough and then Charles Sr., knowing he was dying of diabetes, turned his attention to designing his own mausoleum. He died on Thanksgiving, 1902, aged 52. Edward took as much more money as he could get from the estate and from his stepmother until business and wife were gone. In September, 1905, not quite thirty, he committed suicide.
Charles Davenport, the all-white son, was no better. He was a party-hearty guy even after he married Kokoa Baldwin, daughter of a prominent lawyer. Insulted beyond bearing, she rode her horse to the bank, carried her riding crop into his office and lashed his face. She filed for divorce in 1915 and left to be in silent Western movies. After not-enough-success she returned to Kalispell and is rumored to have died of suicide.
Charley D. remarried. In 1930 his 21-year-old son went into the woods and died of a shotgun blast to the chest, maybe another suicide. Lettie died in 1924, leaving a fortune to Charley D. and his sisters, Alicia and Katherine. He managed to get control of all the money. His last scheme was to turn that elegant big house into a casino and bordello, but Alicia found out in time and saved the house with a secret down payment from the last of her money. In 1940 a group of Kalispell businessmen bought the Conrad bank and two years later he died of lung cancer.
Alicia was married long enough to lose the last bits of money and to produce a daughter, Alicia Ann. Alicia and a stepfather lived in the big Conrad house while it fell apart around them. There was no money for rehabilitation. When it became impossible, the couple lived in a mobile home in the driveway. In 1973, the stepfather died, and in the late 1970’s Alicia Ann’s son Chris made arrangements to transform the building into a museum.
Rewind to 1880. Now we turn to John Conrad. His cattle were in the Hurlbut-Conrad Cattle Company, based in the notorious Johnson County, Wyoming. It’s unclear whether he was part of the cattle mogul vigilante groups, but certainly his cowboys were also gunslingers. By 1891 he had sold out his cows.
He met Mabel Barnaby during the 1884 Democratic National Convention. She was nineteen, accompanying her father, who was a Rhode Island merchant and politician. John was 29, identified by the newspapers as a “Western millionaire.” In 1887 he installed his wife in a log cabin home in Billings and opened a fancy store. He also established an attachment to Samuel Hauser (banking, railroad, mining, and cattle) who was one of the Big Four. the others were Charles Broadwater (railroads and a fabulous health spa in Helena), Marcus Daly and Willliam A. Clark (both copper kings). John’s goal was becoming governor. He bought a house as 702 Madison Avenue in Helena.
In the spring of 1891, Mabel’s mother was poisoned to death in Denver. John went berzerk in pursuit of the poisoner, who might well have been a doctor who had ingratiated himself with the woman. The doctor had a mentally unstable wife who eventually collected $25,000 from her will, but the doctor poisoned himself before he could be convicted. Under the pressure the John Conrad marriage came totally unglued -- the master and mistress accusing each other of repeated adultery and the household so disorderly that at one point there was an in-house riot featuring the coachman wielding a stick and the Chinese cook swinging a frying pan. John was the loser.
The divorce was complete in 1895 and Mabel took her children (Florence, Maud and the first Barnaby) back to civilization in Europe. Since she had her own fortune, it was not difficult to marry an American named George Choate Kendall and move into a chateau in France.
John Conrad disappeared for a while, popped up again in the Yukon and made a mighty effort to repeat the past on this new frontier. At sixty, his Venus Mine was a success until 1912. He died in 1928, drunk and indigent, in an SRO hotel in Seattle.
The three Barnaby Conrads all grew up educated, sophisticated world-citizens. Absinthe and martinis are a far cry from the product sold on the Whoop Up trail, flavored with tobacco and hot peppers. Barnaby Conrad II has written 37 books, and Barnaby Conrad III is in close pursuit of that record. Any of the three could be portrayed on the screen by Kris Christopherson. Maybe Barnaby Conrad III is a little young -- let’s say Brad Pitt as in “Legends of the Fall” -- not such a different story.