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Now, isn’t this just what a cowboy should look like? It is Sherm Ewing of Great Falls, Montana, a rancher most of his adult life in Alberta, Canada and Montana. He and Tom Scott, a Great Falls lawyer, arranged for me to speak to a bunch of good western conservatives on behalf of Hillsdale College about twenty years ago, and after the talk drove us around ranch country and showed us a Montana that it would be hard for outsiders to find in such a short stay. Great Falls is a magnificent town, although even then the Ewings and the Scotts and many others were worried about California folks moving in and buying big chunks of range land and changing the landscape forever. Fat chance of changing Sherm Ewing, though.

This picture was taken in 1996 at Hillsdale College, just after Sherm had entertained our students with hard-nosed words about property rights and individual responsibility and limited government, all in the context of western America. Just after a student took this picture he autographed my copy of his second book, The Ranch. You see, Sherm is a cowboy and rancher in his soul, but after he sold the SN Ranch to his son and moved back to Montana, he went off on a career as a writer. By the way, he had come to Hillsdale by himself, flying his own Piper Cub. He had been flying since his service in the Army Air Corps in World War II.

He says in the Preface to his first book, The Range,

As a rancher, I consider meat production to be the ‘best and highest use’ for rangeland. As a citizen, I accept such broader uses as water storage, soil building, recreation, and wildlife habitat. As a writer I describe a remarkable and renewable resource, able to sustain a wide variety of uses. And as master of ceremonies here, I introduce a wide variety of people who have lived their lives on the rangeland. This book is about a way of life.

The way of life started for Sherm Ewing, a midwesterner by birth who lived on both coasts, after he got a couple of Ivy League degrees (Yale, economics; Cornell, agriculture) and headed west to be a ranch foreman in Montana. In 1955 the Ewings bought the SN ranch in the Porcupine Hills of Alberta (there is, he says, a “common heritage of freedom” among the people from Great Falls to southern Alberta, in the shadow of the Rockies and Glacier National Park) where they built a ranch and a family for thirty years. By the time he passed the ranch on to his son, he had an idea about his next profession.

During the 1980s the Ewings traveled all over the rangeland West, tape-recorder in hand, listening to the stories of ranchers, scientists, public officials, professors, veterinarians, breeders, and “livestock philosophers.” Many were his neighbors; others he sought out for their wisdom or expertise. The tapes became 2000 single-spaced pages, which Sherm “edited” down into The Range and The Ranch. “I don’t consider myself a ‘real’ writer,” he says. This is sincere rancher humility, but the books are crafted by someone, “writer” or not, who loves the language and has the deep instincts of a true story-teller.

As I read them in the mid-1990s I had a small epiphany. I had taught the “History of the American West” for almost twenty years and had rejected almost all the historical literature on the trans-Mississippi west as unsuitable for my students, favoring instead novels and memoirs, seeking authentic voices which didn’t seem to show up in the professional historical literature. Reading Sherm Ewing’s books it suddenly occurred to me that the reason for my gut instinct about the historians was that they didn’t really know anything about the West except what came out of books and archives. I didn’t, either; but I had the sense to let some real voices loose in the classroom, and now I’m convinced that anybody who teaches the West must first read Sherm Ewing, and hear the voices that he passes on to us.

This Renaissance Cowboy writes not only about the work he knows, and the families that are rooted in the land, but about the culture a free society produces. A piece, for example, on the Great Falls Americans, a hockey team that brought rugged honor to Montana in the 1950s. At the age of 80, he wrote a poem for “Cowboy Country Magazine” called “Reindeer Wrangler,” about “Elf” Elfson, who rounds up the reindeer for Santa’s big night. Here are the last two stanzas:

Elf has ‘em penned by a quarter past noon,
Hoofs and horns trimmed by the light of the moon,
Curried and brushed, they’re fatter ‘n butter,
Harnessed and hooked up to Santa’s old cutter.

Now, here’s St. Nick in his magic red suit,
Sprinkles stardust on each reindeer’s snoot,
And away they all fly to circle the earth,
Helpin’ to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

Or — now my favorite Sherm Ewing story — how he brought an opera out of oblivion to be performed in Great Falls in 2005. It’s called “Poia: The Blackfeet Story of Scarface,” about a tribal “outcast who brings salvation to his people.” The opera was written by Arthur Nevin from Pennsylvania, based on a book about Blackfeet legends by William McClintock, The Old North Trail, which Sherm read in the 1980s. Although he had never heard an opera performed, Sherm obtained a copy from the Library of Congress and put it into the hands of the right people. Having had one performance (in 1909), it got another one in Great Falls over 95 years later.

Sherm and Tom Scott introduced me to the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, which holds most of the paintings of Charles Russell, the great artist of the plains. Many of Russell’s subjects were Indians — at home, at war, hunting, in repose. To the Ewings they are integral to the heritage. Mrs. Ewing’s great-great-great grandmother was Ojibway, and they lived around reservations for about half a century. Sherm’s conviction is that the government’s policy of special sovereignty has condemned the Indians to the position of third world nations. Celebrating the uniqueness of their culture is perhaps one way of breaking down barriers that were unnecessarily created.

The conservatism of the northern plains is rugged and individualistic, and not at all adverse to some kinds of change. Rancher conservatives know they need to adapt, that science and technology are not necessarily their enemies. But they also know that government gets in the way more often than it promotes the kind of self government that goes back to the roots of the republic. Sherm Ewing has the permanent things as deeply inside him as the Montana range.

Books on the topics in this article can be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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4 replies to this post
  1. What a lyrical and unforgettable piece! Is Mr Ewing still among us?

    I work alongside a young and increasingly prominent Afghan poet from the high rangelands of Ghazni, and the ringing phrase 'livestock philosopher' will immediately transcend any cultural divide: no explanation needed. American ranchers and farmers from National Guard units are posted to ADTs (Agricultural Development Teams) in some of the American forts (PRTs or Provincial Reconstruction Teams) dotted around Afghanistan. These men and women are kept as safe as possible, of course, but when they escape from their barricades and razor-wire to meet Afghan farmers, they wear so much armour that they resemble Imperial Stormtroopers from 'Star Wars' and the Afghans' eyes bug out for, say, thirty seconds. Then some American opens his mouth and immediately the Afghans see nothing apart from a fellow farmer or rancher, and then all hell cuts loose with everyone firing off questions all at once while sharing stories and solutions to agriculture or livestock problems. A guy in a turban goes off to bring a sheep that needs looking at. Some young lady passes around photographs of her family in Wyoming and the tribal elders scrutinise them, nodding silently and respectfully. Then starts the green tea and kebabs of course; the next morning, hands-on irrigation work or rangeland management, etc., etc. I am told by American and Afghan participants that this is a most impressive thing to behold. What the two cultures have in common are Permanent Things that scarcely need a translator.

    • I like this concept of Permanent Things that scarcely need a translator. This must surely be the road ahead…in a world awash with words without meaning.

  2. There is a reason folks actually from Bozeman, MT, have begun referring to it as Boze Angeles. Then there's the unforgettable bumper sticker, "Don't Vermont-up Montana."

    I too have had the privilege of spending time in parts of Montana that the tourists and Subaru-sporting yuppies don't see, and like parts of Wyoming it is a place that leaves a mark upon the soul for a few reasons.

    While the tentacles of creeping statism and the deplorable phenomenon known as "The New West" have certainly made inroads there, in some ways the last remnants of the Republic can be found hidden in that marvelous country.

  3. I must correct myself. It is William Scott who was Sherm's partner in so many good deeds in the Great Falls area. Tom Scott was a good friend and parishioner of mine in Hillsdale. I apologize for the failure of an age-ing memory. Bill Scott, and Sherm, were very active in the Dufresne Foundation, which over many years gave money "to share the fruits of our prosperity with the communities that have helped make it possible." They liquidated the foundation a few years ago to give one great blast to those communities and to prevent the foundation, a la Ford, etc. from falling into the wrong hands.

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