CHAPTER VI

 

PRICKLY PEAR:  PRODUCE RANCH AND STAGE STATION

 

         One of the first steps Fergus took upon arriving in Last Chance Gulch in April 1865 was to serve public notice of his intent to homestead 160 acres of gulch land. He also staked out claim number 15 in the mining district, now Helena's main street. [Public notice by James Fergus, April 25, 1865, Box 13 F. 16, FP, UM. Helena Independent, January 2, 1927.] By Christmas of that year, however, he discovered two critical facts, leading him to abandon both the homestead and the claim: his claim contained only "a trace of gold and no silver," and the "best of the land is being dug up or has been built on by miners." Since he could neither mine nor farm the land he gave public notice, vacated the 160 acres in Last Chance Gulch, and cast about for a potential livelihood. [Charles Rumley, Helena Assayer, to James Fergus, December 18, 1865, Box 9 F. 42. Public notice by James Fergus, December 20, 1865, Box 13 F. 16, FP, UM.]

 

         Fergus must have anticipated problems, for he received, during this period of limbo, offers of business partnerships from old friends McGuire, Rockwell and George Stephens who considered entering the "mill business, saw mill and a wool factory." McGuire, as well as the others, obviously respected Fergus, for he wanted to know "if you would have an interest in any such a thing here if we have a company [in Des Moines]. I wish it to consist of honest men." Rockwell encouraged Fergus to come back and gain wealth in wool mills. He greatly respected Fergus' intellect and courage for:

 

. . . if you had not got more courage than common men you wood get discouraged but I now you didn't now what that means it seam to me that if a man ever propserd from hard work you out to but furges you work too hard with you musels you out to seat that head machean to work and not let the musels rest if I had that head of yours on my shoulders my musels wood have but littell to do. [O. J. Rockwell to James Fergus, February 24, 1866, and October 9, 1867, Box 9 F. 21-22, FP, UM. Rockwell should have had an ample amount of capital, for he claimed to have taken $15,000 in gold to Chicago, trading it for $1.47 in greenbacks per dollar. George Stephens to James Fergus, February 11, 1866, Box 10 F. 25; James J. McGuire to James Fergus, January 1, 1866, Box 7 F. 26, FP, UM.]

 

         Despite the flattery, Fergus declined to return east to manufacturing, probably because leaving his Moline and Minnesota business had improved his health to such a great extent; the mountains seemed to agree with him, and he functioned well in the dry air in spite of much hard work. If it had been left to Pamelia, on the other hand, she probably would have opted to return to Moline or Des Moines. [James Fergus to Ignatius Donnelly, November 13, 1871, Roll 45, DP, Minn. HS.]

 

         At this point in his life, James apparently considered entering the newspaper business, either as an owner-financer or as an owner-editor, for he inquired about buying the Montana Post in Virginia City. Ben H. Dilles planned to sell the paper and printing office for "fifteen thousand dollars cash, in gold dust (bankable) at the rate of eighteen dollars per ounce." Fergus had until January 17, 1866, to decide. He abandoned this idea, however serious it had been, and turned to the soil as he had begun in Scotland some thirty-five years earlier. [Ben R. Dilles to James Fergus, January 9, 1866, Box 2 F. 60, FP, UM.] James claimed 160 acres of land, by public notice, on the south bank of Ten Mile Creek in Edgerton County (location probably close to Helena). But for some reason he held this less than a month and late in January 1866 sold it to S. Collins Gilpatrick, Luella's future husband, unless they had married by then, for $200. [Public notice by James Fergus, January 10, 1866, Box 13 F. 16, FP, UM. Bill of Sale, James Fergus to S. C. Gilpatrick, January 29, 1866, FP, UM. If Luella was not married then she could have been very quickly [she was not married till January 1, 1867 in the Prickly Pear Valley], for James received an inquiry from a Deer Lodge Valley swain who needed help in milking 75 cows that spring. Apparently from J. A. Clark, January 14, 1866, Box 2 F. 17; also found in Box 11 F. 50, FP, UM, with comments by Mrs. Bubar.]

 

         By that fall James relocated on what was previously called the Hundley and Prewitt ranch, which he purchased from Best; he lived there about five years. He planned to sell some hay, raise $600 and buy ten more milk cows and sell butter that winter. By the following year James had ten acres of grain and vegetables under irrigation, plus hay and grazing land, for a total of 60 acres. [Deposition by James Fergus, June 11, 1896, Box 13 F. 20, FP, UM. James Fergus to R. S. Hamilton, September 9, 1866, Box 11 F. 57, FP, UM. Fergus borrowed $400 in gold dust from Hamilton to begin ranching. Hamilton to Fergus, October 1, 1866, Box 5 F. 30, FP, UM.]

 

         James struggled a good deal those first seasons in the Prickly Pear Valley, especially the summers of 1866 and 1867, for grasshoppers attacked the area. His initial hard luck at farming led one friend to comment, "The grasshoppers seem to have a spite for you. I think you are too much of a miner to do well at farming." [H. B. Bailey to James Fergus, September 21, 1867, Box 1 F. 19, FP, UM. William Sturgis to James Fergus, September 23, 1866, Box 10 F. 42, FP, UM.]

 

         Of those who knew James Fergus, no one ever said he had failed in business, town speculation or mining because of lack of effort, energy or ambition. The same held true in the Prickly Pear. As he planned, James bought additional cows, and instead of idling his winters away, made and peddled butter to Helena miners and businesses. He also raised chickens for eggs and meat. Beginning in the spring of 1867 he worked with S. Collins Gilpatrick, who married Luella. Gilpatrick operated a retail store and Fergus supplied him with potatoes, eggs, fresh vegetables, butter, cheese, and whatever else he could raise for profit. This relationship continued until Fergus left the valley in 1880. [S. C. Gilpatrick to James Fergus, June 21, 1867, Box 5 F. 6, FP, UM. Numerous other letters indicating this business relationship can be found in Box 5 F. 6-10. They apparently dissolved the business some time in 1883. Gilpatrick to Fergus, December 12, 1883, Box 5 F. 10, FP, UM.]

 

         Fergus also sold produce to area ranchers. Much of his goods went to Fort Benton and the T. C. Power and Company, from whom James bought a considerable portion of his manufactured goods and groceries. For example, in April 1876, C. Boissonneault, Fort Benton, paid Fergus $12.93 for 30 dozen eggs, shipped in oats by wagon to Benton, [T. C. Power & Bro. Co. to James Fergus, January 24 and March 17, 1874, Box 8 F. 79, FP, UM. C. Boissonneault to James Fergus, April 19, 1876, Box 1 F. 44, FP, UM.] In 1874 Fergus noted a portion of the crop would include "about 7 acres mixed peas and oats on the north side then about 1 acre wheat on the south side and upper and about three acres of potatoes and one acre in carrots, rutabaors, corn mangle winter garden peas, etc." These were fairly small amounts but planted because "the grasshoppers were eating up our other crops." James also sold, during this period, small grains for feed, hay, beef for meat and some hogs. [James Fergus Day Book, 1872-78, May 16, 1874 Crop Memo, Box 24 F. 1; James Fergus Notebook: Grasshopper Diggins, etc., 1862-1869, pp. 74-77, February 1868-October 1877, Box 25 F. 2; James Fergus Notebook, 1868-70; James Fergus Notebook, 1870-71, Box 23 F. 2, FP, UM.]

 

         In addition to selling produce, meat, grain and hay to area businesses and friends, Fergus marketed much the same items to the several military posts in the Montana Territory, especially during the mid and late 1870's. During the decade, and in varying amounts, he did business with the following military installations: Camp Baker, Ft. Benton, Ft. Ellis, Ft. Maginnis, Ft. Missoula, Ft. Shaw. [Box 11 F. 2-9, FP, UM.]

 

         One inclination Fergus exhibited almost immediately after arriving in Last Chance Gulch, and especially after he abandoned mining for the soil, dealt with fruit trees. In December 1865, thinking to the following summer, he sent to distant Salt Lake City for fruit trees, which had to be shipped in by wagon, sometimes for as much as 75 cents a pound freight. Apple trees, one year from the bud, sold for $50 to $75 per 100; two-year-olds for $100 per 100. Plums, apricots and pears were scarce. A good two-year-old pear tree sold for $2.50. [R. S. Hamilton to James Fergus, March 22, 1866, Box 5 F. 30, FP, UM. W. C. Stains to James Fergus, December 10, 1865, Box 10 F. 16, FP, UM.] Unfortunately, he received damaged trees which did not grow well that summer. James also asked Moline friends George Stephens and D. B. Sears to forward fruit and flower seeds so he could beautify his ranch and provide fresh fruit. [W. C. Stains to James Fergus, June 19, 1866, Box 10 F. 16, FP, UM. George Stephens to James Fergus, February 11, 1866, Box 10 F. 25, FP, UM.]

 

         James continued ordering fruit trees when he needed them. By the early 1870's he could be supplied from Helena, an indication that the city had matured somewhat from its gold camp days of the 1860's. In 1872, for example, Fergus ordered 11 currant and gooseberry bushes, 50 currant cuttings, and two top varieties of potatoes from D. W. Curtiss, Helena, "Grower of and Dealer in Choice Potatoes, Asparagus, Rhubarb, Currants, Gooseberries, etc. Strawberries a Specialty." [D. W. Curtiss to James Fergus, April 24, 1872, Box 2 F. 39, FP, UM.]

 

         Fergus planted these and more, but within a year grasshoppers destroyed much of it, especially the strawberries and currants. James did not quit the effort to develop an orchard, however, and after moving to central Montana in the 1880's, he also continued the struggle of raising fruit in a semi-hostile climate, a frustration he encountered in Minnesota some years earlier. [Ibid., June 12, 1874. L. M. Ford to James Fergus, April 22, 1856, Box 3 F. 47, FP, UM.]

 

         James' only son Andrew, twenty years old by 1870, proved to be a great help to his father after they settled in the Prickly Pear Valley. In fact, this prosperity James came to enjoy during the decade of the 1870's and thereafter in central Montana could be traced back, in large part, to the help provided by Andrew, though of course James also contributed a great deal. Though they worked together on the same ranch and then ran two or three, they apparently had no formal agreement until 1878, when James sold Andrew "one undivided one third (1/3) of all the cattle, or cattle stock now owned by me, whether branded or not . . ." for one dollar. [Agreement between James Fergus and Andrew Fergus, April 23, 1878, Box 13 F. 17, FP, UM. James may have negotiated this liberal agreement with his son a this time for fear of losing Andrew, who at the time considered medicine as a profession. David Hilger to Andrew Fergus, February 15, 1878, Box 15. FP, UM.] In 1870 Fergus bought the Prickly Pear Valley ranch of Malcomb Clark, killed by Indians two years earlier. [Mrs. S. C. Gilpatrick, "Biographical Sketch of Mrs. James Fergus," Contributions, IV, 188-189. An unidentified and undated newspaper clipping related it this way: Clark had married an Indian of the Blackfoot tribe and "certain Blackfeet entertained a deep grudge against Malcom and one night in 1868 they visited the Clark ranch, called him out and shot him, killing him." Box 21 F. 5, FP, UM.] At this juncture father and son operated two ranches totaling 480 acres, on which they ran 19 horses, 9 ponies, 248 cattle, and 50 calves. [Lewis and Clark County, Assessment List for 1870, Box 13 F. 17, FP, UM. The land was located in Section 36, Township 11.]

 

         Two years later they owned three ranches, operating two and renting the other. James noted their progress, assets and liabilities in a July 14, 1872 memo:

 

We that is myself and family own 640 acres of land in Prickly Pear Valley in this county. We own three ranches here not entered. We own over two hundred head of stock, two large mares with colts six work horses six pony horses in all, besides waggons and farm tools in all valued at $14,000.

 

James concluded by noting others in the Helena area owed them about $1100 and their crops would bring them $1000, making $16,000 in assets. They owed others about $3800, giving them a balance of $12, 300. The "Ranch here with improvements" of $2000 brought it to a $14,300 total. Even though paper figures, it marked quite an increase from the spring of 1866 when they borrowed money to buy additional cows to make butter. [James Fergus Day Book, 1872-1878, memo of July 14, 1872, Box 24 F. 1, FP, UM. James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, March 8, 1872, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.]

 

         James projected ahead, as he usually did, and felt by collecting what others owed them and paying what debts they could, by the end of that year they still would be about $1000 in debt. His goal—to manage better in the future and to "get out of debt by selling hay and stock. If we cannot get out of debt now let us get as near out as we can now and the rest just as soon as we can." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, March 8, 1872, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.]

 

         Two years later James realized this ambition, at least temporarily, when he noted "we have this day paid up A. L. Randall's notes in full [and] this is the last debt we owe," but for $20 to a Helena blacksmith. According to Fergus' meticulous bookkeeping, during the previous two years they had expended and taken in $10,850, broken down as follows:

 

Notes for borrowed money and for labor in all

$4000

interest

800

taxes

400

paid for labor

2000

paid for living; clothing, food, etc.

2000

for lumber and incidentals

1000

for a threshing machine

650

 

-------

 

$10850

 

 

Received from this:

 

from old place

$1200

stock sold

2000

grain and hay sold

600

butter, etc. to Helena

1000

balance taken in here or meats, horse feed, eggs, butter, potatoes, oats, beef, etc.

6050

 

-------

 

$10850

 

As an afterthought Fergus added: "More expended for Lillies schooling, for books, papers etc. and we have as much due us now and in money as we had two years ago say $1000.' [James Fergus Day Book, 1872-1878, memo of June 20, 1874, Box 24 F. 1, FP, UM.]

 

         By 1876 James and Andrew worked 250 cattle valued at $3100 and 95 calves at $380. He listed their total valuation at $10,565, and noted again, "we are out of debt now and the different prospects to spend money on are already numerous. Viz:"

 

Enter our land

$450

New house

2500

Stables

1000

Mother to states

500

Lillie     "      "

500

2 good bulls

1000

a good horse

1000

 

-------

A pretty good sum

$6950

 

 

James continued, "this will take us at least two years besides the above we have new celler and spring house to build. The land must be entered, the house built, the rest will have to come after except the stables." As usual in rural situations, luxuries for the wife often had to be postponed: in this case, Pamelia's trip back to Illinois to visit friends and relatives. James, however, did always try to provide a good functional house for his wife; this became especially true when he crossed into central Montana. [Property list, July 26, 1876, Box 13 F. 17, FP, UM. James Fergus Notebook, 1874-1876, memo of June 20, 1876, Box 23 F. 2, FP, UM.]

 

         James and Andrew continued to prosper through sound management and hard work. By the spring of 1877 James estimated his assets to be just over $14,000, with $8,690 in cash and debts owed them, over 300 head of cattle at $3600, over 20 head of horses at $1800, an estimated $3000 in crops and about $800 worth of improvements. [James Fergus Notebook, 1876-77, memo of June 10, 1877, Box 23 F. 3, FP, UM.] At this time he apparently considered a move to the Pacific, for James wrote friend Robert Millis, Folsom, California, inquiring what one could do with $14,000 in that area of he country. At sixty-four Fergus had not yet thought of retirement. He would not for another twenty years, and then only when forced to slow down by deteriorating health. [Robert T. Millis to James Fergus, April 26, 1877, Box 7 F. 62, FP, UM.]

 

         Earlier that winter James sold the "ranch in the valley" to Mrss. Birch and Tarleton for $4500, with $1500 down and the balance to be paid by 1880 in $1000 amounts; one per cent interest would be paid on the remaining amount per month until paid. [James Fergus Notebook, 1876-77, memo of February 28, 1877, Box 23 F. 3, FP, UM. James later described the sale: "In the Prickly Pear Valley 8 miles from Helena I sold 640 acres of good land with water right and entered with more and better buildings than I have here [at Armells] with 6 miles of No. 1 fence posts . . . and 200 tons of hay yearly and 240 acres of bluegrass pasture the rest plowed and sold the place for $4500 on time." James Fergus to Theodore Lindsay, 1884, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM.] Two years before he began renting another Prickly Pear ranch to R. S. Clark for $800 a year, with Clark obligated to keep the place in good repair. [James Fergus Notebook, 1874-75, memo of February 9, 1875, Box 23 F. 2, FP, UM. R. S. Clark to James Fergus, February 16, 1875, May 15, 1875, August 12, 1876, and December 8, 1876, Box 2 F. 18, FP, UM. Clark had trouble meeting the payments.]

 

         One of the priorities James outlined in 1876, after again emerging from debt, had been to purchase "a good horse for about $1000. This ambition rose not just from the love of fine horses or the pride at owning and racing such an animal at the Helena fair, but because of stud fees he had been paying for a quality stallion: $25 initially and $15 more if a mare foaled. [S. F. Larable to James Fergus, April 5, 1876, Box 7 F. 4, FP, UM.] Consequently, Fergus bought two blooded stallions for $3,000, a large amount for the time. Thus James used the stallions with his stock, to secure breeding income from Fayette Mambino and "Don A", and also raced one or both at the fair. One wonders what Pamelia must have thought when the family budget allowed $3,000 for two horses while remaining inadequate to finance her Illinois trip to see her mother and friends. [James Fergus note, September 29, 1877, Box 12 F. 37, FP, UM. A. T. Allen to James Fergus, letters of August 15 and 21, 1877, March 11 and January 6, 1878, Box 1 F. 3, FP, UM.]

 

         Unfortunately for Fergus and area horse raisers, "Don A" became ill and died the spring of 1878. It marked a calamity for all western Montana and Fergus received dozens of sympathy letters after the disaster. One person considered the animal to be worth $5000 at its death. Silas S. Harvey, Clancy, Montana, expressed sentiments typical of those who wrote. He called it a pecuniary loss to Fergus but "also a very great loss to the stockmen of the whole territory of Montana." Harvey had planned to breed several Kentucky mares, which had not yet arrived, to Fergus' stallion. [S. K. Larable to James Fergus, March 13, 1878, Box 7 F. 4, FP, UM. Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL. Silas S. Harvey to James Fergus, May 7, 1878, Box 6 F. 45, FP, UM. Some confusion exists here. Mrs. Stuart talks of only one horse that Fergus bought for $3000. She may have been confused, unless Don A and Fayette Mambino were the same horse, with Don A a nickname.]

 

         During the 1870's Fergus had more than just a business involvement in the affairs of Lewis and Clark County. As in previous communities, country leaders soon recognized him as a man of action, a person who held interest in and gave thought to community affairs, and who did not hesitate to speak or pen his thoughts. Consequently, in the spring of 1869, Fergus was appointed to the vacancy on the Lewis and Clark County Commission, after L. P. Stirlling resigned. [Official notice of Fergus' appointment, June 17, 1869, Box 13 F. 16, FP, UM.] James held the office most of the following decade, often as chairman of the commission. [Fergus acted as chairman in 1873, 1874, 1876 and 1877, before resigning. Letters from John N. Heldt, Clerk and Recorder, Lewis and Clark County, to James Fergus, December 31, 1873, February 5, 1874, April 8, 1876, Box 7 F. 10, FP, UM. James Fergus to Ellison Beach, March 11, 1877, Box 21 F. 1, FP, UM.]

 

         Earlier, in 1866, James lost his bid for a seat in the Territorial Council. He ran fifth in a field of six from Edgerton County. [Ellis L. Waldron, Montana Politics Since 1864: An Atlas of Elections (Missoula: Montana State University Press, 1958), p. 17.]

 

         Fergus did not serve with political ambition, but more from a sense of duty and a desire to protect the taxpayer, himself included, from the governance of directionless men. In 1872 he confessed "I am tired of going up town and of this county commissioners business. We have enough to do of our own and I would like to get rid of it if I could, but I don't see how it can be done." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, March 8, 1872, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.]

 

         James seldom hesitated to speak his mind or fight for what he considered right. Consequently, he often worked in the center of controversy; if others considered his actions dishonest or taken for personal gain at public expense, he quickly resigned, thus forcing the party and the public to either support or condemn him by ballot. On the other hand, his opponent probably considered this more of a grandstand play, spite, or the "if you won't play the game my way I wont play" attitude. Such was the case in June 1873, when Fergus supported an issue, received criticism, and resigned. The chairman of the Republican county committee pleaded with him to remain on the commission because "the Committee unanimously endorses your action as member of the board and believe your withdrawal would be a serious calamity to the clients of L and C County." [L. H. Cavanne, Chairman, Republican County Committee, Lewis and Clark County, to James Fergus, June 16, 1873, Box 7 F. 8, FP, UM.] Fergus could not be dissuaded and resigned, only to receive a year later "unanimous renomination by acclimation for county commissioner" by his party. That fall the voters again returned him to the commission, where he remained until 1877. [John N. Heldt to James Fergus, June 28 and August 13, 1874, Box 7 F. 10 and Box 12 F. 33, FP, UM.]

 

         Fergus considered himself to be a "liberal Republican" who though elected to the commission on that ticket, received support from "almost all the business Democrats in Helena." Critical of the national Republican party, especially the actions of President Grant, Fergus could be embarrassingly blunt and candid on the local level as well. When reelected to the commission on the People's Ticket in 1874, Fergus pledged to reduce the waste of county funds, especially the $1000 a year printing bill, possibly the source of his earlier resignation. He wrote the Governor, Benjamin F. Potts, of his thoughts.

 

. . . so far I have failed to see those promises carried out by other commissioners as they should be. I am sorry to say it, but I make the candid confession that I believe the Democrats administered the affairs of the county as economically as the Republicans are doing taking all the circumstances into consideration. [James Fergus to Governor B. F. Potts, June 13, 1874, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM. James Fergus to William Butler, March 20, 1875, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.]

 

         Two years later Fergus led a two pronged fight to equalize taxes and place county advertising and printing out on bids, saving the county money. Again embroiled in controversy, Fergus came under much pressure because, as his son-in-law said, he remained "outspoken and . . . while others stand in the background you had to bear all the blame and do your own and their fighting." [S. C. Gilpatrick to James Fergus, February 13, 1876, Box 5 F. 7, FP, UM.] The year before James urged the grand jury to investigate the construction of their country jail, which led to charges of partisan politics. Fergus insisted he had moved as a citizen, not as a strong Republican, and moaned "is the everlasting politics always to control us?" [James Fergus to John Hones, February 15, 1875, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.]

 

         If anything kept Fergus in politics it was his ambition to keep public expenses to a minimum, hopefully by reducing public salaries, certainly by holding the line and opposing increases. In the mid-1870's he insisted, "Now we are a settled community, all the products and profits on capital are comparitively low, and fees, salaries, and services performed for the public should be, but have not been materially reduced." He urged beleaguered taxpayers to use their influence with the legislature, encouraging them to "do all in their power to reduce expenses and relieve our over-burdened people from such heavy taxation." He conceded the task to be formidable, for strong lobbies opposed reductions: each office holder considered his job vital and sought more money, each legislator either sought a public office or had a friend or relative who did. The remedy, Fergus thought, was to:

 

. . . give every officer a fixed salary in proportion to the tax or population of his county, all fees to go into the county Treasury. This will be cheaper for the public, better for the officer, and the county business can be settled in much less time and with more satisfaction."

 

The problem, Fergus acknowledged, was to keep fees as low as possible while still attracting good men to public jobs. [James Fergus to Helena Herald, November 1876, Box 21 F.4, Scrapbook, p. 19, FP, UM.]

 

         Later the Helena Herald supported raising the county commissioners' pay from $5 to $10 a working day. Fergus naturally opposed the effort, just as he opposed other increases in public pay. He insisted the commissioners should improve their organization, for careful planning would expedite county business; in addition, they could handle private matters in town, thus saving later trips to Helena.

 

         James believed most commissioners to be foisted on the taxpayers by "King Caucus." These men gained experience at public expense; they ultimately cost taxpayers additional expense by paying items which had often been refused by experienced commissioners. The higher the commission turnover, the greater the expense.

 

         There is no doubt that many of our commissioners throughout Montana are paid higher wages at five dollars a day—and learning public business at the same time—than they ever earned before in their lives, or ever expected to earn. No, Mr. Editor, let our legislature cut down fees where they need it, but raise nothing. Our taxes are high enough already. [James Fergus to Helena Herald, n.d. (late 1870's), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 19, FP, UM.]

 

Receiving high wages became secondary to the experience gained, according to James. Also, too many men of small ability earned more as commissioners than in private life. Increasing the pay would only attract more weak candidates, not stronger ones. Fergus implied that low pay attracted those, like himself, who served for the public good, not for monetary gain.

 

         By January 1877 Fergus had served on the Lewis and Clark County commission for over seven years. However, he resigned in a financial dispute, this time for good. James insisted at least $35,000 had been spent on items and projects outside the legitimate business of the county, even though he opposed these actions more than any other commissioner. While James resigned for reasons of health, he noted that "no commissioner of this county was ever villified and lied about as I have been by the opposition press and no Democrat raised his voice publicly to stop it." [James Fergus to Cornelius Hedges, January 25, 1877, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM. James Fergus to Ellison Beach, March 11, 1877, Box 21 F. 1, FP, UM.]

 

         When leaving office, Fergus observed that "those who would make good commissioners don't want it and those who want it would not make good commissioners." In addition:

 

Few men are fit for the office of Commissioner that are willing to take it. It is a thankless office at best. Businessmen in our towns don't like to have it—it interfers with their business and makes enemies; and being accustomed to large profits themselves they are generally disposed to be too liberal while doing business for the public. Farmer—sometimes supposed to lack brains and education for this position, although we send them to our legislature—are accustomed to active out-door exercise. Close confinement in a court room, poring over accounts day after day—added to other demoralizing influences of city life—deranges the system, fevers the blood, the head aches, the temper becomes irritated, and he is consequently unfitted to perform the duties required of him satisfactorily to himself or the public. Again, like the county mouse in the fable, he is too apt to look up to, act as, and pay deference to his town cousin. [James Fergus to Cornelius Hedges, January 25, 1877, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM. James Fergus to Helena Herald, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 7, FP, UM.]

 

         By the latter part of the decade Fergus also rose to the state level of government. He built to this slowly, working within the Republican party, though his goal had not necessarily been to achieve election to the state legislature. Thus in 1873 and 1875 he served as a Republican precinct chairman and was sought out by various individuals for political support. [J. P. Woolman to James Fergus, June 23, 1873, Box 11 F. 46, FP, UM. W. C. Gillette to James Fergus, July 31, 1875, Box 4 F. 12, FP, UM. Henry Dildine to James Fergus, January 30, 1879, Box 2 F. 54, FP, UM. John Heldt to James Fergus, June 12, 1873, Box 6 F. 45, FP, UM.]

 

         By 1878 Fergus had achieved a reputation as an outspoken advocate of accountability and reduced public spending, one who did not hesitate to stand for what he believed. Few questioned his honesty, though some disagreed with his opinions. Therefore, the Republican party nominated him to represent Lewis and Clark County in the Territorial House of Representatives; he consequently won a seat in that body, his first position in Montana state government. Good friends Granville Stuart, W. F. Sanders and Ellison Beach also represented the county in the House. [O. R. Totten, Clerk of Lewis and Clark County, to James Fergus, November 13, 1878, Box 13 F. 23, FP, UM. Helena Daily Independent, January 14, 1879.]

 

         As a freshman representative, Fergus received appointment to the committees on Territorial Affairs, Grazing and Stock Growing, and Indian Affairs. [Helena Daily Herald, January 15, 1879.] James introduced few bills during the session; as expected, those he sponsored dealt with regulating the salaries of county clerks, treasurers, sheriffs and county assessors, presumably to lower them, or at least to produce greater efficiency in government and less cost to the taxpayer. Though supported by Sanders and Beach in this effort, the bill relating to assessors was the only one to pass during the session. [Helena Daily Herald, January 16, January 17, January 24, January 28, February 7, February 4, 1879. Surprisingly, the state did not print a House Journal for the 1879 session, thus these accounts are from newspapers. Also, it is impossible to ascertain if Fergus planned to lower these salaries. In addition, the assessor's bill may have been modified before passage.]

 

         Speaking in support of his legislation, Fergus maintained that excessive county fees had much to do with the depressed condition of state ranching in general and himself in particular, therefore:

 

. . . the time has come when we must do it all it wants is just a little back bone, and to say my friend I am willing to vote you and all other men a reasonable compensation but not one penny more. There are two parties to this contract. He who has to pay the money and he who receives it. You the receiver are here like the horse leach crying give, give, the taxpayer depends on us to protect and do him justice let us be true to our trust. [Handwritten Fergus Speech, 1879, Box 14 F. 4, FP, UM.]

 

         While Fergus remained relatively quiet concerning most legislation introduced during the session, he expressed vocal opposition to at least one other issue—that of the net proceeds tax on the Territory's mining industry. The bill proposed to tax only the net proceeds, not the value of Montana mines. Fergus would tax all mines as other property—at least appraised value. If the assessor could not determine the value of a mine, a jury of experts could. Besides, "those in favor of taxing net proceeds had proven conclusively that mines yielded no net proceeds. Then what did they propose to tax?" he wondered. [Helena Daily Herald, February 11, 1879.] His opposition remarks included these sentiments:

 

A pays $1.25 per acre for his farm, and the assessor puts it down at $5, its true value. B pays $2.50 per acre for his mine, and the assessor puts it down at $2.50, while its true value may be $100. Miner says it has no certain value—it may be worthless. So may any other species of property be worthless. There are risks in everything—in the ships at sea, the steamboats on our rivers, trains on our railroads, buildings on main street have gone in an hour; grasshoppers have eaten our crops; still, all these species of property are just what they will sell for, and so is the mine. Some of this placer ground below Helena is worth thousands of dollars for building purposes alone, and should be taxed like other property at its true value. [James Fergus to Helena Daily Herald, n.d. (probably early 1879), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 17, FP, UM.]

 

         To point out the unequal nature of the net proceeds tax, Fergus, in a facetious gesture, though he may have been deadly serious, introduced a similar bill for the livestock industry. Under his bill, each rancher would report the gross proceeds of stock income between the 1st and 10th of August each year. After determining all costs they would be required to pay a tax on the net proceeds of the sales, not on the assessed value of the livestock. Referred to the committee on ways and means, the bill did not even emerge for debate. [Ibid., February 6 and 7, 1879.]

 

         Though Fergus voted twice against House Bill 20, the net proceeds bill, it passed both houses of the territorial legislature and became law. It plagued the territory and later the state for years to come. [Ibid., February 14, 20, and 22, 1879. For further coverage of this tax controversy see: Lewis Levine, The Taxation of Mines in Montana (New York: B. W. Huebseh, 1919) and Toole, Montana: An Uncommon Land, Chapter X. Toole also discusses it in his new book, Montana: A Twentieth Century Portrait (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971).]

 

         During the 1870's James and his son had another source of income, worry and irritation. In the fall of 1871 Andrew received a restaurant license for his establishment on the road between Ft. Benton and Helena, commonly called the Benton Road. [Receipt from Auditor, Territory of Montana, to Andrew Fergus, November 1, 1871, Box 16 F. 64, FP, UM.] James may or may not have encouraged Andrew, but the following summer James borrowed $1986 at 2 per cent per month from son-in-law R. S. Hamilton and purchased a "restaurant Keeper" license himself, presumably to assume the operation of the business Andrew initiated.

 

         Thus, in addition to ranching and raising produce, the Fergus family received income from the restaurant and hotel business, usually called a stage station, during the decade. While little is known about this operation, Pamelia undoubtedly became involved, either as a cook or as a hostess for the hotel, or both. Located on the Benton Road, the hotel functioned as a rest stop for stage lines between Ft. Benton and Helena, in addition to other carriers such as the Sun River Stage. Unless an overnight stop, brief halts were needed to feed passengers and change horses. No doubt it kept Fergus busy managing his several activities. [Hotel license receipts issued to James Fergus by the Territory of Montana for the years 1875 to 1880, Box 12 F. 34-36 and 38. Box 13 F. 23. Wm. Rowe, Sun River to James Fergus, August 20, 1878, Box 9 F. 38, FP, UM. As of March 16, 1879, the following rates were in effect from Helena to the Fergus ranch, assumed to be close to the stage station and about eight miles from Helena: passenger fare, $2.50; freight, 1 cents a pound; packages, "reasonable." Wm. Rowe, Superintendent, Benton & Helena Stage Company, to James Fergus, March 16, 1879, Box 1 F. 40, FP, UM.]

 

         In the spring of 1878 James took Andrew in as a partner, giving him one-third interest in all his stock for one dollar. Prior to this arrangement, Andrew had been providing his father with much help but apparently no formal business understanding had been in effect, save that Andrew received his board and room with occasional spending money. Thus the 1878 agreement was designed to get Andrew started in his own business in a semi-independent fashion. Andrew developed business talents and enough capital to work his own interests, while working with his father and using his equipment.

 

         Late in 1879, however, this arrangement became inadequate and a new contract developed. James sold to Andrew, for $3,000, one-fourth interest:

 

. . . in all the personal property held by me in my name, consisting in part of about 1000 (one thousand) head of cattle, about 60 (sixty) head of horses, about three thousand and three hundred dollars ($3,300.00) in monies and credits—Together with the same considered interest in all the hay, grain, waggons, horses, machines, tools, and all other farming and household utensils now owned and used by me at the ranch on the Benton Road on the Little Prickly Pear where I now reside. . . . [James Fergus memo, December 30, 1879, Box 13 F. 17, FP, UM.]

 

         At this time James and Pamelia operated the stage station and their ranch while Andrew applied most of his time and energy to another ranch "above Prickly Pear Canyon" caring for several hundred top grade stock cattle. James raised some fifty head of quality brood mares and six thoroughbred stallions, the latter costing at least $1000 and some twice that. [Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL.]

 

         The following spring James noted one of the grim realities of ranching in that area, something that probably helped him decide to sell and find greater space and better range—he "had 50 branded [cattle] die with blackleg mostly yearlings and 33 unbranded calves die from cold and starvation, of course we did not find all. 39 cows died to date." [James Fergus Ledger, Personal 1872-1883, entry of May 1, 1880, p. 123, Box 24 F. 4, FP, UM.] Lack of adequate range, especially for Andrew, led them to consider leaving the Prickly Pear. With his summer range diminishing, Andrew had to feed his stock "too long and too much," increasing cost and effort. Father and son looked east of the mountains into central Montana, where free range beckoned and water ran plentiful. Besides, friends had already moved onto the plains—T. C. Powers, settling south of the Missouri, and Granville Stuart, locating near the foot of the Judith Range, and Henry Brooks. "Tall grass, good water, plenty of timber and no civilizations with constant worries. There was hay meadows where he could cut all the wild hay he would need. A country already made. All he would have to do would be to occupy it." [Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL. James Fergus account of the move, about 1900, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.]

 

         In 1873 Fergus discovered another fact which prohibited individuals from claiming choice homesteads in the Prickly Pear. The township in which Fergus had located:

 

. . . is all inside of railroad limits . . . therefore there cannot be a homestead made in that township to exceed 80 acres—except by a discharged soldier, nor to embrace any portion of an odd section, no homestead can be made on any odd numbered sections under any circumstances, nor upon either sections 16 or 36, no matter when settled. [L. B. Lyman to James Fergus, May 6, 1873, Box 7 F. 19, FP, UM.]

 

Though Fergus did enter claim to 80 acres that spring, and while he did acquire 160 acres of entered land before leaving the Prickly Pear, he could see little possibility of acquiring large tracts of range land. Thus the vast spaces of central Montana looked especially appealing. [Recorder's Office, Helena, receipt dated June 5, 1873, for S of S.E. of Sec. 8 in Township 13 North of Range 4 West. Box 12 F. 32, FP. UM.]

 

         Fergus held another very practical reason for leaving the valley, at least for disengaging from the stage station: it had become a "nerve racking affair." Since James and Pamelia, by necessity, located their station on a well-traveled road, and because loose stock bothered the country, Fergus experienced much extra work caring for this stock until reclaimed. The mail often contained inquiries about lost animals, asking Fergus to catch and feed the strays until they could be collected. "This was a custom of the country that you look after any stray stock and notify the owner of its whereabouts, but situated on a main traveled road this alone became one man's job and did not pay for the feed alone not to mention the annoyance." [Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL.]

 

         Of course all these factors combined could not have induced James to leave an established ranch located within a few hours of the territorial capital if it had not been for one other factor—James Fergus, from his youth, had seldom remained on one place more than a few years at a time. In fact, his stay in the Prickly Pear Valley constituted his longest residence in any one general location, and he moved several times within the Helena area. At age 67 Fergus still believed greater opportunity waited across the mountains. Free grass, water and timber all symbolized the "pile" he had never made. That the country held few others, that they would be isolated and struggling to carve a ranching domain from virgin land held by buffalo and Indians seemed to matter little, for opportunity attracted like an irresistible magnet, forcing certain adversity into the background.

 

         By spring 1880 Fergus had heard enough of central Montana that after spring branding he, Andrew and a hired man loaded a wagon and took their horses to search for new range. On May 13 they pushed north for the Tetons, then crossed the Muddy River area, passed the Chouteau-Meagher County boundary, the Carrol and Sun River Road, swung through the Judith Gap and passed near the Moccasin Mountains before returning to the Prickly Pear. After a 24-day trip covering about 500 miles they returned in early June to prepare for the move to a new range north of the Judith Mountains on Armells and Box Elder creeks. [James Fergus Notebook, April 1, 1880-November 20, 1880 (Book No. 3), entry of May 13, 1880, FC, MHSL. James Fergus letter to person unknown, n.d. (about 1900), Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.]

 

         Upon returning, James arranged the sale of his ranch and stage station to Martin Mitchell. He later described his property as "a good stage station on the Benton Road 160 acres entered 900 acres fenced plenty of water and a fine spring and range stable and buildings . . . for $2750." Fergus also sold much of his household and ranch goods to Mitchell for $438.75. Apparently he wanted to re-equip his ranch with partially new equipment, or else the goods were not worth moving. [James Fergus to Theodore Lindsay, 1884, Box 22 F. 59, FP, UM. James Fergus Memo, June 30, 1880, Box 12, F. 39, FP, UM.]

 

         With the land and property sold, James organized the family for another move, this time for a shorter distance and with approximately one thousand head of livestock—900 cattle and 100 horses. He sent Pamelia to Helena for more than a year's stay with daughters Luella and Agnes, and he and Andrew pushed across the mountains to the Judith with cattle, wagons and equipment. Fergus' thoroughbred horses remained in the Prickly Pear in care of Thomas Shea. The stock grazed on their new range by August, soon to be fat and healthy, feasting on bunch grass which stood "two feet high on the Armells ranch and it waved in the wind like fields of grain." [James Fergus Notebook, April 1, 1880-November 20, 1880, entry of July 25, 1880, FC, MHSL. James Fergus Ledger, Personal, 1872-1883, entry of June 9, 1880, Box 24 F. 4, FP, UM. Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL. The youngest daughter, Lillie, had married Frank Maury in 1873.]

 

         Pamelia's feelings on leaving the proximity of her two daughters and crossing the mountains into isolation are not known, though without question she did not radiate the enthusiasm of James. Though she may have pleased to leave the stage station and its numerous problems, she probably was less than enthusiastic about living among buffalo and Indians with the nearest neighbor a distant twenty miles. She had lived on the frontier, with and without her husband, since their marriage. Before they left she may very well have asked him why they could not remain close to Helena, close to their two daughters, and close to the nerve center of the territory during their last years, enjoying some of the fruits of civilization. However, being the kind of woman she was, she undoubtedly placed duty to husband and son before her own desires, accompanying them to Armells to establish their new and final home on the plains.

 

         If Pamelia posed such questions she did not puzzle alone. A. L. Randall, a Fergus friend from Whitehall, Montana, put it this way:

 

I suppose Mr. Fergus is satisfied now he has got off down in that wild lonesome country—He will go there and work as long as he can get one foot before the other and when he gets everything fixed all right he will pass away, but if he aint to work all the time he is as uneasy as a fish out of water. Anyone would naturaly think a man that has done as much hard laborious work as he has and of his age and indisposed in health would take it easy as possible the rest of his days. . . . [A. L. Randall to person unknown (possibly S. C. Gilpatrick, Helena), September 5, 1880, Box 9 F. 4, FP, UM.]

 

Wilbur Fisk Sanders, James' good friend from Virginia City days, also expressed concern about the move, though he had a more personal interest in encouraging James to remain near Helena—he missed the intellectual exchanges they once enjoyed. Fergus had been in the Judith about two years when Sanders confessed:

 

I have never been reconciled to your going to the Maginnis Country and sought to prevent it for it seemed to me that after a life of long and successful work you were entitled to some leisure and that a man of your intellectual activity and political usefullness could best enjoy yourself here or somewhere else in a larger place. In my effort I confess there was a motive of selfishness too for I could then see you often and in this country where so few people take an intelligent interest in public affairs in questions of science revelation religion politics and social science I confess to a hunger for someone of mutual tastes and faiths and so I do greatly desire you here. [W. F. Sanders to James Fergus, April 1, 1882, Box 9 F. 47, FP, UM.]

 

Some twenty years later Sanders still tried to get James back to Helena and the few old friends still living. Sanders indicated that "I was in hopes you would return here to your old home and take life leisurely the rest of your days." [Ibid., May 27, 1901, Box 9 F. 47, FP, UM.]

 

         Except for business and politics, visits to his Helena daughters, and occasional pleasure trips, James Fergus threw his considerable energy even at 67 years of age, into the development of the ranch. But for his wife, it became the center of his life, his main source of pride and his principal worry.