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George Francis a 'long' & stampeded tale of the Hi-Line's most loved criminal

 


IN THE CLOSEST PICTURE

you're likely to see of "Long" George Francis - the one where he's not astride his horse, or grinning after wrestling a steer to the dirt, or blending in among a shifty-eyed row of men - lurks something hard to place. The alleged cattle rustler and confirmed Havre legend wears a striped suit - expensive, from the looks of it - with a silk tie emerging pertly from his high starched collar and tucking back into his wool vest. His lips are set firmly but look about to bend into a sly smirk. He seems to have arrogated all life to himself, as if he, in the 1900s, is alive, and you are the photograph he looks down upon. Underneath that expensive beaver-felt hat, one eye is a dart over your right shoulder and the other hides in the shadow of his hat brim. His eyes were an icy blue.

"I don't think there was anybody in the state that more newspaper articles were written about - because he was a legend," said local historian Gary Wilson.

Francis must have cut a striking figure walking around Havre with his commanding 6-foot-6-inch height, between the time he first came to these parts in 1893, just 18 years old, and his mysterious death in a winter snowstorm in 1920. By that time, Francis had helped found the Great Northern Montana Stampede, which is the theme of this weekend's Festival Days celebration. In one weekend in 1917 the stampede drew twice as many people as now live in all of Havre. When Francis was still being proudly pictured in newspapers around the state for his rodeoing skill, he was himself a target of the lawman's lasso, a fugitive from the rodeo he helped make famous.

Who knows what accounted for the incongruity of the "gentleman outlaw," as a local newspaper editor called him. Francis was by turns a popular police officer in Havre, a rodeo star, a well-dressed reader of fine literature, an ardent unrequited lover. But get him out of town into the prairie, and all that blew away. The man had a fine eye for good stock, but a lazy one for the brands.

Writer Dan Cushman captured the problem: "How was it that Long George, an essentially likable and non-violent man, came to be, without changing his nature, the Milk River country's favorite outlaw?"

"To people that didn't know him, they considered him either shy or arrogant," Wilson said. "To the few chosen people that were his friends, you know, he was very relaxed, comical."

Of course, he added, to the people he stole horses and cattle from, he wasn't that great. And some people even were scared to death of "Long" George Francis.

Perhaps it was, as Wilson surmises in his book "Tall in the Saddle," a combination of environmental factors. Francis was picked on as a child for the deformed fingers on his left hand, and his childhood was marked by the uneasy combination of an impatient, demanding father and a caring and devoutly religious mother. As an impressionable teenager he worked for the Wyoming-based Warbonnet cattle ranch, which, like many outfits of the time, had a tendency to absorb cattle from smaller herds.

Or perhaps it is not so mechanical, and Francis embodied the conflicting ideals at work in a changing Montana. There was the free-roving, horse-loving existence he had in the Bear Paws and the Clear Creek Valley; too, there was a girl, and in her parents, expectations of money and respectability already invading this young Milk River country.

By 1898, Wilson writes, Francis and two friends had established a ranch in the Bear Paws, where they kept animals of dubious ownership and called themselves the Wild Bunch. Francis already had a reputation as a livestock thief. He was working for a Havre-based cattle company and supposedly led the local cattlemen's war against encroaching sheepherders. He also loved horses and was good at breaking them, except the bronco that rolled over his leg in 1898, and broke it in several places.

So here was George Francis at the turn of the century, living south of town on Sucker Creek, breaking horses, participating in cattle drives and, according to Wilson, occasionally stealing horses and cattle in Idaho and selling them in Wyoming.

Francis took up work at Jack Ryan's Beaver Creek Valley ranch in 1901, where he met Ryan's daughter, the petite Honora "Hilda" Matilda Ryan. You could say she took the tall bronco and broke him nicely.

'A pleasant, likable fellow'

Hilda described him as shy, nice-looking, clean and well-dressed. He rode nice horses. He enjoyed literature and wrote poetry.

Within a year Hilda and Francis were exchanging notes under an appointed rock or fence post, and had trysts in a pine grove. Eventually he sang her praises in letters to two area newspapers as well. Alas, Francis' friend and area rancher Ed Redwing picked up the trail, and the wealthier Redwing had her parents' favor.

Francis would not leave so easily. "Say Hilda," he wrote, "there are lots of men in the world as good as I am - but there is no girl in the world as good as you are ... it is the highest honor that a man could pay to a lady to tell her that he loves her."

Yet the following year, Hilda married Redwing at St. Jude's Catholic Church. Out of his crushed hopes survives this shard of a poem Francis wrote:

Now all this world,

Looks dark to me.

And in my dreams,

No girl shall ever be.

"That was a major blow to him," Wilson said. "Obviously the thing with Hilda hurt, because that's when he left the mountains."

Francis moved to town, and after the fire of 1904 he was hired to police the city's garbage ordinances and round up the stray animals of town - less glamorous rustling than he was used to.

Various local haunts claimed the patronage of George Francis. He shot pool at Brundage's pool hall, ate at the Grill Cafe and lounged at the Havre Hotel. He made regular stops at the Hub Clothing store and Louis Halverson's cigar store to make himself look more respectable; one almost sees his ghosts pursuing him there, and then following him home to his tiny cottage in an alley behind Joseph Gussenhoven's castle-like west end house, laughing.

Francis became a full-fledged police officer and night marshal. Notwithstanding his arrest in 1904 for horse stealing - dismissed for lack of evidence - he helped break up fights and raid local opium dens, according to Wilson.

"He had a reputation of being pretty tough - good with a gun," Wilson said, but added that Francis never killed anybody.

And if Francis was not rich, by his own account, Havreites now found worth in him.

"I felt pretty bad when I learned that Pop was dying," he wrote home in 1904. "Although I knew he never treated me right. I am a different man from what he always said I would be - there isn't a man any place that has more friends than I have."

According to one history of Hill County, Francis' reputation grew and persisted, so that even the day after he was convicted of horse stealing in 1918, an editorial in the Havre Plaindealer averred, "Francis is one of the most widely known men in northern Montana. He is a pleasant, likable fellow with many friends and admirers."

Stampede!

Francis left Havre for a nearby ranch in 1910.

"I think it was a great opportunity for him," Wilson said. "He wanted to have a ranch. ... It was ideal."

Francis' real mark on Havre was still to come, in his lightning-fast roping and bulldogging, and the crowd-pleasing tricks of his horse Tony.

Rodeos were on the rise all over the West. Havre had its first fair in 1912, and Francis won the steer roping contest. The next year he successfully promoted a rodeo in Gildford. Over the next few years he won money in rodeos across the West as far away as Washington and Oregon.

By 1914 the Hill County Fair Association was losing money, so some local businessmen joined together to create the Great Northern Montana Stampede Association. Its president was Long George Francis. With the help of railroad magnate James J. Hill, the association planned its coup.

On July 4, 1916, Havre held its first Great Northern Montana Stampede. More than 10,000 people attended the weekend event to watch more than 100 contestants ride, rope and wrestle for their share of $16,000 in prize money.

Francis won the bulldogging and steer roping events. It wasn't just a rodeo, though. There was a carnival and even a re-creation of a wooden frontier town on First Street, complete with dramatized gunfights.

The next year was even bigger. With a $20,000 budget, the stampede drew 20,000 people, some from as far away as Texas and California. Francis again won the bulldogging event despite being injured the first two days of the stampede.

It would be Long George Francis' last hurrah in Havre, for by the time the 1918 stampede rolled around, Francis had been convicted in District Court of stealing a horse and had fled.

The rodeo that year was smaller, overwhelmed by a more gripping contest: World War I. About 3,000 spectators attended the one-day event, the third of four ever held. Autumn had come for the stampede.

"It lost its magic," Wilson said. "He was the one that had the magic."

By July 1919 the war was over, but a new war began, this time on alcohol. Drought hit the bars as well as the fields that year. The face of Francis still could not be found, except in newspaper ads for the stampede. After that year the famous rodeo succumbed, a victim of economic doldrums and, as Wilson suggests, the loss of its most colorful character.

An early end

Francis did return to Havre, four days after the end of the last stampede. He had been in hiding 16 months, most of it in a dugout deep in the Bear Paws, near Green Creek. Convinced by friends that the law would be lenient, Francis turned himself in. He got six to 12 years. Later that month bail was granted, and more than a dozen people pitched in to free him.

While he waited for the Montana Supreme Court's ruling on his appeal, Francis used his last few months of freedom rodeoing in Montana and Canada. He was engaged to one Amanda Spears, a schoolteacher at Spring Coulee School just west of Simpson, about 40 miles north of Havre. They had met at the stampede, probably in 1916, Wilson said, and kept up the relationship even through Francis' long period of hiding. The couple's child had been stillborn earlier in 1918, but they had hoped to be married after Francis' legal mess was through.

In December the court denied Francis' appeal. When the sheriff came to arrest him, he had gone into hiding again, this time with friends in Havre. The week before Christmas, Francis was found, and the sheriff decided his prison time should start after Christmas.

So on a snowy Christmas Eve, Francis loaded up a car with candy, fruits and nuts for Spears and her schoolchildren. It would be their last visit for a long time, for he would be going to Deer Lodge. Spears had pledged to wait for him.

Once denied by disapproving parents and now again by the courts, Francis rolled out of Havre into the deep snow and, 20 miles later, into a blizzard. After getting stuck in a snowbank, his car slid backward down a 12-foot cutbank and rolled over, pinning him and breaking his leg. In 20-below weather, Francis extricated himself from the car and fashioned a splint.

He crawled on through the snow toward his destination. The next morning, not far from the car, a local farmer found him dead of a slit throat.

The coroner's inquest examined Francis' body the next day. Its ruling: Francis had killed himself with his pocketknife.

Some people aren't so sure. The coroner, after all, found a gash on either side of Francis' throat.

" it is rather difficult to cut your throat twice," notes Emiliy Mayer, Havre's historic preservation officer and a City Council member.

All the same, Wilson said, there were no other vehicle tracks and no evidence of a struggle.

"There was absolutely no evidence of foul play," he said. Except for perhaps the foul dealings of fate.

The biggest tragedy of Francis' life and death, Wilson thinks, is the loss of the stampede for Havre. Yet he sees something tragic in the crippled outlaw crawling away from a difficult childhood, his enemies, and his lost love toward safety beyond the storm, only to take his own life.

"I'm surprised that he had the strength and presence of mind to do that. It kind of fits with him, I mean he couldn't let the elements kill him," Wilson said. "... To be so close to having a very successful rodeo and to have a woman he loved, he was finally there."

All lost, like the open range he loved.

 

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