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Hi-Line Living: Rudyard seeking new Sore Head


August 4, 2017

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

The people of Rudyard have been without an official sore head since the last one, Cliff Ulmen, died at the age of 95 Dec. 7, 2014.

By Sept. 18, they will have a new one.

For decades, Rudyard has been identified by its highway signs - one at the edge of town, one on U.S. Highway 87 near Loma by a road that cuts to the small Hi-Line town of Rudyard- as being a town full of nice people and "1 Old Sore Head."

Those signs have been updated over the years, with the current version - in place for decades - saying "Rudyard 596 Nice People – 1 Old Sore Head! Rip snorting and raring for business."

A lot of time has passed since the original sign was put up. Some say it was painted and erected in the '40s, while others think it was staked a decade or two later. Some think the sign may have been put up as early the 1920s.

Time has not only shrunk Rudyard's declared population on that sign, but it seems to have also dissolved the link to the original painter's identity and motivation as well. Who painted the sign and why? Who was the sore head referenced at the time? Was there one? Did the creator of the sign have a grudge? Or was the sign a creative marketing tool meant to engrave the memory of Rudyard in the minds of passersby?

At the town's 75th Jubiliee in 1984, the Rudyard Commercial Club started a fundraiser - for a cash vote, people could pick who would be the official Old Sore head.

Tommy Wilson won the "honor" that first year. He held the title until his death at age 93 in 1992.

He, many seem to agree, was the

closest anyone had come to living up to the title.

"The old sore head came from Tommy Wilson, who was a crankpot," Rudyardite Ophelia Gustafson said.

Gustafson said her husband was friends with Wilson, and they were lucky they shared the same political opinions.

"He didn't have a lot of people skills, I guess how you would say it. He was very upfront and he would say things to people. If you said white, he said black," Gustafson said. "I think he liked to stir the pot, and poke people and push their buttons. And he always knew the buttons to push."

Lyle Harrison is one of the 10 who may soon hold the sore head crown.

Harrison said he didn't know by whom and why he was nominated. As far as he's concerned, he's no sore head, nor are any of the other men who are nominated. The closest anyone came to playing the part was his Uncle Tommy Wilson, Harrison said.

"A hell of a nice guy, but kind of gruff," he said.

Bobby Toner, grandson of Wilson, is the owner of Toner's Tire Rama and carried the honorary title of sore head himself last decade.

He said most sore heads are the opposite - nice guys, typical Montanans. As a sore head, he said, he played the role, whatever it entailed.

"It was kind of interesting at times. There was a deal the Great Falls Tribune had about a bucket list, and one of them is to shake hands with the old sore head in Rudyard. I didn't know anything about it, but there was a couple of different groups that came in town. They were looking for the old sore head because they wanted to complete the bucket list. I had to shake hands with them, take a picture, give them a little crap, and away they go."

Glenda Pester of Rudyard said there are no written requirements or basic outline for what a sore head is supposed to be.

"Everybody has their spin on it," she said.

Speaking of Cliff Ulmen, she added, "He was kind and generous, welcoming to everybody in the community."

Pester said Ulman befriended a German gentleman who passed through town while touring the United States on a motorcycle. That German eventually bought a building to create Rudyard's Vintage Auto Museum out of concern that Rudyadites didn't have a place to put their vintage cars.

The other candidates this year are Bob Christenson, Dale Dahlke, Darby Ditmar, Terry Hybner, Todd Langel, Lyle Petersen, Dan Redding, Leonard Wendland and Mike Wendland.

The way voting works people can vote for any of the 10 candidates at $1 a vote, and can vote as often as they want. Each candidate has a large can with their name on it. From July 24 to Sept. 18 - the last day of voting - the cans will have been moved around Rudyard. They will be moved between the Rudyard Senior Center, the Country Dame, Toner's Tire Rama, the Cenex gas station, and the K-Lines bowling alley.

People also can vote using PayPal to oneoldsore [email protected] or by mail to One Old sore head, PO Box 47, Rudyard, MT 59540.

One of the sore head's first duties will be to ride in North Star High School's homecoming parade.

Mike Wendland said the money will go to the Commercial Club, which keeps up the park and has other activities in the town.

Harrison doesn't believe he will win, and he said that would be just all right with him.

Christenson said he has no idea who nominated him, but he said he hopes he losses.

But, he added, if he were to win, "You'd just about have to accept it."

Wendland, unlike Harrison and Christenson, was having a little more fun with with his campaign. As one of three Hill County commissioners, Wendland has experience with running for elected office.

"I'm just running a real clean campaign," Wendland said, laughing, adding that he is taking donations.

"The competition is fierce," he said.

Toner said he was not exactly sure when the tradition started.

"I don't even know how it got started. Each one of these little towns have signs," he said. "All the way to North Dakota, there's little towns that have some saying."

Toner speculated as to the origin of the sign and the sore head tradition.

"There was a guy that painted the sign for the commercial club back on the 50s, or maybe earlier than that. I don't know. They just said, put something on it, maybe, so he wrote ... nice people and one old sore head. Then they started looking, I guess."

Toner said he believes the sign was put up as a promotion tool for the town, and he has anecdotal evidence to suggest it works.

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

"Right after they voted - when I got it - I was driving in to Havre and my cellphone rang," he said. "So I picked it up and it was this guy looking for John, or somebody. I said, 'No, this is Bob.' And so he says, 'Oh, I must have gotten the wrong number.' So then he says, 'Where you at?' So I told him, and he started laughing, 'cause he was south of L.A. going down the interstate. He just punched in the wrong area code.

"Pretty soon, we talk, and he says, 'Where are you at?' 'I'm on Highway 2 between Shelby and Havre. I come from a little town called Rudyard'. And he goes, '596 nice people, one old sore head.' He was driving a truck.

"I said, 'Mister, you aren't going to believe what I'm going to tell you next. I am the old sore head.'"

Toner said the man had driven through Rudyard twice.

"He remembered that sign," Toner said. "Just kind of a conversation piece."


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