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Celebrating History: Long George Francis

 

Last updated 1/8/2021 at 10:01am

Don Greytak Collection

"Long George" Francis poses for a portrait.

By Emily Mayer

The parallels between today and a century ago are uncanny. People were dealing with the aftereffects of a major pandemic-the so-called Spanish flu-as well as looking forward to ringing in a new decade. Economics were also not that great, with a flux of men coming back from the war only to find a dwindling supply of jobs, not to mention both grain and livestock prices tanked due to gluts in the markets coupled by drought in parts of the United States. There is one tragedy, however, that thankfully seems to have been avoided, and that is the unexpected loss of a prominent community member.

"Long George" Francis came to the area in 1894, helping drive a herd of cattle from his home state of Idaho to the Clear Creek area of what is now Blaine County. After, he worked as a cowboy on Bear Paw ranches and later took up a homestead about 10 miles west of Havre. He initially had both cattle and horses on his ranch, with horses being his main moneymaker. Long George would spend his time on his ranch, as well as stays in Havre itself. According to late historian Gary A. Wilson, he rented a house in town at 30 ½ Third Street, behind H. Earl and Margaret Clack's "Stone House" on First Avenue. It would be convenient for him to have a place to stay in Havre, gather supplies, meet up with friends and enjoy the town for a few days before heading back out on the prairie.

Long George was a handsome man, slender and standing six foot six, with blue eyes and a light complexion. With his good looks and good natured temperament, it was easy to like the guy. As long as he wasn't stealing your livestock, that is.

One of Long George's passions was the rodeo. He loved to compete in various events and was popular among contestants and spectators alike. With his beloved horses Tony and Flaxy, they made quite an entertaining show. In 1912, local organizers formed the Great Northern Stampede, located on the fairgrounds on what is now Havre's east end, near where Oakwood Village is today. Even Empire Builder James J. Hill got into the act, giving a donation of $1,500 to help erect buildings at the fairgrounds, including a grandstand, exhibit buildings and livestock barns.

Along with buddies Jack Mabee, T. E. McCroskey, H. C. Stevens, Jack Edwards, A. L. Britton and other local leaders, Long George helped form the Havre Stampede Association in 1914. Long George would travel all over the West and into Canada competing in rodeo events, as well as serving as a mentor to neighbor Marie "Buckskin Mary" Gibson, one of the greatest lady bronc riders in rodeo history.

Unfortunately, Long George's reputation as a livestock rustler only increased in notoriety, either through actual events or local legend. He was never brought up on cattle rustling charges, but in January 1918, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest for stealing a bay mare from Phil Clack, half-brother of entrepreneur H. Earl Clack. Justice moved swiftly 100 years ago and on February 28, 1918, Long George was found guilty of grand larceny for stealing that horse and was supposed to be sentenced in March of 1918, but he failed to appear. He could now add "wanted fugitive" to his list of accomplishments, and a $500 reward was offered for the whereabouts of Long George.

If someone really wanted to, it wouldn't have been all that hard to find him. He had a hideout in the Bear Paws and a rumored dugout in the Sweet Grass Hills. Judge Rhoades, however, wasn't going to wait to sentence Long George, so July 8, 1919, he was sentenced to "no fewer than six but no more than twelve years" in the Montana State Penitentiary in Deer Lodge.

Of course, it always helps to have friends in high places and low places. Among Long George's friends were Hill County Sheriff George Bickle, Hill County Attorney Victor Griggs, former Havre Chief of Police George Herron, and powerful Havre businessmen such as E. C. Carruth, C. F. Morris and the always notorious Christopher "Shorty" Young. When inquiries from Montana officials in Helena asked where Long George Francis was and when he was going to report to prison, the answer was always "we don't know where he is." Odd, though, every time he came to town to get supplies, law enforcement was always either "out of town" or in some remote part of Hill County and not available to arrest him.

Or, in the case of the big party Havre threw on November 11, 1918, when the armistice was announced, ending The Great War in Europe. The German Kaiser had been defeated, and Havre let 'er rip during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Businesses closed, kids were taken out of schools, an impromptu parade was organized and an effigy of the Kaiser was burned. And who is in the middle of the celebration? Photographs taken that day show Long George there, prominently wearing a Pendleton trading blanket coat.

However, as always, the winds of change blow. In Long George's case, those winds would be people elected into office determined to "clean up" Havre of its nefarious people, actions and reputation. With allies elected into key positions in Hill County, Montana officials in Helena cranked up the heat to get Long George to turn himself in and serve his sentence. He eventually agreed, on the condition he could visit his girlfriend, Amanda Spears, who taught school up at Simpson.

After loading his vehicle with apples and other gifts for Amanda and the children on Christmas Eve 1920, he headed north, only to run into a severe snowstorm. On the way he wrecked his vehicle and broke his leg in the process. He made a splint made out of the wood from the apple box and attempted to get to safety. However, apparently seeing he could not make it to the nearest homestead, the official ruling by a coroner's inquest was Long George committed suicide by slitting his own throat. A heck of a way to go, considering he had a .45 revolver under the front seat of his Hupmobile. He was found Christmas Day by K. L. Ackerman, a local farmer who was out checking his coyote traps and to gather some wood.

News of Long George's death spread quickly. His funeral on December 31, 1920, packed out St. Mark's Episcopal Church, with the Rev. Leonard Christler officiating the services. He was laid to rest in Highland Cemetery, but would not receive a marker until the 1960s, when a group of local men led by Al Lucke and Emmit Stallkup raised the funds to buy both Long George and Alice "Ma Plaz" Pleasant headstones.

Much of what Long George would recognize is gone. After his death, his beloved Tony was released to roam in the Bear Paws for his remaining years. Flaxy was found in north Milk River country with a crippled leg and "put to rest." The Havre Stampede was short-lived; it went bankrupt due to a lack of funds. The old rodeo and fairgrounds continued for many more years until it moved to its current location; it was the former Shorty Young ranch. The last outbuilding built by Jim Hill's donation for the rodeo efforts was torn down in 1997.

The wrecked Hupmobile was used as riprap along the banks of the Milk River on the Gibson ranch.

Girlfriend Amanda Spears would continue to teach school a little while longer; among her students was my grandmother, Violet Bunton, and her siblings. However, she was pregnant with Long George's child and had to quit teaching; the child did not survive.

Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena

"Long George" Francis and his horse Tony compete in the Great Northern Stampede in 1913.

Many of Long George's personal possessions were acquired by friends; several pieces are on display at the Clack Museum in the Holiday Village Shopping Center.

The Rev. Christler would meet his end nearly two years later, being victim to a salacious scandal that left him and his lover dead, with only one person living to tell many different and contradictory stories of the night in question.

Even Long George's rented town house is now gone; it was razed in 2014.

As for the big gathering in downtown Havre for the Armistice, Spanish flu cases spiked dramatically afterward. The "reformers" would eventually leave office, leaving people like Shorty Young and Pat Yeon to increase their incomes substantially due to bootlegging activities.

The Roaring '20s had just started, and what a ride it would be for Havre!

 
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