An Old, Broke Montana Rancher On How His Ranch Got Its Name

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
View of the author's spread
View of the author's spread

As I age, it seems to me that I should make some attempt to better the world by passing on some sage advice to the younger folk so as they can avoid some of the common pitfalls that befell me.  

So attention, young fellers: be careful what you name your ranch. 

As I write this, my family and I live on a ranch near Havre. We named it the "Flat Broke Ranch." It turns out that may have been an unfortunate choice, since it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Flatbroke Ranch

This is not my first rodeo you understand.  My last ranch was in Rosebud County, a very lovely spread on the banks of the Yellowstone River aptly named the "Wild Rose Ranch".   The "Wild Rose," indeed, had wild roses, wild plums, chokecherries and invasive Russian Olives trees all over the bottom part of the ranch near and along the banks of the Yellowstone River.  During Montana's brief spring, when all of these species are in bloom at the same, time the ranch was graced by the near heavenly scent of the flowers.  It was often said of the place, by the canoe paddlers that we let take out of the river, that if a cow died and went to heaven, that heaven would most likely be located on "The Wild Rose." 

Yes it was perfect, lush grass and bountiful shade from the stately Cotton Wood trees along the river's bank.  The cows could stand knee-deep in the flowing river and cool off.  You see, we entertained a lot of canoe paddlers because it was a perfect 22 river miles from the town of Forsyth, and located at the right place to take out after a day of river floating.  It is said of the Yellowstone that it flows at the rate a horse can trot.  So 22 miles is a perfect day's float, to the perfect shady area, for a perfect barbecued burger, before heading back to town.  It also helped that our place was only about ½ mile off the end of the paved road.  To a city slicker, the road beyond being gravel made it near wilderness.  It also helped, I suppose, that my family (being of the friendly sort) had a reputation for letting anyone fish, picnic, camp or take out the canoe. 

But that was the "Wild Rose," and I've aimed to tell the story of the "Flat Broke Ranch."

The Flat Broke truck
The author's truck

What has happened to most of the state of Montana is that land prices have steadily gone up over the years.  Montana land is an appreciating asset.  For example in the year 2000 the average acre in Montana sold for $887.  In 2018 it was at $2066.  Now land near enough to commute to any of Montana's major cities, like Billings, Great Falls, Missoula, Bozeman, or Kalispell, can fetch considerably more than the average, mind you.  Even its lessor populated cities like Miles City, Lewistown, Butte, Dillon or Havre have experienced the appreciation.  A doctor, dentist, lawyer, or very succesful business man with a family can easily afford a high priced acre, where on a 20-40 acre ranch, a daughter can be a barrel racer or a son might choose to show a steer in 4H.  Even the large ranch located some 40-50 miles from any town on the ubiquitous gravel roads have experienced this appreciation, to the point that a cow can no longer generate enough revenue to pay for her keep.  

Example: even at the $887 of 20 years ago, if you consider on average you need at least 30 acres in most of Montana to keep that cow.  And with a mortgage of 30 years, you do not need to be a rocket scientist or even a C- student in math, for that matter, to cipher that at 100% calf crop you will have $887 invested in the calf the day it is born.  Hardly a profitable enterprise.

View from the highest point on the Flat Broke Ranch
View from the highest point on the Flat Broke Ranch

Meanwhile back at the Flat Broke.  I told you I'd tell you how it got that name?  Well with the average mortgage requiring 20% down.  A thing called closing costs, which literally is just a litany of expensive items to be paid as deeds change hands in the transaction. This occurs at the closing of the sale (thus the name), including expenses like surveys, appraisals, document fees, title searches, and title insurance, attorney fees, water right records, yada, yada, yada.  The list does not end at these items but you get the idea.  Now we move on to my psyche; born and raised in central Montana, coming from a ranch background, with friends having also grown up similarly.  I must point out that the "times were different" when I was a kid.  For example, I was sent to town one time with an older neighbor kid who at 14 years old, (had a learner's permit to drive) to buy 30 sticks of dynamite to blow beaver dams so the cows could graze. Damn beavers.  We were told to get the good stuff, "called #40, or better" we came home with "#60" which we found out later meant 60% nitro-glycerin.  The lumber yard guy knew our dads and didn't even make a phone call -  just went to the explosive bunker and got the 30 sticks complete with blasting caps.  You Kids try that today!   So back to the ranch.

The author's shrine to Western art
The author's shrine to Western art

So I identify with the Montana, I love Montana, I am a hardcore lover of western art, especially C.M. Russell, who mostly lived and painted in the central part of Montana. "A Quiet Day in Chinook,"  "Wagon Boss," "Bronc to Breakfast," "Christmas At The Line Camp" "Trail of The Iron Horse" and the one where the Indians spot the first steam wheeler coming up the Missouri River, and "Fire Boat" are a few of my favorite paintings.  All these were painted from inspiration blessed with the beauty of central Montana.  So who cares if a cow will pay her own way?  

I thought, if I can purchase a living Charlie Russell painting, and can afford it (even if it breaks me), I'm going to do it! 

As it turns out, the Good Lord gave me just such an opportunity. The appraiser who was involved in the aforementioned fees that broke me, wrote of the upper ranch that, and I quote, "it gets real Western up there in a hurry," referring to the path up and into the hills. Many of my friends have told me that the view up there reminds them of a "Charlie Russell Painting." Exactly my point and thoughts!      

Ace Reid's Cowboy
Ace Reid's Cowboy

So back to the name... they call before the closing and give us a figure for what they want for down-payment, quite a sum for a ranch. Another check was to be written to the closing agent for fees mentioned above. Again no small change. So we close during the noon hour on a Wednesday, with payday not until next coming Friday. (Thank God for the off-ranch Jobs, and as it turns out chickens eggs to eat until payday.) So the wife says to me after all the signatures are on paper and we are leaving the closing agents office, "you're gonna buy lunch, right?" 

With what?," I asked. "We just laid our last chip on the table!"   

She said, "wow, your right!"             

It got real quiet. A real long pause.

And she says, "what are we going to name the place?"

And I, thinking of another Western artist from the 60's whom I admired, a pencil artist named Ace Reid, may he RIP, you may have seen his art on calendars of the time, paused and chewed a stem of grass between my teeth.

"Only one thing to name her," I said, "let's name her the 'Flat Broke.'"

Call it serendipity or call it curse, I wouldn't have it any other way.  Except maybe rich, that is.

Leave a Comment Here

Delores Birgenheier (not verified) , Fri, 01/01/2021 - 13:10
I love these stories about the old days.I grew up on a little spred douth of the Snowys between Judith Gap and the trail to the Ice Cave.
Bob Pennebaker (not verified) , Mon, 10/11/2021 - 09:49
Happy Birthday Gary!
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