Photographer Robert Morrison’s Montana
The artist’s eye for the off-kilter and unusual offers a distinctive portrait of the West at the turn of the 20th century
- By Donna M. Lucey
- Smithsonian.com, October 05, 2009
(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)
Despite their Ku Klux Klan-like appearance, this group poised to march under a banner of MKB is actually the Mystic Knights of Bovina, an all-male, Texas-based organization that provided mock solemnity–and parties–when the Montana Stockgrowers Association convened in Miles City for three days every April. A parade kicked off the gathering, and the Knights’ red masks and black gowns made a “startling” impression, the daily Yellowstone Journal reported.
The Texas connection was established after the railroads arrived in Montana. Cowboys would herd cattle some 1,600 miles from the Lone Star State to feast on the free northern rangelands; once fattened, the animals were loaded onto railroad cars in Miles City and other depots. (One young cowboy from the XIT Ranch received the following directions before leaving Texas: “Jean, tonight you locate the north star and you drive straight toward it for three months and you will be in the neighborhood of where I want you to turn loose.”)
The convention featured some business matters–setting rules for the annual cattle roundups, for example–but it was also a blowout party that jammed Miles City’s hotels with wealthy stockmen and cowboys who earned $40 a month and couldn’t spend it fast enough. Theodore Roosevelt shared a bed with a stranger one year, but that didn’t dim his enthusiasm for the event. “It would be impossible to imagine a more typically American assemblage,” Roosevelt wrote in Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, and “difficult to gather a finer body of men, in spite of their numerous shortcomings.”