Pirates of the Plains

Until a few years ago, if you visited the local museum in Fort Collins, Colorado, you would have noticed that the text on the larger-than-life photo display of Wild West showman Frank Miller talked of his “exploitation” of Indians and of animals. Then, sometime around early 2004, locals convinced the museum that the text about exploitation, which had been written in order to address the issue of the exploitation of Indian people in the Wild West show industry generally, seemed to disparage Miller personally. A substantial change was made to the display, and the text was replaced with a more sanitized blurb portraying Miller as a more politically correct action hero.

1 Capn Jack
Captain Jack Crawford, standing left, Bill Bell in hat, Buffalo Bill Cody and sister, seated with Bill Bell’s two children; probably taken at Trail’s End. (Courtesy Fort Collins Library Collection.)

Gone from public scrutiny is the perhaps disparaging, if instructive, reference to Frank’s use of Indians and animals as being negative. Sanitizations of history are dangerous, even if admirably done to protect the dignity of an individual, but, since the display didn’t explain what “exploitation” means, it’s probably cleaner to leave the word out. However, Frank Miller as an individual, and as one of hundreds of protégés of Buffalo Bill Cody, plays an important part in understanding the cultural context of the settling of the West, and of the High Plains in particular. As a representative microcosm for Western sociology, the Wild West Show phenomenon, with Buffalo Bill at its epicenter nationally and Frank Miller at its epicenter in Northeast Colorado, plays as important a part in defining the High Plains as does homesteading, genocide, schoolhouses, mining, farming, water, cattle ranching, and the railroads. Frank Miller and Buffalo Bill embody the put-ons as well as the realities inherent in the West and its vision.

The public dualistic view of Uncle Frank (below, second from left), who is probably the most famous of Fort Collins pioneers and certainly the most famous member of my family, was echoed privately within the family: Frank was viewed as a black sheep, an embarrassment, a prodigal son who was handed the spoils of his father’s business savvy and threw it away, a drunk and something of a fraud – simultaneous with being viewed as a charm, a credit to the family for his guts, talent, and fame. His motto could well have been the West’s motto as well: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Like Buffalo Bill’s, Uncle Frank’s Wild West persona was as much Americana as farce, a reach for authenticity in a frontier based on false promises like the Homestead Act and the rain that never followed the plow.

2 group shot

Fort Collins sits against the Rocky Mountains on the far western edge of the High Plains. The High Plains is a subset of the Great Plains that includes eastern Colorado, eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska and Kansas, and the Oklahoma Panhandle. Those that have thrived on the High Plains of Colorado and the Rockies immediately adjacent seem to me to have done so, directly or by family history, by pirating the land, of gold and snowmelt from the mountains, and of human life and oil and topsoil and moisture and innocence from the plains.

Frank C. Miller, Jr., my great-great uncle, was the son of Frank and Christine Miller, Scandinavian immigrants who came to Colorado for the gold and silver rush. Frank and Christine found success with stock in silver mines in the Blackhawk area, as well as a liquor store in Blackhawk. Frank Sr. came from Denmark, Christine from Sweden. They moved from Blackhawk to Fort Collins in 1882 with their earnings from the mines and liquor store. The senior Frank was an astute businessman and built the Miller Block building downtown on what is today Old Town Square and the building that houses Bondi Beach Bar. The junior Frank was born in Fort Collins May 11, 1886, when the town was still just a startup. As a young boy, he spent most of his spare time at target practice in his father’s shooting gallery in the basement of the Miller Block. (If you go out back of Bondi Beach Bar, you can still see bullet holes from the outdoor versions of his target practice.)

3 group

Frank was best known as a western showman and expert marksman. At one time he was claimed to be the champion crack shot of the world, and was featured on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. One of his tricks was to throw a can into the air and shoot it twelve times mid-air. In 1913, Lafi Miller (no relation) reports in his local history Those Crazy Pioneers, Frank outlined a picture of a dog on a large sheet of pager with .145 small-caliber rifle bullet holes, and the piece was hung in the College Avenue window of the Thurman Drugstore. The stories say that he could shoot out a lighted cigarette in his wife’s mouth with a .22 rifle like Annie Oakley did with Frank Butler in the more famous reversed-gender version – but with the sight blinded. In the parades in Fort Collins and other towns, Frank shot clay pigeons out of the air from the back seat as Peggy threw them from the front seat. He first performed in the Irwin Brothers Shows in Cheyenne, which became Cheyenne Frontier Days. He later traveled throughout the U.S., Canada, and many foreign countries with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He later produced his own Wild West shows and rodeos around the region, through which he developed friendships with the Sioux Indians of the Dakotas, and at his Trail’s End Ranch near Livermore, today just west of Highway 287 north of Ted’s Place.

4 ranch

During his career, Frank was a range cowboy, rancher, circus marksman, gun-maker spokesman, miner, garage owner, and artist. Among his many business pursuits, he owned and operated the Northern Garage on the point between North College Avenue and Pine Street across from the Northern Hotel. A refinery produced “Sharp Shooter” gasoline just for Uncle Frank’s station, and it sold at a two-cent premium to regular gasoline. He continued to own the garage through the twenties and early thirties. His father also was a partner in a department store called The Fair Store in the Miller Block. The Fair Store carried a variety of wares, including China custom-stamped with the store’s name and location. When Frank’s niece Marilyn Miller Veitch passed away, her husband Jack, a close family friend, donated a set of the China to the Fort Collins Museum (Jack has since also passed). Jack had a lot of colorful stories of his own to tell, and every year when he came to visit the Miller plot at Grandview Cemetery in Fort Collins, where Marilyn and Frank and Frank’s son Teddy and Frank Sr. are buried, he invited me to have lunch at Red Lobster with him and other family members. Jack also gave my Mom a Frank Miller original charcoal, which Mom gave to me.

Frank and his Trail’s End Ranch were legends of Northern Colorado in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Trail’s End was, and is still today, a spectacular ranch on the North Fork of the Poudre in Cherokee Park near Livermore north of Ted’s Place, near the mouth of Trail Creek, with a prominent pinnacle of granite called Turkey Roost Mountain as a backdrop. This part of the North Fork drainage, just south of the Wyoming border, between Livermore and Virginia Dale, the famous old Overland Trail Stage stop, is some of the most beautiful Lone-Ranger-like country I’ve seen in Colorado, with its jagged croppings of granite sometimes 100 feet tall, rolling hills scattered with ponderosa pines, the generous blue blossoms of rock clematis. Trail Creek arises on Boulder Ridge, which at an elevation of 9,000 feet separates the Laramie and Poudre River watersheds, and enters the North Fork from the north. Not far away, just southeast of the junction of Sheep Creek with the North Fork, is Chicken Park, a one-time source of diamonds. The North Fork itself, which drains the south slopes of Deadman Hill (supposedly named for another Swede unrelated to Frank, killed on the hill by a bear he had just trapped), cresting at 10,711 feet. A pair of major faults bordered the area on the north and on the south and converged at the western end. The block between the faults dropped, leaving the rocks in the horizontal position in which they were formed. This makes the hogbacks here unique, because most of the Front Range hogbacks are tilted. In places the North Fork of the Poudre has carved a channel through these rocks, giving Trail’s End some of its beauty and forming beautiful steep cliffs over which Indians would drive bison to their deaths. The history here goes back much further than six generations of native Coloradoans in my family or even hundreds of generations of Indians – the hogbacks that parallel the eastern edge of the mountains near Trail’s End are remnants of the sedimentary rocks that once overlay the much more ancient rocks that were thrust up to form the mountains. The ridges of red sandstone and limestone closest to the mountains date from the Paleozoic era – before there were mammals, birds, or even dinosaurs. Proceeding eastward, successive hogbacks span the Mesozoic through 250 million years of geologic time. Under Uncle Frank’s relatively brief purvey, Trail’s End was for many years one of the best known tourist attractions in the Rockies. Frank bought the ranch in 1920 and turned it into a Wild West show epicenter and strange zoo for nearly two decades.

5 frank on horse

From 1920 to 1938 Frank attracted more than 100,000 visitors to his Wild West Shows and rodeos, reportedly including Buffalo Bill and Will Rogers and other Hollywood actors. The ranch was known all over the country. In 1925 alone more than 10,000 people visited the ranch, including people from 25 foreign countries. According to Lafi Miller, in 1922 Uncle Frank and his wife Peggy took part in a Hollywood movie called Pirates of the Plains, and in the ‘30s, footage of buffalo fording the North Fork of the Poudre River at Trail’s End were shown in theaters nationally by Fox Movietone and Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. Frank rounded up and tamed wild animals into an exploitative sort of mountain “zoo,” including buffalo, deer, elk, bear, bobcats, coyotes, and wolves, naming most of them. He even tamed fish. Frank’s entertainment at the ranch also included tightrope walking, hot air balloons, parachute jumps, band concerts by the Laramie and Cheyenne city bands.

Buffalo Bill and Frank Miller both chased after their place in Western history with child-like zeal, then died penniless. Frank, like Buffalo Bill, was a “frontier ingénue” (a phrase used by Louis Warren is his book Buffalo Bill’s America) whose wealth never lasted – their money just seemed to vanish. Frank reportedly spent $100,000 – millions, in today’s dollars – upgrading his Trail’s End Ranch for his own Wild West shows, yet amazingly couldn’t pay a mortgage that would have amounted to a payment of about $38 a month, and lost the ranch. Buffalo Bill, says Warren, invested his money in his own ranch, homes, and in supporting his sister and her husband, and “his generosity with business partners, family, and employees drained his accounts by the end of his life.” (Warren, p. 346.) Frank himself may have contributed to Buffalo Bill’s financial woes via Frank’s ranch and traveling shows – according to Warren, Cody’s “most recurrent emergency was competition from rival circuses and shows.”

In 1938, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a federal agency, took over Trail’s End when Uncle Frank became unable to make the payments on his $6,500 mortgage. Frank’s long subsequent fight to save his ranch and its tamed wildlife inhabitants broke his spirit and ruined his health. As late as 1952, Frank wrote a 10-page letter to a U.S. District Attorney to attempt to win back the ranch, which today is owned by local oil baron Wayne Schrader. The fate of his animals was as sad as his own – many of the animals had to be released, hunters killed most of the albino deer and some of the elk, and the buffalo had to be destroyed when they damaged ranchers’ fences. In his final years, Frank lived in the Linden Hotel, upstairs from what is today Nature’s Own. His original painting on the wall can still be found in the corner of Nature’s Own. Employees of the store I’ve talked to recount stories of his ghost still lurking in his last haunt, unable to let go of his bitter loss of Trail’s End.

6 frank with bear

For many years after he lost the ranch, Frank maintained a claim to a mine on government property across the road from Trail’s End, called End of The Trail. Frank lived in a cabin on the property for a time before moving to the Linden Hotel. Frank turned to oil painting in his later years to amuse himself and for income, and painted the well-known panorama of Fort Collins in the 1880s, another piece of Frank memorabilia that was featured at the Fort Collins Museum. Frank’s paintings, says Lafi Miller, show that Frank was “part of those pageant years that saw the closing of the American frontier. Each of his paintings conveys a facet of a dying era: the consternation and amazement of the Indians coming upon the square-sided teepee of the white man, a horse named Dynamite that would rather buck ‘til he died than give in to the rider on his back, the brutality of the Western range wars, the beauty and power of the mountains and rivers and the sad eyes but proud faces of the now captive Plains Indians. These things so moved Frank that he recorded them.” Frank’s paintings reflected his sense of place. He loved Northern Colorado, and he died at the Linden Hotel on November 21, 1953.

Uncle Frank’s lack of business savvy is consistent with the frontier drama he acted out. The use of horses and cowboys in Frank’s shows, and of centaurs in Buffalo Bill’s shows, “represented not only the domination of the West’s wild nature by Americans, but also the reinvigoration of the white race.” The West was a place where men could be unconstrained and truly free, and the Wild West shows complemented a larger movement to “instill in American manhood some approximation of natural vigor – what Theodore Roosevelt would call the ‘strenuous life’ – to fend off the neurasthenic effects of modern business and the city.” (Warren, p. 226.) The Wild West shows helped Americans believe that the settling of the West wasn’t a prelude to poor land use and water use choices, but instead that it was a “regeneration of the white race through frontier conflict and technological progress.” (Warren, p. 226.) Frank and Buffalo Bill represented white Americans as people, their horses represent the nature they sprung from, and the repeating rifle the technology they mastered. They helped settlers and homesteaders believe that they could use technology to survive the hostile West.

A major piece of technology demonstrated in the Wild West shows was the stagecoach. The stagecoach played a major role in both men’s shows: Buffalo Bill’s Abbot and Downing Concord coach was a “powerful icon of American artisanship” (Warren, p. 227) of which only 3,000 were made; Frank’s Abbot and Downing Mudwagon was rumored to have once belonged to Buffalo Bill himself, and some Ft. Collins history books still claim so. It’s unclear whether this is true; the Frank Miller interpretation at the old Fort Collins Museum indicated that the mudwagon was built in 1874 (some say 1850) and was known as the “Workhorse of the West,” and was operated as a mail and express passenger coach.

Buffalo Bill’s own stagecoach, known as the Deadwood Coach, was featured in one of the most durable scene’s in his shows, “Attack on the Deadwood Coach.” In the act, Indians would pursue the Deadwood Coach, and Buffalo Bill and his cowboys would rescue the coach and its riders. No part of Buffalo Bill’s show was more thrilling. Cody’s publicists mixed fact and fantasy in their presentation of the history and origin of their prized Abbot and Downing Concord coach, claiming it was the “original” Deadwood Coach used between the railroad depot in Cheyenne and the gold-mining town of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory in 1876” (Warren, p. 227), and that Buffalo Bill had ridden in that very stagecoach, Indian scalps in hand, when he returned from scouting that same year, and that Buffalo Bill had rescued the coach after it was attached and abandoned. Much of that story is simply not true. The rumors about Frank’s mudwagon belonging to Buffalo Bill, likely fiction, could possibly have been started or perpetuated because Frank had a sign on the mudwagon that said, “Santa Fe Trail – Deadwood to Trail’s End – 1852.”

These wagons were both nostalgia for the stagecoach, which had been obsolesced by the railroads, and symbols of progress and the promise of technology, since the stagecoach had been so instrumental in taming the West. Truth was peripheral to these stories.

7 frank on coach

Frank’s sister Lily was my great-grandmother. Her husband Bert McCarty was the founder of McCarty’s Barbershop in Fort Collins, located for its second 50 years on College Avenue next door to Al’s Newsstand. I have no memory of “Daddy Bert,” since he died when I was two, but he is always spoken of fondly by my mother, and his shaving mug painted with his name is one of her prized possessions.

It’s 1999, 100 years after Daddy Bert opened the first McCarty’s Barbershop, and my wife and I have stopped in the barbershop’s current location to discover that its owner is still the man who took it over from Bert in the late ‘50s. The owner, Bill Young, is a perfectly grizzled old man in a work shirt and a few days of gray stubble, with a handsome face. He’s smoking a pipe when we walk in, and he brightens and shakes my hand warmly when I tell him I’m Bert’s great-grandson. He tells us that most of Uncle Frank’s paintings are now owned by Wayne Schrader, owner of Schrader Oil and the Country Store gas station chain Northern Colorado. He is telling us about the history of the barbershop, saying he believes the second or third location was on Linden Street, near where the Blind Pig is today, but isn’t sure of the address.

“Your great-grandfather liked to drink real well,” the old man says with an observational frankness. “He came by it naturally.” Bill looks at us, eyes grinning but mouth only hinting, and goes on. “He was real proud of his Irish heritage, always made a big point of the ‘Mc’ spelling, not ‘Mac’.” I’m able to hold my eyes on him, waiting until he shifts his own eyes to my wife Maren’s before I let mine glance quickly at the label on the gallon-bottle of bourbon sitting on the barber’s counter in front of the mirror, long enough to read the label, then back to Bill’s eyes. Ezra Brooks Kentucky Bourbon. I smile inside. The circle is complete, as we sit here talking with Bill Young of McCarty’s Barbershop about all the Irish drinkers in my family, with a bottle of Ezra Brooks on the counter. He knows enough more about my own ancestors than I do to know that my grandfather Don McCarty, Bert’s son, didn’t drive much after his cataract surgery, and that he didn’t drive at all after he fell off the gang plank trying to get to the front of the line on a cruise ship and broke his hip. I knew as much as that Don had broke his hip on a cruise ship.

“Back in those days, Fort Collins was dry,” he goes on. “You could get it in Wellington, or to the south. Friends would have friends pick up a bottle when they were running down to Denver, there was a liquor store on the way. Your great-grandfather had a standing order with several of his friends that whenever they were out they pick him up a bottle of Ancient Age. Because he never drove a car, y’know, or even a buggy. Somethin’ must have happened, he never said what. But he liked to drink real well – that’s probably what got him in the end … you know he lived to be 89 – he died in ‘68 – but if it weren’t for the drinkin’ he’d’a probably lived to be 110!”

“Yep, he liked to drink, his brother Doc liked to drink … your grandfather Don liked to drink real well too, so did your grandmother. Bert’s brother Doc’s wife liked to drink so well he took her up to Walden to dry her out, get her away from all her drinkin’ friends in Fort Collins – but that was the worst thing he could have done. Those people all drink up there.”

“Bert drank Ancient Age, that’s all he drank,” Bill continues. “Once in a while he’d ask me to take him home, y’ know. But see, if you took Bert home, you had to stay and have a drink with him. So I would, and he would always do the same thing. He had his bottle of Ancient Age, see, and he’d take a pint glass like the Irish use, and fill it up to about this far from the top” – he brings his thumb and forefinger to within a pinch of each other – “with whiskey. Then he’d drink on that a while, and pretty soon he’d offer you another drink, and he’d get up and make you one but he’d just fill his to the top with water, no more bourbon. And he’d go on like that all night, always filling his glass back to the top with water, until it was just all water.”

Bill had worked for Bert starting in 1956, and asked Bert if he could keep the McCarty’s name when Bert retired a few years later.

“Bert was a funny guy. He never allowed a TV in the barber shop. Said if guys came in to watch a baseball or football game he’d never get ‘em to leave. And I’d say, ‘okay, Bert, whatever’. But then he’d go home and leave me to run the shop while he watched a game.” Young chuckles, adjusting his hat, which proudly exclaims “McCarty’s ‘Redneck’ Barber Shop”. He gives me a few of the bill caps to take home with me.

“And he never wanted mirrors in the shop either, ‘cause when you had mirrors then guys were always doin’ this.” He sits down in a barber’s chair, like a Saturday customer, and feigns peering around the barber at his do in the mirror.

“Didn’t like guys to see his work until he was done, huh?” I guess.

“He wanted guys to hold still,” Young corrects.

Bill had known Uncle Frank, too.

“Did Frank really know Buffalo Bill?” I ask, smiling.

Bill sort of half-snorts. “Probably. Everybody knew Buffalo Bill. He called anybody who would buy him a drink a friend. Frank was the same way toward the end, too.”

The three of us pause. It is time to ask him about his extensive arrowhead collection, proudly displayed on shelves above the barber’s chairs. He tells us he picked them up himself, in Colorado, Wyoming, and Illinois mostly, often going back to the same field more than once. “When a wind comes up and you see the sand blowing up off the top of a hill, then when the wind dies down, that’s when you go looking for arrowheads on that hill.”

Without a word, Bill then brings out black-and-white photographs of Uncle Frank wrestling his pet black bear, skinning a hide with some compadres, posing with one of his horses. One of the photos is a postcard, but someone had taken the stamp off so there is no postmark date. Frank is young, though, so it must have been the teens or twenties.

Frank hung out at a place called the L&R bar, says Bill, somewhere on the northwest corner of Linden & Walnut in downtown Fort Collins. Maren and I go walking downtown after leaving Bill’s shop, trying to find where the old bar might have been, because Bill tells us that Frank made a painting on the wall that he thinks is still there today, like the one in Nature’s Own downstairs from the old Linden Hotel.

We stop in one of the curio shops on Walnut, but the owners aren’t from town and don’t remember an L&R bar. We make a mental note to ask at the museum or library for where the old bar might have been.

Both Frank Miller and Buffalo Bill came from the middle class or upper-middle class, and posed as cowboys riding their horses along the frontier line, which “had long served as a mythical dividing point between fakery and reality” (Warren, p. 177). As Warren points out, the western frontier’s “core stories were the rise of white civilization and the restoration of domestic bliss.” Bullshit – much like today’s core stories homogeneity, consumerism, and sustainability. Warren goes on, “The frontier’s centrality to American ideas of history and progress provided not just a theory of American development , but a powerful story about how people behave and how events unfold.” So Frank and Buffalo Bill were both artists, actors, storytellers presenting a reflection of how the changing West was changing America. “In other words,” says Warren, “audience expectations of frontier stories were so powerful that they could look past the blatant fiction of these dramas and embrace the ‘real’ frontier heroes as proof that their expectations and assumptions about the frontier were mostly true.” The West, in reality, was a harsh and brutal kill-or-be-killed drag, so that the dramas presented by showmen like Frank and Buffalo Bill were artful deception necessary to perpetuate the lie being claimed by the promoters making false but irresistible claims that the West held promise. This was the source of the power and fame of Frank and Buffalo Bill. In fact, Buffalo Bill was more of a dramatic and literary character than a nickname for a real person, and there were imposters of the imposter – other showmen tried to pass for Buffalo Bill – and Cody wasn’t even the first Buffalo Bill.

My son Joey and I are back at the barbershop on a Saturday early in 2001, maybe 18 months after that first visit, almost five years before Young would close the shop, side by side in Bert’s old-timey barber chairs. The pungent smell of motor oil is in my nostrils, the other barber is trying to get Joey to hold still, I’m telling the slightly trembling six-year-old Joey that these guys are professionals, he won’t hurt you. The empty gallon of Ezra Brooks is on the floor beneath the cash register. The Playboy is in its place on the chair over beneath the shelf of old barber’s products. “This is a man’s place only, no girls aloud,” I’ve told Joey. “This is where a real man goes to get his haircut.”

“Leave me your number before you leave …” Bill is saying, obviously glad that I’ve stopped back in after all these months. “I wrote down some stuff for you about Bert and the old barber shops,” he tells me almost as soon as Joey and I arrive. “The addresses, dates they were open … .” We agree to get in touch soon to talk more and so that he could give me the notes; he again indicates only a shy interest in approaching the Fort Collins Coloradoan doing a piece on the barbershop being open 100 years, and then only for me, not for him. I don’t bother, thinking the Coloradoan is not rooted enough to be interested.

The stories flow again as he snips and clips and trims and shaves – still using a straight razor and shaving cream on the sideburns. “Sure, I can trim it for you ….” “No, we don’t do shaves anymore … some guys do, but not many.”

“Once a kid came into the shop with a beard and had all kinda crazy ideas for how he wanted it trimmed,” Bill is saying. “He asks both me and the other barber there how we thinks he should get it trimmed … Bert was in the back and overheard us, and when he came out the kid said, ‘You look like you’ve been barbering for a while, how do you think I should get it trimmed?’” I wonder after Young repeats Bert’s response a couple times if his bear-like deep timbre is how Bert’s voice sounded, in a low grumble: “Cut it off.”

Bill is running the roller-ball vibratey thing over my shoulders, massaging them – the head massages and styling mud are the only things that really make a salon a viable alternative after all, at least for my flat, thinned, unworkably fine blonde top – just as the other barber had done on Joey’s back a few minutes prior. Joey says, I got that on my shoulders too, Daddy, and I say it’s relaxing, huh buddy?

“See, Bert liked sports,” Bill is saying. “When they came to Colorado from Indiana, Bert and Doc, Bert stopped at the ticket counter in Union Station and asked a guy, ‘Is there a small town in Colorado that has sports?’ The guy said, ‘Well, yeah, Fort Collins is a nice town and there’s a new college up there that has some sports.’ So Bert wrote a letter, and he addressed it to

Prominent Barber
Fort Collins, Colorado.

and in the letter he asked if there was anyone who owned a barbershop they’d be willing to sell. Well, sure enough the letter got delivered to a guy that owned three barbershops –

I interrupt, “Were there a lot of barbershops in town back then, since nobody went to beauty shops?”

“Yeah, there were seven right here on College all within sight of each other at one time … . So the guy with three shops writes Bert back and says, yeah, I’d be willing to sell one of them, and that’s how Bert and Doc ended up in Fort Collins. That was in 1900. Doc partnered with him for a while but didn’t much take to barbering so went off to Denver to dental school. Bert got out of barbering and tried real estate for a while, and about went broke doing it … .”

Bert’s son Don, my grandfather, worked for the Fort Collins Express-Courier and the United Press for eight years, married my grandmother, then moved to Brush, Colorado, about 100 miles east of Fort Collins. The McCarty’s purchased and merged two newspapers to form the Brush News Tribune, still in business today. After the family Don sold the paper to in 1968 ran it into the ground, Don and my parents regained control of it and we moved from my birth town of Denver to Brush in 1976, when I was 11, to take over the paper. Brush was a town founded by the railroad in 1884, and named after cattle rancher Jared L. Brush. The town grew up on the sugar beet industry, cattle, and oil.

The city of Brush! still uses the logo (they finally changed it in 2014) Dad designed and had a local artist draw in 1976, which the city adopted in January 1977 (Dad also was responsible for putting the literal exclamation point on Brush!’s High Plains promotional gusto, still in use today). According to Brush’s website circa 2006, the logo “depicts the diversification of Brush’s evolving, progressive community – the food and energy hub of the plains.” As president of the local chamber of commerce in the mid-80s Dad worked hard to bring new business and more prosperity to Brush, and was the driving force behind a 30-year economic plan for Brush and east Morgan County revolving around health care. He was involved in housing projects, the first effort to bring an ethanol plant to Colorado, and Colorado’s bid for the Superconducting Supercollider, when Dad and later-Commissioner of Agriculture Don Ament flew to Chicago together to tour a similar facility. When we moved to Brush in 1976, it was still very much a cattle town. As the feedlots began to fail and oil wells’ production slowed, and farmer’s margins began to be squeezed more and more, the economy began to be forced to diversify. The falsehood of the Western dream today is apparent in the farm foreclosures and in the squeezing of irrigation in the counties around Brush.

8 brush logo

It’s a few days before Christmas 2005 now and I’m back in the barbershop for the final time. Bill’s there, with Leo, a longtime friend and customer of the barbershop. I congratulate Bill on his retirement, on his closing McCarty’s Barbershop after a good 105 years as a business in Fort Collins, started with that letter from Bert in 1899 or 1900. I ask Bill about the barber’s pole out front. Already spoken for. I cringe that the pole won’t stay in the family – Bill tells the story of how it was Daddy Bert’s pole and was at one time stolen and then retrieved – but Bill and I agree that it should be outside a barbershop anyway. He talks about the times he was at Don and Gram’s house in Brush, which is also the house I lived in during high school, and the house my mom still lives in today, and we reminisce about Bert’s shaving mug that Bill gave my mom on one of those visits. He does have one memento of Bert left that he is willing to part with, though. He digs through a drawer and brings out a copy of The Journeyman Barber, the trade publication for the barber’s union, issue date March 1906. Bill explains that McCarty’s was one of the last barbershops in the country to still belong to the barber’s union. Bill gives me the book. He tells me he’s going to go to Illinois to visit his mother, who is still alive. He’s going to do some traveling. Sell his property on the west edge of town. Enjoy himself. The barbershop is full of cigar smoke. His arrowheads adorn the walls for the last few days out of many decades. Christmas Eve will be the centenary barbershop’s last day. Then it’s a few days of cleaning, then Al’s Newsstand will begin its expansion into the McCarty’s space from next door. We make plans to get together for lunch and talk some more after Bill returns from his travels.

The West was and is more about marketing than it is about manifest destiny. Railroads and their investors needed to populate the West in order to get a return on their investment – they needed freight and passenger customers for their trains. A logical extension of Walter Prescott Webb’s discussions of the Homestead Act in The Great Plains and Louis Warren’s arguments about the settling of the West in Buffalo Bill’s America is to question the gold rush and the homesteading that got a lot of us natives out here. Stripped to its essence, the Homestead Act was a failed experiment, at least with respect to the High Plains of western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western Kansas, in that it lured farmers beyond tallgrass country into basically untenable shortgrass prairie. The allure seemed to hold during brief wet spells, but the climate would eventually get back to normal and many homesteaders were forced to abandon their claims.

Barbed wire and windmills were the first technologies that artificially propped up the apparent farmability of the land for European-Americans in the decades that followed. Today, wind turbines and GMO crops allow farmers to use their land for alternative energy markets that allow them to break free, in small ways at first, from the commodity giants, although the limiting reagent continues to be water. Elliott West asserts that High Plains farming is nonsensical, traditionally relying on what biologists call a “perceived environment” of “the rain will follow the plow” vs. an “effective environment.” Tapping into the Ogallala aquifer makes agriculture possible on the Great Plains, but this is a limited resource that is being depleted relatively rapidly – similar to petroleum reserves. With four gallons of water needed to make a gallon of the current energy darling ethanol, energy leaders have to think carefully about the near- and medium-term solutions they come up with. Seeming panaceas can turn out to be the flip side of problems of energy balance, economic balance, and water politics. So today I have to take a look at the things that I am doing as an entrepreneur and make sure that I am not too futile a part of that same Western heroic façade that uncensored histories of Frank and Buffalo Bill propagated.

The façade – the myth that there is a sustainable life to be had here – must be upheld at all costs, for High Plains dwellers to reconcile their choice of geography with their sanity. Frank and Buffalo Bill were trying to hold onto that with their Wild West shows, Dad held onto that with his promotion of western democracy and free market, and today solutions like biofuels can still make the high plains seem sustainable. But one fact has not changed in 150 years – this is a high desert with little water. Yet we press on, living the myth, telling the stories we need to believe.

This is the living myth of the High Plains. This is home.

9 miller home

Frank Miller home, 644 Mathews, northeast corner of Mathews and Laurel Street, July 10, 1898

1. Conversations with family members Jack Veitch, Sharon McCarty Bzdek, Maren Thompson Bzdek, and James Bzdek.
2. Conversations will Bill Young, owner of McCarty’s Barbershop, Fort Collins, Colorado.
3. Email communications with Fort Collins Museum Collections Manager Linda Moore.
4. Buffalo Bill’s America – William Cody and the Wild West Show, Louis S. Warren, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
5. Cache La Poudre – The Natural History of a Rocky Mountain River, Howard Ensign Evans and Mary Alice Evans, University Press of Colorado, 1991.
6. Those Crazy Pioneers, Lafi Miller, Illustrated by Tom Peacock, published by Lafi Miller, 2000.
7. Fort Collins Yesterdays, Evadene Burris Swanson, George and Hildegarde Morgan, 1993.
8. “Frank Miller and the Trail’s End Ranch,” Tucker Hall, North Forty News, March 1996.
9. Legends, Lullabies, and Lies – Frank Miller, Jr., PBS documentary, Pat Halsey, Halsey Productions, 1999.
10. Fort Morgan Times, Centennial Edition September 4,1984; Bill Spencer, Evelyn Madison Dortch, Sue Spencer. Kent Smith, Jo-An Barnett, and Leslie Bernard, writers.
11. Brush, Colorado official website, February 2006.
12. The Great Plains, Walter Prescott Webb, University of Nebraska Press, 1981.
13. The Contested Plains – Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, Elliott West, University Press of Kansas, 1998.

5 thoughts on “Pirates of the Plains

  1. Really enjoyed reading this. At one time before we moved from Brush I lived across the street from your grandparents.

  2. Jay, amazing, interesting, well written story! Thanks for the effort that went into this. I have shared with my siblings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s