An Ornery History

If there’s one newspaper-allowable word to describe the kind of people drawn to ranching life in Montana, it’s “ornery.”

Tough, cussed, leather and hard might all deserve a second opinion in the matter, but for the sheer level of defiance of the elements and potentially even God Himself, ranchers certainly deserve the adjective.

Bill Vaughn’s latest book is a visitation of the vexatious nature of two families eventually drawn together and then pushed apart by a ranch outside of Helena, on the banks of Holter Lake. It’s actually a history of Vaughn’s wife’s kin — which would seem to be a dangerous game to write about the struggles and travails therein. But it appears they are still married so all apparently worked out — and Vaughn makes use of the articles, receipts, correspondence and other ephemera families produce while trying to make a living in Montana for over a century.

And boy, does Vaughn get the receipts. This book has multiple appendices that go over legal battles and the history of the Oxbow Ranch, where so much of the Herrins’ history happens. It’s a well-researched book, to say the least, and makes for interesting reading in another extensive Notes section at the end of the book. And Vaughn shines while gathering so many different bits and pieces of family life and weaving them all together. This book is a lovingly made quilt: the patches might look strange from a distance, but there is a strong sense of connection once you get up close and see the stitchwork.

The Burkes and the Herrins’ struggle and romance has the sense of tragedy: for this, Vaughn should be commended. It’s rare that reading a hyperlocal history, albeit one that stretches its starting point all the way to Ireland and springs across the United States like an airline pilot’s year-in-review, contains more than just a sense of facts being laid out for future generations to consider. Narratives in a family’s, or families’, history are difficult creatures. Who hasn’t heard a story that seems to be pointless regarding a bit of family connection to one place or another? But the Burkes and the Herrins have a sense of purpose in their relayed tales. And when a marriage breaks up, and the ranch is sold off, there’s a sense of loss that appears when reading a good work of fiction.

There are a lot of books written about Montana. If you go by the local bookstores, it’s either two shelves or an entire corner of a shop, along with a standalone, double-sided island. It makes sense, ‘cause the state has a rich history. But at the same time, there are so many times you can walk the same path before it becomes a readily remembered trail. By looking at the family he married into and following the tendrils out from Helena to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and back home to Montana again, Vaughn did something new and unusual in the historical literature of Montana. That’s something to be admired.

By Thomas Plank, writing in the September 7, 2022 issue of the Missoula, Montana Missoulian

Montana Book Roundup

As hard as it may be to say farewell to one of the best summers in Montana in recent memory, it is time once again to stock up on reading material for the impending winter. Here are some of the highlights from the broad range of Montana books published in the last year . . . .

In the current period of political division that seems unusually stark, Bill Vaughn’s The Last Heir (Bison Books, 2022) recounts the saga of two disparate Montana clans in the early twentieth century. The enmity and dramatic rivalry of the Herrins and the Burkes in the heart of the Missouri river country is the stuff of legends. The clash of families anticipated some of the elements of our modern political divide: the Republican Herrins were rural, owning the famous Oxbow Ranch on the shores of Holter Lake, while the Democratic Burkes were city-dwellers. Both families were “active players in the far-reaching dramas and ludicrous comedies that shaped the politics and economy of modern Montana,” as the back cover succinctly explains.

Any book that opened with an epigraph from Shakespeare—Romeo and Juliet, no less—is bound to be dramatic, and Vaughn does not disappoint. The first chapter, “Without a Trace,” plunges readers into the most mundane of domestic dramas—a father and husband abandoning his family “to run off with a married woman”—in a deft and subtle way that foreshadows the major themes here: the power and resolve of women to endure in “a man’s world,” and the complicated politics of rural family life. When Keith Herrin has an altercation with his six-year-old daughter, Kitty, Vaughn conveys his state of mind thus: “His anger was based on his belief that this sort of extremism in a young girl could only have been planted there by Molly [Keith’s wife], whose liberal politics were the opposite of his. As an example of their differences, he once pointed to a white boy dancing with a black girl at a 4-H party and exclaimed, ‘that just isn’t right.’ Molly, on the other hand, had been raised by a woman who would later contribute money to the Black Panther Party.” The upshot of this study is that appearances are deceiving, and each unhappy family is, as Tolstoy observed, “unhappy in its own way.”

Montana, The Magazine of Western History, Autumn 2022