Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Harry & Bess Van De Riet: Outlaws, Indians, and In-laws.

I've had some good conversations with Aunt Bonnie Crary over the last few months about the period of time  before my Grandma LaVonne was born.  Bonnie caught me off-guard with a mention of the woman my grandma was named after.  I always thought the name LaVonne was because it sounded similar to her Grandma Kale's name, Lavina Row Kale.  No, actually.  Grandma was named after a part Native American Mormon girl named LaVonne Hudson who lived near the Canadian border.   Oh, and they kept coyote hunting dogs.  Wha???!

No, I had NOT heard this story but it doesn't surprise me too much.  Grandma would have liked her namesake--she loved the history and stories about the Indians, particularly in Montana.  Maybe this is partly why?  And then isn't it ironic that she married a Mormon and also joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a young mother? 

No, this does not belong to the family.
It was the late roaring twenties, all glitz, glamor, lawlessness, and .....coyote skins.  Apparently the coyote business was booming.  Harry and Bess Van De Riet had moved back and forth and around a few times already since their marriage in 1919.  They had lived in Conrad, running a creamery, where Harry, Jr. was born in 1920.  Their next son Jack was born in Great Falls in 1922, but I'm not sure if they were living there or if he was just born in the hospital.  Next the family lived in Shelby--I forgot to ask Bonnie what they were doing there.  Maybe more creamery work?  Shelby was a boomtown after the 1922 oil discovery, so there would have been lots of work opportunities.  We know that the Van De Riets were present in Shelby at the great Jack Dempsey heavyweight fight on the 4th of July, 1923. Would you like to see the fight?  Just found a video clip of it at the site that is selling the medallion above.

Bess & Jack, Harry Sr. and Bobby.

Harry and Bess had a baby girl, Marilyn, who was born in Shelby in 1924.  She died a few months later of a childhood disease.  Bess had another baby, Robert, called Bobby, the following summer, in Shelby, and another son Ray in 1927, who was born in Choteau.  The family was back in Shelby in February of 1928 when tragedy struck again, and their two-and-a-half year old Bobby died of illness.  (Either Marilyn or Bobby died of meningitis, but I didn't note down which one.)

Sometime after Robert's death, Harry and Bess were ready for a change.  They moved again, this time to the Jack Galbraith ranch near Babb, Montana, (part of the Blackfoot Indian Reservation), and took up a new venture.  Coyote trapping.  And so close to the Canadian border, perhaps a little brown jugful of something "on the side" as well.

That's right folks, Bootlegging.

James Bailey Schnee
Enter Uncle James Bailey Schnee.  He was a friend of Harry's back in Choteau when the two were younger.  This is how he met Harry's little sister, Marie Van De Riet.  The two were married in 1921. I remember Grandma LaVonne talking about Uncle Bailey and Aunt Marie and how fun and lovable they were.  Anyway, I don't know whose idea it was to go trap coyotes and live with their young families on the Res, but I'm guessing it was Bailey's.  At least he stayed in the area longer and is found living up there with his family in the 1930 Census when Harry and Bess were long gone, back to the Choteau area where they had LaVonne in August 1929.  Maybe he liked the work?  Aunt Bonnie says that Bailey was bootlegging "bet ya didn't know that!" and that she "is sure my Dad was a partner in it".  I don't know if living on the Reservation affected some of the Prohibition laws or if it was just the proximity to Canada that made rum-running easy and profitable, but I'm pretty sure they never got caught.  (Bonnie recommends Ken Burns' new documentary, Prohibition.)
Harry's picture of the Cardston, Alberta temple. 

Adding some irony to the situation is that they had a non-drinking Mormon landlord (wonder if he knew what was going on?).  I'm also guessing that this is the period of time where Harry took a tourist's photograph of the Cardston Alberta, Temple, a newly built symbol of purity and goodness and the Latter-Day Saint faith, where some of his children and grandchildren would later be married.  It's one of my favorite temple pictures; I have even shown it when I've given Sunday school lessons in church, etc.,  and now I find out Harry may have been in Canada taking this picture while breaking the law!  Pretty funny skeleton in the closet--the joke is on me.

Bailey and Harry moved their young families into a Duplex that still stands (Aunt Bonnie has a picture I need to get of the Galbraith house) on the Galbraith Ranch.  Jack Galbraith was part Indian and had a wife named Susan Hudson.  The two had a daughter? (Bonnie wasn't sure on this point-maybe she was a sister-in-law, or maybe Susan went by LaVonne) named LaVonne Hudson.  Jack was Mormon and a participant in the  efforts of the LDS church to settle southern Alberta/Montana.  Bonnie says there is a wonderful article titled "Mormonism in Montana" in the Spring 2006 issue of the Montana Magazine of Western History that talks about Jack Galbraith.  The article is not online but I intend to look it up next time I am at the FHL in Salt Lake and fill in the rest of the story.  In any case, he and his wife were wonderful friends to Harry and Bess.  I don't know if they knew each other before they moved to Babb or became acquainted as tenant/landlord at the time.

I don't think they were in Babb for a very long time; my best guess is that they were there for about a year or less between March 1928 and summer 1929.  Bonnie says her mom, Bess, used to talk about having to chop up the meat (as in, coyote meat) every day to make the dog food.  P.U.  And I'm guessing that she would have been pregnant with LaVonne for part of that time.

Harry's son Ray writes about his earliest memory (as printed in the Van De Riet Reunion binder, compiled by Sheila VDR Jackman.)
     "The first I can remember of my family life was when we lived on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, thirty miles north of Browning, Montana, on the Galbraith Ranch.  There was an Indian family who worked on the ranch by the name of Bearwalker.  The youngest boy, Joe, was a little older than I was and when we would try to follow the older boys, Harry and Jack, on their horses, they would tie him to the horse manger in the barn by his long braids and then we would have to go have our mothers untie him and of course, the older boys would be gone by then."

It sounds like it was a fun place for the whole family (other than cutting up the stinky meat.)  Brother Galbraith had a fancy house that included a ballroom.  Sometimes he would hire an orchestra clear from Great Falls and host dances.  At one of these parties, Grandma Bess had a dance, as The Joker would say, "with the devil in the pale moonlight."  She knew him as Charlie Gannon, cowhand.  The Texas Rangers and other lawmen knew him as Hillary "Hill" Loftis aka Tom Ross aka Frank Hale, murderer, cattle rustler, prison breaker.  He would have been an older man, maybe in his sixties or fifties, having been on the run from the law since 1895.  He also purportedly had " a head shaped like a buffalo’s and chilling black eyes".  I wish I had a picture or a wanted poster!

That dance may have been the last pleasant evening for the outlaw Charlie Gannon.  We don't know when it was exactly, but it fits well with what I learned from an article by Max McCoy.
  "He remained on the run until 1929, when during a thirty degree below night in a Montana line camp he killed a range detective by the name of Ralph Hayward who had been sent to smoke him out. After shooting Hayward to death, Loftis ordered the other cowboys out into the cold, burned all personal papers, and wrote a suicide note – then put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger."
Aunt Bonnie said that they found him in the bunkhouse, and her story matches an entry from The Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws, and Gunfighters by Leon Metz. (On Google Books in its entirety, if you would like to read the full article.)

It's an old wives' tale that a shock to the mother during pregnancy may show up on the baby's face.  Grandma LaVonne did have very black eyes...

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