Sunday, April 5, 2015

Earlier and MUCH tougher than the merchants of Browning were the Conrad brothers. My favorite Conrad is Barnaby Conrad III, author of “Ghost Hunting in Montana: A Search for Roots in the Old West” (@ 1994. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-258551-7) He is the great-grandson of the frontier Conrads and the son of a very sophisticated Conrad, Barnaby Conrad II, whom you can check out on his website. ( This is how it begins: “Author, artist, and raconteur Barnaby Conrad is the founding director of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference and the author of more than 27 books... The native San Franciscan is also a former vice consul to Spain, amateur bullfighter, art teacher, and onetime secretary to novelist Sinclair Lewis. He studied art at the Academie Julien in Paris and named his former North Beach night spot after his successful 1952 novel, “Matador”.)

The third Barnaby has written books about absinthe, martinis, cigars and blondes. But this “Ghost Hunting” book is about his (ahem) vigorous ancestors. For purposes of contrast, let us start with the maternal genteel side.

William Henry Hunt arrived in Fort Benton in 1879. (That’s two years after James Willard Schultz arrived in the same place.) Rather better connected than Schultz, Hunt was a direct descendent of Robert Livingston, “coauthor of the Declaration of Independence, ambassador to France and the chief negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.” He followed an older brother to Fargo, Dakota Territory, where he worked as a surveyor, a newspaper reporter and a law clerk -- typical occupations for a resourceful educated man in an expanding environment. In Fort Benton he hooked up with another Yalie and ran a law office until 1881 when his father was named Secretary of the Navy by President Garfield and he named young Hunt (24 years old) U.S. Collector of Customs for the Montana and Idaho Territories.

In 1882 he went back east to wed Gertrude Upshur, daughter of an admiral. Early Fort Benton was a shock to her. In 1884 Hunt became the Attorney General of Montana Territory. Then he became a judge and legislator in Helena where it was possible to live quite an elegant life with no curious Indians peering in the windows.

Hunt proved to be one of the unbribeable sturdy figures. In 1901 he became governor of Puerto Rico. Then Teddy Roosevelt wanted to put him on the Supreme Court, but there was no vacancy, so he was appointed the U.S. District Judge for Montana. Taft appointed him to the Court of Customs Appeals in Washington, D.C. and then Woodrow Wilson assigned him to the Second Circuit Court out of New York where he presided over the trial of William Rockefeller. Next was a judgeship on the 9th Circuit Court, based in San Francisco, and then a request that he run for the senate, which he turned down. Once more he was suggested for the U.S. Supreme Court but it didn’t happen. He retired from the bench in 1928 and opened a private practice. In 1949, 92 years old, he died. His most cherished memory was a great herd of buffalo that interrupted that first trip on a steamship up to Fort Benton.

Not often are we told about the successes on the frontier who then go east or even to Europe, building their careers on sterling values and hard work. Everyone loves a rascal, which this story will provide in the form of the Conrad brothers.

This material in fictionalized form is the origin of the ponderous movie called “Heavensgate” which was filmed in part around here. Kris Christofferson was more like a Conrad than a Hunt, but the general dynamics were similar. The mansion house in the movie, where the cattle barons meet in a wood-paneled dining room and Kris plays a quick table of pool on the mezzanine, was built in Kalispell (which he founded in 1892) by Charles E. Conrad. You can visit the house for a small admission, and imagine yourself back in that Gilded Age when everything seemed possible.

Barnaby III takes a rather cynical tone as he describes his hegira around the state and down into Wyoming (which was still Montana territory in those days). He includes the usual tales about squalor and violence, time-worn places and people, and kitsch attempts at livening things up. But he probably saw Bob Scriver more accurately than most. “A short, powerful man with a graying Vandyke beard and a slightly crazed look in his blue eyes.” His account of what Bob said is cooked up, but when Bob had company he was trying to impress, he did assume a kind of movie personality -- corny, in my opinion. He took Barnaby out to the studio, showed him his treasures, and broke the rules by opening the Thunder Pipe Bundle. This means he really liked his interviewer very much.

Barnaby (what do you suppose his friends call him? “Barn?”) did a good job of reporting on Darrell Kipp and Vicky Santana. His guide was Ed Anderson, who normally guides fishermen, and who was our next door neighbor for many years. He did not come away with an upbeat impression, but this was just before some of the real turnarounds, like Piegan Institute and some law reforms and agreements.

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