Miles and Miles of Miles City

Where Montana kicks up its Western heritage every May.
Where Montana kicks up its Western heritage every May.

Everybody loves Montana, and what’s not to love (except, well, maybe Butte)?

Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park. Deer Lodge and Livingston. Big Hole and Big Sky; Bozeman and Bannack. Ford’s Drive-in in Great Falls and Parrot Confectionery Store in Helena. Artist Charlie Russell and cattle baron Granville Stuart. Writers A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Dorothy M. Johnson.

You know … western Montana.

Just about every tourist looks west, toward those Rocky Mountains and beyond, but I’m pointed east to a cowtown that not enough people notice unless they need gas or a motel along Interstate 94. Miles City just doesn’t get enough recognition.

Except in May.

On May 14-17, Miles City will get about Western as the West can get. I’m talking about the World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, “BHS” for short. Cheyenne Frontier Days may call itself the granddaddy of ’em all, but the buck begins here, as bareback and saddle bronc horses are introduced to the rodeo world. Many great bucking horses kicked off their careers here, and I do mean kicked.

The show celebrates its 59th anniversary this year, although its roots trace back to circa 1914, when stock contractors started checking out bucking horses during the Miles City Roundup days. Today, the BHS throws a loop much wider than the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds.

The show is a cross between Mardi Gras and the National Finals Rodeo; part rodeo icon Larry Mahan, part Western author icon Louis L’Amour. Gunsmoke meets Junior Bonner. A little bit of Independence Day, and a lot of Armageddon. In other words, the BHS can get a little Western.

You bring in a bunch of cowboys and rodeo fans—a lot of them as wild and as crazy as bucking horses—and you’re asking for trouble. So I ask Jim Schaefer, executive director of Custer Country Montana, how many people are arrested or lynched each year during the BHS. “We don’t keep track of the arrests, just the hangings,” he jokes. “There were 30 of those last year.”

Now, that’s my kind of town.

Besides the BHS, Miles City will help the Montana Stockgrowers Assn. celebrate its 125th anniversary on June 10-13. You’ll enjoy a parade, a street dance and a “ranch rodeo cowboy calcutta” that sounds downright painful (that is, if you’re a ranch rodeo cowboy).

But Miles City isn’t just bucks and bruises. It’s history. Why, the Range Riders Museum sits on the site of the old Fort Keogh cantonment, circa 1876. In 1939, a bunch of history and preservation-minded cowhands and ranchers decided to keep the past alive, and the museum opened two years later. Today the Range Riders Museum is home to a huge gun collection and plenty of exhibits and artifacts housed in the officers quarters, coach house, homestead house, schoolhouse and a re-creation of old Miles Town’s Main Street.

Miles Town, before it got promoted to “city,” came about after Nelson A. Miles and the Army set up shop in August 1876. Promoting temperance, Miles kicked all sin sellers out of the fort.

Temperance? Montana? I think not! The fact that Miles City did things the Montana way, and not the Nelson A. Miles way, is easily verified today.

You’ll find Lucky Lil’s, the Silver Star, the Bison Bar, Blue Moon Casino and the Olive Hotel lounge. Of course, you gotta like the Cattle-Ac, which advertises its casino in the “private entrance located behind the saloon.”

To really see Miles City, stagger inside the dean of cowboy watering holes and belly up to the bar. I’m talking about the Montana Bar. It dates to 1893, although it was expanded and remodeled in 1914. The historic bar is as authentic as the pressed-tin ceiling and the bullet hole by the door.

I ask the bartender how many gallons of beer they go through during the Bucking Horse Sale.

“Oh, gosh,” he says. “Five thousand?”

My kind of town.

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