Ya gotta love a good cowboy story!
My granny Mid was raised in a pioneer ranching family in the Philip-Pierre region of S. Dakota. So, I love these stories of the people that raised their families there and endured.
From the pages of the Capitol Journal of Pierre, S. Dakota.
Dakota life : Branding a rodeo, building a family
by Lance Nixon
Jun 25, 2015
There were still outlaws in the west in those days. It was 1919 and South Dakota still had a man here and there who might just pull a bandanna over his chin and stick a six gun in someone’s ribs.
And it happened to Billy Maher – a tall, thin horse catcher, horse trader and poker player. He’d been sitting in on a poker game in a box car over by Hitchcock.
“They would drive these horses into a box car and they would ship them out,” one of his sons, Pierre attorney Tom M. Maher said.
“It was in a wooden box car the cattle rode in, they were just in there out of the wind, playing poker. A couple robbers slid open the railroad car door. There were at least two of them. They had bandannas on. They said, ‘Up against the wall, all of you up against the wall.’ So he reached over and he grabbed his pile of money. He had it in his right hand. He was tall – he was as tall as me. And they said, ‘Hands up.’ So he stretched up and there was a board up there and he slid his money on top of that board. And they came through one by one, they were taking their watches and everything they had. They jammed a gun right in his ribs and said, ‘OK, Slim, give us your money.’ He said, ‘I’m all tapped out.’ And they went on – he saved his money.”
Fire and snow
A good thing, because he needed the cash.
Bill Maher been working at trading horses but probably planning in his head what else he could do with horses; but things were against them. His dad and one brother, Myron, left Athol, South Dakota, and went to Eagle Butte, son Bill Maher Jr. recalled.
“They built this lean-to out of a piece of tin on the side of a hill. And they lived in that and gathered some wild horses and traded for horses.
“They would put a band together, whatever they could gather up, and my Dad’s job was to hire the best horseman he could find, often a Native American, and then move these horses east and swim the Missouri River somewhere around Mobridge or wherever he thought the horses could make it. They did that for about five years. They kept getting better and better, you know, and built a house. They were doing really good. They hired a man and his wife – she was supposed to cook and the man was a wrangler. Well, they were out wrangling and they looked back at the house – this was the middle of winter – and it was on fire out there on the prairie. She had thrown the ashes of the stove up against the wooden house and burned it down. So there they were, right back to living under a tin on the side of a hill.”
Wild horses of Wyoming
Then someone told him about horses running wild in the Red Desert of Wyoming.
“In 1919 he was 19 years old, and that’s when he started going out to the Red Desert to round up horses,” Tom Maher said. “At that time he would drive them all the way back with a group of cowboys, Indians and a Chinese cook with a chuck wagon. Later on they would load them on railroad cars and they would ship them to Wendte and Fort Pierre. Wendte was really more of a buzzing place back then.”
Horses were woven into the pattern of Billy Maher’s life after he married in 1929, too.
“He supported us with horses – had a few cattle at different times, but horses was what he loved. He would buy and sell and trade,” Tom Maher said.
“When he was driving those wild horses back, he would in the morning rope them and saddle them and get on and ride them all day – ride them in the herd, you know, from the Rock Springs, Wyoming, area to the Missouri River and then ford the Missouri River and head over toward the Huron area and sell them and trade them. When he got on in the morning, if there was one of those horses that could buck him off or almost buck him off, he would put that one aside.”
And that was the start of a rodeo string. Now he just needed a rodeo.
There’s some speculation among the Maher children about what first prompted their father, Billy Maher, to get into rodeo. He and Jake Price drove a chuck wagon and some horses to Coleman, South Dakota, in 1928 to hold what was the first rodeo ever for Bill Maher. After that his Diamond M Rodeo Company – the Diamond M was the Maher brand – stayed busy in rodeo through 1955 with rodeos at Cottonwood Lake, near Redfield; Lake Kampeska near Watertown; Glenwood Park near Mitchell; Ruskin Park near Forestburg; Lake Dudley near Hitchcock; Huron; Tacoma Park near Aberdeen; Pierre; Faulkton; Hartington, Nebraska; Redfield; Brainard, Minnesota; Kimball; and Hankinson, North Dakota.
One of the high points of Billy Maher’s rodeo career was holding the Days of ’81 Rodeo in Pierre starting in 1944. Area ranchers Norval Cooper and Joe Schomer helped supply stock for it.
He would post bills advertising the show all over town before a rodeo.
“He would have ‘Billy Maher’s Diamond M Wild West Show’ or something like that. He varied it some,” Bill Maher Jr. recalled.
Billy Maher also sold bucking horses to Gene Madison of Rapid City and the Roberts brothers of Strong City, Kansas; probably for the same reason that he got into rodeo in the first place.
“I think it was that he had these horses that were too rank to sell for ranch horses – they were going to hurt somebody,” Tom Maher said. “So he could find a use for them. And then he was a showman. He liked putting a team together and putting on a show. He didn’t have the money to go buy a great big herd of cattle , so he was using what he could put together by starting to catch some for free.”
Delores Melvin, the oldest daughter of Billy Maher, agreed that her father puzzled over what to do with rough stock.
“As a young man he made his living trading horses. And then he went into Wisconsin and sold a lot of them. In Wisconsin they don’t know the front end of a bronc from the back end. We used to say, ‘Wonder how many corrals are tore down by these broncs we’re leaving for them?’
Penciling out a deal for horses, and Reva
You had to have good help for that kind of operation, and Billy Maher had some – he had Reva. And he got her in just the way you’d expect of an Irish horse trader.
“She was young, I think about 17, and he came trading horses at her folks’ place north of Huron, Hitchcock, it was called – it was in the country,” said Theresa Severyn, the youngest of the Maher children.
The children in that family learned that story later because it was the best trade Bill Maher ever made.
“He was a young man, he was single,” Bill Maher Jr. said. “He brought this team in to a guy whose name was Herb Marshall. He and Herb were making the trade in the car. I don’t know whose car it was but they were there. This nice young gal come running out there and Herb sent her back in the house to get a pencil, because there was evidently a little bit of difference on the horses and what Herb wanted to pay. So the story is that my Dad got Reva for a wife in trade. It was a good trade – they stayed together all those years.”
Everyone in the family remembers details of that transaction.
“Grandpa Marshall said to her, she was a sweet little doll, to run in and get a pencil. She did, and then she met Bill Maher,” Theresa Severyn said. “That’s how they met – a pencil to be able to erase one figure and try out another.”
They married in November 1929, the year after Bill Maher held his first rodeo.
Herb Marshall and Bill Maher were best of friends, and Reva’s brothers got along with Bill, too.
“When they had the rodeos on, one of her brothers, Lyle Marshall, he was the clown. He was riding this bucking horse and then his pants would come off. You know, he’d have long johns on or something. That was part of the get-up about the clown. But one time he broke his leg doing it,” Theresa Severyn recalled.
Skinny kid named Casey Tibbs
The thing about putting on a rodeo is that you’ve got to have cowboys.
“When Dad was doing this he heard of Casey Tibbs out on Mission Ridge. He’s over by Huron and he heard what a rider he was,” Tom Maher said. “And in those days they didn’t have purses to win, they paid ‘mount money.’ You paid like five bucks for every horse you ‘exhibited’ – rode in front of the crowd. So he heard of him and he thought that he would be a really good draw and he sent Mother and Delores and Donna and little Bill, my brother Bill, all the way to Mission Ridge and they got Casey Tibbs and he was part of our rodeo. But then of course he went on to really big things.”
Delores Melvin of Pierre, the oldest of the Maher children, agrees with that account except that she wasn’t along when they went to fetch Casey. As she recalls, the family was holding a rodeo in Faulkton the day her mother went to fetch Casey so she couldn’t go. But she remembers afterward.
“I can remember when Casey Tibbs come to live with us. He loved Mom’s pancakes. We’d sit there at the breakfast table, they’d be talking catching horses and everything, but he’d sit there and I’d think, ‘He’ll never grow up,’ because he loved those pancakes of Mom’s so much.”
Bill Maher Jr. remembers Casey, too.
“I was real young, but I remember going and getting him once, my Mom and myself and I believe one or two of my sisters. He was at Short Log’s, was where we went, on Mission Ridge – a guy by the name of Short Log Tibbs. We loaded him up and took him back and he lived with us most of the summer, went to Dad’s rodeos and helped put on the show. He had a real talent. He showed fine form. I’m sure my dad helped him, too – my dad was a good bronc rider. He could ride with the best, he just didn’t have the showiness that Casey Tibbs did.
“There’s something about people that grow up in this country, especially if you’re on a ranch, and let’s say a big ranch. If you get bucked off 20 miles from home, you’ve got a long walk. And so you learn to use any trick you’ve got or think of anything to do to that horse to stay on. And that somehow got passed down through a lot of the genetics or maybe it’s through the brains, I don’t know which way.”
Nobody knew then that skinny kid from north of Fort Pierre would be the greatest rodeo rider ever.
Tom Maher figures it was about 1942, or at least the early 1940s, when Casey Tibbs joined the Diamond M Rodeo Company for a time. Casey Tibbs was born in 1929, so he would have been in his early teens.
Stalking the Red Desert for rodeo stock
Somewhere in about the middle of the 1940s, Bill Maher figured out how to improve his rodeo stock – go back to the Red Desert of Wyoming. The stock were still there for the taking if he could manage the catching and breaking.
Reita Etzkorn, the third daughter born to Bill and Reva Maher, was old enough to know something was up.
“I can remember sitting at the table and he would have a paper there and there would always be some cowboys who were working for us. He would show them just how he was going to put up the fences and then drive them down through this canyon and then they’d have to go right into the corral. I think he’d been out there a few times and knew what the country was like.”
Delores Melvin, the oldest child in the family remembers it even better, because she got to go.
“When he heard you could have those horses for free, he was just ecstatic,” she said. “He didn’t ask, I just knew I was going. I sure did. There wasn’t any question. We had an uncle, Uncle Myron. He had an airplane. And I was hoping Uncle Myron would get to go, too, with his plane to fly, to look and find some good ones.”
And that’s pretty much the way it happened; a 13-year-old girl and her Dad and her Uncle Myron, hazing wild horses toward box canyons were they could be trapped.
“We camped out a lot. When I look back at that, I don’t know how we lived through it, but we did,” Delores Melvin recalled.
A lot depended on Uncle Myron and his Piper Cub.
“He and Dad would fly and look at the different bands. They’d see something with a little color in it — that means paint or maybe light mane and tail — and then they’d see where that bunch was running, mainly. Then we’d go and set up a trap in a draw. Dad shipped them from Rock Springs, Wyoming, to here in Fort Pierre."
“Rock Springs, Wyoming, kind of was our headquarters. They didn’t want any old jugheads, I remember that. They looked the bands over and they’d pick them out so they were pretty good horses.”
Bet you $100
Bill Maher Jr. remembered what came next.
“He captured the horses in the Red Desert of Wyoming. He shipped them home on the railroad. They didn’t arrive in very good shape because the train was supposed to stop once a day, maybe twice a day, to feed and water them, and they didn’t. When they came, they had no manes and tails on them – they had eaten the manes and tails. Terrible thing. But there wasn’t any dead ones. We got them out of the stockyards there in Pierre and grazed them along the river there and got them full of grass and water. And then we started driving them west. I think it took us probably three days to get to Hayes.”
The whole family was along on that journey – Billy Maher and Reva, and children Delores, Donna, Reita, Bill Jr., Tom and Theresa.
“Highway 14 was fenced both on the north and south, but that was the only fence there was. Bad River was the other boundary. We got them dumped off on the south side and got them down around the water and then we went on up to Dittman’s Store and Gas Station. I had an orange pop, I remember that. My dad had some kind of soda. He didn’t drink beer, he didn’t drink hardly at all. And then the locals wanted to know what we were doing, and my dad told them we’d brought in this wild bunch. Of course they thought that was quite a thing, and they wanted to bet him a hundred dollars that he’d never gather them out of there because it was such big country.”
Now and then the Mahers drove horses here and there to sell.
“The South Dakota Highway Patrol stopped us and told us we could drive no more than 20 horses at a time,” Bill Maher Jr. recalled. “Well, that was difficult with a bunch of wild mustangs. My dad asked him why that was – no more than 20? And the gentleman said, ‘Well, they might all get in march step and bring the bridge down.” We laughed about that afterward – how in the hell do you get 20 head of horses all in the same step?”
Even Bill Maher couldn’t do that with the wild horses of Wyoming.
Pollywogs and rattlesnakes
They lived at Hayes, too, for a while, on a place they leased.
“Mother didn’t like it out there because we didn’t have very good water. We’d have to go down to the dam and scrape away the pollywogs to get a bucket of water,” Reita Etzkorn recalled.
And pollywogs weren’t the worst of it, Bill Maher Jr. said.
“The rattlesnakes were rough.”
Bill Maher had reason to know that.
“One day he came home and she says, ‘Billy, we’re moving.’ He says, ‘Why?’ And she brought him in the living room. There was new linoleum with purple flowers in it and there was a 12-gauge shotgun hole through the middle of the floor. She’d been after a rattlesnake and didn’t know how to unload the gun and went in the house and tried to unload it and shot the linoleum.”
Bill Maher agreed with Reva; it was a good time to move.
“She kind of wanted to go back to the Huron area, so we did,” Reita Etzkorn said. “And then I think I was in the seventh grade when we moved back to Pierre and Daddy bought the house at 116 S. Harrison. Mother was there until she died.”
But when they moved out of Hayes, they were short one horse.
“It was a white horse,” Bill Maher Jr. recalled. “And two years later, a guy by the name of Nichols who lived in Fort Pierre wrote my Dad a postcard and said, ‘I have your horse. Would you sell him?’ And my Dad said, ‘Yeah, I’ll sell him. Is he a good horse?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘dang good horse – I’ve been riding him two years.’ So he sold him the horse.”
And that was the one horse that had gone missing of all those he turned loose in that big country, back when they bet him $100 he’d never gather them up again.
“He collected the hundred, too, from Dittman, the guy’s name was Dittman,” Bill Maher Jr. said. “He had the filling station on the north side at Hayes.”
No business like show business
Mrs. Billy Maher, Reva, figured out early how she could help.
“Mom said she remembered Dad was at the gate when people were coming in to see the rodeo and Dad was telling them how much it was. And he was just frustrated because they were all hard up, going through the Dirty Thirties. Mom said, I figured I could help him if I would run the gate.’ And she did. They didn’t give her any guff,” Delores Melvin recalled. “They were only charging like a dollar a head. That was the price then.”
Reva and her sister, Norma, sometimes drove a chariot with the Diamond M brand on it during the shows; and Reva and her daughters also helped with the props.
“She and I would do the clown’s pants,” Reita Etzkorn recalled. “We’d rip the sides up of them and then just sew them real loosely so they would come loose and then one of Mom’s brothers would ride this bucking horse, and of course when he got bucked off, the pants would fall off.”
And everyone had roles.
“It was anything to make money. Heavens, times were tough – and six children at home?” Theresa Severyn said.
Delores and her sister, Donna – who later wrote a family history of the Diamond M Rodeo Company – were trick riders. And the horses had tricks of their own, such as vaulting over a ’29 Buick automobile.
“He had a convertible car before anybody had seen a convertible. He’d train these horses to jump over these convertible cars. And he’d train horses to walk in lock step like Hitler’s storm troopers did, where they’d lock their legs. So they’d parade there in front of the crowd. This was when we were fighting Hitler so this was a patriotic thing that he did,” Tom Maher recalled. “He had a dapple gray horse that he named Jimmy James the Jumping Horse.”
Even one of Bill Maher’s ordinary ranch horses, Tom, would take a turn at tumbling cowboys now and then.
“See, he had these horses and he knew how to handle them. They were good to ride, but when he put them in these rodeos, put a loose rope on them and pop the gate, they would buck,” Tom Maher said. “He was quite a showman and he was one of the first to use acts in his rodeos to entertain the crowd, say, in the break between the bronc riding and the bull riding.
“He hooked two buffalo to a chariot, and it had what they called a U-ring tongue, which hooked to the surcingle which runs around the buffalo, and that had a bell on it. He would try to get that to go around the arena, but sometimes the buffalo got mad and turned around so it was a wreck, basically. They chased the chariot and it ran backwards in all directions.”
Even the ordinary Maher livestock got in the act.
“There was a small herd of Hereford cows and the old bull got rode a couple times,” Delores Melvin recalled. “He wasn’t very gentle, he’d buck high and throw them off. He didn’t take after them, though.”
Hershey bars and cherries
During some of those years, Billy Maher started the first rodeo ever held in conjunction with the South Dakota State Fair. That was living off the fat of the land. But there were lean times, too.
“There were times when we were just flush, like the State Fair Rodeo, where we were the big cheeses, and there would be times when you couldn’t get any income – you couldn’t trade a horse. This was right at the period when they started phasing out horses to work with, the farmers were starting to get tractors, they were starting to use cars,” Tom Maher recalled. “I can remember if times were bad, we would be eating oatmeal and powdered milk. And then he would hit a lick, make a trade, have a rodeo, and I can remember he would bring in Hershey bars and cherries. It was his way of celebrating.”
The cowboys who rode for Billy Maher seemed to understand that.
“He had a guy who came up there from Florida to ride. His name was Harold Brown. He was down on his luck. If someone was down on his luck, Dad would put him to work, give him a meal, let him live with us. This guy claimed that he lived on grapefruit when he was in Florida – that’s all he had to live on. Dad said he rode with a ‘starvation grip.’”
Maybe for that reason, Billy Maher always treated his rodeo hands well.
“Mother and I would always bake a chocolate pie and then before the rodeos it would always be whoever could eat the chocolate pie first would get a prize. The cowboys and cowgirls all got in on it,” Reita Etzkorn recalled. “It was kind of messy.”
Over the years the rodeo featured rodeo performers from far and near, including trick roper Eddie Boyson and clown Monte Barber, both of Fort Pierre; Jim Bynum from Waxahachie, Texas; bareback rider Spike Bronson from Fort Pierre and Florida; people such as Ed Mushitz of Ree Heights and Lester Marshall of Bonilla.
And there were prizes for some of the cowboys that couldn’t be measured in dollars. Brothers Willie Melvin and Warren Melvin, both rodeo athletes, married the two oldest of Bill and Reva Maher’s daughters. Willie married Delores and Warren married Donna. Cowboy Terry Etzkorn married the third Maher daughter, Reita.
Not surprisingly, Bill and Reva Maher’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren remain active in rodeo to this day.
45 cents an hour, $45 a month
Billy Maher held his last rodeo in Kimball, South Dakota, in 1955.
With arthritis, then diabetes and hardening of the arteries, he faced a growing battery of health issues.
“When I was born, Mom said that Dad put on a rodeo and he was on crutches. He had arthritis so bad it crippled him. He still put the rodeo on standing out in front of those chutes on crutches. She said that he couldn’t stand to have even a sheet touch his feet,” Reita Etzkorn said.
He died young in 1958.
Irish horse trader Billy Maher had long since traded Reva a faith as strong as desert horses, so she carried on pretty much as God and Billy Maher would have wanted her to.
“Daddy was always a Catholic and then Mother changed when us girls took our lessons in catechism – Mother went right along with us. We were all baptized over at Wessington Springs,” Reita Etzkorn said. “Mom was a very good Catholic – probably because she was a convert, she took it much stronger and better than I did, I know that. To her last days, when she was like 99, almost 99 years old, I would go and stay with her and she would still kneel down by the side of her bed and say her prayers, morning and night.”
Delores Melvin remembered it, too.
“Oh, we went to church on Sunday, that was the most important thing. When we lived in Hayes, it was too far from church. I remember one night we came in and we slept in the car so we’d be here at church in the morning.”
When Bill Maher died, Reva stayed on in the house at 116 S. Harrison in Pierre.
“She was left with me and Billy and Theresa, my younger sister, and no husband and a $45 a month mortgage payment – it seemed like Mount Everest to her and us. So she had to go and get a job with an eighth-grade education. She started out working as a waitress in the Statehouse Café and she was making 45 cents an hour,” Tom Maher remembered. “And she would walk from Harrison to the Statehouse Café. She would walk so she wouldn’t burn any gas, and probably the car we had wasn’t too dependable anyway. She would wear old shoes for the walk, and then she would get there and she would put on her waitress shoes.
“When she worked there, a nickel tip was a really big tip. But when she was working there, still every Saturday, I had Catholic catechism. My friend Jim Flannery and I would go down there and she would always buy us each a container of chocolate milk – at that time it was 2 cents. So she spent 4 cents of her nickel tip on us every Saturday.”
Later she got a state job; Bill Maher Jr. took to ranching; Tom Maher went off to law school; the daughters married good men.
And today, as it happens, June 26, 2015, the Maher clan will gather for a trail ride and then a cookout on the Fort Pierre side of the river. It’s very near the place just upstream from the railroad bridge where Billy Maher used to camp one last night before he forded the Missouri River with a band of horses in those days before the Diamond M Rodeo Company. There the riders from Eagle Butte and Deadwood would ride their separate ways and Billy Maher and a few riders would ford the river, sandbar to sandbar, pushing a herd of horses from the Red Desert of Wyoming farther east onto the plains of Dakota.
It would have been between the years 1919 and 1928. Everything was still waiting for him over east, and who knows what a tall Irishman with a herd of wild horses couldn’t pencil out in trade – maybe even a rodeo company and a house full of kids and a girl to love for always named Reva.