The reason I am writing this is to fill in a little information about the saddle that was stolen from the Range Riders Museum; but more importantly about the man who won it. Herm Venable the rodeo champion is now a forgotten name to most people, but not too long ago he was well known in Miles City and around several states as one of the best bronc riders ever to come out of Miles City. Throughout the 20s he won competition after competition all over Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming. He won prize saddles, silver spurs, gold watches, wooly chaps, and expensive hats. I don't hold myself to be an expert on this part of his life because my only view back into his world is by a dimming memory of what he, his brothers, relatives and his friends told me when I was a boy. He was an Oklahoma orphan at thirteen and worked pretty much as a man from that time on. He came to Miles City to move in with two of his older brothers J.M. and Norm who had recently moved there. Both brothers were trying to make it in the horse trading and cattle business. They and some older men carefully taught Herm how to handle and break green horses. In a short time, he began to stand out as one having real skill with handling rough horses. He and his friends would compete among themselves and he began winning consistently in the pine log corrals in the Pine Hills. To make money he began chasing and catching wild horses to sell in Miles City. I was told that he would rather do that than eat. The break-neck speed, dust, sweat and smell really were his food. Catching wild horses was not for the faint of heart. It took skill, high levels of testosterone and no fear of death or serious injury. His brothers and friends told me he had an incredible horseman's athletic ability enhanced by an absence of fear of both men and horses. In the summer months there was always the chance to also go to the various rodeos within several hundred miles to win some prize money. He became a consistent winner in the arena with a side bonus of recognition and respect among men at the horse sales, bars, and rodeos. This sudden attention did not escape the eye of some "professional" riders. Things at the arena and at the corrals began to change. He was winning prize money that they had planned to win. He told me a number of times that "it is one thing to win the prize money in the arena but it was another thing altogether to be able to keep it when you were behind the chutes". To save face, defeated past champions or poorer riders tried to get even physically and get his prize money when they were out of sight of the crowds behind the chutes. So to be a successful competitor over time meant you had to be both good in the arena in front of the folks and also out of their sight, defending your prize money with your fists. Turned out, he was good at both.
Because of the prizes, the crowds, and the promotion, winning at the Miles City Roundup meant you were pretty much at the top of the pile. It allowed you to be friends with a small elite group of men like Yakama Knutt or Chick Hannon who went on to be Hollywood stunt men or Les Stroud the famous stunt rider and roper, Paddy Ryan another top rider, Owen Crosby with movie star looks and abilities, and Ed McCall the famous roper.
By the early twenties he had won the respect of the older men who studied and respected a winner because they knew what it took to get the prize money. His brother Norm also rode saddle broncs and had a team that he took all over the country racing "Roman Style Riding". This requires the rider to stand on the backs of two or three horses holding only onto the reins and racing at top speed around the track against similar riders. J.M. his oldest brother was not the rider but was more the businessman and headed up the Miles City Round-up for a number of years. The Venable brothers were well known around Miles and the rodeos of the west. Somewhere around 1925 at the end of a winning ride the pick-up man rode alongside the bucking horse allowing Herm to grasp him around the waist. The pick-up man reined away and Herm's spur hung up on a bronc's mane, as he swung his leg over the horse's neck. The two men were pulled apart and he dropped to the ground. The terrified horse bolted with him hanging from the mane of its neck. The arena men did what they could but it was slow catching the horse. On one wide turn he was swung around and hit the back of his neck on an arena fence post. The horse was finally caught and the cowboys cut him, unconscious from the mane. The crowd stood silent as he was taken to the hospital in the ambulance and remained unconscious for three days. He recovered, but the demands of a new marriage, and then a baby slowed him down. By the latter twenties and early thirties he was content being a valued rodeo judge at the various rodeos both in Montana and Wyoming.
By the time I came along in the 1940s his rodeo career was over but not his reputation. Furtnows saddlery had a huge ten foot high picture of him bucking a horse out of a chute on their showroom wall. To his brothers and nephews he was highly respected. To some degree they garnered some bragging rights just by being related. As a young man I went to work in his bar the "Texas Club" where his rodeo pictures along with those of some of his friends was displayed there for years. At different times his old friends from out of town would stop in to see him. Without prompting they would tell me how good he really had been. I also remember young cowboys who had heard of him, coming in to get his advice on how to win at saddle bronk riding. I was amazed at his reputation and their respect so many years after he retired.
He kept one of his prize saddles stored in the basement of our home hanging by a rope and it was there when he died in the late 60s. As mother aged she was trying to figure out what to do with it and decided to loan it to the Range Riders Museum. She thought that perhaps it would be better appreciated there and dad's name would be remembered a little longer that way.
Whenever I took the two day trip to drive to Miles City I usually stopped in to see Dad's saddle at the museum to ensure that it was being taken care of properly and to visit a little with the folks out there. On one of those trips in 1994 I had just gotten to town and was told by a friend how sorry they were to hear that my father's prize saddle had been stolen from the museum two years prior. Why didn't I know about it? I was stunned and went to see my sister who lived in town to see what she knew about it. She was as surprised as I was, not having been notified even though she lived right there. I went out to the museum and asked the curator about it. Yep, he said it had been stolen along with another prize saddle from 1914, some prison-made horse-hair bridles and reins, spurs, a quirt, a bull whip, a rawhide rope and other things. He said, "Apparently they hid in the building and after it was closed up they came out from wherever they had been, cut the alarm wires to the police station and then made off with the goods". So, I said, "you had a security system for the building with motion detectors and entry alarms?" "Oh hell yes, he said, we had a state-of-the-art deal in here. The Sherriff's office came out, took finger prints and made up a report on it and everything." Well, I said, with motion detectors in place how did they get from their hiding place to the wires up near the ceiling without tripping the alarm? The conversation went south from there with some unprintable language directed at me indicating that this conversation was over. It was clear that they either didn't have a motion detector or the system had not been armed. I didn't have a chance to ask what the museum had done to recover the saddle so I thought, perhaps the police could bring me up to date on the status of investigation, and so I left and went there.
At the police department I identified myself to the desk clerk and asked if I could get a copy of the police report of the robbery at the museum two years ago. She knew nothing of the robbery but left and came back shortly with a police officer. After some time he recalled that there had indeed been a robbery but he didn't know much about it. The officer who he thought investigated the break-in and robbery was part-time with the department and at the State School and was not working that day. "When he comes in he can dig the report out of a box in the garage and make a copy for you; we would not have a clue to know where to look, but he would." I thanked him and told him I would be looking forward to getting it. "By the way, can you tell me what you have done to recover the items? Well, he said I'm not too familiar with that case, but the deputy will be able to fill you in on that." I thought to myself, how do the full-time officers know what to look for if you don't know what is missing, and any paper work is buried in a beer box in the garage? Oh well, I thought, we will see what comes up. I gave them my cell number and left.
Several days later, I got a call from the Sheriffs office telling me that they had found the report and that I could come down and pick a copy up. I sat down with the officer who had done the original investigation. I said, "Boy, two prize saddles, horse hair bridles and some other important items, that was quite a haul. I was told that you checked it all out, and took fingerprints and all." "Yes I did." Then I said, the report got filed in a box in the garage? "Yes, because we were changing all our newer records to digital format." "Deputy, when I came in a couple of days ago and asked for the report, no one could recall much about the break-in and they couldn't put their hands on the report and none of them could remember what had been stolen. Considering that no one seems to know about the robbery, and no record of it is active, it seems to me that I could have walked into this office and threw my father's saddle down on the floor and no one, other than perhaps you would have known it was stolen - right?" "Well, I guess that is about right he said." I thanked him for his time and left.
I seemed to be batting 0 but at least I had a report that I didn't have before and that was at least something to work with. Over coffee at the 600 cafe I read the report and then thought of the Miles City Star. I thought that they probably had done a front page story on a high profile robbery like this. Perhaps if I could read their article I might be able to get a new direction. I left the café and walked over to the Star. I went up to the desk and told them the story of my father's saddle and the break-in and said that I would like to read anything that they had reported on the theft. The girl behind the desk didn't have a clue that there had been a robbery so she checked with the staff, but no one was aware of any article ever being written on the break-in - "what break-in?" What?
I was frustrated with the museums attitude, the sheriff's department non-investigation to the theft and now with the local paper for not reporting on this important issue. Even if sheriff's office or the museum were not involved in trying recover the saddle at least the people of Miles City could have kept on the lookout if they had been aware of the theft. For some reason the Star had either missed this Sheriffs report or had chosen not to report the crime. I left town depressed and frustrated.
As I drove back to my home I had time to think of what I might do to find the saddle. I had no idea of how to go about such a search but I set up a part of my office dedicated to the task. I set up an EBay account with a false name so that if the saddle ever did come up I could bid on it, without disclosing my name and scaring off the seller. Two years had elapsed, so I knew that there had been plenty of time to have put it up and sell it without anyone knowing it; but I took up a vigil at the computer every morning or evening of every day scouring the internet for any strand or clue of its whereabouts. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months into years. For ten years, I stayed at it hitting dead ends at best. The saddle never came up. Finally I was reading the Miles City Blog and saw something about a Furstnow saddle on Antiques Road show. Wow, maybe that was dad's saddle. Unfortunately, it was not, but it gave me an idea to post a something about being "Bronco Bill" Evans looking to buy 1920s prize saddles; preferably one won by Herm Venable. I threw the bait and waited. Finally, several months later about 11:00 PM one evening I was contacted by an individual from Tempe Arizona who said he had had read my post. He said that he had a Herm Venable prize saddle on display in his home, but he didn't own it. He was sure the owner would be willing to sell it for the right price and would have him contact me.
A couple of days later I received an email from the man who claimed ownership of the saddle. That email was followed by many others as we negotiated back and forth. One of the early emails contained pictures of the saddle - it was the saddle for sure. I continued to play the part of a casino executive all the time trying to figure out how I was going to get it back without loosing it by some blunder on my part. He wanted to know why I was interested in this particular saddle. I told him I was a buyer of western memorabilia for an unnamed casino and knew that this Herm Venable was the top bronc rider of the 20s. A saddle won by him would be of high interest to my boss; who would pay a high price to get it. It took a number of weeks of emails to finally get him to commit to a price of $17,000.00.
I contacted the Tempe Police but it was so slow getting them to act on it. It was finally assigned to a Detective Reyes who took the case and who I worked closely with. Getting the ball rolling was daunting; they needed the Miles city police report to confirm it was stolen, copies of all the pictures and of my emails back and forth to him. They checked the seller out and got the paperwork into their system. At last they went to his house and confiscated it without incident. Strangely, they contacted him ahead of time and he was waiting for them with his attorney. They took it to the police station and it was at that time I found out the saddle had been listed as "donated" rather than "loaned" to the museum. The Tempe Police said that they had no choice but to send it to the Miles City Police Department and the police in turn would give it to the Museum. I'm sure this was a mystical experience to both the museum and the police departments to have the saddle suddenly just show up like that. Oh well, it is back to the museum at least for a little while. I had, had a dream of it being placed in a more secure museum but that was not going to happen it appeared.
So what did I learn from all this? Well for starters I have learned that there had been a number of class reunion dinners held at the museum and friends of mine told me that they had the complete run of the place with no museum employee present, and that anything could have been hauled out without notice. Others told me that they had gone out there during the week and they had just walked in with no one in sight for a considerable time.
I went back to the museum a couple of years ago, before the saddle was found to take a picture of a picture of a man called "Motorcycle Mike" who made a name for himself bailing off an old Indian Motorcycle to bulldog cattle. His name was a fixture in my home as I grew up, and I wanted a copy of his picture to add to my family story. The picture had been hanging directly over the front entrance in a frame about two feet by three feet for years. Now it is gone and the rearranged pictures would never suggest that Mike's picture had ever been there. I scoured the museum but no one knew anything of the picture ever being hung there. It was gone now as well.
It seems to be endemic around the country that things are getting lifted from these little museums all the time. As another example, I checked in at the Ekalaka museum a year ago to show my kids a rifle, pistol and gun belt that my father-in-law had donated to them. As a boy, at the turn of the century he had found them pushed back into a hole in the Medicine Rocks (now a state park). They were in good condition and he kept them for years but later donated to the museum. Now they were gone and no one knew anything about ever being there. My sister-in-law then told me she had also given a beautiful, perfect Indian needle to them and it was also gone.
In talking to a good friend of mine who is an archeologist, about these missing items he told me a story of his own. He had met an old cowboy at a Library in Lewistown who was making annotations into a copy of to a "Before Barbed Wire" by Huffman. My friend was stunned at the wealth of information the old man had, and the corrections of information he added. As he left the library he went to the curator and told them of the value of the book with annotations, and that it should be carefully taken care of and it or a copy of the information sent to the Montana Historical Society. He went back later to make a copy of the annotations and found the book gone with no record of it ever having been there.
When you think about it, it is a perfect way to get things for your own collection. The Museums are staffed usually by well-meaning volunteers, and the museum records are less than loose. Simply lift the item, and remove the donation card from the recipe box and suddenly it does not exist except on EBay. Even if it comes up on EBay, anyone who donated the item is either long dead, or like us never contacted. There is no photographic inventory of the items in the museums, particularly the Range Riders Museum, so the only description of the item is a small written memo on a recipe card. I was fortunate; my fathers name was on the saddle so I could prove it without a picture. A simple memo on a note card is not much to go on if you are looking for a horse hair bridle or a gun belt and pistol on EBay. The horse hair bridles and other items could never be identified as stolen from the museum because there is no photographic record. Also, if the there ever was a fire, these items would be really gone with no picture for future generations to study. There is no inventory of the items on hand, and no annual audit of the items. Things go missing without notice; no one including the staff is aware it is gone. In the case of the picture of Motorcycle Mike, a close in-law of mine got defensive about the museum and asked me to prove that the picture was missing and of course I could not. I could not even prove it ever was there because there never were any global pictures taken of the interior of the museum as far as I know.
I have a bad taste in my mouth over this whole deal. Why didn't the museum or sheriffs' office do something to try to recover the items? Why hadent they ran the fingerprints on the national data register of prints? Why didn't the paper run a story on it? Were they protecting the museum? When the saddle was returned, why didn't the Star run a story on that? Why didn't the county attorney follow up on it by getting the man in Tempe arrested, or at least questioned, having stolen property in his possession? Tempe police said it was up to him to start that proceeding. I end this saga as frustrated and impotent as I began it. The saddle is back where it started, but for how long? How many other items are being pilfered from the little museums inventories and no one knows? Soon these museums will have little to display other than a plywood diorama or two, some pots and pans and some old donated store front dummies dressed in period costumes. The valuable items likely will be in the hands of dealers and collators.
As a final postscript to this; on public broadcasting about a week ago, the program "History Detectives" had a segment on a Yakama Knutt saddle owned by a man who wanted the history detectives to confirm was indeed owned Yakama. I was stunned to see the face of the same man who had, had my father's saddle in Tempe - amazing! Does he or did he have the other missing items? I guess I really don't care that much any more.
[This message has been edited by Bill Evans (9/10/2012)]