From 'Echoing Footsteps', published 1967, Powder River County Extension Homemakers Council
By George Bonner
As I was raised by foster parents from the time I was 9 months old. I know very little about my real family, but try to relate what I have heard from other people who knew my real father and mother. How accurate it is I do not know, as this information is strictly piecemeal, a little from this person or that, and I am trying to put it together the best way I can.
My father, Thomas J. Bonner, and my real mother, Helen Casper, were born on ranches near Sheldon, North Dakota. Soon after they were married they moved to Texas where my sister Tillie was born. Later they returned north to Wyoming where my brother Robert was born. Two years later on December 18, 1898, at the YT ranch near what is now the Olive Post Office, I came into the world.
My father worked some for ranchers, but spent most of his time as a wolfer. This was before the time of government-paid wolfers and he wolfed mostly for large sheep and cow outfits. It was worth quite a bit of money to the large stockmen to get rid of one family of grey wolves. A pair of old ones and 8 or 10 pups could do a lot of stock killing in a few months. Dad was known all over Southeastern Montana, parts of Wyoming and South Dakota, as Tom Bonner, "the Wolfer", and he was an expert at his trade.
At the YT ranch when I was 9 months old my real mother passed away and her grave is in a pasture near the YT ranch buildings.
My sister was taken to be raised by a family whose name I don't remember; my father kept my brother Bob, and I was taken by Mr. and Mrs. F. Suepke, a German family, who had 5 living children of their own. The children were Emma, Lillie, Alma, William, Jr., and Hattie, who were twins. The family of Suepkes and Hennings had a ranch then on the head of Liscomb Creek where they had sheep and a small bunch of cattle.
When I was about 6 or 7 years old they bought the old Johnny Betz ranch on Little Pumpkin Creek from Fred and Herman Suepke, brothers of my foster father. About 5 miles away was our post office, called Stacey, where J. T. Hamilton and his family had a general store. Above his store was a dance hall where some real lively country dances were held. Stacey boasted of a hotel and boarding house, a drug store and a blacksmith shop. The country doctor also lived in Stacey.
Our nearest neighbors on Little Pumpkin Creek were the Charles Daly family, who lived about two miles above our ranch, and who ran sheep and also raised some fine range horses. The George Horkan family lived about 2 miles below our place. Horkan was the largest stockman near us, raising both sheep and cattle.
Several years after we moved to the ranch on Pumpkin Creek, my foster sister, Emma, married Billy Glenn and he took a job as Range Foreman for George Horkan. They first lived at the old Cameron place about a mile below our ranch. Soon after my sister Tillie came to live with them. We started school at the South Stacey School about 7 miles from our ranch.
My foster parents had a one-horse buggy and harness, but we had no horse who was gentle and safe for us kids to drive to school. So finally Mr. Horkan loaned us a horse called old Romeo. He limped slightly on one leg from a bad wire cut but was gentle and safe for us to drive to school. We took Molly Daly, a neighbor girl, along with us. One morning, going down a sidehill near Stacey, Molly hit Romeo with the whip, he lunged forward, and over went our buggy and out we tumbled, lunch pails, laprobes and all, down the hill into the creek. We were lucky nobody was
and some way the buggy righted itself and Romeo went on to school with the buggy but no kids. Nothing for us to do but start for school on foot, carrying our lunch pails, coats, and laprobes. But soon here came the whole school, teacher and all, with their buggies, horseback and on foot, scared half to death that we all had been killed or hurt in the accident. This was just one of many experiences we had going to the South Stacey School until the North Stacey School was built. Then we were all near enough to walk to school or rode our own ponies.
About a mile from our school was a large high rock and from a distance it looked like an old European Castle. On the last day of school all the kids from North Stacey School and the teacher would have a picnic and then go to Castle Rock to spend the rest of the day. There were holes large enough for a person to crawl into that opened into a larger room dug by some pre-historic people or Indians and we would start a fire in the larger room so we could watch the smoke come out of various holes that were too small to crawl into. We all carved our names or initials in the south wall. I carved my name, the date, and a bucking bronco on my last term at North Stacey School in 1915. It dosen't seem so long ago but it is a long time in the past, 51 years ago. When I last saw Castle Rock in 1962 the carvings were all very plain and legible.
My foster parents kept the old ranch on Liscomb Creek for fall and winter pasture. They also ran their cattle on the Forest Reserve on Liscomb Creek and Beaver Creek; and a small bunch of range horses. On the head of Beaver Creek the country was pretty rough and there was a beautiful black wild horse that ranged in that part of the country. Lots of cowboys and wild mustangers tried to capture him, but nobody ever got him in a corral or got close enough to rope him. What became of him, if somebody shot him, or if he died of old age, I never found out.
My foster sister, Alma became Mrs. Ed Collins and they first lived on our old ranch on Liscomb Creek; later they homesteaded a ranch on Cameron Creek above the old Chris and Bob Nelson ranch. Their oldest son, Earvin, and I grew up together and we, like kids the world over, imitated in our play what we saw the big cowboys and bronco busters do. We each had a string of 8 or 10 stick horses and when we held our make-believe roundups the chickens, ducks, turkeys, little pigs, cats, dogs, etc., had better make themselves scarce if they didn't want to get roped and drug up to our make-believe branding fire and get branded. Our folks didn't always approve of our Wild West Shows in the chicken yards and a good scolding and often a good walloping where it done the most good, would bring the whole show to a screeching halt.
Like all other kids in the country we practiced roping and riding calves, too, when there was an opportunity to do so. We also done a lot of hunting, first with bows and arrows, then with air rifles, later on with 22 rifles and finally to our big rifles for hunting deer, coyotes, bobcats, etc.
Sometimes we ran a trap line on the side while going to school and at times a nosy skunk would get caught in our coyote traps. It was during times like this, that we were not very popular with the other kids and especially the girls and the teacher. Even our dogs sniffed at us and would back off a few feet; however, they would tolerate anything to go with us on a hunting trip. We always had a good excuse for smelling as we did though. "Well, we had to take the skunk out of our traps, didn't we?" This excuse always worked and by changing clothes often and burying our shoes for a while we would eventually get back into the good graces of the other kids. Besides, we were both fast runners and they needed us in their games.
In about 1912-17 is when a lot of homesteaders started to move into the country and take up land as homesteads, and the old time cowmen and sheepmen called them "honyockers". How this name started or what it meant I was never able to find out, but one thing about these new settlers moving in and cluttering up the open range suited us young cowboys, was that it made a lot more girls to dance with at the country dances. Before this, there was often 10 men to every woman at the dances and unless you were a top dancer, you just didn't get many dances and these hoedowns went on from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. Once in awhile several of the boys might bring along a bottle, but no drinking was ever allowed in the dance hall, and if anyone got too wild due to too much spirits there was always plenty of sober ones around to take them out and cool them off a bit. This cooling off could mean a ducking in the water trough or being tied up for an hour or two to a corral post, depending on how wild the said character would be. In those days they had ways and means of taking care of things in their own way, which was much more effective than anything being done today.
The first drawings I remember making was of chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, and pigs. Later I started drawing cows and calves, dogs, cats, people and finally horses. Horses are still my favorite subjects to try to paint and draw.
I guess I was sort of an ornery kid in some ways, Seems like I could match a fight about anytime I wanted to between roosters, turkeys, geese, shoat pigs, dogs, cats, etc., and as I grew older even between big range bulls. My foster brother Bill used to say that two roosters could be eating out of the same pan friendly as could be, but I would come along and stand around a few minutes and they would quit eating and go to fighting. How I did this I still don't know. Maybe I cast some sort of a spell over them or some unknown power inherited from my Scotch-Irish ancestors for the love of sports and physical combat. Who knows?
As Earvin Collins and I grew older we did the work of cowboys and all other work that ranch kids did in those days. However, from the time I was about 12 years old, I wanted to become an artist. I liked to dream up ideas and then try to put them on paper the way I thought they should be. Earvin's thoughts were quite the opposite. His goal in life was to become a top bronc rider, roper, and all around top cowboy, which he became and won his first bucking contest while still in his early teens. I sold my first pen and ink drawing of a bronc rider on a bucking bronc to the Miles City American Newspaper for the front page of their Roundup Edition of the Miles City Roundup July 1919. 1 was working with the S-L Roundup Wagon when the paper come out and didn't get a copy until September-an extra copy a friend happened to save for me.
My foster mother was about the only one who cared much about my drawing and painting. The rest thought it was a bunch of foolishness and some people around the country referred to me as that "Worthless Bonner
Kid who made "Pitchers". However, I had a small bunch of cattle and horses of my own under my own brand and I saved my money from the sale of them to go to art school. I helped trail a late shipment of beef to Miles City in November 1919, and before we got there, was caught in a snowstorm. When this beef herd was loaded on cattle cars I went with this stock train to the livestock market in Chicago.
Then I started attending art school at the Chicago Art Academy. It was quite a change for a green country kid who had come from a ranch 65 miles from the nearest railroad town to a city of 3,000,000 people. However, after getting acquainted with some of the other students and watching how they did things and conducted themselves in public, I managed to adjust myself to the new and strange place. But for the first few months I was far more lonesome than I ever had been, batching in a fall or winter cow-camp in Montana. There were over 200 art students in this school from all over the United States and a few from foreign countries. I soon found out there was a lot about drawing and still more about color I didn't know.
The following spring I returned to Montana. During the winter my foster mother had taken ill and passed on shortly after I returned home. My foster uncle, Emil Henning, bought the ranch, and my foster father went to live with one of my foster sisters in Miles City at a home owned there. The old home was gone. There was nothing there for me to stay for, so I sold my small bunch of cattle and horses, and went to Denver, Colorado, that fall to attend art schools there.
During my second year of art schol in Denver I met Mary Oppihle. In February, 1925, Mary and I decided to get married so I went East and we were married at her great aunt's home in Portsmouth, Ohio. We lived for about 6 months in Cincinnati, but jobs were scarce so we went to Montana where we stayed for a year in Miles City. However, jobs in Miles City that paid much were scarce and also we now had a baby daughter, Donna Joan. I had some relatives in Seattle, Washington, so we headed there. Lady Luck smiles on all of us at least a few times in our lives and she sure did when I landed in Seattle, as I got a job in a machine shop the first day I was there.
In December, 1927, our son Charles Robert was born. I worked at various jobs until 1930 when the depression struck the whole country. This is when I took out my art work and started free-lancing. We had rough going for over a year. It was either feast or famine; we usually feasted for one week and then famined for two. However where the depression worked against most people it really worked in my favor, as it kicked me into the type of work I should have been in years before. I landed my first staff artist job in Salem, Oregon, in 1931, and I worked on this job for 11 years.
After I left Montana to go to art schools, Earvin Collins started to follow rodeos for a living and eventually became one of the top all around performers in the country. He won top money in shows at Cheyenne, Wyoming; Pendelton Roundup; Calgary, Canada; Miles City Roundup; Midland, Texas; Chicago and Madison Square Gardens and many other shows. A bad injury or two finally put an end to his Rodeo career. He then started to working with the picture companies making western movies and for use on television.
Things have worked out in a strange way for both of us-he ending his working career helping to make Western pictures in the movies and me trying to bring them to life on paper and canvas with paint.
My old friends are passing over the big divide rather rapidly the past few years. Each time I return to Montana for a visit there are fewer people around that I know.
As I look back over the years I have fond memories of the people I knew and worked with. I have no regrets for the past 30 years. I have done the type of work I wanted to do, mostly creative art work. I am happy, my children have grown up, and I enjoy both them and my grandchildren. What more could any man ask?
(George Bonner is an associate member of the Cowboy Artists of America. He drew the pictures used on the cover and closing pages of the Stacey section of this book.)