Book details the history of Terry’s Kempton family

Sunday, March 10, 2019

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The Kemptons made their mark in Terry, and their legacy continues today as their namesake Kempton Hotel continues to operate.

The Kempton Hotel in Terry stands as a monument to a ranching family who came to Eastern Montana in 1882, raising cattle and horses, promoting dryland farming with crops of wheat and corn and hosting many guests at their ranch and the hotel they established in Terry.

Trudy Kempton Dana listened to her father, Jerry Kempton, tell stories of his experiences growing up on the ranch and retell stories he had heard from his father, Berney Kempton. Realizing the rich history these stories contained, she compiled 18 of them into a book, “The Kemptons, Adventures of a Montana Ranch Family, 1880-1964.

JB Kempton and his wife Maria, came to Eastern Montana from Colorado and raised their six sons and two daughters on their 3,500 acre home ranch. When JB died in 1910 he was remembered as a “visionary and driving force in the growth of the town of Terry and the county,” Dana wrote.

JB helped establish Terry’s first bank and first church, was a stockholder in the Ranchman’s Supply Company in Terry and promoted education, including taking the lead in planning for the building of a high school in Terry.

One of the stories Dana recounts tells of JB’s conflict with the Northern Pacific Railroad over a shipment of cattle. JB had purchased 586 head of cattle in Minnesota in the spring of 1889, replacing cattle lost during the hard winter of 1887 where he often said he lost 110 percent of his cattle, “100 percent to the cold and spent another 10 percent just trying to find out where they all went.”

Instead of the expected 36-hour train ride, delays pushed the time to 70 hours and when the cattle finally arrived in Fallon, 122 had died and the others were in very poor condition. JB put in a claim to the railroad for $3,000 in damages and when it was turned down, sued in a court case that began in Helena in 1902 and ended n San Francisco in 1904 with the court awarding him $10,000 in damages.

Along with his cattle, JB also ran up to 4,000 horses, selling many to the military as cavalry horses but also breeding and training Percheron work horses and some polo horses which he sold to European royalty. After his death his eldest son Berney took over the ranch and many of Dana’s stories come from this period.

Before his father’s death, Berney spent two years traveling with Doctor Carver’s Wild West Show as a trick rider and roper, traveling from Austria to France and Belgium and then to Russia.

“Because I wasn’t yet 21, I couldn’t enter Russia unless Dr. Carver declared I was his dependent,” Berney related. “Dependent? Hogwash! Why I hadn’t depended on anyone since I was eight years old. Kids grow up fast on the prairie. At 10 I was sent out on horseback to search for strays with nothing but my gun and a little food. …Before I turned 14, I drove both horses and cattle hundreds of miles, all on my own.”

In Russia, the Wild West show performed for Czar Alexander III and the dowager empress. In Berlin they gave a private performance for Kaiser Wilhelm II. After their European tour, they sailed for Australia where they stayed for five months and he became known for his two-kangaroo roping stunt.

When he left the Wild West show he was a 20-year-old star, but he returned home to the hard work of ranching, the life he really loved.

“You know, I saw the world at a young age, and I came to realize I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Montana,” Dana quotes him as saying.

Berney faced hard times on the ranch. Cattle prices dropped. The military no longer depended on horses and the Percheron work horses were being replaced with tractors. The Kemptons responded to these economic conditions by turning their attention to “attracting city folk interested in the Montana Western mystique and willing to pay grandly to spend time on a working ranch,” Dana explained.

In her stories, Dana recounts encounters with rattlesnakes and coyote pups, cattle drives, a search for a boy lost in a blizzard, calving in the middle of a snow storm, and the escapades of young boys growing up on a ranch.

She also tells stories of some of the famous guests to the ranch and hotel. These included the author Theodore Dreiser and family friend, Teddy Roosevelt. The relationship with Roosevelt was strong enough that when Berney had problems with a government livestock agent, Roosevelt intervened on his behalf.

The agent was from the East Coast and disdainful of small Western towns, Dana related. Berney came in to arrange a shipment of cattle, and the agent tried to tell him he couldn’t do it the way he wanted to do it. Berney won that argument, but when he brought the cattle to the Terry station, the agent told him he couldn’t ship them because they had scabies.

Frustrated, Berney sent Roosevelt a telegram explaining the situation and by the time he had finished a leisurely dinner at the hotel, he had his answer. Roosevelt wrote: “Sorry for trouble STOP You are the best judge of healthy cattle STOP Have ordered agent to accept your shipment for next available train STOP Hope to make trip there later this year STOP Best to you STOP Theodore Roosevelt.”

Berney’s 600 head of cattle made it to Sioux City with no further delays, and a few days later there was a new agent in Terry.

Berney died in 1942 and while several of his sons tried to continue the ranch operation, they were unable to make it successful and a few years after his death, it was sold. Waterfowl still visit the reservoirs JB scraped out more than 100 years ago. The trees he planted as seedlings tower over remaining buildings. The ranch house has fallen into disrepair.

“Only the memories, the ghosts of the Kempton family, remain,” Dana writes, adding, “From the earliest generations of my family, even before the Pilgrims, my ancestors had a deep regard for the land. From England to Plymouth to the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest and finally to the prairies of Colorado and Montana, the Kemptons loved the land, and it gave them life. The land was indeed their good mother.”