Great-Grandma Hilda ran cattle on the open ranges of Montana.
Before women could vote, she trailed cattle by herself and ran the family ranch.
My great-grandma Honora “Hilda” Redwing told us many stories about her days working cattle in the Montana Hi-Line, just south of the Canadian border. How I wish we’d written them all down! Hilda, who was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2008, was born in Minnesota on July 12, 1885. She came to Havre at age 8 with her mother and two brothers to meet up with her father, John. Her mother, Delia, became the deputy postmaster and ran a boardinghouse. John filed a desert claim for 320 acres 18 miles south of Havre and built a nice log house in the Bear Paw Mountains. Within eight years, they moved to Chinook. Hilda was courted by two men, including Ed Redwing, a rancher 14 years her senior. Her other suitor, a tall, lanky cowboy named “Long” George Francis, pursued her even after she lost interest (he left love letters in their secret hiding spot). When Hilda and Ed married in 1904, George—who apparently was the jealous sort—stole cattle from their ranch. George was found guilty of cattle rustling, but before he could serve his sentence, he drove off the road in a blizzard and died soon thereafter. At the time of her marriage Hilda rode sidesaddle, but it wasn’t long before Ed got her riding astride and wearing a pair of bib overalls. He believed the sidesaddle was too hard on the horse for all the riding they did, and perhaps was afraid Hilda could get hurt much more easily riding that way. Though she became a skilled rider who broke many of her own horses, she wasn’t a roper. She had just enough skill to snare a horse. Back then Montana was open range and livestock could scatter more than 20 miles away from the ranch. Cowboys spent a lot of time pushing cattle home. One time, Hilda and her young daughter Rose (my grandmother) found a cow and calf far from the ranch and began trailing them. Soon it was too dark to ride any farther. Picketing their horses, Hilda and Rose slept under their saddle blankets that night before trailing the pair home in the morning. Hilda trailed cattle many times, often alone, while Ed scouted the route ahead in his car. He grazed cattle all over, including near Browning, which is 180 miles away, then later in Canada, which was much closer (60 miles). Hilda told of the time a storm came up. She was alone, pushing the cattle in unfamiliar country, and she needed shelter from the wet, blinding snow. All she could do was to keep moving the cattle and pray something would appear. At last, she spotted an old shack on the prairie and took shelter overnight. It was the only time I recall that she ever hinted at being upset with her husband. Because she was outside so much, Hilda began hiring girls in 1910 to tend the house and watch their daughters: Meryl, born in 1905, and Edna “Rose,” born in 1907. Margaret came along later, in 1915. When Ed bought a new car, Hilda got a new house, which they started building in 1916. It was two stories high, with 10 rooms, a large porch, modern plumbing and electric lights. The entire family—except Hilda—got the Spanish flu during the epidemic in 1919. It was customary at the time to ride the train when taking cattle to market,
and Ed brought the illness home after one such trip to Chicago. Hilda said he always brought something home when he went. Ed and one of the neighbors got it the worst, so Hilda took care of both families. In the early 1920s the Redwings had some financial difficulties, so Hilda milked 20 to 30 of their range cows. Ed didn’t know how to milk, but he delivered the whole milk to the Havre creamery. One time Ed wasn’t around and Hilda decided she would drive herself into town in the Model T. I’m not sure how far she made it, but she rolled the car and the metal button from the folding canopy landed on her head, cutting her ear. In 1948, Hilda and Ed moved to town. She kept busy, though it must have seemed mild compared to everyday ranch life. In town, Hilda crocheted and pieced together quilts that are still in the family. Hilda’s cooking was practical. My dad, Nick Faber, stayed with her during high school and he said she would bake a cake and serve it plain for a few days. Then she’d add frosting. If it still wasn’t gone in a few more days, she would pour hot sauce over the top. Dad said that once he and a cousin were out riding and saw a potato lying on the ground near a gate. Oh, dear, they thought, Grandma lost her lunch. It was a known fact that Hilda would put a baked potato—or even a raw one—into her pocket for the day’s lunch. In her 70s and 80s, Hilda still trailed cows on the home ranch. I’m sure she was happy when there were cattle to be moved. She rode in Havre’s Fourth of July parade and in rodeos that gave a special recognition to the older cowboys. During one ceremony, Hilda, who was 85 at the time, broke her ankle while mounting a horse. She insisted on staying in the saddle until the end. Hilda passed away in 1980. Though the homestead was sold in 1986, our family still ranches. Dad is 80 and shows no signs of retiring. He was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2017. My husband and I grow wheat and raise mostly Black Angus cattle north of Havre. We still ride horses, but all-terrain vehicles can cover distances so much faster. Two of our children also raise cattle. Ranching is in our blood.
“In her 70s and 80s, Hilda still trailed cows on the home ranch.”
Ed and Hilda Redwing were married for 50 years. They raised three daughters and built a cattle business in Montana.