The Man Who Knew Charlie Russell
BY KERIE MICHELE HAGLER
It’s the 1880s, the days of open-range wranglers and dusty streets in the sparsely settled central area of Montana territory. Two young men cross paths in the beginning of their illustrious careers, one destined for fame, the other for fortune, their work together immortalized in a classic painting that captures the spirit of the West they both journeyed here to experience.
|Rasmus Indreland, 1889|
Sometime in 1884, another teenager gets initiated into life on the range, hired on a crew to herd cattle (or sheep, or horses, stories differ) on Gordon Butte, southeast of Martinsdale. The group camps at Old Living Springs, only to find a morning meal disturbed by a bronco wreaking havoc by the cookstove. One of his fellow riders later puts his paintbrush to canvas and creates a snapshot in oil of the incident. He titles his painting Bronc to Breakfast.
Fourteen-year old Rasmus Ellingsen Indreland could not have known at the time that his first job in Montana would be the setting for what would become a famous painting by one of the nation’s most beloved artists, “The Cowboy Artist” Charlie Russell.
Young Rasmus had different reasons for heading to Montana than did his riding acquaintance, and his trek was much longer. Born in 1870 on a farm in the fjord country of Western Norway, he faced occasional hunger and a daunting future as the pressure of a burgeoning population mounted in his homeland. He embarked for America in 1884, on one of the last sailing ships not yet retrofitted with a steam engine.
“It was the land of opportunity and word gets arounds fast,” says Rasmus E. Indreland, grandson of the émigré, as he shares the story of his grandfather’s life. Members of the Indreland family had already settled in the United States. Fresh off the boat, Rasmus set out to visit relatives on his mother’s side living in Illinois, then traveled west to find two older brothers who were seeking their livelihood in the new frontier.
A Norwegian community had grown in the Crazy Mountains of central Montana, thanks to an immigrant railroad surveyor who homesteaded at the middle fork of the Musselshell River. Rasmus found his brothers in the area, went on to the Gordon Butte job and then to a lambing camp. When Rasmus was 16, he and one brother picked out homestead spots at the timberline in the northeast corner of the Crazies.
“He was a likable guy with endless ambition, so he earned good pay and even bonuses,” R.E. Indreland says of his grandfather. Rasmus built a cabin and parked his horses and a milk cow, even though he couldn’t file for the homestead until the age of 21. When he did file in 1891, it marked the start of the Indreland Ranch, which would eventually grow to 3,400 acres and is still a working cattle ranch in family ownership today.
As a teen, Rasmus used his talent for music and formed the “Lennep Orchestra,” named after the closest town. He could play every instrument when needed, but specialized in baritone horn, trombone and trumpet. R.E. Indreland says it “was the band for driving the golden spike on the railroad.” The orchestra played far and wide throughout the tri-state area. It was through the band that Rasmus would find love.
“Rasmus’ story was just as much his wife’s story,” R.E. Indreland explains. Inger Taletta Brekke-Varvik came from Norway by indentured passage at about the age of 16. In order to earn money to pay her uncle back for her trip, she landed a job working for the commander of the Crow agency army barracks near Absarokee. Soon after she started in the autumn of 1901, the commander hired the Lennep Orchestra to play for a military affair. Rasmus spotted Inger serving hot chocolate and spent the rest of the night in the kitchen getting acquainted. The next day, he asked her to marry him, assured her not to worry about her debt and told her he’d be back the following spring. That May, they married in Billings and proceeded to the Crazy Mountains where they would spend the rest of their lives together.
One of the first gifts Rasmus gave his young wife was to find her father whom she had never seen. Her father had committed to an opportunity to leave Norway for the United States soon after they were married, but her mother refused to join him. She’d gotten nothing but bad news about America, having lost an uncle and cousin here from drowning and pneumonia. They agreed to split up and he sailed off on a pirate fleet, neither of them knowing at the time that she was pregnant. Rasmus put word out on the “moccasin telegraph” and located Inger’s father in Iowa. Old Varvik arrived on the mountain unannounced with a sea chest on his back in 1905 to meet the daughter he never knew he had.
Rasmus and Inger “hit the ground running,” their grandson says. “Both were smarter than the average bear, risk takers. He had the ability to plan ahead and a talent for business management. He knew what he wanted and how to get it.” Rasmus was always looking for anything new. He put up the first telephone in the community in 1908 and organized the building of churches in the area, although personally he was “long on God, but short on religion,” says grandson Rasmus. Inger was the “main honcho” in getting the Lennep schools built, according to her daughter Hellen Warner of Lewis-town.
Rasmus became the leader in his community and was known for his business acumen and generosity. When the Great Depression came along, Rasmus was one of the few who hadn’t put money in the bank. He had learned his lesson from the Panic of 1912. “If you make a mistake once, you learn. If you make the same mistake a second time, then you’re stupid,” he often said. He loaned cash to homestead-ers to pay their taxes and keep their ranches going. Most paid him back, others signed over real estate. Hellen Warner says her father also shared wagon loads of potatoes with his neighbors.
Inger’s greatest accomplishment was bearing and raising eleven children, no small feat in the pioneering days. “How she could keep her equilibrium with eleven children in the Crazy Mountains is beyond me,” Hellen says with a laugh, “We never had a bad day.” Inger, and Rasmus, an avid reader who traveled worldwide, stressed the importance of education as the key to advancement, sending their boys and girls to college. He was proud that all his children became successful property owners and were able to vote. All but one pursued their careers in Montana and owned ranches scattered throughout the state.
R.E. Indreland is researching genealogical data and compiling information for a biography of his Norse ancestors back to the Viking era and beyond. He recorded hours of talks with his grandparents in their later years. His grandfather, he says, always had an active mind and could see the humor in any situation. Lenore Haws of Livingston, one of Rasmus’ granddaughters, said that his secret to long life was to start his day with “a cup of coffee that would float a rock, a raw egg, and a couple shots of whiskey.” After Inger died in the late 1960s, Rasmus was despondent but set himself one more goal, to live to his 100th birthday. Despite his good health, the determined old man starved himself to death shortly after reaching 100.
Rasmus Indreland knew just about everyone in the region and apparently continued his acquaintance with Great Falls resident Charlie Russell who died in 1926. At one point, Rasmus’ son Oscar rescued some of Russell’s charcoal sketches from being torched as fuel for a shepherd’s cabin fire.
Charlie Russell and Rasmus Indreland left different, but important Western legacies. Russell as artist and historian captured the authentic power and images of an extinct way of life. Indreland, the immigrant pioneer with a head for business, built the future he envisioned, a comfortable fortune and a community for his descendants and generations of Montanans to come.
From Montana Pioneer archives, March 2001