In Martinsdale, the sprawling mansion built by Charles Bair and augmented by his worldly daughters is striking.

The clean, white exterior with blue trim, the gilded furniture, the manicured lawn, all appear like an oasis amidst tawny rangeland, a dilapidated bank and an abandoned train depot.

In the Bozeman vicinity, the mansion is the most visible testament to the amazing life of Charles Bair, who, as Bair biographer Lee Rostad noted, left home in Ohio in 1877 with "fourteen cents and seven green apples."

Bair is best known for his ranching operation that at one point oversaw 300,000 sheep - making him the largest woolgrower on the continent. For about a decade in the early 1900s, the Great Falls Tribune reported recently, his ranch produced 1.5 million pounds of wool a year. Bair ranched near Lavina and then on the Crow Indian Reservation before moving to Martinsdale in 1934.

But Charlie Bair's life was not solely a ranching existence. He worked up through the railroad's ranks, funded Klondike gold operations and was a powerbroker in the state's Republican Party.

By the time he died at age 85 in 1943, Rostad wrote, there were 50 honorary pallbearers at his funeral in Billings. And to be clear, Charlie Bair was a Billings man.

"Billings would remain ‘his town' no matter where in the world he found himself doing business over the years," Rostad wrote in her biography of Bair, titled "Fourteen Cents & Seven Green Apples" in homage to the man's humble beginnings.

But his life crossed through southwest Montana on several occasions, the mansion that bears his name remains a fascination for day-tripping Bozeman and Livingston residents and the wealth he and his daughters accumulated over the years still benefits many people in Meagher County.

Bair came to Montana in 1884 working for the Northern Pacific railroad, and his duties included operating the run from Livingston to Gardiner, Rostad wrote.

"The outgoing trip was usually on time," she wrote, "but the return trip depended greatly on how the fish were biting in Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone River. When bearings in the wheels overheated, they would ‘freeze' the wheel and prevent rotation - a situation called a ‘hot box.'"

When hot boxes occurred, conductor Bair would have to stop the train and he, his crew and the train passengers would go fishing.

"Back in Livingston, Bair often took fish to his favorite eating establishment to compare with other fishermen," Rostad wrote.

He conducted trains in Montana for four years, which allowed him to scope out prime land for his sheep ranches, the first of which he staked claim on in 1884.

With leases on the Crow Indian Reservation, Bair's sheep operation exploded. At one point, a Washington, D.C., lawyer told Bair he had just bought a farm in Virginia and was raising 150 sheep on the land.

When the lawyer asked Bair how many sheep he had, Bair famously responded:

"I haven't counted lately, but I've got more sheep dogs than that," he said.

Bair's prosperous rise was not without controversy. Like Nelson Story, Bair's commercial dealings on the Crow Indian Reservation raised some suspicion. The amount he paid for the leases, and the number of sheep he ran on the reservation, drew an inquiry form Collier's Weekly, a magazine. The story drew a congressional inquiry, but an investigator found nothing amiss.

Bair eventually lost his leases on the Crow Reservation and moved his base of operation to Martinsdale in the 1910s.

But as much as Charles Bair's extraordinary stature is on display in the house, he spent relatively little time there. His family didn't move where the mansion would later sit until the 1930s, and Bair died less than a decade after they built the first section of the house. It was his daughters - Marguerite with an eye for fashion and design and Alberta with a flair for entertaining - that made the house what it is today, sprawling and ornate.

Now run as a nonprofit museum operated by the C.M. Russell Museum, visitors are ushered through room after room filled with chandeliers, European furniture and fine china.

Signed photographs with personal messages from almost every president between Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon line the walls of the ground floor. Original paintings by J.H. Sharp, a friend, hang throughout the home.

And the mansion is not the only way people north of Bozeman remember the Bairs.

A fund set up by the last will and testament of Bair daughter Marguerite Lamb gives up to eight high school students from Meagher and Wheatland counties full-ride scholarships to any college of their choice.

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.

 

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