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Of all Bozeman's founding fathers, none left a greater imprint than Nelson Story.

A man of great contradictions, Nelson Story Sr. was a hero, a scoundrel, a legend.

As a young man, Story started with nothing but his energy, strong will, intelligence and fearlessness. He came out to the wild West and in 1863 made a fortune in Montana's gold rush.

He parlayed that into a famous cattle drive from Texas to Montana, which a century later would inspire author Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Lonesome Dove."

Story settled in the fledgling outpost of Bozeman when its namesake, John Bozeman, was still roving the town.

"He had a commanding appearance," Story wrote in 1911 of Bozeman. "Good reputation. Jovial in his demeanor."

Over the years, Story's stores, flour mills, bank, cattle and real estate holdings made him the town's biggest employer, its richest man and first millionaire.

One of the town's first aldermen, Story donated land and crucial help in starting the agricultural college that today is Montana State University.

Yet Story also was accused by the Army of ripping off the Crow Indians and, though never indicted, he bragged years later that he'd bribed the grand jury.

Story could be generous to folks who were down and out, but he had a terrible temper and was known for pistol-whipping enemies. He once threw a brick at a disobedient son.

"He was just a hard guy, a tough guy, who lived in tough times," said John Russell, director of the Pioneer Museum. "He was also a mover and shaker. In many ways, he was responsible for the growth of early Bozeman.

"One historian told me - ‘You know, the town is misnamed. It ought to be named Story, not Bozeman.'"

Derek Strahn, a Bozeman High School history teacher and former city historic preservation officer, wrote that Story was a complex and fascinating figure, "like other great capitalists of the Gilded Age. He was both an admirable ‘captain of industry' and a despicable ‘robber baron.'"

Today, Jim Dolan's statue of Nelson Story driving cattle stands at Lindley Park. Bozeman has a Story Street, a Story Mill, Story Hills, a Nelson Story tower at MSU. The Ellen Theatre was built by his sons and named for their mother. The public is still debating city ownership of his son's grand home on Willson Avenue, today called the Story Mansion.

"His thumbprint is everywhere," said Kim Allen Scott, MSU's special collections librarian. "What we don't know about is him."

Even his grandson, the late Malcolm Story, knew little first-hand. Malcolm said in a taped lecture that he was just a kid when Nelson was in his 70s or 80s. Most of what Malcolm learned came from his father, Thomas Byron Story.

Yet Malcolm's vivid stories, collected on CDs in MSU's special collections, are consistent as he told and retold them.

Phyllis Smith, author of "Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley: A History," spent many hours listening to her neighbor Malcolm's tales as he sat at her dining room table, across the street from the pink house where he lived on South Willson Avenue. Later she would check out his facts.

"Everything he said was true," Smith said.

Golden West

Nelson Story was born in 1838 in Meigs County, Ohio, on his parents' corn farm, where, Malcolm said, he "learned to work hard, early."

Story attended college for a while and taught school. About age 20, his father died, so he "lit out on his own." He found work hauling freight wagons, with "a blind mule and a lame ox," Malcolm said

He married Ellen Trent in 1862, after hauling timber for her father in Missouri.

In 1863, 25-year-old Story left Colorado with ox teams and 14 pack mules, heading for Wyoming. In June they arrived in Bannack, Montana territory, where Story was surprised to find a settlement with only women and children. All the men had gone

to Alder Gulch, where gold was discovered about a week before.

"He hot-footed it right over and staked his claim out," Malcolm said. Story made money hauling for the miners with his pack mules. Ellen, 19, "made bread and pies and sold them to the miners."

In December 1863, Story helped hang the first outlaw brought to justice in Virginia City, George Ives.

Ives, found guilty of murder, stood in a wagon with a rope around his neck.

"The rougher element in the crowd told them if they hanged that guy, they'd regret it, and the sheriff was frightened," Malcolm said. So Story, gun in hand, said to the man standing by him, "'Come on, Ben.'" They reached out and pulled out the box Ives was standing on, hanging him.

"Grandfather said you could hear the (pistol) hammers clicking in the crowd. They were going to shoot the rope down," Malcolm said. "If Grandfather hadn't gone right ahead, if Ives had of gotten away, you can only imagine what might have happened."

After that, the Vigilantes organized.

"They hanged pretty near a man a day," Malcolm said.

Great cattle drive from Texas

One night, Story was told a claim jumper, Bill Carter, was on his claim, so he grabbed his 10-gauge shotgun.

Carter jerked another man in front of him as a shield and raised his six-shooter. Story shot one barrel of his shotgun, shredding Carter's hand.

"Of course, that ended the claim jumping," Malcolm said. "I think that was a real cool and collected act."

Story gave Carter $5 a month for the rest of his life, "because he felt compassion for him," Malcolm said. Carter had a peanut and confection stand, where the Ellen Theatre stands today, rent free.

"Grandfather was kindly that way," Malcolm said. "You didn't want to disobey or cross him... (Then) he was dangerous."

In 1866, Story's gold claim paid off, producing $30,000 in gold. He hid his treasure in a tin box, strapped it around him and headed back East, leaving Ellen with a Bozeman preacher and his wife.

For the gold, Story got $40,000 in greenbacks, because gold was at a premium after the Civil War. He put $30,000 in a bank and sewed $10,000 inside of his overcoat.

Story and two trusted friends headed for Texas. At Fort Worth, he bought 1,000 head of longhorn cows for $10 a head, Malcolm said.

From April to December 1866, the cowboys drove the cattle, up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, country filled with cutthroats, raiders, guerrillas and Indians.

Story armed his crew of about 25 men with repeating rifles. At Fort Reno, a colonel ordered him to stop. "'You can't come through here, the Indians will kill you.'"

They camped a few miles from the fort. One night a herder was found dead, shot with "enough arrows in him, he looked like a rotary hairbrush." Finally Story decided to act, Malcolm said. "He had planned so long and worked so hard and risked so much, he decided they would pull out, Army or no."

The cattle drive headed for the Bozeman Trail, which ran through Indian country, moving at night and camping during the day. At Leavenworth, Kan., Story bought 150 draft oxen and 15 wagons, and filled them with axes, calico and other goods destined to outfit a store in Bozeman.

One day, Indians drove off some cattle, and Story recklessly took chase. The Indians spread out, and then turned back, trying to surround him. Story raced back to camp for rifles and reinforcements.

"He always said he never killed an Indian," Malcolm said. "They came within an ace of killing him."

The cattle drive reached the future site of Livingston. For the next 20 years, Story would build his cattle herd in the Paradise Valley and along the Yellowstone River. After the "bad winter" of 1886-'87 when he sold out, the herd had grown to about 15,000 head.

John Bozeman

From Livingston, Story took his merchandise-laden wagons over to the tiny, 2-year-old settlement of Bozeman and started a store on New Year's Day 1867, Malcolm said.

Frederick Fridley was in the store talking when in walked trailblazer John Bozeman and his friend, fellow Georgian William McKinzie.

The Civil War was over, but emotions ran high. Bozeman had a little black dog, and said it could "'whip any dog in town, and I can whip any Yankee farmer.'" That started a fight with Fridley, who must have been "a pretty good man - he got Bozeman's ear between his teeth," Malcolm said.

McKinzie reached for a scale weight, to "give Fridley a love tap," Malcolm said. "Old Nelson Story said, ‘Wait just a minute, McKinzie.' He got an axe out of a case of axes and said, ‘We just have fair play here.'"

In April 1867, John Bozeman was killed east of Livingston during a trip with Tom Cover, who blamed Indians. Story had Bozeman's body buried, and later reburied him in Bozeman's Sunset Hills Cemetery with a marble marker.

It wasn't until the 1940s that Story's suspicions about Cover's tale became known, when T.B. Story shared his dad's story with the Chronicle's publisher.

Story said he'd sent a veteran packer, Spanish Joe, to the scene of Bozeman's killing, and Joe found no Indian tracks or other evidence to support Cover's version. Whether Cover or someone else, perhaps a jealous husband, killed Bozeman remains a mystery to this day.

Story stuck to the official version of Bozeman's death in his 1911 letter to Miss Willets: "Madam, in answer to yours of the 10th, will say that John M. Bozeman was killed by Blackfeet Indians April 18th 1867 on the Yellowstone River."

The Crow Agency case

One of the blackest marks against Nelson Story was the Army's accusations in 1876 that he had cheated the Crow Indian Agency. He was accused of filling pork barrels with offal, double-sacking bags of flour so they could be stamped and counted twice, passing off calves as full-grown cattle and attempting to bribe an Army captain.

Inspector Kemble charged Story had reputation for being "crafty and unscrupulous" and had "openly boasted that he had bought a sufficient number of the grand jury to prevent an indictment."

Story denied all charges, presented a letter signed by dozens of leading Montanans affirming "his reputation for "honesty, integrity, and fair dealing." Story blamed the allegations on businessman Leander Black, "my enemy."

Most historians today seem to accept the accusations. Smith quoted Billy Frazier, who worked for Story, saying, "We all thought that any smart man would steal from the Indians in those days."

Mills, a bank, a mansion

Story went into the flour milling business in 1882, and built what became the largest flour-milling complex in Montana.

"That mill was the biggest-paying business, hired more men for 50 years, than any business in the valley," Malcolm said.

Story and his partners also opened Bozeman's third bank, the Gallatin Valley National Bank, just in time for the 1883 arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

After selling off his cattle in 1887, he invested the proceeds in downtown Los Angeles real estate. He also put some of the money into building the grandest home in Bozeman, a three-story mansion on West Main Street.

That original Story Mansion had expensive woods, cut stone, marble, crystal and fine rugs. Strangers often wandered in, thinking it must be the courthouse, Strahn wrote. The mansion stood for 50 years until 1938 when, after Story's death, it was torn down to make room for Willson School's expansion.

In the national Panic of 1893, Story's Gallatin Valley Bank closed. According to Russell, "He saw to it that every depositor got all their money back."

However, one depositor, Dr. Henry Foster exchanged harsh words on the street with Story. According to Smith, the doctor said Story should be hanged. Story cane-whipped the doctor. To avoid a court case, Story apparently settled with the doctor, who soon made plans to build Bozeman's first hospital for $20,000.

Story got into a famous feud with Joseph Lindley over Story's damming of Bozeman Creek. At one point, Story clubbed Lindley's workmen with his Colt revolver. He tossed water on Lindley from a second-floor window. Lindley wrote scathing messages about Story's character, posting them on telephone poles, and in letters to newspapers threatened to "cut off your thieving toes, ears too."


The rough, tough characteristics that helped Story succeed in the wild West were no longer tolerated by the end of the century, as Bozeman became more civilized.

"I don't think you could say he was a total scoundrel," Russell said, noting Story placed a destitute family in a northside home rent-free. "At Christmas, Story would load up a sled with food and toys to bring to less fortunate families."

One of Story's greatest legacies to Bozeman was his support for launching the state agricultural college.

In 1893, Bozeman's proposed college stood to win $33,000 in federal money if it could be opened before a July 1 deadline. Story allowed his roller rink to be hurriedly turned into a "college" and donated, according to MSU historians, 160 acres for the site.

After developing real estate in Los Angeles and building a major office there, Story retired in 1910 and returned to Bozeman. The man who made a fortune riding in the saddle never drove an automobile, but he did own a car and had a chauffeur.

Nelson Story died in 1926 at age 87. Near John Bozeman's grave, Nelson and Ellen Story lie today in the family plot, adorned with granite pillars from their mansion, overlooking the town their family did so much to create.

A metal sculpture by artist Dolan of Malcolm Story, wearing his trademark red checked coat, wide brim hat and gray handlebar mustache, stands today in front of Willson School.


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