Saturday, January 23, 2016

Don't Fence Me In: A.C. Huidekoper's Government Tangle Over Public Lands

Arthur Clarke Huidekoper Badlands Rancher
A.C. early ranching days
Friction between ranchers and the federal government over the use of public lands recently witnessed in the news is nothing new in our history. Prominent Meadville businessman and Civil War veteran, Arthur Clarke (A. C.) Huidekoper had a running feud with the government over the fencing of public lands near his cattle and horse ranches in the badlands of North Dakota.  A. C., who built in Holland Hall along Terrace Street, first visited North Dakota during a trip to Bismarck in the fall of 1879. 

The untamed beauty and wildness of the territory captivated A. C. who returned in 1881 to hunt buffalo near the small outpost town of Medora. Recognizing the area’s potential, A. C. purchased land in southern Billings County from the Northern Pacific Railway Company the following year to establish the Custer Trail Ranch. Among his ranching neighbors was an adventurous French nobleman and cavalry officer by the name of Marquisde Mores, and a young, energetic, politician from New York City who was part owner of the Maltese Cross Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt.    

Early Ranching Days 

In 1884 A. C. and partner Henry Tarbell started the H-T Ranch with large herds of cattle roaming on the purchased land as well as unused public lands. Despite cattle’s dominance on the grassy ranges, however, A. C. held a particular interest in horses. In that same year he purchased from de Mores, forty of the creatures, some being Sitting Bull’s war ponies, many bearing scarred bullet wounds sustained at the Little Big Horn. Soon thereafter A. C. established the Little Missouri Horse Company, but it wasn’t until after noticing the resilience processed by his horses in surviving the calamitous winter of 1886-87 which starved to death over half of his 800 ranch cattle that A. C. switched his focus almost entirely to the animals.

Little Missouri Stock Barn at Conneaut Lake, PA
A. C. initially added stallions from Illinois, mares from Oregon, and Percherons imported from France. In short order, the six corrals of the Little Missouri Horse Company were boasting numbers exceeding six hundred and forty mares and colts gathered in the annual spring round-ups.
A. C. then extended his operational reach by shipping horses east near his home in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, where he had built a mammoth stock barn along the shores of Conneaut Lake. At the time, it was considered to be the largest stock barn of its kind east of the Mississippi. Here he would break and breed his best stock, which fetched prices exceeding $1500 ($42,00 today) per animal from buyers world-wide. Guided by A. C.’s instinct and business know-how, the Little Missouri earned a reputation for producing horses considered to be the highest quality of their kind in the country.

Government Tangle

Westward expansion, however, brought with it the initial troubles between A. C. and the government. The increasing number of early settlers in the area had begun cutting down trees to make their homes, which was understandable, but they were also began selling off the timber with no plan for replenishing it. As homesteaders flooded the wide open territory, the federal government passed a series of conservation-minded legislation which included regulations on the use of lands. Among these was the Unlawful Inclosures (Enclosures) of Public Lands Act (UIA) of 1885 which prohibited the construction of fences that prevented access to public lands. 

Cattle in the Bad Lands
The practice of fencing had become a standard practice for many of the ranchers across the open ranges of the United States for reasons both environmental and financial. By rotating their herds through fenced off sections of land, ranchers could avoid the over-grazing of grasslands, a major contributing factor in the death of so many cattle during the 1886-87 winter. In addition, fencing proved to be cheaper than employing ranch hands to control herds, and it was hard to argue against the fact that fence posts eat far less beans than do cowboys.

Over the course of the 1890’s and early 1900’s the Little Missouri had enclosed 80,000 acres of land, 21,000 of such was designated as unreserved public land, and A. C. had spent $30,000 constructing a sturdy series of fences consisting of six to eight strands of wire, some barbed, strung along posts set ten feet apart. A. C. was no doubt aware of the federal regulations; however, rotating his herds to conserve the grasslands appeared to make more sense. Adding to this mindset was the fact that the UIA, widely regarded as a “dead-letter” law, hadn’t seriously been enforced since it was passed in February of 1885.

In June of 1900 a special agent of the Land Office conducted an investigation of the Little Missouri’s fences and was soon approached by the ranch manager, W. G. Clark who handed over an envelope containing $100. The Land Office agent, who had recently replaced the previous agent, recognized the bribe, but took the money anyway, handing it over to the government’s accounting office before ordering that the fence be removed.  Pennsylvania Senator Boies Penrose and other officials petitioned the federal government on their constituent’s behalf, while at the same time A. C. traveled to Washington to offer an equal amount of his lands in exchange for the public lands where his herds were currently grazing. The proposal, however, was refused, and the directive to remove the fences remained. 

A.C. (center, sitting) and his fellow ranchers
Three years later, in 1903, the Land Office dispatched a second agent who reported the fences of the Little Missouri remained as before, prompting another government order to take them down. This time A. C. changed tactics claiming to have an authenticated survey proving he had not fenced an acre of government land, which he submitted to the Secretary of the Interior. The claim, however, relied on a thin technicality. According to A. C. the original land agent in 1900 had granted permission for using drift fences to control blowing snow. This being the case, A. C.’s contended that this was indeed the purpose behind his disputed fences, and thus, technically supported his claim to have never fenced government lands.

The specific details concerning the outcome of this defensive bit of legal maneuvering are unclear, but if the future course of events are any indicator, then it can be surmised that A. C.'s efforts failed to sway the government to reconsider their position. With fences still standing resolute as ever in 1905, the Land Office lost its patience, and handed the matter over to the Justice Department, which promptly indicted A. C. his son, Earl C. Huidekoper, and their ranch foreman, W.G. Clark.

The ante now raised substantially, A. C. once again turned to his network influential connections, this time imploring help from a wider circle to include his former Badlands neighbor, the now President Roosevelt whose cattle had once grazed in the same grassy lands. Frustrated by a lack of any response, A. C. wrote a condemning letter to the Land Office, criticizing the bureau for its actions against him.  Such tactics would later prove detrimental in the eyes of the court.

Courtroom Showdown

In late July of 1906 the case was tried at the U.S. District Court in Bismarck, North Dakota with Judge Charles Amidon, presiding. The lawyers from both sides presented their arguments with logic and passion. A. C.’s attorney, Seth Newman, harped on the government’s lack of enforcement concerning the 1885 UIA until after 1903, and the confusion it had created in recent years, a point Judge Amidon stated he would take into consideration.

Newman was followed by District Attorney Townsend who wasted no time calling A. C. to the stand to identify various letters written by A. C. to his political connections as well as to homesteaders who A. C. permitted to farm his ranch lands. Townsend’s aim was to paint A. C. as a land baron relying on money and influence to manipulate both the federal government and the hardworking people of North Dakota to his own benefit. Townsend’s “rigid examination” it was noted, pushed A. C. to the point of nearly losing his temper. Ultimately, the strategy worked, and Newman soon changed his client’s pleas to “guilty.”

Judge Amidon’s remarks prior to sentencing were scathing particularly with regard to A. C. attempts to enlist the help of his Washington contacts. “The impression that it left upon my mind from reading your letters,” said the Judge, “Is that during all these years you have looked upon the statute just as an ordinary criminal looks upon a policeman as something to be avoided. For men of your standing to try to get around a statute is just reprehensible.”

Judge Amidon, known for his uncompromising view of the law, then concluded with a final, clear admonishment. “…a criminal law is a sovereign command, not be haggled with, but to be obeyed.”

H-T Ranch Headquarters
Of the three indictments against them, A. C., Earl, and their foreman were only convicted of one—maintaining fences on government lands. Father and son were fined $1,000, Clark had to pay $300, and all three had to spend 24 hours in the Cass County Jail. In the days that followed, news of A. C.’s conviction was a national story found in papers big and small. “Wealthy Meadville Men Fined and Jailed,” read the Pittsburgh Daily Post. The New York Daily relied on a fabricated sense of vindication that resonated with the working class with its side article headline, “Land Grabbers Guilty.”  

Aftermath for A.C. 

A.C. later in life
It’s likely the verdict came as no surprise to A. C. who sadly recognized the days of Badlands ranching as he had once known them, were numbered. In the year he was indicted, A. C. had already begun selling off the 4,000 horses of the H-T Ranch. (The Little Missouri did continue to live on at his stock barn in Conneaut Lake, however.) He then sold the ranch’s land and equipment in 1906 to one of his regular customers, Fred Pabst, founder of the Pabst Brewing Company.

In his later book, My Experiences and Investment in The Bad Lands of Dakota and Some of the Men I Met There, A. C. paints a vivid picture of those early ranching years filled with tales of rough and ready characters, the rigors of day-to-day life on a round-up, treks across forbidding terrain, thrilling hunting expeditions, and more. It’s only on the final page that he comments on the circumstances of his departure.

Ultimately, A. C. points the finger at two entities: Timber rustlers and the Federal Government. Agitated by A. C.’s refusal to permit harvesting large amounts of trees on his lands, timber rustlers initiated trouble with the government with complaints that A. C. was restricting access to the land. In response, A. C. wrote to the Forestry Department, Gifford Pinchot, offering to provide all the logistics and accommodations for a government inspection to determine the truth of the matter. The offer was ignored, and circumstances unraveled from there.

A. C. never forgave Pinchot who would go on to become a two-term governor of Pennsylvania. Nor did he forgive Roosevelt, the man who had joined him on more than one round-up and whose presidential policies he felt aided in the area’s demise.

…Mr. Pinchot preferred to listen to a timber rustler rather than a man who had invested $200,000 for the benefit of Billings County.” He wrote. “Between Theodore Roosevelt who destroyed it as a range county and Pinchot who allowed all of the timber to be cut off, the county today is practically of little value—semi-arid and settled by foreigner who are gradually becoming bankrupt.

A. C. continued to breed and sell high-quality horses from his farm in Conneaut Lake, but never to the extent as he did as owner of the H-T Ranch. Numerous and varied other business ventures continued to keep A. C. active in many circles, but ranching was never far from his heart as he looked for potential opportunities to start again in the far West and even Mexico. It was not to be, however.

On November 11th, 1928, Arthur Clarke Huidekoper died of pancreatic cancer at Holland Hall. In 1998 he was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

Holland Hall along Terrace Street, Meadville, PA

  1. Ellis, Elmer E., North Dakota Historical Quarterly-Volume 1, No. 1, October 1926
  2. Huidekoper, A. C. “With the Round-up.” North Dakota History Vol.19 No. 1 (January 1952): 5-24.
  3. “Fifty Years Ago,” The Record-Argus, January 4, 1939
  4. Mattison, Ray H. Ranching in the Dakota Badlands, part 1.” North Dakota History 19, no. 2 (April 1952) 93-128.
  5. Gavett, Joseph L., North Dakota: Counties, Towns, and People Part 3, Judd’s Workshop Publications, 2010.
  6.  “Pushing Land Fraud Cases in Far West” Washington Post, August 10, 1906
  7. “Fined and Imprisoned” Bismarck Tribune, July 30, 1906
  8. Huidekoper, A. C., My Experiences and Investment in The Bad Lands of Dakota and Some of the Men I Met There Wirth Brothers, Baltimore, 1947.
  9. “Former Ranch Owner Tells Experiences” Bismarck Tribune, June 3, 1924
  10. Hagedorn, Hermann. Roosevelt in the Badlands. Medora, ND: Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association. (First published in 1921, publisher unknown.)
Other research materials provided by the Crawford County Historical Society.

About the Author

Ron Mattocks was born and raised in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania. Following high school he joined the Army to see the world (which he did) before a career as an executive with a national home builder in Texas. Eventually Ron switched to Internet marketing, consulting for companies such as GMC, ConAgra, Mattel, and others. During this time he also published the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can't Afford Vodka and began writing regularly for the Huffington Post, Disney's Babble, and the TODAY Show. On a summer visit to Conneaut Lake Park, Ron became suddenly fascinated with the park's origins, a fascination that lead to his current project, working with historic-based nonprofits. Today Ron is the co-owner and President of Client Strategy at Bull Moose Marketing, where he helps manufacturing companies devise revenue-generating marketing strategies to grow their business. He graduated from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with a degree in English Literature, and is a member of the Conneaut Lake Area Historical Society. He is also board VP for the Crawford County Historical Society.

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