By Tori Norskog
For The Madisonian
It has been asked, “Where have all the cowboys gone?”
Well, one of them calls the Ruby Valley and Madison County home. Bob Birrer, who will be the Grand Marshall of the Madison County Fair this week, has trailed cattle, broke horses and cowboyed all over the county during his 88 years.
“He is one of the last real-life cowboys around,” said Fred Birrer, Bob’s son. “He really cares about the land and livestock.”
Bob has dedicated a lifetime to ranch work in Montana. For his labors he received a large measure of local notoriety along with certificates of appreciation from the Department of Agriculture and the Ruby Valley Association.
But he didn’t work hard for the recognition; he just loved the work he did.
“I prefer horses to people,” Birrer said as he fed his four horses at his home in Alder.
He has worked with horses almost his entire life, starting at a young age to earn room and board so he could go to school.
He grew up in Norris. Birrer’s father, John Stiver, was the first generation in his family to come to Madison County. Stiver traveled here from Ohio in a covered wagon in the late 1800s with his cousin, who later married William Ennis, the man who settled Ennis.
Stiver came out here to mine, but quickly went broke in that endeavor and went into the blacksmith business.
“His blacksmith shop is still there in Norris,” Birrer said. “It’s about to fall down but it’s still there.”
Stiver passed away when Bob was around 7 or 8 years old. His death was particularly hard on their family because it came at the same time as the Great Depression. At times it was hard for his mother to provide for their family.
“We were just little kids and mom was trying to make it. She did everything to try to get dollars,” he said.
She did whatever work she could find, including laundry and cleaning houses, but work was scarce because no one had money to pay you, Birrer said.
Because his mom was unable to earn much money, the family mostly ate salt pork and beans during that time.
“If we ever had any bread it was like having cake now, that wasn’t very often,” he said. “Everybody was hurtin’ and a lot of people were really hungry.”
The kids would go down to the railroad tracks to collect the bits of coal that had fallen off the trains to use to heat the house. They found whatever they could to burn to try to keep warm.
Birrer remembers one particularly cold snap. He had to walk a mile to get to school every day and one winter day the temperature dropped to 61 degrees below zero. Not knowing it had been canceled, he walked all the way to school just to find it closed.
The next day it was 63 degrees below zero, but again he walked to school anyway because they did not have a radio to inform them that school had been canceled.
Things started to get better for them when the government put together the work camps, he said. His brother worked at one of the very first ones ever organized and he would send home money every week to help his family.
After Bob’s father passed away, his mother married Frank Birrer, who adopted Bob and his siblings.
“He was a really nice guy, really a nice fella,” Bob said.
Soon after they married the family moved to Butte. Times were still a bit rough then so special treats were a rarity.
But once in a while he’d get to go to the Park Theater in Butte. It cost a nickel to get in and the show started at 10 a.m. and he would stay there until the theater closed, just watching the same show over and over again.
“We never had popcorn or anything, we were just lucky to go to the theater,” Bob said. “That was the only thing we had.”
Eventually the family moved back to Madison County. They had a place far up in the hills, so going to school meant staying with one of his sisters – one lived in Pony, the other lived in Sheridan.
But school wasn’t one of his favorite activities. He just didn’t like being inside.
“When I was in high school I’d start leaving school a month ahead to start trailing cattle,” he said.
When he was 14 years old he left home for good and started working on ranches to earn room and board. That’s when he got started breaking horses.
“It’s not real easy breaking in a horse cause they buck and kick and fight back,” Bob said. “But no brain, no pain.”
To break the horses, he said he would first have to catch them and get them halter broke with a rope so that they would lead.
Then he’d use sacks and blankets to get them used to having something strange on their backs. Next he’d introduce a saddle.
Once they got used to leading, turning and having a saddle on them, he would start riding them. He rode them to and from school and basketball practice in Sheridan every day.
Birrer even spent a few summers in a horse camp in Norris, breaking horses for the army.
“We’d trail them to Bozeman and then a major would come from Utah and I’d ride them in front of him and he’d buy them or he wouldn’t,” he explained.
But cowboying in Madison County mostly meant working cattle. Birrer started young, helping ranchers trail their cattle up into the Centennial Valley in the spring.
“The first time I did that I was 12 years old,” he said. “I went by myself riding a stud horse and leading a work stud.”
Life eventually took him a long way from his beloved Madison County. In 1942, like so many other young, brave Montana boys, Birrer joined the Marine Corp and went to war. He was not yet 18 years old and had to get written permission from his parents to sign up. He said he joined the Marines because he wanted to go into combat.
“I was young and crazy,” Birrer said.
He spent most of his time while in the service in the South Pacific. He was involved in various campaigns such as the taking of Cape Gloucester, which they took on Christmas morning in 1943, and Palau, which he said was one of the worst campaigns in the South Pacific because more lives were lost there than any other place.
The Japanese dug into the island’s coral reefs to shoot at the Marines and the only way they could get them out was to use napalm.
His jobs in the Marine Corps included driving trucks and operating a 90-millimeter, which he said is a big aircraft gun used for shooting at planes and 155s.
“It’s pretty noisy,” Bob said. “That’s why I can’t hear now.”
Birrer was aboard a ship in Okinawa when the war ended.
“I was going home when they dropped the atomic bomb in ‘45,” Bob said.
After 33 months of service, he returned to Madison County, working at the Jumping Horse Ranch in Ennis breaking horses again.
After working at the Jumping Horse, he spent time traveling all over the area, going from ranch to ranch to break horses and help gather cattle.
He was well sought after for the work he did. When he finished up in one area, he would attempt to go home, but would end up being offered jobs on other ranches.
Eventually he ended up at Gilbert Livestock and was the cow boss there for 40 years.
During this time he met his wife Gwen Daley, who owned the Oxbow Café. They got married in 1954, had two sons and his family joined him working on the ranches.
“We spent a lot of time together as a family,” Fred Birrer said. “Ranch families are always together doing something, mostly working.”
Gwen was the drill leader of a group called the Side Saddle Posse, which performed at rodeos all over the country. Birrer would travel with her and the group to help take care of the horses.
Now days Birrer is still as much of a cowboy as ever. He loves going to rodeos, takes care of his livestock at home and trails cattle, mostly just helping out his neighbors.
“It keeps me out of trouble,” Bob said.
His favorite place to go riding is up Granite Creek with his neighbor who runs his cattle up there. He’s always willing to help out because he loves doing it.
“I figured when I was out in those mountains I was as close to God as I would ever get,” he said. “It’s a good life, a lot of hardships and stuff, but it was a good life.”