When Jack Fenton moved to Sheridan in 1932, Main Street was still dirt and at his family home on Wisconsin Creek, he had to carry water from the creek to the house to do dishes. It was a time when many people in the Ruby Valley didn’t have electricity or indoor toilets.
From his home just south of Sheridan, the 87-year-old man has a commanding view of the Tobacco Root and Ruby Mountains. The home, which he’s lived in for almost 60 years, sits on a little knoll of good topsoil and is surrounded by ancient poplars and willows, with a small pond out back.
From the back porch, he can feel the unseasonably cool spring wind and hear the meadowlarks singing in the horse pasture to the south and the Canadian geese squawking as they land with a splash in the pond. It’s a serene setting, despite the snowstorm boiling over the Tobacco Roots and heading ominously toward the Ruby Valley.
When Jack and his late wife Frances first moved out to the little ranch in 1951, he would scrape the snow off the pond in the winter so local kids had a place to skate.
“Some days we’d end up with 35 people out here,” Fenton said with a laugh.
Looking out on the pond while he tells the story, it’s not too hard to imagine the shouts and laughter still ringing from all those years ago.
Jack Fenton was born May 2, 1923 is Provo, Utah. He was the oldest of two kids born to Stanley and Helen Fenton.
His father was from Montana and went to college at Montana State University to be a chemical engineer. He worked at a copper plant in Utah, but the smoke from the plant bothered Helen and so the family moved when their kids were still young – first to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and then to Sheridan.
Fenton’s uncle Frederick Brim was a schoolteacher in Sheridan and so moving to Montana was a sort of homecoming for Stanley and moving closer to family for Helen.
Jack and his sister Virginia had come to see their aunt and uncle for Christmas 1931 and their father followed with all the family’s belongings on the train. They moved out to the Wisconsin Creek ranch on Jan. 1, 1932.
However, that wasn’t Jack’s first trip to Montana.
His family had ventured out to the Madison Valley for a family reunion in 1924. The gathering was on Gazelle Creek and it was there his grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, baptized Jack. With beginnings like that, no wonder Montana had such a pull on him.
Out on Wisconsin Creek, and later west of town off of Duncan District Road, the Fentons raised cattle and chickens selling the eggs and birds for meat.
They came to Madison County in the depth of the Great Depression and Jack remembers it more for the penny pinching and resourcefulness it forced on people than for any real hard times.
His father, for instance, would get all the life he could out of tires for their car, he remembers. Once, when a sidewall split, Stanley took an old tire and cut down the edge so it’d fit inside of the split tire. Then he took rawhide and stitched up the split.
And it wasn’t until after World War II that the Fentons got a tractor. Growing up, his family, like many in the Ruby Valley, did all their work with horses.
“I got my fill of seeing the back of a work horse,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoy saddle horses, but I got my fill of work horses when I was young.”
In those days ranches weren’t always large operations. The place the Fentons bought west of town was about 160 acres. But they grazed their cattle on leases in the Tobacco Roots – both in the Georgia Basin and in Ramshorn and Mill Creek.
Jack graduated high school in 1942 and in 1944 volunteered for the Army. He was in the Philippines training for the ground invasion of Japan, when the U.S. dropped the nuclear bombs, essentially ending the fight with the Japanese.
Fenton still went to Japan, but as part of the occupying force. He didn’t see any fighting in the war.
“Back then everything was so bombed, I didn’t know how they could make anything out of it,” he said. “But they’re remarkable people. They sure came out of it.”
Home from the war, Jack moved back onto his parents place and kept ranching with his father.
Then at his best friend Roger Holmes’ wedding in the summer of 1950, he met a telephone operator from Whitehall. Her name was Frances Edwards and she loved to sing and dance. The couple was married in the fall and moved into an old cabin on Jack’s parents place.
“She loved music and had a beautiful voice,” Jack said.
By the year after they were married, Jack was ready to expand the family operation and he and Frances bought a 340-acre place south of town. The house was built in 1914 and didn’t have an indoor toilet, but he and Frances loved it. They moved in September 1951 and have been there since. They didn’t get an indoor toilet until 1961.
Jack and Frances raised two daughters on their ranch – Lynne (McWilliams) and Kathleen (Wuelfing). (Sadly, Kathleen’s husband Gus, died earlier this month in Sheridan after a long battle with cancer.)
Along with ranching, Jack was also on the board of the Vigilante Canal. He also helped to start the Southwest Montana Marketing Association, which he marks as one of his greatest accomplishments.
The Southwest Montana Marketing Association got ranchers together to ship their beef to the stockyards in Nebraska rather than through other stockyards that served as middlemen. The result was that member ranches could make more money on their cattle.
“Usually after all the expenses were paid, we’d have a little more to put into the bank,” Fenton said.
At their peak, the association shipped 12,000 calves from seven counties in southwest Montana by rail to the Nebraska stockyards, he said.
Some of his favorite pastimes were snowmobiling and flying.
In 1967, he started snowmobiling high up into the Tobacco Roots to measure snowpack and did the chore for several years. In 1979 he started flying and bought a Cessna plane with a friend. He eventually became certified as a mountain search pilot to help in backcountry rescues.
“I quit snowmobiling when I was 78 and quit flying when I was 80,” he said.
These days Fenton takes things pretty easy. His granddaughter moved a mobile home out on his place recently and keeps an eye on him. On Tuesdays he goes to the library in Sheridan to look over the old newspapers with his good friend Ted Darby.
Newspapers are somewhat of a passion for Fenton, his mother used to be a correspondent for The Madisonian and other newspapers in the area.
She would write stories about old timers, he said.
He remembers when she interviewed Bert Jackson, an old-time Montana cowboy, who rode the horse through the cook fire in Charlie Russell’s painting “Bronc to Breakfast.”
It made him laugh to think that all these years later, he was going to be one of the “old timers” featured in The Madisonian.