Harmon’s Histories: Meet the desperadoes, burger champs and athletes of Saco, Montana

Saco’s record-breaking burger, from the Guinness World Records of 1999.

The crowd was estimated at something north of 3,500 people – more than 10 times the town’s population. It was September 5, 1999. They’d come from all over to see a Guinness World’s Record broken.

And they did: The world’s largest hamburger, weighing 6,040 pounds, measuring 24 feet in diameter, fried on a 576-square-foot grill.

Saco, Montana had made headlines around the world (no matter that the record was eclipsed a couple of years later). It was still a big deal!

But there’s so much more to Saco; so much more than that short-lived, record-breaking hamburger headline.

It’s a town straight out of the old “shoot ‘em up” West. Imagine the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Billy The Kid gang.

Saco sprouted up in the 1880s, and was officially recognized as a town in the summer of 1892 by the establishment of a post office. At that time, Saco was part of Dawson County. Two years later, in an advertisement for a cattle sale, “the station or town of Saco (was) in Valley County, Montana.” Ultimately, it became part of Phillips County.

The Helena Independent, July 5, 1892

Like many Montana towns, Saco went through roller-coaster population shifts. Currently, the census accounts for 177 souls in the community, down from the Roaring ’20s, when it boasted 741 residents.

The Harlem Enterprise newspaper in 1909 pointed out that “nine years ago the population of this place (Saco) was 37; three years ago it was 100; now it is double that number.” The vice president of the Saco Commercial Club, C. E. Taylor, said: “(T)here’s a steady stream of applications for land in this vicinity … afford(ing) fine opportunities for the homesteader, the soil being exceedingly fertile.”

Indeed, Saco quickly became known for cattle and sheep production as well as dryland farming. The town’s boosters spoke not only of wheat, oats and barley crops, but potatoes – predicting the “Saco bench lands will become noted for the ‘Saco spud.’ ”

It was a tough country in which to raise livestock. In the winter of 1903, cattle died “at a rapid rate … the snow badly crusted and it is almost impossible for cattle to find any kind of grazing,” reported the Glasgow Review.

Billings Gazette, May 29, 1903

Sheepherder Burt Annsley was caught in a May blizzard that year. He was found “huddled by a rock by a coulee (with) one of his dogs crouched over him … to keep warmth in his body,” according to an account in the Billings Gazette. Annsley died a short time after he was found.

Winter weather wasn’t the only hazard. John Richards was killed by lightning in the summer of 1905, while tending a herd of sheep.

Saco saw a bit of a building boom in 1905. A three-room schoolhouse, with “complete ventilation and modern closets,” was erected at a cost of over $6,000. Meantime, the new Fuller & Bossuot general store was under construction with a tab of $10,500.

The townspeople were proud of their community and helped out when government coffers were a bit thin. In 1913, businessman George Beatty donated a thousand loads of gravel to cover “the north lane” into the town.

The Saco Independent newspaper urged everyone in town to help. “A farmer coming fifteen to thirty miles to town and on that last mile strikes the worst roads he has ever seen, does not put him in a buying humor by any means. He will cuss the town for a week for he feels that the town is mainly responsible for the road so close to it, and in a measure he is right.”

Now, to some of those non-record-hamburger headlines.

For a short time in 1902, the very existence of the town was questioned. As reported by the Fort Benton River Press, “The land office in Great Falls (ruled) the prosperous little town of Saco, in Valley County, is an orphan. No one owns it and it is open to almost any sort of entry under the land laws of the United States.”

River Press, Fort Benton   December 31, 1902

It seems the original townsite filing by David Lovell under the “desert land law” in 1896 required Lovell to “put water on the land and cause it to grow crops.” Someone complained that hadn’t happened.

A special investigator from the land office looked into the matter. His report, according to the River Press, showed “all Lovell had succeeded in raising on the land so far was the following inventory of non-agricultural products: Two saloons, one general store, one livery stable, one blacksmith shop and four dwelling houses!”

There was a concern that those business owners would “have to buy the lots a second time to secure a valid title.” As it turned out, Lovell died a few months after the questions were raised, and as best we can determine the matter was not pursued.

Another of Saco’s non-record-hamburger headlines takes us back to the days of the Sundance Kid and the great train robbery at Wagner, Montana (west of Malta). Saco and the region were known for the number of robbers, cattle thieves and murderers passing through.

Saco’s “Wild-West” headline was: “Long Henry Bites The Dust,” or “Notorious Slayer of Ed Starr Killed in Gun Play at Saco.”

Fergus County Argus, Lewistown, February 19, 1902

“Long Henry” Thompson was a Texas cowpuncher who arrived in Montana in the 1880s. A friend, D. J. O’Malley, described Thompson at the time as “a man of about 30 … tall and of a slender build” who “admitted being part Cherokee Indian.” Above all, he was known as a “quick draw” who was never without his Colt .45.

By the time he arrived in Saco, he was said to have killed as many as six or seven men in three states. Some linked him to “Billy the Kid’s” gang. In February, 1902, he had a late-night confrontation with a bartender over a woman. Both had romantic desires for this certain “demi-monde.” Long Henry ended up spending the night with the woman.

Bartender Ed Shufelt was spitting mad. He shot and killed Thompson the moment he entered the bar at 8 o’clock the next morning, but claimed Long Henry had gone for his gun first.

The press was largely on the bartender’s side. The Fergus County Argus said Long Henry was a “bad man with a gun” and he “got what he had long deserved.” The Red Lodge Picket labeled him “the worst ‘bad man’ in the state.” And the Kalispell Bee reported, “Those who knew him predicted he would die with his boots on.”

Ed Shufelt turned himself in. A jury quickly ruled the shooting was a justifiable homicide.

Thompson’s friend, D. J. O’Malley (aka, the N—N Kid), in later years, wrote quite an account of the man he knew for the seven years they rode together for the “Home Land & Cattle Company.”

The outfit was known in Saco and the rest of Montana as the “N—N” cattle operation. Here’s a link to his story in the July 28, 1938 issue of the Mineral Independent newspaper.

Today, Saco is a typical small Montana town with its roots in agriculture, but its employment scattered through retail, construction, education and transportation. It’s the home of the Old Brand saloon and nearby Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs & Resort.

Saco Chamber of Commerce Facebook post

But its pride, as with most small Montana towns, lies with its Class C North Country High School teams.

This weekend, the unbeaten Lady Mavericks  made it to the state championship game but fell short, 74 -60, losing to the Fort Benton Longhorns. But what a run!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.