Harmon’s Histories: Will Horse Plains, Montana produce America’s 1st female president?

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.

The “charming schoolma’am” of Horse Plains had high hopes for her 17 students in 1890. After all, they were being educated in a log schoolhouse, and log schoolhouses were known to produce presidents.

More specifically, she told a reporter from Missoula’s Weekly Gazette, “her school house would produce a girl for president.” The reporter paused, then asked, “What would her husband do?” She replied, “He would be vice president.”

He paused again to consider that, then agreed it just might work. After all, he thought, “most husbands fill that position now in their homes.”

The Gazette had sent its scribbler to Horse Plains to enlighten its readers about this fast-growing town west of Missoula – a town with a “not at all poetical” name.

Horse Plains or Wild Horse Plains (now simply, Plains) owes it name to the “immense herds of wild horses once found there,” and the long history of Native Americans using the valley as a place to winter their horses, because of the mild climate and available grasslands.

Even without irrigation, local grain growers were able to produce thirty bushels of wheat per acre, or forty to fifty bushels of oats or barley. Many speculated that the area “would undoubtedly prove a fine locality for the growing of apples and other fruits.”

Missoula Weekly Gazette, September 17, 1890

The town itself was developed by two pioneers, Neptune Lynch and James A. McGowan.

Lynch, born and raised in County Galway, Ireland, emigrated to America in 1838, at age 14, ending up in Missouri, where he lived with an uncle. He married Miss Elizabeth S. Alexander (said to be a great-grandniece of Daniel Boone) in 1844. They had two children.

In 1849, he left his wife and two children behind, heading to California in the gold rush. He returned to Missouri six years later to settle his uncle’s estate, but by 1860 headed west again (this time with his family) eventually lured to western Montana by the Cedar Creek gold rush of 1870. Later that year, he finally settled into farming and ranching in Horse Plains.

From “Montana, Its Story and Biography,” by Tom Stout, 1921

Colonel James A. McGowan, 28 years younger than Lynch, was a native of Malone, New York and a graduate of Wesleyan Seminary in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He worked in the lumber and mercantile business for more than a decade, then became a railroad contractor – a job that brought him to Horse Plains in May 1882.

Two years later, McGowan went into partnership with Lynch “on whose ranch the city was founded.” He immediately landed an annual four-thousand-dollar contract to supply the railroad with milk.

He married Delia Farmer and in a few short years controlled the mercantile business, a hotel and a blacksmith shop.

He eventually owned the Plains News Letter (a forerunner of the Plainsman newspaper), founded a bank, and created a local electric and heating plant.

Thompson Falls Times – June 1892

In the early 1890s the whole community was split over a land-survey lawsuit between the two town founders – a legal battle described as “at times exceedingly bitter, at times verging on open hostility.”

In the end, the General Land Office of the Interior Department allotted Lynch and McGowan with “their respective portions of land” and declared Horse Plains an official town site in 1892.

Horse Plains was described as a rather self-sufficient town, “whose interests are self-centered, whose people are home people; therefore visits to Missoula are infrequent,” according to that Gazette scribbler in 1890.

“All trains stop here for five minutes, so the beverage-loving travelers may scoot over to the Rocky Mountain saloon, kept by N. Blake, and drink at his unceasing spring of perennial youth – beer in keg and bottle.”

By 1895, the town was said to be “booming.” A local newspaper correspondent reported “The grain harvest is good as was expected…(the railroad) repainted their their buildings and are building a large water tank…(McGowans’ new store) would be an honor to any town…(and) Mr. N. Lynch, Jr. shipped two carloads of hay recently. Mr. Lynch has about thirteen men busily engaged taking care of his hay.”

Missoula Weekly Gazette   January 13, 1892

Neptune Lynch died of pneumonia on May 25, 1898. James McGowan died April 1, 1911 in Los Angeles. 

Their little town, can point to a number of origin dates. The land office declared it an official town-site in 1892, the post office established an office in 1905 officially calling the town “Plains,” and the current city hall website declares 1907 as the official founding date.

The population of 300 in 1890 has increased to a 2021 estimate of about 1,180 residents.

The economy, originally based on agriculture, mining and commerce, now benefits from tourism as well: fishing, hunting and Bighorn sheep viewing.

Then, of course, there’s the Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife’s “11th Annual Pig Roast FUNdraiser,” Saturday, May 22nd at 2pm at the Sanders County Fairgrounds (just $30 per person).

As for that forecast by the “charming schoolma’am” in 1890 that one day “her school house would produce a girl for president,” we still wait.

Perhaps it will be one of the 400 students now enrolled in the Plains School District.

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.