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Holten: Stepping back in time

I had a nice surprise the other day. I got to step back in time. It’s not often that you can travel to the late 1800s, but that’s exactly what I did one week ago when Stan Wibaux stepped into my office at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

In case you don’t know it, Stan’s great-great uncle, Pierre Wibaux was a big deal around these parts in those days.

He was bigger than that tenderfoot from New York, Teddy Roosevelt, and even bigger than the Marquis de Mores, who we often times refer to as the creator of the community of Medora, which he named after his wife.

That’s right, Pierre was the son of a French family that was huge in the textile industry in northern France in the 1800s and one day they sent Pierre to London to learn about the international textile trade. It was there that he heard about the opportunities to acquire land in America and decided that he wanted to be a cattleman.

According to Stan, the Wibaux family sent him on his merry way with $10,000 in his pocket and he used it to travel to Chicago, which was the hub of the cattle industry at the time. It was there that he met the Marquis de Mores, who told him Medora was the place to go and the rest is history.

Pierre was immediately successful. But then, like everyone, he suffered in the great freeze of 1886-87 when everyone, who at the time grazed their cattle on open range, lost most of them to the cold and, as a result, gave up and left the area.

Yet, according to legendary North Dakota cowboy Rex Cook, who heard it from some of the old-timers many years ago, Wibaux was more clever than most in that he had his cowboys keep his cattle in low spots where they’d be protected, so that he had enough left to start again. Eventually he built up his herd to 60,000 head of cattle that grazed on large patches of land in both western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Eventually, Wibaux used the immense wealth he gained in the cattle business to invest in gold mining, banking and many other things and became a very wealthy man before dying in 1913 at the young age of 58 in Chicago of liver cancer.

Flash forward to present day and into my office steps a 32-year-old man by the name of Stan Wibaux from north France who, at 6-foot-5 with dark hair and beard, fulfills all of the requirements necessary to be described as tall, dark and handsome. He even played on the French national volleyball team, and he caused quite a stir among the females of the community of Medora.

Add to that a pronounced French accent, and a very humble and courteous manner and personality, and you have someone who could stay in the area and probably do quite well for himself.

But this younger Wibaux was simply in San Francisco on business and decided to catch a flight to Billings, Mont., and then rent a car and trek to the community of Wibaux, Mont., just to see what it was like where his great-great uncle, after whom the community was named, had done so well.

“I am struck by how vast the area is,” Stan said to us in his humble French way and then proceeded to tell us more about Pierre Wibaux than those of us who are supposed to know knew.

The conversation continued at the home of Doug Ellison, the Medora mayor, bookstore and hotel owner, and historian. He really took us back in time when he showed us a collection of newspapers clippings on Pierre Wibaux, in addition to his last will and testament, which to me seemed more like a well-written autobiography.

Meanwhile, in 1957, Pierre Wibaux’s nephew, J. Sylvain Wibaux had visited the city of Wibaux, Mont., and that community, at the time, went all out to welcome him. It was also at that time that the Wibaux Pioneer Gazette featured an article written by Mrs. Nora C. Hurd about Pierre Wibaux which, amongst other things, stated: “Mr. Wibaux was known as a good man to work for, fair to his men, kind and thoughtful to his proven friends, but overbearing and haughty with those who tried to use his friendship to further their own designs.”

Author Michael Crichton once said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

Thanks to Stan Wibaux, we got to travel back in time and learn a little bit more about our local history.

Holten is the manager of The Drill and the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Email him at