Holten: A colorful character from Divide Township

If you ranched near the Badlands of North Dakota, north of Sentinel Butte back in the 1920s, and your wife took off with another cowboy and left you with three young kids, what would you do?...


If you ranched near the Badlands of North Dakota, north of Sentinel Butte back in the 1920s, and your wife took off with another cowboy and left you with three young kids, what would you do? 

If you were Jess Buell, you’d ship one boy off to an orphanage in Fargo and the other two to a New England boarding school. Then you’d take off yourself.

That might not sound like the best solution, but it did produce one of Divide Township’s most legendary characters and his name was Don Buell. He was the youngest child of the three.

Not long afterward, their grandfather came to North Dakota from Oregon to reunite them. After that, he came back again to sell the ranch to Math Brown, around 1928 or so.

That’s when young Don Buell informed his grandfather that, rather than go back to Oregon, he was staying with the ranch and that’s exactly what happened. So the Browns not only got a ranch, but a 10-year-old character to go with it.


Math Brown had a number of kids, including one son named Art who was about Don’s age. He also had a daughter, Loretta, who would one day marry rodeo legend, Jim Tescher.

Plus, a son named Lloyd who would marry Jim Teacher’s sister.

Back then, Don and Art would break horses by riding them to the Westerheim country school each day, which was four-and-a-half miles away.

“You could watch them come over the hill mounted on horses that would buck all the way,” said legendary cowboy Rex Cook, a Westerheim student who was in the first grade at the time. “Then they’d tie the horses up in the barn and after school they’d go bucking back over the hill again, all the way back to the ranch and then do it again the next day. They could really ride.”

Later, Buell would develop into an extraordinary cowboy. But he was not necessarily fond of manual labor and ultimately developed a habit of roaming from one place to another.

“If he didn’t like a particular task, he’d just stop what he was doing and take off,” Cook said. “Plus, after a while, he’d go to one place and work for a time, and then to another and then another.”

On one occasion, he was hired to work at a nearby ranch owned by Cliff Wagener. Rather than plant potatoes in rows as was requested, he simply dropped them all into one big hole and declared the project complete.

“I didn’t hire on to plant potatoes,” he said.


Later on, while in the midst of a relationship with the schoolmarm from the somewhat nearby Olson School, he decided it was time to move on and rode off on her bicycle to the

Cook Ranch and parked it by the side of the house. He worked for the Cooks for a time, until he earned himself a horse and then he rode off.

“We rode that bike for two years,” Cook said, not knowing where it had come from.

At one time, there was a horse no one could ride at a dude ranch called the Buddy Ranch located near Medora. The doctor who owned the horse came to the Cook Ranch to get Buell to break it.

When Buell and the doc got back to the Buddy Ranch, there were cowboys sitting on the fence ready to bet Buell that he would never be able to ride it. Buell didn’t bet, but he should have.

“I didn’t have the $5 they wanted to bet,” Buell said.

Later that day, he rode the horse to the Cook Ranch, tied it up to a windmill and went inside the house.

“He wasn’t bad,” Buell said to a young Rex Cook.


Now for some reason that story reminds me of a quote I read that was credited to major league pitcher Dizzy Dean. He said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”

Holten is the president of the North Dakota Cowboy Association and executive producer of NBC-TV’s Special Cowboy Moments.

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