On December 19, 1889 John Carl Laney was born in Nodaway County, Missouri, the first
child of John Waugh Laney and Sallie Elizabeth Heren who were married just the year
before. In this chapter we will survey the early life of this most distinctive and colorful
John and Sallie Laney migrated by car from Missouri to Miles City, Montana in the spring
of 1891. Carl was just two years old at the time. Why did John choose Montana? His
older sister, Clara, had married a rancher, Ben Meyers, who had established a horse
ranch on the Shield's River near Livingston, Montana. John's brother, Arnon, had
established a sheep ranch on the Powder River near Miles City, Montana in 1882-83. He
was one of the first to ride the Northern Pacific Railroad from St. Paul to Miles City, the
end of the line. The establishment of Fort Keogh in 1876 made the Yellowstone Valley a
safe place for ranchers, and the passing of the buffalo cleared the range for the growth of
the great cattle barons and invasion of the small ranchers.
Arnon liked what he saw of southeastern Montana and settled for a ranch on Powder River
at the mouth of the Mizpah about 30 miles east of Miles City. Another source says,
"across Powder River from the mouth of Horse Creek." Perhaps there were two different
names for this creek. Arnon is credited for having killed the last buffalo seen on Powder
River. Late one spring evening he spied a lone buffalo wandering up the river across from
his ranch. Quickly mounting his horse, he pursued and shot the animal. His nephew, John
Carl, remembers the buffalo hide. "As a youngster I remember gazing in awe and envy at
Uncle Arnon's fabulous lap-robe for carriage or sleigh riding in Montana's winter
While Arnon was developing his ranch into one of the best on Powder River, his brother
John Waugh in Missouri was struggling with a decision--whether to go west or go on for
more education. He went for more education and in two years graduated from Iowa
Wesleyan College at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. This paid off handsomely in another way too.
There he met and married Sallie, the lovely and cultured daughter of Judge Heren, a
prominent lawyer in the State of Missouri. Be he could not make up his mind to take his
lovely bride to such a far away place as Montana, so he established himself as a farmer in
Nodaway County, Missouri.
Late in the spring of 1887, young John's mail box yielded a letter from
brother Arnon on the Powder River, Montana. It read in part:
Dear bro. John,
How lucky you are that you are in God's country getting ready to
plant corn and slopping hogs instead of this place forgotten of God, skinning
sheep and steers. We have just gone through the worst winter here in the
memory of man. It began in November and lasted without pause till May. Heavy
snows with gale winds leached the country, filling gullies and small streams with
deep drifts that caught and suffocated the cattle drifting before the blizzard of
Later freezing rains fell that formed a glaze of ice and crusted snow
over all the land. Cattle cut their legs to pieces trying to paw down to grace.
Mostly they just starved to death. The usual warm chinooks of January and
February did not arrive. Finally in late April spring weather freed the range of its
snow burden bringing to view the thousands of dead cattle lying about
everywhere. The spring roundup has bee a most dismal affair. The big outfits
have lost half to three quarters of their herds. Many are broke. As for the small
rancher like myself who had ranch shelter and some hay and could uncover some
grass with a prairie snow plow, we saved most of our cattle and sheep. The big
lesson that seems to come out of all this, the greatest disaster to the range
country to date, is that the future here is bright for the smaller ranchers with some
And get this brother John; in spite of all this I'm not about to go back
to skinning mules in Missouri. Powder River has got me. However, this bachelor
routine is getting old. Women here are scarce and I am going to have to do
something about it and soon. And pass this word to brother David, to forget
Powder River while the fuzz is still on his face!
This letter must have stirred the adventurous spirit of John Laney. Three years later he
packed up his belongings and his family, and headed for the Yellowstone Valley, Montana,
a place made famous when General Custer and his calvary troop were cut down by the
Indians on the Rosebud River.
John had successfully engaged in farming and stock raising in Missouri, but the lure of the
West, family interests and business opportunity led him to Montana. An item in the
"Yellowstone Journal" of Miles City, dated April 2, 1892, acknowledged John's arrival. "J.
W. Laney, a brother of our well known Arnon Laney of Powder River, has arrived here from
Missouri with household goods and all things required to make a Montana home happy,
an establishment which he will soon set up on Powder River near his brother's ranch."
The family first settled in Terry, moving to Miles City about 1895. Soon John's ranching
enterprise got under way.
The Laneys about 1891, just before
moving to Montana. Sallie,
Marguerite, John Carl, and John W.
Assisted by his brother Arnon, a ten year veteran of Powder River, John put together a
band of sheep that summer and fall. He made a winter camp on O'Fallon Creek near
Terry. But according to his son, Carl, he lost his gamble of trying to winter without some
hay. An unusually prolonged and heavy snow cover buried the rich range grass so deep
the sheep could not reach it. John spent the winter cutting down cotton wood trees so the
sheep could get the tender buds to eat. By spring the pelts of most of the sheep were
hanging on the fence. John turned the remainder back to his brother and they "called it
The prolonged winter of 1893 dealt harshly with John Laney's ranching aspirations, but by
1897 he was in the sheep business on Powder River near Mizpah. In 1902 he bought a
ranch from a Mr. Parkhurst and moved into a home on Beaver Creek at the mouth of
Russell Creek near Ekalaka. There he developed a very successful ranching business.
Over the years the Laney family integrated well into the community affairs of Ekalaka.
John was a member of the school board. In 1896 his name was placed on the ballot for
sheriff of Custer County. Sallie made their home a social center for the young people for
miles around with winter parties and summer hospitality. A six-quart ice cream freezer
helped with the summer activity!
What was southeastern Montana like in the early 1900's? The population was growing
rapidly. Most of the residents were engaged in dry land farming, stock raising or both.
Miles City, named after General Nelson A. Miles (1839-1925) who served in the Civil War
and later rounded up the hostile Indians after the massacre of General Custer in 1876. He
established Fort Keogh that same year just across the Tongue River from Miles City.
When the town was founded in 1877, Miles City was dubbed the "Cow Capital" of the
world. The Northern Pacific Railroad reached the city in 1881, hastening its growth.
Frequented by buffalo hunters, soldiers from Fort Keogh, bullwhackers and mule
skinners, Miles City was at one time considered second only to Dodge City in reputation
as the wildest town in the West!
The town of Ekalaka was named after an Indian maiden born on the Powder River in
1858. Her Indian name, Ijkalaka, in the Sioux tongue means "restless" or "moving about."
Her mother died when she was very young and Ekalaka was reared by her aunt who was
married to a white settler at Fort Laramie. At about 16 years of age she met David
Harrison Russell, a daring scout and frontiersman. The acquaintance blossomed into a
romance. Russell married the Indian maiden and in 1881 became the first settler in the
vicinity of what is now known as Ekalaka. The first building erected in Ekalaka was a
saloon called the "Old Stand." A general store and post office was opened in 1885. As
ranchers settled the area around Ekalaka, the town acquired its first hotel, a blacksmith
shop, a hardware store, livery barn and a school. By the arrival of the Laneys in 1902,
Ekalaka was a thriving community and the cultural center for the ranchers for miles
In 1896 Montana produced more sheep and wool than any other state in the Union. It was
by capitalizing on this sheep ranching that the Laney brothers, Arnon, John and later
David, intended to earn their way and establish their place in the plains of Montana.
John's son, [John] Carl, spoke with pride of the days he spent raising sheep in Montana.
The Laney family around 1905
Marguerite Carl Dollie David
Eveline Sarah John W. William Sallie Opal
Carl attended second and third grades in Miles City in 1895 and 1896, and then again for
two years from 1906 to 1908. While living on Beaver Creek, the Laney children rode in an
enclosed wagon about five miles to Ekalaka. Seating was along each side of the wagon
bed. In cold weather, hot rocks, covered with hay, kept everyone warm, so inclement
weather never stopped the Laney children from going to school. Window glass across the
front of the wagon kept cold weather out. In pleasant weather, the sides rolled up about
half way. In the evening, when they loaded the wagon to go home, as many school friends
as could would crowd in too. These classmates were unleaded on Main Street before the
wagon left town, hence the term "Monkey Cage" invented by the local citizens.
Carl, the oldest of the children drove a wagon full of children to the school house. They
picked up the teacher on the way. He used to tell an incident when the horses, named
Baldy and Roxey, were spooked and took off running. They couldn't be stopped, no
matter how Carl tried! Finally, they ran off the road and the wagon tumbled over.
Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it was more than enough adventure for one day.
In 1906 the Laney family moved back to Miles City for two years (1806- 1808). During
those years Carl played football for Miles City High School. John raised sheep in
southeastern Montana until 1909, although he moved his family to Spokane, Washington
in 1908 to facilitate the education of his nine children. According to Carl, the move was
instigated by his mother Sallie who wanted to make sure that her boys didn't marry "bar
girls" and her daughters "sheep herders." She was very ambitious for her children. They
were all going to get a college education and marry well.
While John may have picked a bad time to land in Montana, he certainly picked a good
time to leave. He sold out just ahead of the homestead era that engulfed Eastern
Montana in 1912. Soon Beaver Creek ranch was fenced in solid and prairie dog towns
became wheat fields.
The Laney brothers, Arnon, John and David, developed a large horse and cattle ranch
along Crab Creek in eastern Washington on property they acquired in 1910. In later years
the partnership was split up, Arnon taking the land now included in the Cloverleaf Ranch
later operated by his son, Joe C. Laney, and the other property taken by David and later
operated by his son-in-law, George G. Williams, wife of his daughter Audrey. John Laney
was apparently bought out and relocated in Oregon in 1933.
Early life of John Carl Laney
|The "Monkey Cage" was the Laney transportation to Ekalaka
School. Carl holds the reins of the horses.
Carl with his horse
ready for Sunday
John played football
for Miles City High
School. He is seated
in the first row, 3rd
from the left.
The John and Aaron Laney
children at the Laney home
on Powder River.
John, the oldest, is seated
in the center