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Walter Hard’s Lament

I’m in love with the idea of singing businessmen—guys like the Williston grocer, F. J. Davis, who, when he managed to stay on the right side of the law, sang the virtues of his fresh fruit and seafood across the counter; or the Great Falls haberdasher Mike Mullin, owner of the Mikehasit men’s clothing store, who wrote a great ballad advising his customers, while “Waiting for a Chinook,” to stock up on warm winter wear from his store.

Now let me sing the virtues of the greatest businessman-balladeer on the northern plains, Walter Hard, of Judith Gap, Montana. Walter was an oldtime cowboy of the open range who, once the day of the great cattle outfits was over, settled in gracefully as a town father. He opened a saloon he named “The Palace Cafe.” He advertised the establishment every week during the early 1900s with display ads in the Judith Gap Journal.

As the name of the saloon, Palace Buffet, intimates, Mr. Hard drew trade to the establishment through that wonderful custom of offering free lunch to midday drinkers. He made the place a pleasant resort by investing in beautiful fixtures, which the local editor praised as “not to be excelled in the state. The mirror, panels, embossing and in fact everything in connection with the interior are beyond compare.”

All of which did not mean Hard was abandoning his roots on the rustic range. Now and then he took time off to ride into the Snowy Mountains and visit old cronies who had settled into small ranches there. Should they venture down to town, Hard advised them, “Plenty of room for everybody in the county when they visit Judith Gap. Don’t forget to see the old range rider when in town.”

Just in case old Walter and his free lunches were not enough attraction, there also was his pet bear, Nellie Bruin, who greeted the public from a pen alongside the saloon. The story, as I piece it together from humorous items in the papers, is that in the fall of 1910, Walter and some of his friends went out into the hills and roped and captured the bear for purposes of exhibition.

So far so good. Walter, in fact, in gratitude to his helpers in the bear venture, served them up a banquet, which the press pronounced “the swellest feast ever served in the district.” It began with oyster cocktails and proceeded through roast duck, roast turkey, plum pudding, and all manner of other trimmings, concluding with Key West cigars and multiple toasts.

The next we learn of the bear is a press report the following summer that Nellie Bruin had escaped and was at large in Judith Gap. Walter deployed his cowboy skills to rope her, and with help from his many friends, get her back into her pen. That was when things went south fast. As Walter tried to put Nellie’s collar back around her neck, she chomped down on his hand and chewed it up pretty badly. Putting on a brave face, Walter remarked, “Sometimes I wrestle the bear, sometimes the bear wrestle me.” The editor found him in the doctor’s office, “drawing the ambient fluid with one hand while the other is undergoing repairs.”

It was during the following year, 1912, that Hard, having recovered from the bear bite, wrote his great ballad, “Walter Hard’s Lament.” The lament is a common nineteenth-century form for ballads. This one has to do with changes in the land, and reminds me of similar nostalgic verses written in North Dakota by Clell Gannon and James Foley.

O, for the days of the happy past, the life of the open plain
The sight of the purpled hilltops to gladden my eyes again
To be once more the cowboy, whose home was the prairie wide
E’re the sound of the locomotive changed the course of the prairie tide.

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