As ranchers battle the frigid, cold weather to care for their livestock, many are reminded of an iconic Charlie Russell creation. That being Waiting for a Chinook.
Jim Peterson ranches in the heart of Charlie Russell country, the Judith Basin. Peterson is the former Executive Vice President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association (1990 – 2000) and past President of the Montana State Senate. He now serves as Chair of the CM Russell Museum. His passion for Russell’s art is evident.
“Most artists paint what they see,” said Peterson. “Charlie painted what he lived.”
CM Russell’s well-known watercolor Waiting for a Chinook came from an event Russell lived through.
During the winter of 1886/1887, Montana experienced a brutal winter that killed thousands of cattle that grazed on the open range.
A young CM Russell was working in the Judith Basin that winter. The cattle he tended were owned by Louis Stadler and L.E. Kaufman based out of Helena.
In open range days, the little hay that was harvested in the summer was rationed for horses. While the range cowboys did their best to tend to the cattle, Mother Nature was relentless with snow, cold and wind.
“The cattle owners wrote a letter to the ranches foreman Jesse Phelps asking what condition the cattle were in,” Peterson explained. “The ranch foreman didn't really know how to respond because the news was so bad.”
Instead of using words, Kid Russell painted a small postcard sized image for the Phelps to send the cattle owners in Helena.
“He created a watercolor of an emaciated steer about to starve to death,” Peterson said as he described the small piece of art. “The steer was surrounded by wolves that were just waiting for the steer to die.”
Russell also painted the owners brand, the Bar R, on the right hip of the steer.
The scene was both figurative and literal and captured the hearts of anyone who gazed at it. The artwork was the Instagram of the late 19th century sharing a tragic story with just one image.
“The art was passed around Helena showing the conditions of things in the Utica area,” said Peterson. “The painting found it's way to a little shop there in Helena. And was on display there for a longtime. Shortly thereafter, Charlie started to be recognized as a pretty good artist.”
Years later, CM Russell did re-create the image in more detail. Waiting for a Chinook is also known as The Last of the 5000.
But what happed to the original image Russell created in the winter of 1886?
The story goes is that the image traded hands several times in Helena before it found a spot on the wall of a rancher’s home.
“Wallis Huidekoper was his name,” said Peterson. “Huidekoper was a rancher in Central Montana and a Montana Stockgrowers Association member at that time. This painting hung in his ranch house for 30 years.”
According to his own account, Huidekoper purchased the picture of a “reasonable sum” from a harness maker in Helena in 1913. Took it Chicago to have it “cleaned, pressed, backed and framed.”
Not wanting to be selfish, Huidekoper wanted his fellow Stockgrower members and the public to enjoy the famous watercolor. So, he donated the painting to the Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) on November 17th, 1942.
The Stockgrowers still own the priceless artwork. Decades ago, they put it on permanent display for the public to see at the Montana Historical Society in Helena.
MSGA president and Sidney rancher Jim Steinbeisser said the artwork is a reminder of the past, present, and future of the livestock business in the state.
“It's an incredible piece of artwork, especially as it has a personal meaning to ranchers out in the cold country that's for sure,” said Steinbeisser. “It brings to mind that a big part of what Montana has been from the beginning is a cattle state. Livestock is still a big part of Montana and it is our goal to keep it that way.”
Steinbeisser added that the MSGA has countless historical items in storage from both the State and associations histories. They are working to make sure they are stewards of that history by making it available for the public to enjoy in the near future. Just as they have done with the CM Russell artwork.
Waiting for a Chinook can be found hanging in the homes of many ranches across the state. It is a reminder of the power of Mother Nature. But it is also a reminder of a rancher’s commitment to their livestock and land no matter the weather.