By Arnold Hokanson
There was a time when most men wore hats of some kind. And most men valued them quite seriously. Oh, some of the hats worn around the ranch looked as though they’d been through the Civil War. But nearly everyone had a “good hat” that they wore out in public. And a hat could tell a story. If, for instance, a rancher was seen in town wearing his old everyday hat, you could bet he was shipping cattle.
Now back in the 1920s, which were known as the Roaring Twenties, the roar was more of a whimper to those in the cattle business. All agriculture grew even worse in the Thirties.
Some young men fell on hard times, so they would don the hat of what was known as a grub line rider. They would ride into the ranch, tie their horse in the barn, hang their hat on the wall, and put their feet under the table. They served as kind of a traveling local newspaper, as they knew what was going on around the area and would share their knowledge with their hosts. In the wintertime, they would help feed cattle for a few days. Other times, they might help do a little fencing or haul firewood, and if there was riding to be done, that, of course, would be right up their alley. When they felt their welcome was wearing thin, they would saddle up and move on.
Cecile was one such man, known to be a pretty good worker and a pretty fair stock hand. But at times, when he couldn’t find a job, he too would wear the hat of a grub line rider. And somehow, Cecile always managed to have a good hat.
There was still a piece of open range just south of the Bears Paw Mountains at that time. Ranchers would sometimes turn cattle out there, and at times, cattle from the Missouri River badlands would drift up that way and mix in with the other cattle. Those badland cattle were wild and, sometimes, would pass on their affliction to other cattle.
On one occasion, the rancher Cecile was visiting had a three-year-old steer get mixed in with the badland cattle. He enlisted Cecile’s help to bring that steer home…
Cecile was wearing a brand new John B. Stetson hat.
They found the steer, cut him off the cattle he was running with, and headed him toward home. He was wild. All went well until they came to a fence. The rancher went ahead to open the gate while Cecile was supposed to keep the steer moving.
Now, Cecile had a little horse called Rocksy. Rocksy presumably weighed less than 900 pounds, but he was a tough little mustang and a good stock horse and a good rope horse.
When that steer saw that there was only one rider between him and wide open spaces, he decided to give it a try. That steer went out-ducking Rocksy on every turn. Cecile took down his rope and tied hard and fast. The rancher said when he saw Cecile’s loop settle over the steer’s horns, he knew there was going to be a terrible wreck. The steer, Rocksy, and Cecile all ended up in a pile. As Rocksy began to get his feet under him, Cecile came crawling out, yelling, “Where’s my hat? Where’s my hat?”
Some of the more reckless types, rather than become grub line riders, put on the hats of cattle rustlers. As Cecile rode across country one day, he topped a rise and saw two men in the coulee below butchering out a beef. A shot rang out, and Cecile’s hat took flight.
A voice from behind a nearby tree said, “Get to hell out of here!”
Cecile asked, “Can I get my hat?”
The voice answered, “Get your hat and get to hell out of here!”
Cecile wore that hat with the bullet hole in it like a badge
Cecile never would tell whether he recognized the men or the voice, but it was expected that he did. The county sheriff knew who they were, but for a long while was unable to catch them. When he finally did catch a gang member with the needed evidence, he told the man in disgust, “If you had a head that fit the size of your brain, a peanut shell would make you a panama hat.”
But the rustler in question was smart enough to save his own hide. He agreed to testify against Kuch, the leader of the gang, to secure his own freedom. The gang of rustlers was broken up, and that was the end of organized cattle rustling in the Bears Paw area.
As for Cecile, he eventually learned that he could drive a nail and saw a board off somewhat straight. He gave up the grub line. He quit roping wild steers. He pensioned off Rocksy, and he became a carpenter. And he no longer had problems with his hat. He wore one of those funny little caps like all carpenters wear.