By Elizabeth Guheen
Charles Monroe Bair may very well have been among those who came west with romantic visions of its open plains, abundant wildlife, and economic opportunities, but at an early age he already possessed a mature work ethic and a strong drive to succeed. He had finished school at fifteen and gone to work on the family farm in Paris, Ohio. Following his father’s death, he was expected to take a secondary role to his brothers in the farm’s operation. It is unclear whether he objected to this arrangement on principle, or if his youth, ambition, and the largely circulated promotional literature about the last great frontier led him away from his birthplace.
He arrived in Billings, Montana Territory in 1883 at the age of 26. From that moment forward, Billings would remain “his town” no matter where in the world he found himself doing business over the years.
Through the 1877 Desert Land Act, Bair began to invest in property in Lavina and engage in various entrepreneurial activities that became the foundation of a successful and influential business life and of significant earned wealth. In 1886, Bair married Mary Jacobs of Michigan (whom he had met on his way out west). Rather than living in Billings, Mr. and Mrs. Bair relocated to the more gentrified Helena.
In addition to his claim of 320 acres in Lavina, in 1888, Bair purchased about 160 acres a few miles south of town. In 1890, he purchased another 5,540 acres. Following the winter of 1886-1887, which decimated more than sixty percent of the territory’s beef population, many ranchers began to invest heavily in sheep (which had “weathered” the crisis much better). Bair stocked his rangeland with sheep and kept a close eye on his operations. Around 1891, the family—which now included two-year-old daughter Marguerite—moved to a two-room, sod-roofed cabin at the Lavina ranch. They survived the rustic conditions with good humor until 1893, when the family sold the ranch and moved to Billings.
A second daughter, Alberta, was born in 1895.
That year, using the proceeds from the sale of the ranch, Bair began to build what would become an immense sheep empire based in Lavina, Hardin, and Martinsdale. Over the next five years, he was to run between 10,000 and 40,000 sheep on an amalgamation of both purchased and leased property. In the 1890s, the state’s sheep population stood at roughly six million head, making Montana the number one wool-growing state. That number might have been even larger, had Bair not decided to sell his sheep in 1898. That spring, he traveled to the Yukon Klondike in search of gold.
Very few details are known about Bair’s trip. It could not have been easy for the now portly forty-year-old businessman who was known to fish his favorite hole at Pryor Creek wearing a suit and a tie. In any event, Bair returned to Billings in the fall of 1898 a very wealthy man.
On the eve of a new century, Charles Bair and his family found themselves financially and socially positioned to affect the state positively on a number of fronts. Almost two decades of hard work, combined with the overwhelming lucrative outcome of the Klondike excursion allowed Bair and his family to travel, purchase art, and open doors in social and political circles.
Following his return from the Yukon, Bair leased property on the Crow Reservation near Hardin and stocked the range with sheep. Sheep ranching was to remain his passion and main focus in life. At one time, he ran as many as 300,000 head of sheep. While he scaled back during the Depression, the ranch was in sound financial position. He ran about 23,000 during the lean years. During the fall of 1932, when Bair was 75, he wrote from Lewistown, “I am sort of on my toes over here with more sheep on the trail than anybody.”
Though he was born in Ohio, Charlie Bair was home in Montana.
The King of the Western Wool Growers was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1975.