By J.B. Chandler
Elmer Thompson came to Montana in 1894 and never left. Everybody called him Hominy. Hominy gets the credit as the first white settler to immigrate into what would eventually be known as Sheridan County. He built himself a cabin alongside the Whitetail Creek. A dugout cabin cut into the coulee, his mud-caked roof grew grass. Despite his primitive abode, Hominy kept a clean and tidy house, a perfectly swept dirt floor, pressed clean clothes, and through the years he had built some irrigation channels for his farm and ranch. He was one of the good, lawful farmers in the area, residing in a territory otherwise stocked with cowboys and outlaws. Hominy spent time in a crew opposed to the outlaws, only to become an outlaw himself. He lived a full life and became a lively part of our Montana history.
In 1913, Sheridan County was formed; in 1920, Daniels County. The railroad was the reason for their creation. The Great Northern came in 1911 and the Soo Line in 1914. The Soo Line was the massive ironclad infrastructure that cut through much of Hominy’s irrigation ditches. Still, it took him nearly ten years to raise a stink about it, and boy did he raise one heck of a stink. For 13 days in 1923, Hominy Thompson would wage a one man siege on the Soo.
Whitetail lay at the end of the Soo Line’s wheat line. So once the train delivered the mail and went back east, there would be no more trains for the day. When that next westbound train did arrive, it had to stop. There was a house built on the tracks—a tar paper shack that Hominy had built overnight. It would be his home for the next 13 days.
Hominy used his wits, his humor, and his shotgun when dealing with railroad people, while that tar paper shack served to stop the trains from reaching their western terminus. Hominy may have wanted more money for his land, maybe for the deconstruction of the railroad, but he should have known that this armed siege was too much. He did gain a measure of fame as national news came to the area to take pictures of the shack on the railroad tracks. But this war was almost over. Eventually the feds were called in and Hominy was arrested for obstructing mail delivery. The shack was removed and the trains ran again.
Hominy had brought national attention to northeast Montana, but the railroad won; he lost. He served some jail time—he was a felon, an outlaw—but he was viewed by most locals as a hero. It was a war of the lonely farmer versus the big corporation. It was also a fight for an old way of life. Thompson lived in that dugout cabin for another six years, 33 years total, before retiring and living out the rest of his days in Plentywood. The small farmers had their day, but with the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties coming soon, Montana farms and farmers would see much change in the coming years. These dryland pioneers and the end of their ways of life signaled an end of the Old West in Montana. Hominy’s fight was for that Old West way of life. Hopefully that fight will never end.