From the Billings Gazette Sunday Magazine for March 20, 1966
by Mary Strachan Scriver
First -- the Hawken rifle and the Bowie knife... Then the shadow of a massive, red-bearded man... Mysterious, but just coincidence? Or -- is he Montana’s famed mountain man, Liver-Eatin’ Johnson, reincarnated for the sculptor?
A huge shadow darkened the reception desk at Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. I looked up and screamed. Bob Scriver came out of the workshop, stopped dead in his tracks, staring. “My God!” Scriver’s voice was hoarse. “It’s Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.”
The shadow’s maker -- a massive man with blood-red beard -- stared back. “I just wanted an admission to the museum,” he said softly, almost apologetically. “I’m Bob Swinford from Cascade, CO. I truck cars across the country and...”
“Yes, but---” Scriver put in, “You look like the Liver-Eater.”
Scriver knows the looks of the Liver-Eater. Siince the winter night Hubert Bartlett, Browning gun dealer, showed him the Hawken rifle and Bowie knife the Liver-Eater carried, Scriver has been digging for every bit of information possible about this fmous Montana mountain man.
Johnson, named John Johnston, who’s figured in plenty of blood-curdling tales, came into Montana after a hitch in the Civil War. He fought Indians, hunted, trapped, cut wood for steamboats on the Upper Missouri, was a deputy sheriff at Coulson in the early 1880’s, a lawman at Red Lodge. he died in Los Angeles in 1899.
He got his nickname in the spring of ‘70 at Fort Hawley on the Musselshell. Sioux shot a white woman and a nephew picking berries near the fort. The fort’s men took after the Indians, killed 24, scalped the corpses and cut up the bodies. Johnston, a wood cutter at the fort, held out a Sioux liver stuck to the tip of his scalping knife. “Any you boys take yore liver rare?” The “boys” stared at Johnston’s blood-smeared beard. From then on John Johnston was “Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.”
Facts and fantasy surrounding Johnson fascinated Scriver. He wanted to sculpt this huge mountain man. When Swinford cast his shadow across the museum desk, it was almost as if the Liver-Eater had been reincarnated for the sculptor.
All this was explained to Swinford, who agreed to stay for supper, be measured, photographed, posed and reposed. Being a model for a statue of a mountain man fit right in with Swinford’s leisure interests. He’s explored, hunted treasure, fired a Hawken rifle, trapped on snowshoes.
Based on Swinford, the clay model of Liver-Eatin’ Johnson practially leapt to life iin Scriver’s hands. It now stands in Scriver’s studio and will be cast in bronze and put in the art gallery of Museum of Montana Wildlife or in galleries in New York, Tucson or Dallas where Scriver’s work has been shown.
Sculpting the Liver-Eater is another step along the way of life Scriver decided was to be his. Ten years ago friend persuaded him to submit an entry in the Montana Historical Society contest for a statue of Charles M. Russell to be placed in the Hall of Fame. Scriver’s entry did not win, but the experience made him decide he was meant to be a sculptor.
He was born in Browning, son of Thaddeus E. and Ellison Scriver. Thaddeus founded Browning Mercantile Co. in 1909. Son Bob was fascinated by the oldtimer’s tales of Indians, rustlers, stagecoaches and wagon trains. He roamed the countryside after school hours, sketching animals, cowboys, Indians, and modeling with clay dug from river banks.
After high school he went to Dickinson State College in North Dakota, played in the college and city bands, and then studied at Vandercook School of Music in Chicago whee he was graduated with a bachelor of arts degree.
Bob returned to Browning High School as a teacher. Soon the band was winning superior ratings in state competitions. In his spare time, Bob hunted with Indian friends and built a kayak. In summer he lived in a tipi at St. Mary’s with his wife and small daughter while he built a more permanent summer cabin. Later he taught in Malta.
Then came World War II. Bob served as a sergeant and was first chair cornet in the U.S. Army Air Force Band, Alaskan Division. When the war was over, he had a bursted blood vessel in his head, which made him unable to bear the pressure necessary to produce high notes, his little family had broken up, he had lost the thread of his former career.
For several years he was an ice-cutter, a professional musician, a mink rancher, a photographer and a common laborer. Then he went back to teaching music, but the life no longer satisfied him. His hobby of taxidermy began to grow into a business. As a sideline he modeled a set of small animals and sold them to tourists.
So -- in 1956, encouraged by his friends who’d seen his Russell entry, Scriver made the start in a career of sculpting. With two empty lots, $500 and an old red truck, he build Scriver Taxidermy and Art Studio.
Buying two old warehouses with the $500, he demolished them, board by board with a nail puller and hauled the lumber to his lots. He constructed a building of his own design, put in the wiring and plumbing.
In 1959 business growth justified addition of the Museum of Montana Wildlife -- a main hall of full mounts of each major mammal in the state, a diorama room, featuring miniature game animals in realistic settiings, and an art gallery containing a complete collection of his sculpture.
The taxidermy business paid for the sculpture, but sculpture has begun to attract attention. With suport of Kennedy Galleries in New York and Rosequist Galleries in Tucson, Scriver will give sculpture his full time when present taxidermy obligations are fulfilled.
His sculpture ranges from cowboys and Indian and the Liver-Eater to character studies and portraits.
Leisure-time activities are quiet moments of sketching and painting in the outdoors, a slab of venison and homemade bread in his saddlebags, or playing with his pets. His grounds, home and workshop are full of animals -- horses, eagle, fox.
After years of hunting, Scriver believes all animals should be protected except those that are destructive or needed for food.
His aim is to keep what remains of the West from vanishing and to preserve the vanished West in bronze.
Reprinted at the request of Dorman Nelson, who is writing about Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.