Thursday, February 21, 2013


Barnaby Conrad Jr. has just died at the age of ninety.  He lived in the Santa Barbara area of California and few here in Montana know his story as they ought to, though he never lived here.

After the Civil War Charles and William Conrad were Big Men, so big that they had to split up the territory, first between the US and Canada along the Whoop-Up Trail, and later on either side of the Rocky Mountains so that William founded Conrad, my county seat, and ran the Seven Block Ranch from roughly where I live in Valier, developed the irrigation system that now supports wheat, and sold the whole outfit to Cargill for a nice profit.  Charles took the west side and founded Kalispell.   Both “married” Indians, some more formally than others, and had mixed blood children.  To read their stories is to read the history of Montana, but the plot is only passing through from French Huguenots (a subcategory of Calvinism persecuted by Catholics), to the US War of Independence, the Civil War, the early industrial development of the high prairie, then diplomacy and bull-fighting in Spain, and finally the post-WWII literary and arts flowering of San Francisco.  Of course there was a saloon:  “El Matador,” founded by Barnaby Conrad Jr. to invest the money made from his book by the same name.  Trying to make that much money from a book nowadays is sort of like undertaking open range ranching of sheep and herefords in the 1800’s. Barely possible with a lot of luck.

Now I’m quoting myself about the third Conrad brother, John.  (Use the search strip on the right edge of this blog to find earlier posts.) 

Rewind to 1880. Now we turn to John Conrad. His cattle were in the Hurlbut-Conrad Cattle Company, based in the notorious Johnson County, Wyoming.  [See “Heaven’s Gate”, the movie filmed in Glacier Park though the history was in Wyoming.  Some of the film was shot in the Charles Conrad mansion.) It’s unclear whether John was part of the cattle mogul vigilante groups, but certainly his cowboys were also gunslingers. By 1891 he had sold out his cows.

He met Mabel Barnaby during the 1884 Democratic National Convention. She was nineteen, accompanying her father, who was a Rhode Island merchant and politician. John was 29, identified by the newspapers as a “Western millionaire.” In 1887 he installed his new wife in a log cabin home in Billings and opened a fancy store. He also established an attachment to Samuel Hauser (banking, railroad, mining, and cattle) who was one of the Big Four. the others were Charles Broadwater (railroads and a fabulous health spa in Helena), Marcus Daly and William A. Clark (both copper kings). John’s goal was becoming governor. He bought a house at 702 Madison Avenue in Helena.

In the spring of 1891, Mabel’s mother was poisoned to death in Denver. John went berzerk in pursuit of the poisoner, who might have been a doctor who had ingratiated himself with the woman. The doctor had a mentally unstable wife and eventually collected $25,000 from her will, but the doctor poisoned himself before he could be convicted of murder. Under the pressure of all this the John Conrad marriage came totally unglued -- the master and mistress accusing each other of repeated adultery and the household so disorderly that at one point there was an in-house riot featuring the coachman wielding a stick and the Chinese cook swinging a frying pan. John was the loser.

The divorce was complete in 1895 and Mabel took her children (Florence, Maud and the first Barnaby) back to civilization in Europe. Since she had her own fortune, it was not difficult to marry an American named George Choate Kendall and move into a chateau in France.

Barnaby Conrad, Jr. (Mabel’s grandson) is the one who just died at the age of ninety.  He has a website of his own:   Basically, he lived the life that every small town boy in Montana longs to have -- including a career as an amateur bullfighter, ended by a near-fatal goring.  

His children fanned out across the humanities: painting, writing, publishing and editing, traveling and exploring.  But in Montana we don’t recognize such elite society: we cling to Charlie Russell, celebrating the man we think he was over and over and over, even as we un-fund humanities in the public schools.  The history of Conrad and Valier are mute on the subject of their founding families.  And the biography of Barnaby Conrad Jr. does not mention Montana.

I would not know about all this except for the courageous and engaging writing of Barnaby Conrad the Third, born in 1952 and author of “Ghost Hunting in Montana,” a key book about this major family of Montana history.  Conrad III was born in San Francisco in 1952.  His mother was architect Dale (Cowgill) Crichton. After graduating Yale with a BA in Fine Arts in 1975, Conrad worked as a journalist and magazine editor. Much of his work was for art magazines: he was one of the founding editors of Art World in the 1970s, and a senior editor of Horizon from 1979 to 1980.  In 1982, Conrad moved to Paris and became an adventure travel writer.  Conrad III married art gallery owner Martha Sutherland on May 24, 2003.  

His father, Barnaby Conrad Jr. was married twice, first in 1949 to Gale Cowgill. That marriage ended in divorce, and in 1963 he married Mary Slater, who survives him.

He is also survived by two sons, Barnaby Conrad III of Acconac, Va., and Winston Conrad of Kanuela, Hawaii; two daughters, Kendall Conrad of Montecito (Santa Barbara County) and Cayaetana Conrad of Carpinteria; and eight grandchildren.  The two daughters are artists who each have websites.

This intercontinental family has enormous vitality, boldness, and intelligence -- all supported by connections and money.  This third branch who descended from the younger son did a little better than the older sibs, probably because of their mothers.  Morality didn’t come into it much, though things have calmed down quite a bit in the last hundred years.  Not many of us have coachmen or Chinese cooks -- much less in-house riots.  But I suspect most of us don’t have as much fun, either, or the reckless and exhilarating exploration of new horizons.  

Schools now are focused on “containment and conformity”, which it is assumed will guarantee prosperity -- even as today’s Yale graduates wander the land looking for jobs.  We so underestimate youngsters.  When the oldest Conrad brothers joined their father in the Civil War, William was thirteen and Charles was eleven.  John arrived here in his teens. Their plantation was destroyed and their slaves dispersed, so they just walked West.  Nowadays, they might walk their fingers across keyboards.  Or maybe not.  Maybe organic farming.  We mostly recognize achievement in retrospect.  Few in the midst of the struggle have the perspective to understand what it means.

If you’re interested in this philosophical angle about the arts, you might watch!  This is Sir Ken Robinson on the same theme.  Think he’s ever heard of Charlie Russell?  To be fair, he’s probably never heard of the Conrad Brothers, either.  But I’ll bet he’s heard of Barnaby Conrad, Jr.  

Thanks to Dave Lull, here is a link to another fascinating bit of Barnaby Conrad lore.

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