“Wolf Point is not the biggest town in the state of Montana,” the July 1975 issue of Western Horseman said,” but it’s famous beyond its size.”
“One reason is that it’s the home of the Wild Horse Stampede, Montana’s oldest rodeo,” the article went on. “The other is that it has a native son named Owen Harlan Mickel, who grew up as Montie Montana.”
Despite his nickname, Mickel liked to joke about his inability to pinpoint precisely where he was born. While it could have been Canada, or possibly North Dakota, he eventually settled on and celebrated the notion that it was someplace in Eastern Montana, around Wolf Point.
Owen’s father, Edgar Owen Mickel, was a roving preacher who galloped to churches in Montana and Canada on horseback. According to Owen’s memoirs, the cowboys had a nickname for such poor wandering pastors — sky pilots. His father also herded and sold wild horses and entertained at rodeos and fairs while his mother, Mary Edna Harlan Mickel, and grandfather (also a “sky pilot”) performed “whipcracker acts” at the many shindigs the family frequented in their travels.
Born on June 21, 1910, Owen was their fifth child, and he was raised predominantly around Wolf Point and Miles City, engrossed in watching his father gather and sell wild horses and ramble the rodeo circuit with “rope tricks and lantern slides.” At age 6, he watched a man whirling a rope, so he started practicing with a few of his friends. While his buddies moved on to other amusements, Owen kept twirling that rope.
His father taught him “the ins and outs of roping,” and he would exhaust hours practicing in front of the Liberty Theater — “the only building around that was high enough to shield the rope from the winds that raked the town,” according to Owen. Eventually he worked his way “inside the theater, sweeping the floors, learning show business,” as he said, “from the bottom up.”
According to Owen, “A rope was in my hand all the time; at home, at school, everywhere. I roped anything that moved; chickens, dogs, cats and kids. I rode in the saddle with dad when I was three days old. When I was four years of age I rode a trick horse into the arena at the Portland rodeo. I really stole the show by going right off over that horse’s head.”
At the age of 15, he earned $15 (though some articles claim that it was only $5) performing as a trick roper at the Miles City Fourth of July rodeo. Riding on his horse Rex, Owen came into a Miles City arena on July 4, 1925, for his first professional paid performance. It was there he was christened with his stage name. As he rode into the arena the announcer, as the story goes, could not recall his name and simply proclaimed, “Here’s Montie from Montana, the Montana Kid.”
“Montie Montana” started to appear at venues, parades and events across the West as a trick roper and also trick rider, another exciting form of entertainment. He wandered out to California in 1929 and began his film career as a roper, rider, stunt double and actor.
“Times were tough, and Hollywood was where the money was,” he bluntly told The New York Times in 1994.
The true-life cowboy lent his skill and intrepidness to the newly expanding medium of film. He never panned out as a top-billed Western star, but in 1935 he did earn the lead role in the B-Western “Circle of Death.” Montie Montana, however, worked with a good number of luminaries and appeared in several of the day’s classic movies, including “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a 1962 film version of the novel written by Whitefish author Dorothy Johnson, and “Two Rode Together,” and “Cheyenne Autumn.” All three films were directed by John Ford.
He appeared as a minor actor or stunt rider in at least 19 films starring, among others, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Jimmy Stewart, Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Ken Maynard, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, and fellow Montana native George Montgomery. Cowboy star Rogers once called Montie “the greatest trick roper of his time.”
Montie began his appearances in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., in 1932, adopting a glittery cream-colored, rhinestone-studded fashion that dazzled rodeo and parade watchers countrywide. But perhaps his most famous exploit came during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration parade in 1953.
One of his most popular tricks was to lasso an unknowing member of his audience when he was performing. Montie either asked the president’s permission first or Eisenhower agreed to the stunt on the spot (two differing versions of the tale exist). However it happened, Montie rode up to the presidential reviewing stand and tossed a lasso around the standing Eisenhower.
Montie recalled in his memoirs that afterwards a Secret Service man told him, “if they hadn’t heard the President giving him permission to rope him he would have been a sieve.” The photo with Montie’s rope wrapped around Eisenhower was on front pages of newspapers nationwide. (The photo above was taken a moment before the one that showed Eisenhower fully lassoed.)
Among other stunts, Montie took his horse, Poncho Rex, to the roof of the Empire State Building to let him get a look at the New York City skyline. He later roped then- California Gov. Ronald Reagan, a former colleague from Hollywood.
“Since your boyhood on a Montana ranch,” Reagan affectionately said in the late 1960s, “you have demonstrated the skill and independent spirit that embodies the Western tradition that we love.”
In August 1964, Montie visited the Foster Frontier Photo Gallery in Miles City and was given a photograph of his father, grandfather and grandmother taken in Miles City about 1923. His father was 11 years old at the time. The photo shows the group standing by a Model T truck with a big covered van on the back. On the sides of the van is a mural of Montana scenery and the words “Pioneer Days” emblazoned across the top. The picture was taken by R.C. Morrison, Miles City photographer and sign-maker who also painted the truck.
“I’d rather have this than an Oscar,” Montie told the Billings Gazette. “I have never seen this picture before.”
He told Film Comment magazine that he especially enjoyed working with John Wayne.
“In 1975, when Wolf Point was going to honor my 50th year in show business, the town was going to fly in some of the western stars. … And the Indian council came to me and said, ‘We don’t like that you’ve invited Wayne. In the movies, John Wayne kills Indians.’ I said to them, ‘Wayne may chase Indians in the movies, but he employs more of them than anyone else in Hollywood. They may chase each other across the screen, but afterwards, they all sit down and eat lunch together.’”
In 1985, a reporter from the Los Angeles Daily News visited with Montie at his home in Agua Dulce, Calif. The reporter noted that in the yard to the left of his farmhouse was “a bell that once stood on the grounds of the Indian mission in Wolf Point, Mont.”
“When I was a kid,” Montie said, “I remember hearing that bell ring.”
In that same interview, Montie fretted about “the future of children raised without western heroes.”
“It’s a shame,” he said. “There don’t seem to be any heroes for them to look up to except for a few athletes, and they’ve been coming up bad. Rudd Weatherwax used to live across the street; he owned Lassie, and we used to take Lassie out and do benefit shows. Kids are so impressionable, and the old shows and cowboy movies taught them a western way of life. Taught them to be clean-living and honest and kind to animals and happy and good. We never drank or smoked where kids could see us. Today they say worse things on TV than we did around the back of the barn. Today it seems all they have is ‘Star Wars.’”
Montie proudly plugged Montana wherever he went and he said more than once in interviews that he considered Wolf Point his home.
“This is the home of the real cowboys,” he said while visiting Billings in 1975. “None of the rest of the states can touch Montana for that. I’ve seen them all and they don’t stack up to us.”
His sentiment was frequently reciprocated: in 1975, Gov. Thomas Judge proclaimed July 10 through 13 “Montie Montana Week.” Gov. Ted Schwinden once said of him: “Montie, you represent what Montana is all about; a Western spirit, a love of life and an appreciation for pure entertainment. I can’t think of anyone who has done more to spread goodwill than you.”
Similar to Roy Rogers, Montie tirelessly toured schools and children’s hospitals. He doled out laughter and gauged his success in smiles. He stayed fit and active to the end. He rode in his 60th and final Rose Parade in 1994 at age 83 and put on roping and riding shows for 72 years, his last one at the famed Pendleton Roundup in Oregon in 1997.
Owen Harlan Mickel died 0n May 20, 1998, at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, in Valencia, Calif., following complications from a series of strokes. His funeral at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, Calif., included many rodeo notables, actors and stuntmen.
Montie’s rose-covered coffin arrived on a horse-drawn wagon serenaded by a group performing his buddy Roy Rogers’ signature song, “Happy Trails.”