Sentinel Butte, located in extreme western North Dakota carries much history, as does the little town of its namesake that spans three centuries. The third highest butte in our state next to White and Black Buttes, divided by U.S. #85 between Amidon and Bowman.
In August of 1864, two Arikara natives, American Black Eagle and Standing Together, who were “Sentinels” scouting for Sully’s Expedition, were killed there and are buried on its summit.
General Custer’s 7th Calvary made its fateful trip past here.
The butte’s majestic beauty with its sheer, fortress walls protects its sprawling plateau top. High altitude pockets of wild fruit shrubs give way to the more dominant ash, as they wind down its slopes to lower foot hills. An old caved in lignite coal mining shaft lies abandoned under its base. For years the popular “Old Settlers Picnic” drew large crowds enjoying camaraderie, horseshoe tournaments, tug-of-war rope pulls, kid’s games and an ice cream stand along the butte’s northern bottoms. We kids always climbed the butte and explored its many deep rock caves and crevices.
The little town grew with the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, the Sentinel Butte Saddlery Company (originally started 12 miles north at the Mosher Community) became the largest range-stock saddle maker in the entire United States until 1918 when it moved to Billings, Mont., for two years before closing due to homesteader crowding and gas driven tractors replacing the harness market.
The facility burnt down Oct. 6, 1922. In its heyday the company had satellite stores taking orders in Belfield, Beach, Dickinson, N.D., and Glendive, Baker, Terry and Lewistown, Mont., all to be built at its main Sentinel Butte facility employing up to 36 tradesmen. All saddles listed at $50 or more and were guaranteed not to hurt a horse back or to crawl. Those owning Sentinel Butte saddles today, in original rigging, have a valuable keepsake.
Through the 1950s and ’60s the town’s address drew national attention from a handful of ranked, world class saddle bronc riders, with the Tescher brothers, Tom and Jim, and a South Dakota kid living with Jim and Loretta Tescher by the name of Alvin Nelson, who won the world in 1957 with a Sentinel Butte address. Dean Armstrong made up the fourth local bronc rider of the later dubbed, and now famous, “Six Pack.” Sentinel Butte native and world-ranked bareback specialist, Bob Aber (Abernethy) with assistance of Minnewaukan, N.D.’s Duane Howard, produced the world’s first “rodeo school” at the nearby Beach arena that won him a trip to New York City to appear on the popular national game show, “To Tell The Truth.”
Matt Tescher, father of Tom and Jim served two terms in the North Dakota State Legislature, winning his final election by one vote. His congressional colleagues dubbed him, “Landslide Tescher.”
The nearby Home on the Range (for less fortunate adolescents) produces the annual “Champion Ride” saddle bronc match, pitting the worlds top bronc riders against equally qualified broncs, which is a one-day preview of the PRCA’s National Finals.
The opening of Interstate-94 in 1970, bypassing the town pretty much isolated it from outside attention, followed by the high school closing.
But the proud little town rebounded to national glory when its native born and raised US Post Master Albert (Buzz) Olson purchased the last remaining business in town, the original old Hogoboom Texaco, operating it only until noon daily. At a total trust of a hard working, honest community, he invoked the honor system leaving the power on to the two gas pumps for patrons to fill up 24-7 depositing cash, check or charge note through a drop slot in the wall beside the door.
Local Bismarck Tribune correspondent, Kathy Craigo, filed a feature on it which in turn was picked up by the Associated Press in the mid 1990s. Tonight Show’s Jay Leno and Late Night with David Letterman each took a crack at it in their monologues. The New York Times ran a feature sending a reporter and photographer to Sentinel Butte. CBS’s Sunday night special “On the road with Harry Smith” came out and interviewed the Olsons. Oprah Winfrey flew Buzz and his wife Delores to Chicago to appear on her show.
Due to massive publicity Buzz installed a small safeguard where we now all carry a “pump key” to administer our purchase. In 2010, the Olson’s son Rick and his wife Wanda took over the business, furnishing grilled meats to center a community “potluck” diner every Friday year around, as well as a large Halloween and Christmas business appreciation party at the station – all are welcome.
Sentinel Butte now also hosts a hair salon and a heavy equipment construction business. The local volunteer Rural Fire Department puts on an annual large pancake and sausage supper and benefit auction. Locals Roger Clemens and Pete Novotny spearhead the annual “Old Style Tractor Dive” that starts and ends at Olson’s Station, traveling up old US #10 to Beach and back, followed by a dinner.
My local ranch-raised wife JoAnn and I are forever proud to be from Sentinel Butte.
Take pride in your own community.