Harvey Willis Willcutt, Sr. was born May 28, 1877, in Garden Grove, Iowa, the son of a farmer. He emigrated to Montana at the age of sixteen and worked as a sheepherder in the Miles City area for the Filbricks. It was here that Willcutt was introduced to Eliza Mae Bell, born in 1886 in Anaconda, Montana. Her father, William Bell, had been a Hollywood actor in silent pictures, and Eliza and her two sisters lived in a convent in Miles City. Willcutt and Eliza were married on New Year’s Eve, 1903. Six years later, Eliza, who changed her name to Elsie, gave birth to Harvey Willis, Jr.
In that same year, 1909, Willcutt transferred to Charlie Bair’s ranch on the Crow Indian Reservation. He moved his family to a homestead at present-day Colstrip, Montana, where coal is currently strip-mined. Next, he served as Livestock Superintendent for the Northern Cheyenne Reservation centered in Lame Deer, Montana.
When the Superintendent moved to the Crow Reservation, he requested that Harvey also be transferred. So, Harvey managed the ID herd for the Crow Indians, until 1912 when he was refused a request for a $100 raise. E.L. Dana occupied the land across the Big Horn River from the Crow Tribal herd and noticed the “deep interest that Willcutt took in caring for the Indian cattle.” Dana wasted in little time in hiring Willcutt as foreman and manager of his vast cattle interests. Yet, for the Crows, it was said to have been “a bitter loss for the Indians” and “old members of the tribe claimed that the day Willcutt resigned, the Crow herd was doomed to failure.”
The Willcutt family lived at Eagle Springs and Ten Mile, while working for Dana. Harvey, Jr. attended school in Hardin, where he played the piccolo and clarinet in the high school band. Within months of graduating, however, he was involved in an argument with his history teacher, and decided that he had had enough formal education. Harvey, Jr. wanted to be a rancher.
He began his career living in a tar-paper shack on the Spotted Rabbit Indian allotment west of Fort Smith. Willcutt, Jr. raised honey bees and sold the honey. His father had purchased all the necessary materials to build the hives and then informed his son, “Here it is, now you’re on your own.” Occasionally, Harvey, Sr. would also provide groceries to his only child, but would never venture into Harvey, Jr.’s camp if he saw smoke rising from the chimney. Instead, the elder Willcutt would leave the groceries on the hill.
One of the Dana’s ranching neighbors was Frank Heinrich’s Antler Land and Cattle Company. Sometimes they would ford their cattle across the Big Horn River, not far from Harvey, Jr.’s place on their way to their Dry Head Ranch. The Antler cowboys would always give young Harvey their dogie calves. Harvey, Jr. had a milk cow that he used to feed the bum calves, and as they grew larger, he would cross the Big Horn and obtain alfalfa from the farmers for his livestock. It was from this small herd that he sold his first railroad carload of steers.
In 1937, Harvey, Sr. purchased the Grapevine Ranch from his former employer, Dana, and soon thereafter formed a partnership with his son called HW Willcutt & Son. Even though his father enjoyed running sheep, Willcutt, Jr. was solely interested in Hereford cattle. After more than a decade of a successful partnership, the younger Willcutt decided to strike out on his own.
He purchased the Grapevine, which consisted of 90,000 acres, from his father, and when Willcutt, Sr. passed away three years later, in 1953, the son inherited the Woody Creek Ranch, adjoining the Grapevine.
The year that HWW & Son was dissolved, Harvey, Jr. married a young legal secretary, Juanita Owen, and adopted her son, William John, from a previous marriage. They moved to the headquarters of the Grapevine, and a year later, Elsie Mae was born. Juanita stopped working in the legal office and began taking part in the business operations of the ranch. She home-schooled Billy and Elsie and cooked for the ranch hands.
The 1950s brought about many changes on the Crow Reservation. Indian empowerment and self-determination resurfaced, and non-Indians living and owning land on the reservation were not as readily embraced as before. The Crow Allotment Act of 1920 contained a section that limited the number of acres non-Indians could own on the Reservation, and many ranchers and farmers like the Willcutt’s were forced to concede much of their landholdings. Different administrations in the American federal government and the Crow Tribal Council brought about tumultuous times for non-Indian ranchers and farmers on the reservation. The larger non-Indian agriculturists formed the Reservation Leaseholders’ Association to collectively meet the challenges to their long-established presence on the Reservation.
Furthermore, ranchers and farmers like the Willcutt family were faced with increased development of the Big Horn River. Yellowtail Dam was completed in 1965 and then a recreation area was created around the river and dam soon thereafter. These developments brought tourism, increased bureaucracy, and more interest in the land on the reservation. Harvey, Jr. did not readily enjoy these encroachments on his ranch, and in 1967, he sold the Grapevine and retreated to the Muddy Creek Ranch, northwest of the Grapevine and further from the Big Horn River.
Yet, this move did not allow him to escape all the new changes. In the late 1960s, the Crow Tribal Council began giving preference to Indians who made bids on leases and land sales. Large ranchers and farmers could not compete with this new resolution, and in turn, Willcutt lost important leases on which he depended. Smaller ranchers like George Siemion, who was an Anglo married to a Crow, seized the opportunity to begin their cattle operation even though it was in the heart of Willcutt territory. Willcutt attempted to answer this threat by employing Indians to win these bidding battles for leases, but it was to no avail. He and his family were forced to accept and coexist with these new ranchers and farmers.
It was also at this time that Harvey, Jr. became ill with cancer. He had groomed his adopted son, Billy, to take over the ranch after his death, and now it was time to let go of the reigns. The ranch, however, seemed to die with Harvey, Jr. in 1978. Billy and his mother did not cope well with their loss, and quarreled incessantly over the control of the ranch. Lawyers and estate costs drained their assets until, in the mid-1980s, they sold their remaining holdings to an outside interest from Michigan.