Frank Blackburn

Frank BlackburnFrank Blackburn, sheriff of Park County, Wyoming, from Jan. 1927 to Jan. 1959, began life in Higher Traumere, a suburb of Birkenhead, England, on Sept. 30, 1879. He was the youngest of the ten children of Edwin Blackburn, head draftsman of Laird Brothers Shipbuilding Co., and Margaret Clague Blackburn, from the Isle of Man.

When Frank was a schoolboy in Birkenhead, his father took him and his brothers to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Liverpool, and this was such a thrill to him he knew he wanted to see the West, and perhaps live there. Although Frank was eligible for an Oxford scholarship, he decided at the age of 15 he would like to go to sea or go to Canada to work for an uncle, a wheat rancher. His parents decided he would be allowed to go to Canada and gave him passage fare.

He worked long and hard hours for his uncle, other ranchers, and in logging camps in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. His first pay was $5.00 per month, but gradually he earned several hundred dollars a year and saved enough money to go back to England for a visit of three months when he was 20.

At the end of the visit he knew he wanted to return to the West with its unlimited opportunities and so went to Revelstoke on the Columbia River in British Columbia and worked in a logging camp. Here he met a young Scot, Tom Bain, who told him of the Big Horn Basin in northern Wyoming, and in August 1900 they started south to Wyoming with 4 horses, fishing, and camping along the way.

Their route was to Cascade, Montana; White Sulphur Springs; then down the Musselshell River to Two Dot, Montana; Big Timber; Absarokee; Red Lodge; up the Clarks Fork River to Sand Coulee and Eagles Nest; 3 miles north of Ralston; and a stage station.

When they arrived in Cody, Blackburn heard of the DeMaris Springs, a natural hot water spring, and had his first swim in this needle-bath plunge. He had been a champion swimmer as a boy in England and swam regularly at the DeMaris Springs until the age of 89.

After five weeks of travel, they reached the YU ranch near Meeteetse, south of Cody, with one horse each. During the trip they were forced to sell the other horses for cash along the way. Frank took a job herding sheep there, and after two years at the ranch had a few days for vacation and ventured into the little town of Meeteetse. It was a busy little town, serving people from a wide area who bought supplies by the wagonload on infrequent trips to town. Supplies arrived in Meeteetse from Thermopolis or Cody, having been hauled into those towns by wagon from Casper or Red Lodge until about 1909 when the railroads were built into the towns.

In 1904 Frank went into the sheep business for himself and in 1905 got one of the first forest service permits for grazing sheep on the Shoshone National Forest. The forest reserve was created by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as a conservation measure.

The first Forest Supervisor, A.A. Anderson, was a cattleman and had the idea that the reserve would exclude sheep. Anderson, after one year, was replaced by H. W. Pierce as Supervisor and Pierce allowed sheep grazing.

Those early days in Wyoming were hard ones for sheep men, as the cattle owners resented flocks of sheep encroaching on pasture that had been open range for their cattle. Many shootings ensued and feelings ran high. One morning the two Minnick brothers, sheep raisers, were preparing to move their sheep camp when two men rode up and asked, “Is your name Minnick?” and when the answer was yes, one pulled a gun out and killed Ben Minnick on the spot.

In August 1906, Frank Blackburn journeyed the 62 miles by horseback to Basin, the county seat of Big Horn County, which then included what is now Park County, received his naturalization papers and became an American citizen. His knowledge of the history and geography of his adopted country would shame the average American student, and his patriotism and love for America knew no bounds. He never missed flying the American flag in front of his home on national holidays.

Not many years after his migration from Canada to Meeteetse, romance entered Frank’s life, when he met Janet Grierson Thomson in Meeteetse. She was born of Scottish parents in Yorkshire, England, and after her mother died when Jane was two had been raised in Glasgow, Scotland, by her mother’s sister. Her father, however, had come to the United States and gone into the sheep business in Meeteetse, and in 1906, she came to join him.

She was a trained dressmaker and tailor, and used this skill for her own wardrobe, which was always the most stylish, and for her friends. She was employed at the Meeteetse Mercantile, and here she met Frank.

On March 29, 1909, Frank and Jennie (as Janet was called by her friends), and good friend, Annie McIntosh, drove in Frank’s buggy to Cody, a day’s journey, to be married in the IRMA HOTEL. They were married by Rev. Anderson, Presbyterian minister, in the parlor, now an office on the east side of the hotel. Their attendants were Mae Decker, a sister of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Mrs. William Simpson, mother of former Governor and U.S. Senator of Wyoming, and Miss McIntosh. After the ceremony the wedding party lunched in the IRMA HOTEL dining room, starting the meal with “Puree deChantilly.” Their dinner that evening was at the Simpson home with a charivari led by 14-year-old Milward, later Governor of the state and U.S. Senator.

After the newlywed’s return to Meeteetse, they moved into their sheep wagon on Spring Creek, 12 miles from town. Their sheep were bothered by coyotes and bobcats. Their two neighbors, Tom Ames and Russell Crane, had a pack of hounds for hunting and wanted to sell Frank two, so he took them on a trial base. He got up at daylight to try out the hounds, but all they could raise was a badger, which promptly nabbed the nose of one hound and hung on, with the hound howling lustily till Frank beat off the badger. He returned the hounds to their owners.

In 1914 Frank sold his sheep interests on the Greybull River and purchased a ranch on the beautiful Wood River, about 15 miles from Meeteetse. They had bought a home in Meeteetse where they now lived with their four children; Jim, Frank Jr., William Cecil, and Margaret, and for the next 12 years divided their time between the ranch and town, where their daughter, Janet, was born in 1920. While they lived on the Spike CC ranch on Wood River, they ran cattle, sheep and also had about a dozen prep school boys from the East as dudes each summer. These boys returned year after year, and many remained close friends of the Blackburns.

In 1926, Blackburn decided to run on the Republican ticket for Sheriff of Park County, against incumbent Henry Dahlem, was successful, and so moved his family to Cody.

Frank served with great distinction as sheriff for 32 years, the first ten years of which were two-year terms. The Wyoming legislature in 1936 amended the state constitution to allow four-year terms for county officers. The sheriff was also the County Brand Inspector at that time.

The Prohibition law, enacted in June 1919, and still in force during Frank’s early years as sheriff, was the most difficult and troublesome law he had to enforce, as the general public kept the bootleggers in business. Searching for stills in far-flung corners of the county was like hunting the proverbial needle in a haystack, and he was forced to match wits with people who devised clever schemes to avoid detection.

One bootlegger in town would keep his product in a pitcher and in case of a raid he could quickly pour it down the drain, one incident took place in Meeteetse, where Three Fingers Clark bragged that he was too smart for the sheriff. Frank entered Clark’s pool hall one day, vaulted over the bar where he knew the pitcher was kept, and grabbed the evidence. He spent many days and nights riding horseback and walking in the hills where whiskey stills were hidden to do his duty to uphold the laws of the land. He always knew who was in the bootlegging business.

The most famous case of his tenure was that of Earl Durand, a young man being held in jail for killing game out of season. It was in March 1939, and the Blackburns were in California picking up a prisoner there. The newly appointed under-sheriff, Noah Riley, started to pass food into the prisoners and was hit over the head with a glass milk bottle. Durand then grabbed Riley’s gun and forced him to drive him to Durand’s father’s farm near Powell, Wyoming. The Powell police chief, Chuck Lewis, and Deputy sheriff, D.M. Baker, proceeded to the Durand place to investigate a rumor there was trouble there and both men were shot dead there by Durand, who then fled to the mountains in the Clark’s Fork area.

The sheriff, enroute for home from California, had been contacted by the county attorney, Oliver Steadman, about the murders, and arranged for two bloodhounds and their trainers from the Colorado State Prison to assist in the search for the fugitive. Sheriff Blackburn led a posse of about 30 men to the area where Durand was holed up in a ravine and spread out in the foothills below. Two of the posse started up a ridge toward Durand and were shot dead by him.

The next morning a rancher from Clark, John Simpson, and his father were stopped in their car by Durand, and after telling them he was a posse member, asked them to drive him to Deaver. Durand then pulled them out of the car and drove to Powell, where he held up the bank and got about $1,500. He tied up two employees, John Gawthrop and Bob Nelson, and pushed them ahead of himself at gunpoint out of the building. Shots were fired at him from the buildings surrounding the bank and Gawthrop was killed. A high school boy, Tipton Cox, then shot Durand, putting an end to a week of terror in Park County, Wyoming.

Mrs. Blackburn was of great help to the sheriff on many occasions with her quick wit and resourcefulness. Once, in Los Angeles in 1938, she accompanied the sheriff to bring back a forger named Earl Best. He had been released from jail there and the police seemed uninterested in helping to locate him. Finally, after several days they learned that he was working at a small restaurant. Mrs. Blackburn went into the restaurant asking for him, telling the proprietor in her Scottish accent she was Best’s aunt from Phoenix and would like to see him. She was told that Best was off that day and staying at the Santa Monica Hotel. They hurried to the hotel and were just in time, as he was packing to leave when they arrived. The manager at the restaurant had phoned Best about his “aunt” from Phoenix, and thus alerted him, but Earl Best returned to Cody with the sheriff.

During his years as sheriff, Frank gave free swimming lessons to all Cody children who would be at his house at 6 a.m. to go with him for his daily swim. He drove the children in his car or touring cars or trucks from the local garages to the DeMaris Springs pool where they were allowed free swimming. He took his pistol along on many occasions and gave the children instruction in handling firearms, and target shooting. He was an excellent shot, and practiced all his life each week. He won many medals for his shooting.

When he retired as sheriff in 1959, a testimonial dinner was held in his honor. The citizens knew that Park County was a better place to live because of him and his influence. People from all walks of life had sought his counsel during the 32 years he served this community. His wisdom, common sense and tact, his love of people, and his delightful sense of humor combined to make an unforgettable personality.

The Cody Enterprise said at that time, “he carries his 79 years lightly – anyone with the idea that he is getting old should try keeping up with him in marksmanship, swimming, a bridge game, or inspecting brands in a corral full of livestock in freezing weather. His persistence in hunting law breakers is of the bulldog variety but there was no limit to the aid he would extend to anyone trying to go straight against odds. Absolutely fair and impartial, his influence for good among the youth of his community has been immeasurable, his example of integrity and clean living an inspiration to all who have known him. May our county be blessed by his service, though in a different capacity, for many more years.”

And, Park County was blessed with his services for another ten years as he was elected Justice of the Peace and Police Judge, and served until illness forced his retirement. He continued to be “a friend to man,” to be a very active 60-year member of Masonic Lodge, Shrine, and many other organizations, to play bridge at each opportunity and visit with all he met on his daily walks.

Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn returned to their native land after his retirement as sheriff and spent two months visiting their relatives and their old homes and schools. Many of their British relations had welcomed the opportunity to visit the United States and their uncle, the “high-sheriff”, and easily understood why he loved and enjoyed America.