Musselshell County, Montana 1921

While by no means one of the larger of Montana's counties, Musselshell, with a land area of 2,903 miles is by no means one of the least important. One of the best of the dry farming counties, it likewise presents conditions markedly favorable to stock raising and its coal production, in proportion to its size, is of a nature that gives it a certain prestige among other mining districts. Lately, also, the county has assumed additional importance because of the discovery of an excellent grade of oil, an industry which promises to make Musselshell County a point of much interest to operators and investors in the near future.

Settlement of the Musselshell Country

The permanent settlement of this region began between 1880 and 1885, when a number of cattlemen located along the streams. Some years before, horse-stealing had been carried on along the Musselshell, and stock had ranged on the rich grazing land, which was formerly an old-time haunt of the buffalo, but no one ever attempted to get title to property. Later, when the sheep and wool industry partially displaced cattle raising, land was taken up along the streams in order to secure control of the water rights and of the rich bottom lands which yielded bountiful crops of blue joint and timothy hay. The value of the bench lands for grain and other crops was then unknown. In 1908, the Puget Sound and Billings and Northern Railroad were completed through Musselshell Valley and the transition from a cattle and grazing to a farming country began.

When the Northern Pacific Road first started on its long way to the Pacific coast, great land grants were made to the corporation by Congress. Since that time, each odd-numbered section in the majority of townships in Musselshell County has been owned by the Northern Pacific. By the summer of 1911 most of the government land had been taken up and developed into farms, and to further develop the country the commercial organizations of the various towns began to make insistent demands upon the Northern Pacific for the opening of its lands. Recognizing the justice and previous benefit of that policy, the railway placed these odd-numbered sections on the market. These lands were in all respects equal to those which had been homesteaded and have produced banner crops of wheat, oats, rye, barley, flax and vegetables. The movement of settlers to the lands mentioned had its effect in bringing a demand for a new county, which was accordingly organized from parts of Fergus, Meagher and Yellowstone.

Agriculture and Live Stock Raising

Musselshell County was created March 1, 191 1, and was named after the river which traverses it from east to west. It is located just south of the geographical center of Montana, and is approximately sixty-five miles from east to west, and forty-two miles from north to south. The Musselshell River irrigates about 12,000 acres along its banks, and is the principal source of water supply for the county, although Willow Creek, Flatwillow Creek and Swimming Woman Creek serve to irrigate several thousands of acres of farm lands lying in the north end of the county. Water for domestic use is obtained from the Musselshell for several towns along that stream, while wells for domestic purposes furnish an ample supply on farms, water being found at a depth of from twenty to sixty feet in most sections of the county.

At the present time there are probably about 15,000 acres under ditch and much of the remainder of the county can be irrigated, but for the most part agriculture is carried on by the dry farming or non-irrigated method, and this has produced excellent results. The soil varies in different parts of the county, along the river being a heavy loam which produces high yields of all grains, corn, alfalfa and garden truck, while on the benches a limestone gravel soil predominates which is easily cultivated and is particularly suited for wheat raising. In the extreme northern and southern parts of the county and along the Bull Mountains, the land is rolling and in some places mountainous, suited for grazing, and, where open, produces good crops. All classes of soil in Musselshell County are of good depth. The central portion of the county is for the most part level, with frequent benches, which are particularly suited for conserving moisture and usually produce splendid wheat crops. The principal crops grown are wheat, oats, rye, barley, corn, flax, alfalfa, timothy, clover, potatoes, beans and vegetables of all kinds. Much corn and sunflowers are being planted for silage, and sweet clover is also proving a splendid forage crop. Lands in Musselshell County are reasonably priced and the county offers opportunities to thrifty agriculturists who possess sufficient capital to establish themselves. For raw agricultural lands, $15 to $30 per acre is asked, and for improved land $20 to $75 per acre. Irrigated land brings from $40 to $75 per acre, and grazing land, which here is more or less rough and unsuited for cultivation, sells at from $5 to $10 per acre. In all communities, the price set on the various kinds of land depends to a large extent upon how far they are situated from towns and railroads, and what improvements have been made by their former owners.

Aside from farming, the principal industries of the residents of Musselshell County consist of cattle, hog and sheep raising and coal mining. There is still much room for development in the stock raising industry which has not attained its highest state of perfection in this region, but which has been followed with success by growers in several sections. An excellent grade of semi-bituminous coal is obtained in the Bull Mountain coal field, and the largest mine at Roundup produces approximately 3,000 tons daily, while the coal production of the five largest mines reaches 6,000 tons daily, which is capable of increase to double that amount. An industry which is now attracting much attention is oil development, three wells sunk in 1919 and 1920 having produced oil of an excellent quality and many more being drilled in various parts of the county. Thus far, coal and petroleum have been the only minerals found in appreciable quantities, although there is known to be a deposit of sapphires in the county, several hundred specimens having been gathered. Timber of good quality is found in merchantable quantities in the Bull and Snowy mountains.

Lines of Transportation

Musselshell County lacks nothing in the way of good transportation facilities. It is traversed from east to west by the main line of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, and from north to south by the Great Northern Railway, running from Billings to Great Falls, and several state and national highways intersect the county. The Custer Battlefield Highway, extending from Omaha to Glacier Park, crosses the county from south to north, passing through the county seat of Roundup. The Montana Electric Trail follows the line of the Milwaukee Railway from west to east across the county, passing through Lavina, Roundup, Musselshell and Melstone, and the Glacier Cutoff, starting at Custer on the Yellowstone Trail, passes through Musselshell and Roundup and northward to Glacier Park. As attractions to tourists, the county offers several fine fishing streams within easy reach of the larger communities and highways; in the Bull Mountains beautiful scenery is to be found; on the beaches there are wide stretches of agricultural land; in season there is to be secured good hunting for duck, prairie chicken, sage hens, wild geese and even deer; the oil fields can be seen in operation from the Custer Battlefield Highway, an hour's trip from Roundup, and one of the largest shaft coal mines west of the Mississippi River is at the county seat.

The advantages offered in the way of educational training in Musselshell County include 145 schoolhouses, served by 180 instructors. Of these, 125 are rural schools, twelve are graded schools and eight are high schools.


Roundup, the county seat of Musselshell County, was founded in 1909, and is the largest coal mining camp on the main line of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway between Miles City and Butte. It is the center of distribution for twelve oil fields within forty miles of the city, as well as the hub of a large farming and stock raising district, and coal mines within four miles of the city have a pay roll of $150,000 per month. This is a thriving and progressive community which maintains four churches, and has paved streets, a cluster street lighting system, modern electric light, water and sewer systems and a new reservoir of 1,000,000 gallons capacity.

Musselshell, a community of 300 people, has farming and stock raising for its chief developers, although there are a number of active coal mines in the neighborhood. It is the oldest town in the county and is pleasantly situated on the south bank of the Musselshell River in the Bull Mountain coal field. To the south the land is rolling prairie with many beautiful and fertile valleys. A trading post, which planned to become a great commercial center, was established on the north bank of the river, about opposite the present town, in the year 1877. A store and post office were opened on the town site of today. The old Fort Custer-Fort Maginnis road crossed the river at that point and for a long time the place was known simply as the Crossing. Melstone, with a population of 400, is a railroad division point, and is the nearest rail gateway to the Mosby oil fields, being likewise conveniently situated in a community in which farming, stock raising and coal mining are prosecuted. These communities all offer inducements to those desiring to make a permanent home, and opportunities are numerous. All maintain good school systems, Roundup having a high school.

In 1907, the St. Paul Road was built into Musselshell County and the event was followed by an even greater growth than it had previously enjoyed. Its population in 1920 was 12,030.

Montana Counties 1921

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Source: Montana its Story and Biography, by Tom Strout, Volume 1, The American Historical Society, 1921

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