The Brander Sisters - Violet (1904-1981) & Margaret (1905-1996)

“Life wasn't easy” best describes two of the hardiest pioneer cowgirls in the State of Montana. Violet Elizabeth and Margaret Ruth Brander were born at Avon, Montana. They became known as the famous “Brander Sisters” throughout western rodeo circuits because of their daring rides on bucking horses and Brahma steers and bulls. Violet also did Roman riding races. “Let ‘er Buck” was associated with the sisters, though they were also contestants in bulldogging, calf roping, relay races, wild cow milking, wild horse racing, and horse racing. The girls’ exhibition rides on Brahmas had Margaret atop the animal’s neck backwards while Violet faced Margaret. Violet, or “Vi” as she was known, was a slender 5’11” blue-eyed woman with reddish-blond hair born on January 24, 1904. Margaret, nicknamed “Marg”, was a shapely 5’10” blue-eyed woman with dark brown hair born April 28, 1905. The girls were the fourth and fifth children of George and Fannie Brander who had fifteen children.

During the early years, the family suffered extreme privation and at times, hunger. Vi and Marg had vivid memories of living off the land by eating wild service berries, wheat gleaned after neighbors harvest, and small potatoes left after potato pickers had sacked those worth sacking from nearby fields. Their father was a wood sawyer who didn't get paid often, as far as they knew and once left his family in the wilderness near Gold Creek to fend for themselves while he looked for more profitable work. In 1912, their mother through an agreement with their mother’s uncle, moved the family to Bradley, Montana. Fannie, a farmer at heart managed to put together a herd of dairy cattle, chickens, turkeys, and sheep. Her and the children put in an acre of garden and a potato patch. Apples and cherries from the orchard were canned. With a large root cellar for storage and hard work, there were no longer days of acute hunger. Vi and Marg worked hard caring for the garden, plowing and seeding field crops, caring for stock and their younger siblings.

When they were 17 and 18, following a spat with their father, Vi and Marg decided to leave home and make it on their own. They rode bareback about 70 miles as the crow flies to the ranch for Bill and Fannie Steele who lived at Montana City. They had previously met Fannie Steele, the then World Champion Woman Saddle Bronc Rider. The couple taught the young sisters how to ride broncs. That summer the sisters also worked the Steele's fields, mowing, raking and stacking hay. They later returned home and ran a cross-cut saw to fell big trees, then limbed and skidded them to the freight cars. They picked apples in Washington and cooked for ranches. Work was available and work they did.

Shortly after their high school graduations, the Brander Sisters were bit by the “rodeo bug” when performing bronc rides at the Deer Lodge Rodeo. At a rodeo in Polson they met Paddy Ryan who asked Vi to ride double on a steer with him. Vi agreed and reported, “It was easy!” Afterward, the girls began riding Brahmas double. Their motto was “Anything a cowboy can do we can do better.” Vi began roping and trick roping; Marg began bulldogging. They won the Wild Cow Milking over a field of male entries. The Brander sisters competed in rodeos all over Montana as well as Lethbridge and Yorktown, Canada; at Fruita and Grand Junction, Colorado; Price, Utah and finally at the Second Annual World’s Rodeo in Chicago. While pursuing their colorful careers, Vi wrote several articles for Western magazines. Her stories described the reality of rodeo as one of the most dangerous, nerve wracking games there is, though those bit by the “rodeo bug” wouldn’t trade a second of their arena life for anything.

During the Depression, Vi and Marg began plans for their dream ranch by leasing 640 acres four miles east of Avon. They called their spread the Circle Star, the same name as their registered brand. In 1931, they hosted their first Circle Star rodeo. An article in the Silver State Post, in Deer Lodge, published in 1935 stated, “Attendance at the Brander Girls' Annual Circle Star Ranch Rodeo on July 4 was greater than anticipated.” During the era of the Circle Star Rodeos, the younger Brander sisters Alice, Kay, June, and Florence were an active part of the ranch. In 1933, Vi married cowboy Oscar “Pal” Beebe, and in September 1937, she gave birth to Marlin Dale. Her second son, Leland Wayne, was born in November 1938. When the lease expired in 1938, the Brander Sisters were outbid for renewal of the lease. They lost everything they had put into the buildings and arena. Bitter and discouraged over the loss of the ranch, the Brander Sisters went their separate ways.

Marg went to work at the General Store in Avon, keeping records. In 1940, Vi and Pal divorced. For a time, Vi and Marg reunited and lived in two old railroad section houses. Marg drove school bus and Vi worked at various jobs until she packed her belongings and took her boys to Hanford, Washington, where she ran a riding academy. When the academy folded, she returned to Montana and worked at any odd job available, as Marg continued to do as well. They cooked at mines, in cafés, and worked on ranches. In 1946, Vi married Vernon “Red” Gilman, a miner at Garrison, who adopted her two sons and became the father they had never known. Vi brought to the marriage a small herd of cattle and horses and the couple soon went to work on a ranch at Georgetown Lake. In that same year, Marg met and married Steve Dorn. For a short time, they lived at the mine where he worked, then always restless and both lovers of travel, the Dorn’s moved from place to place enjoying a variety of jobs and life with each other. Marg retired in 1968 and Steve died in 1969. Marg continued to travel for the remainder of her life. Vi and Red bought two ranches near Garrison and settled down to raising horses, cattle and their sons. In 1973 they retired from ranching. Vi was crippled by arthritis and underwent surgery for a disintegrated disk, possibly the result of her rodeo days. Her active life became a small circle including her sons, now six grandchildren, and her always devoted Marg.

The Brander sisters were featured in an Otho Hartley photo exhibition. Hartley’s photos taken in the 1930s of rodeo contestants was entitled, “This contest is for real hands: An old-time Montana Rodeo.” A special sub-grouping featured the Brander sisters riding bucking horses and bucking steers. The exhibit traveled two years, 2002-03, with stops in Montana, Wyoming, and Texas, as well as the USA National Tour. It was selected as one of ten featured exhibits at the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games in 2002.

Vi passed away in 1981 and Marg in 1996. The Brander sisters are buried at the Hillcrest Cemetery between Butte and Anaconda.