George Kelly (Unknown-1955)

George Barnard Kelly was born June 12, 1902, to Joseph A. and Mary Alice (Jenkins) Kelly at Walthill, Nebraska. The family later moved to Dawes, NE. When George was 12 the family moved to Kolin, Montana, where George completed his education. On December 5, 1921, George married Thelma “Babe” Hartsock of Utica, Montana. George and Babe’s children included Thelma, Jack, Margie, Georgie Bertha, Herbert, Rose Marie, Carolyn June, Laura Ann, Eloise, Reece, and James.

George was a cowboy who broke horses but was best known for his colorful presence as a clown at local rodeos, his calling community square dances, and his ability to entertain himself and the entire community with his humorous antics. Residents of Utica recollect that George was a prankster, tease, joke teller, and “fun-lover” with a huge talent for acting and showmanship. He would sometimes stride around Utica’s main street with his 2-foot long clown boots. George was about 6-feet 3-inches tall, raw boned, and rather narrow of body with a powerful, resilient, and steel-like physique. He had a thick head of straight, jet-black hair and gleaming white teeth. Sometimes George laughed so hard over his pranks that he had trouble getting his breath. Babe and the children were not immune from his pranks and teasing either. George was also known as “Battling George,” or “George Kelly with the Buckskin Belly” especially at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Utica, Montana. He would tell an audience, “I’m in fighting trim,” then he would go into his act with his face, hands, eyes, mouth, legs, and feet all working at the same time. Being long-geared, he could look ludicrous.

During the 1920s and ’30s they held rodeos five miles above Utica on a little bench of land next to the Judith River. His joker and prankster behavior made him a natural for his daring antics as a rodeo clown. George sometimes dressed as a lady of the gay ’20s and clowned under the name of “Sage Brush Annie.” Clowning at that time consisted of riding anything in the chutes that wasn’t drawn for the contest that day. George might ride from five to 10 head of livestock at a performance. He had the gift of timing and balance that few are born with and would get on a horse or bull backward or forward. He would sometimes come out on a beast with his long shirt flapping and firing his old blank pistol at the crowd. Other times he rode with a snap-catch suitcase. Halfway across the arena he would flip the catch, and the suitcase would fly open, and cats and chickens ran and flew for safety. A spectator once said that it must have taken him half the night before each show to confiscate all his poultry and feline help as it was noted that the same ones were never used twice.

The Kelly family lived on a small place 4 miles below Utica on the river road. This was a great location for George because of his fondness for horses. This location afforded him plenty of opportunity to practice the glamorous business of breaking and trading horses. His chosen livelihood produced a scant cash flow, but George Kelly didn’t let this minor detail discourage him from his chosen career.

George affectionately referred to Utica as “that old coyote town.” Coyotes did not enjoy much esteem in the old West. He seemed to be the loudest person around town and attracted the most attention. He liked to engage in friendly tussles on Utica’s Main Street and was always throwing out a challenge like an old bull. He was so darn strong and rough he didn’t get many takers. The little boys of Utica would trail around Main Street after George in the early 1930s. He couldn’t resist having fun with them by asking them, “Are you pups ever going to amount to anything?” Or he would say, “Let’s see how much muscle you weaklings have got.” They would crook their arm and bulge out their upper muscle as much as possible. He would encircle their arms with that big hand of his and really crunch down. Sometimes he applied the pressure hard enough to make them holler. Then he would act unimpressed, informing them that he had daughters with more muscle than they did. He liked to tell the boys, “When I was your age, I could stand on one leg and scratch my nose with my other big toe.” He had a solid reputation for being a tough, brave hombre—an image that fired-up those boys.

The county commissioners paid George $5 each time he opened up the Hobson/Utica roads in the wintertime. He did this job with his battered and torn-up Model T. It didn’t have a top, but it did have side doors, a windshield and fenders that actually flopped. Breaking a drift usually required numerouis runs at it. George would make several trips back and forth. The clearance was high and the Model T was light, so it would ride up on top of the banks the first trip or two. George was also remembered for announcing that he was taking leave of Utica as he left for his home. He would honk away on the horn of the Model T which made the sound like “Ouuga, Ouuga, Ouuga.”

Walter F. Waite wrote in his book Silver Dollar Tales: Old Utica that George clowned for the little tykes in Utica. He would jump up high, click his heels together and declare, “I’m George Kelly with the buckskin belly.” It sounded good, because it rhymed. It didn’t have to make sense. George’s free and unfettered life seems to epitomize the old West in so many ways.

George passed away in Rochester, Washington in 1955, and Babe in 1940. They are buried at the cemetery in Utica, Montana, of Judith Basin County.


Silver Dollar Tales: Old Utica, Walter F. Waite, 1994. Waite Publishing Sun River, Montana.

Snake Tracks, (excerpt from) Blair Allen Goyins, 1970. Hearthstone Books.

The Kelly Family by Thelma Watkins (daughter of George and Babe Kelly), family history, unpublished.