MONTANA COWBOY HALL OF FAME INDUCTEE 2016
Lester P. “Les” Baldwin(1893 – 1978)
Lester Powell (Les) Baldwin, a man who shook hands to seal an agreement; always neatly dressed in western attire; patriotic to his country was born in Cherokee, Iowa in 1893.
Les married Olive Irene Burr on June 25, 1930 in Forsyth, Montana. Together they raised an orphaned niece, Edna “Mae” (Tott) Carlberg, of Eastern Montana. Les helped raise Edna’s two children and proudly showed them off on occasion riding a Shetland pony and burro down the streets of Polson.
Later a nephew, James Duford, of Wisconsin, who came to live with them when he was eleven years of age. Jim was sent west by his parents because of the Montana air in hopes that it would alleviate his asthma.
The Baldwin’s came to Polson in 1936 and established The Hut Café on Main Street. This was an ideal time to start a business in Polson as Kerr Dam, located just eight miles downstream on the Flathead Pend Oreille River, was in the final stages of construction and employing several thousand workers who were patrons of the 24-hour café that Les and Irene (preferring her middle name) owned and managed.
In 1938 a portion of the present day Polson Fairgrounds was donated to Lake County, by Hilbert Hanson who was a local business man, with terms that it was to be used as a "public rodeo grounds". Connecting land that was purchased by the County, with the help of the commissioners, was then added to create a larger parcel.
Les expressed interest in building the rodeo facilities, which required dedicating most of his time to those efforts, Irene continued to operate the Hut Café.
When with more vision than money, he began the work of collecting donations from local businesses and in 1939 a rodeo grounds was on the horizon. Local citizens volunteered their time to work alongside Les to construct an arena, grandstand, corrals, bucking chutes and a race track. Community persistence and dedication paid off and the first “Polson Roundup” was staged in the summer of 1940. During those early days the event was on the Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit that included Cheyenne Frontier Days, the Calgary Stampede and the Pendleton Roundup and as Les had envisioned cowboys and cowgirls that attended those well-known rodeos were also entering the Polson Roundup. Special entertainment attractions were added to the event including trick riding and roping. The Salish, Kootenai and Pend Oreille tribal members erected tipis near the arena to join with the festivities and big parades were held in downtown Polson to compliment the event.
Les’ efforts were set aside when on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and America entered World War II. Rodeo travel was suspended as gasoline and tires were rationed and many of the contestants entered military service. Les truly supported the military and the US government by buying War Bonds and proudly displaying them on a wall in the Hut Café.
An interesting event occurred that involved Les and Irene. The Polson Airport is located adjacent to the rodeo grounds which served as an emergency landing field the night of February 3, 1943. Local telephone operators were advised that a Boeing B-17 bomber from the Walla Walla, Washington, area was missing on a routine training mission. When a low flying multi-engine aircraft was heard circling the area, the telephone operators advised many local citizens and local authorities that it was probably the missing bomber and urged people to drive to the airport and line the runway with headlights and handheld flashlights. The B-17 crew could see the cars lining up along the snow-covered runway and the pilot circled one more time, dropped its practice bombs in a field and managed to land on the 2,500-foot runway in a rooster-tail of snow spray. It had less than five minutes of fuel remaining. The Norden Bombsight instrument was removed and locked in the vault at the Security State Bank. Les and Irene and the Hut Café workers prepared a late night steak dinner for the airmen and the neighboring Salish Hotel bedded them down for the night. Over the next several days the crew continued to enjoy some hearty meals provided by the Café before an experienced Army Air Corps officer was brought to Polson where he managed to take off, with the plane and crew intact, in less than the 2,500 feet of runway.
After the war, a number of the crew members returned to Polson to thank the citizens for their roles in lighting the runway and providing hospitality. Les and Irene and the Hut Café personnel were among the first Polsonites the airmen looked up to thank.
Faye (Poloson) Haynes well-known and longtime secretary of the Polson Roundup worked closely with Les when he was instrumental in promoting the Polson Rodeos and Parades. Her efforts earned her induction into the MCHF & WHC.
The Baldwin’s left Polson in 1953 and began resurrecting ranch properties purchased in Camas Prairie, Arlee, Frenchtown and Lolo areas. He also assisted fellow ranchers with stock roundups and branding. All done by horseback and on-site branding fires.
Selling the ranch property and returning to Polson in the 1960s, the Baldwin’s lived in a small house overlooking Flathead Lake. It was here where Les worked on a personal task of compiling stories of his life - days spent near Alzada, Montana to experiences in North and South Dakota, Wyoming and including his service in the Army. He had hoped to publish them one day and although the book project never materialized, several of his stories appeared in the Flathead Courier, Polson’s weekly newspaper.
Long interested in Montana history, he worked with state legislator Everett E. (Boo) MacGilvra and state Librarian Harriett Malloy in compiling background information pertaining to his personal western collections. After Les’s death, his nephew, Jim, donated Baldwin’s historic items to the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum.
Les Baldwin most loved as a foster father, was a rancher, restaurant owner, rodeo promoter, parade director, collector and donor of western artifacts, World War I United States Army veteran with service in France and Germany, a road and bridge builder and former Montana prison guard. He died of a heart attack in Polson April 1, 1978 and is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Ronan, Montana.
Obituary: The Ronan Pioneer, Ronan, MT, April 19, 1978
Copy of Deed of Gifts: Polson Flathead Historical Museum, Polson, MT June 25, 1992
Polson Fairgrounds, Lake County, MT – polsonfairgroundsinc.com
B-17 landing: Proud Heritage, An Illustrated History of Lake County, the Lower Flathead, Mission and Jocko Valleys, by Paul Fugleberg, 1997
B-17 landing: Flathead Courier, Polson, MT, Feb. 1943