MONTANA COWBOY HALL OF FAME LIVING INDUCTION
HAROLD LEE ISAACS
DISTRICT 2 - YEAR 2024
Harold Lee Isaacs was born February 11, 1935 to Joe and Genevieve Isaacs in Faith, South Dakota. He joined two brothers Raymond and Richard. Harold grew up on the family operation southwest of Faith. They raised sheep, cattle, had milk cows, and raised a garden and hay.
Harold good naturedly remembers that when he reached school age he always walked behind his brothers, packing the lunch pail; and that the trail was up hill…both ways. His formal education ended after ‘that one day he went to high school’ for the first week. Harold later obtained his GED. He wouldn’t recommend this method and encouraged his daughters and grandchildren to get as much education as they desire.
Growing up in the late 1930s and early 40s, times were lean. Milk, cream, and other home-grown goods were sold or traded with neighbors, to make financial ends meet. The Isaacs brothers occasionally traded their school lunches for their classmate's lard sandwiches, understanding that at times, life was even leaner at the neighbors. Harold recalls, not so fondly, the summer they had to milk 16 Hereford cows whose calves had died. He claims each cow only gave a cup of milk twice a day.
Harold and his brothers did the farm work in their father’s absence, as he often had to work away from home and later carried mail horseback. The Isaacs boys trapped bobcat, coyotes and various varmints, and worked away from home to help make ends meet. Harold grew up doing cowboy work. He remembers being horseback as soon as he was big enough to sit up, hang on, and rein a horse. He was hired out from a very young age, to herd sheep and cattle for neighbors; sometimes alone in cow/sheep camp for a couple weeks.
Briefly, in his early adulthood, he tried calf roping, coached by ‘Bub’ Miller, father of well-known bronc rider, Tom Miller. It wasn’t long until Harold decided he had neither the time, nor money, to pursue roping full time. He did, however, enjoy occasional team roping at the neighbors in the 1970s.
Harold came to Montana in 1952 to work the first of a few lambing seasons for his uncle and mentor, Boyd Isaac. He worked one spring with Bill Sensiba, night lambing a few thousand ewes. He learned to hook ewes from a horse, pitch a sheep teepee shelter for them and their lambs, and bank the teepees until morning when they would turn them loose and gather teepees for the next night’s drop.
In 1957, Harold moved to Montana permanently, purchasing the Benny Vandenberg place on Haxby Point in Garfield County. Harold said that before the closing, and within a few days of moving into the bunkhouse on the property, Mrs. Vandenberg brought him a broom because she believed it should be swept every day. Then, on the day of the Vandenberg’s farm auction, Benny came and asked Harold for the broom, as he planned to sell it with other items in the sale.
Harold bought the Vandenberg’s cattle with the ranch and brought in 40 head of his registered Herefords from South Dakota. In those days, most area ranchers ran in common during the summer months, which meant riding almost daily to keep the cattle bunched for breeding. Harold kept a good string of horses. Stories can be told of Ed, Stranger, Buck, Bucky, Sabbath, and Joseph Van Smelled-a-booger. One year his neighbor to the west, didn’t brand or cut his calves. The following year, while riding Joseph, Harold roped many young bulls. He would drag them until they were out of air, then step off and ‘whoa’ Joseph, castrate the bull and turn it loose. Two things came from those long days riding in the Missouri Breaks that still hold today. Harold never rode a horse very long before it could walk as fast as most trot, and he always wore a coat in the heat of summer. These things were always a source of consternation to his girls. They could never keep pace when riding with him. However, they did learn the reasoning for the coat; sweating kept you cool in a breeze, deer flies cannot bite through, and you won’t sunburn.
On July 7, 1962 he married Doris Jean Barclay. Her parents, Alex and Doris, were neighbors to the south. Jo Dee was born in March of 1964, during a blizzard. Harold had taken Jean to town early to stay with friends and be close to the doctor. Jeana Marie arrived in August 1971. When asked why so many years between, he said, for the oldest to watch the younger while they worked. Jana Lee was born in July of 1973. The girls were taught to ride horses, work cattle, fence, and grow a garden; they were in fact, the total of the ranch crew for most of the daily work.
Since the Herefords, Harold has run many crossed breeds of cattle, including Black Baldies, Shorthorn and Simmental. Harold and Jo Dee started a registered Red Angus herd in 1979. They have built it up to about 125 head of purebreds by purchasing a few heifers and keeping their top heifer calves. The ranch now runs these in addition to a commercial herd of full-blood Red Angus cattle.
In 1962, Harold bought the land he had under lease from the Osborn’s on the Big Dry for $17/acre. He trailed cows about 30 miles to and from there, almost every spring and fall for more than 80 trips. The first trip to the Osborn place was December 1958. Harold was unsure of which trail to take, but knew they must go south. He finished that drive in a snow storm, aided by his future father-in-law. The number one lesson on every drive; keep the cattle strung out and the flank pushed in to cut down the drag. More than once, upon leaving a rest stop, he would drive the lead of the herd over the hill a mile away while the girls were still resting and visiting on the drag. He would eventually come by and tell them that when they were done ‘riding the same horse’ they could get the cattle moving again.
Being a proponent of education, Harold spent many years on his district’s school board. He has supported numerous community projects and activities over the years, and continues to do so. Harold served as a 4-H leader and sat on various boards over the years; including the Fort Peck Game Range Committee (before it became the C. M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge), The Garfield County Bank (1976-present), and 1st Security Bank of Roundup (1971-present).
Harold and Jean, still live on the ranch in the Vandenburg house, which has been updated or added on to a few times. He still rises before the sun, continuing to follow his Uncle Boyd’s advice, “Do a little something for the ranch every day.” Harold believes every man will only have one or two really good horses, and one or two really good dogs in his lifetime; and that they only become good if you ride the horse often, and long enough to get the saddle blanket wet; and always take your dog with you to work.