Gwen Petersen: In a Sow’s Ear 2-13-12
February 13, 2012
There’s travel stories and then there’s travel stories. Along with two friends, I just returned from a 300 mile (one way) journey to and from Chinook, Mont. We participated in a good old-fashioned down-to-earth real-deal cowboy poetry gathering.
On the return trip, we deliberately drove the back roads which took us to Square Butte, Mont., which has no population listed on the road map. Square Butte is named after the odd square geological formation that pokes up from the more or less flat land surrounding it. Lewis and Clark mentioned it in their journals. You can see it for miles from any direction.
Square Butte is 35 miles from Fort Benton, the town where Ol Shep waited for his master. Shep appeared at the railway station one day in 1936. His master had died and the casket was being loaded onto the train. For years after that, Shep met the train daily, waiting for his master’s return. After Shep went on to dog heaven, the townsfolk had a statue made of Shep standing with his front paws on the railroad tracks. There’s even a song about Ol Shep. Tourists take photos. The pedestal base is of copper-toned bricks. To raise money to pay Bob Scriver (the sculptor), the bricks were offered to the public. Buy one and you could have your name inscribed on said brick.
What, you ask, does Ol Shep and Fort Benton have to do with Square Butte? You can find out if you stop at the Square Butte Country Club. That would be the bar-restaurant establishment – the surrounding countryside’s social center. Inside, you can enjoy probably the world’s best hamburger ever, and the beverage of your choice. Paintings of local folk hang from the walls. Humorous and sometimes raunchy signs educate the reader. The owner/bartender can answer any question and usually truthfully.
The story of Pehs is a question, you absolutely must ask: “What is Pehs?” That would be the name of a fluffy angora cat who once lived in Square Butte. Pehs – so the story goes – lost his owner, Trixie, the “manager” of the Square Butte … er, cathouse to the Grim Reaper. He watched as her casket was loaded onto the train. Daily, Pehs climbed onto a low boulder near the tracks and gazed at the far horizon, waiting for his mistress’ return.
After his death, the Square Butte folk had a statue cast of Pehs and mounted it on the boulder where he’d spent so much of his life. According to the plaque at the foot of the boulder, Pehs was born in 1926. Cats, as is well known, have nine lives. Pehs died in 1931, 1935, 1936, 1940, 1947, 1953, 1955, 1961 and 1968.
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Causes of deaths: He was stepped on by a Percheron in 1931, drowned in an irrigation ditch in 1935, fell under a moving train in 1936, got eaten by a coyote in 1940, succumbed to distemper in 1947, killed by a skunk in 1953, shot by a city hunter who thought he was a fuzzy bird in 1955, was lunch for a wolf in 1961 and expired from being struck by lightning in 1968.
The entire local populace turned out for Pehs’ funeral. He’s in a hand-built golden oak cat-size casket buried beneath the only tree in Square Butte, one adjacent to the rail road tracks. To raise money to pay the carpenter and to pay for the raised copper letters on the plaque, the Pehs committee sold bags of kitty litter. Buy a bag and you could have your name listed in the funeral memorial book.
By now, you may have concluded that the entire Pehs story could quite possibly be fanciful to say the least. Don’t let that stop you from inquiring: “How is it Square Butte folks went to all that trouble and how did the cat acquire its unusual name?” If you’re speaking with a Square Butte Country Club individual, you’ll first hear a sad sigh followed by a drawl so dry, it’ll make you feel thirsty.
“Welllll, ya see … Pehs is Shep spelled backwards and we did the whole deal just to drive Fort Benton crazy.”