Wild Horse’s Wild History

Over the decades, all sorts of plans were concocted for Wild Horse Island: resorts, a power plant, a large marina, farms, an Arabian and Thoroughbred horse operation, hundreds of homesites. But a much better idea won, and today it’s one of Montana’s largest state parks.

By Butch Larcombe
Wild Horse Island. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

At more than 2,100 acres, with mountains, tall trees, wildflowers, grassy meadows and miles of shoreline bounded by a large, stunningly clean lake, a band of untamed horses and record-book bighorn sheep, the allure of Wild Horse Island is undeniable.

The big island also harbors countless stories, some rooted in centuries-old Native American legend, with others the latter-day tales of optimistic homesteaders, eccentric dreamers, ambitious developers and early deaths.

Remarkably, the story features a happy ending. While two neighboring Flathead Lake islands hold mega-mansions and no-trespassing signs, Wild Horse is largely publicly owned and undeveloped and one of Montana’s largest state parks, visited by more than 20,000 people each year.

Polson attorney John Mercer grew up on Rocky Point, northwest of town, and the family home had a clear view of Wild Horse. Hiking trips on the island and evening boat rides along its shoreline are cherished childhood memories. As a Montana legislator in the 1990s, Mercer helped lead a bipartisan measure to limit development of the state park and preserve its primitive state.

“It’s just a special place,” says Mercer, who has climbed with each of his children to the island’s highest point. “It’s like an old friend.”

Like many familiar with the island’s history, Mercer marvels at the fact that much of Wild Horse, which has some private lots and cabins, escaped the grasp of a deep-pocketed individual owner. But for much of the past century, that outcome was far from certain.

Hiawatha Lodge, a dude ranch for some of its life, was likely the island’s largest structure. Opened in 1931, all that remains is a fireplace. Courtesy of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

While details are few, the first “owners” of Wild Horse were the area’s native inhabitants, who referred to it as the Big Island. The island, along with the others in Flathead Lake, later became part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, an eventual product of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty between the U.S. government and the Salish, Pend d’ Oreille and Kootenai tribes. Kootenai and Pend d’ Oreille/Kalispel people lived along the lake’s west shore.

While details are sketchy and at times conflicting, legend has the Indigenous inhabitants using the island to protect horses from thievery by unfriendly tribes, including the Blackfeet. While the logistics of getting horses to and from the island, which is about a mile offshore, seem daunting, there appear to be elements of truth to the story, says Amy Grout, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) ranger who oversees Wild Horse and the other agency-managed islands and parks around Flathead Lake.

Grout points to talks with Kootenai historians that noted horses and herders could have more easily reached Wild Horse by swimming a significantly shorter distance to and from what is now Cromwell Island, which at least in periods of low water (and before the construction of Kerr/SKQ dam in the 1930s), was a peninsula connected to the lake shore. 

A woman steps off a small boat onto a ladder pier. Courtesy of the University of Montana Mansfield Library archives

“I think there were times when they kept horses on the island but not all the time,” Grout says.

In his journals, white explorer John Mullan noted the presence of a band of horses on the island in 1854, which may be the source of the Wild Horse name. About 50 years later, the federal government offered allotments of reservation land to tribal members and opened the remaining parcels to non-Native homesteaders via lottery.

Some tribal members chose allotments on Wild Horse Island, joined later by white homesteaders with visions of raising crops and livestock in what seemed to be an idyllic setting.

But island life proved challenging. The W.A. Powers family planted fruit trees and a large black walnut tree on their claim, all of which were abandoned when they left the island shortly after the drowning death of their young son.

Another family, the Johnsons, built a small house in December 1910, likely one of the first on the island, and a nearby barn a short time later. The modest house was completed in just 11 days and may have been a community effort. It’s unclear how long the Johnson family remained on Wild Horse. But 110 years later, the house and barn still stand along one of the island’s main hiking trails.

McIntosh apple and pear trees, believed to have been planted in 1918, are all that remain of another homestead closer to the center of the island. 

“They actually still provide fruit but not every year,” Grout says.

There were short-lived attempts at running cattle and growing hay, but these efforts were likely stymied due to a lack of water, an unanticipated challenge. 

“They were pretty much dependent on weather,” Grout says. “They really couldn’t pump water up from the lake for watering crops. It’s a pretty harsh climate to try and prove up your claim.”

One of the few to fully establish ownership was Herman Schnitzmeyer, who had claimed 160 acres on the southeast side of the island. Described by Wild Horse historian Edward McCurdy as an “eccentric” and “philosopher,” Schnitzmeyer, who came to Montana from Illinois, spent the winter of 1913-14 on the island. Likely the only human occupant, he battled isolation and, by his own account, starvation. A skilled photographer, Schnitzmeyer made a self-portrait shortly after his Wild Horse winter that hints at his harrowing island experience.

Herman Schnitzmeyer spent the 1913-14 winter on his island homestead. Courtesy of the Montana Memory Project

In 1915, five years after it was opened to homesteading, many parcels on Wild Horse remained unclaimed. The federal government, rather than restoring the land to the reservation, put them up for sale. Of the 890 lots available, a man from Minnesota, Colonel Almond White, agreed to buy half of them, paying as little as $15 per acre for some of the parcels away from the lakeshore.

A real estate speculator and one-time associate of rail baron James J. Hill, Almond had grand plans: lakefront villas, a boys school, summer camps for Scouts and Campfire Girls, a large hotel, a power plant on a creek and even a celestial observatory atop one of the island’s peaks.

But the land sales didn’t materialize and White failed to make good on payments to the federal government. Many unsold parcels became available for anyone willing to pay back taxes.

The Rev. Robert Edington and his wife Clara, who lived near Dayton, bought some parcels from White and later acquired 40 additional acres on the east end of the island. The couple, who came to Montana from New York, worked to create a dude ranch that would cater to tourists from the East. The Edingtons constructed Hiawatha Lodge, cabins, stables and other structures and opened for business in 1931.

The couple entertained guests with boating and horseback rides from the lodge, likely the most significant structure built on Wild Horse. But in October 1934, a powerful afternoon storm hit the island, causing waves to wash over the lodge’s boats. Edington and a caretaker rushed to the dock to secure the boats, but the waves knocked Edington into the water and he drowned. His wife left the island soon thereafter and never returned.

Lewis Penwell, a Helena attorney, politician and sheep rancher, bought the lodge and the remainder of the Edington property and operated the dude ranch for a period before hatching a plan to turn the island into a game refuge. Penwell brought mule deer, turkeys and bighorn sheep to Wild Horse. 

Whether the bighorns were the first on the island is unclear. FWP has photos of Penwell bringing bighorns to Wild Horse in 1939. Some accounts credit White, the land speculator, with introducing the sheep, while a publication from the Kootenai Cultural Committee says tribal members captured bighorn lambs in British Columbia, nurtured them and later released them on Wild Horse, where they multiplied and started the herd.

“It is possible that there were other attempts to plant sheep,” Grout, of FWP, says, adding that she believes it’s unlikely any early transplants survived.

Penwell, while stocking game animals on Wild Horse, also worked to buy all the land on the island, likely with an eye toward a future sale. While he purchased parcels from private owners, Penwell also worked in the political realm to transfer a 36-acre parcel given to the University of Montana for biological and educational purposes to private hands. The original grant to UM also included parcels at Yellow Bay and on Bull Island.

Johnson homestead house, completed in 1910, still stands along the island’s main hiking trail. Courtesy of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Penwell found a buyer for the island, a colorful New Jersey man named John (J.C.) Burnett, who had visions of an Arabian and Thoroughbred horse operation, all of it financed by his wife, Cora, an heiress to a family roller-bearing fortune. While Cora Timken only visited the island once, she took ownership in 1943. A few years later, she also gained title to the 36 island acres that had belonged to the Flathead Lake Biological Station, which, in an exchange, received 80 acres of less desirable land along the lake near Polson.

As part of the purchase, J.C. Burnett demanded that Penwell remove the island’s horses. The horses, likely remnants of the dude-ranch operation and possibly homesteaders, were herded onto a barge that would ferry them from Wild Horse.

But as one load made its way, the barge encountered strong winds and waves and tipped, with the horses tethered to its deck forced into the water. According to historical accounts, Penwell’s son, Fred, jumped into the water and used a knife to cut the tethering lines, freeing the struggling horses, who swam back to the island, where they remained.

Burnett eventually built a herd of about 100 horses on Wild Horse, using Arabian and Thoroughbred stallions to improve the herd. The New Jersey man reportedly enjoyed donning a black cowboy hat and roaming the island on a tall horse. Missoula writer Bryan Di Salvatore in 1982 described Burnett, who proclaimed the Montana sunshine he found on the island “to be the finest in the world,” as being “drunk with the whiskey of western fantasy.” 

Burnett’s Wild Horse love affair didn’t last. After several dry summers in the early 1950s left the island overgrazed and winter brought deep, crusty snow, Burnett had feed flown to the island for the horses. When Cora died in 1956, Burnett, despite inheriting 50 percent ownership of the island and an estimated $55 million, never returned to Wild Horse. 

Naturalist Morton Elrod on Wild Horse Island. Courtesy of University of Montana Mansfield Library archives

When Burnett died in 1959, a trust assumed ownership of the island. Within months, Lake County commissioners, worried about a potential loss of property taxes, torpedoed an early proposal from conservation interests to buy the island and place it in public ownership.

Enter Bourke MacDonald, the owner of a multigenerational Butte lumber operation. MacDonald bought the entire island in 1961 for $240,000, a move described by his daughter-in-law as a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“I think he needed a change of pace and he heard about this island,” says Paddy O’Connell MacDonald of Missoula, noting that MacDonald initially spent many weekends on Wild Horse, and later, entire summers.

Like others, MacDonald had big plans, at least initially: a hotel, stables, lakefront lots and a marina. But he also recognized the unique nature of the island, its wildlife and history.

MacDonald worked to clear lakefront lots, punched in a road and thinned many trees. He ended up selling about 50 lots on the island’s west and south shore, all of them circular, each with lake frontage but spaced to allow public access to the island’s interior between the boundaries.

Bourke MacDonald died in his sleep on Wild Horse Island in 1973. His sudden death spurred a family discussion about the future of the place that several generations of the MacDonald family hold in deep reverence.

Paddy MacDonald first visited Wild Horse in 1968 with her husband, the late Missoula attorney Ron MacDonald. She says her spouse hatched the idea of donating the island to the state, which others in the family embraced. Jean Turnage, a highly regarded Polson attorney, legislator, future Supreme Court justice and a longtime family friend, provided key support.

Wild Horse “is a siren call for the MacDonalds,” Paddy says. “My husband just held it in sacred regard, as did his siblings.”

Horses graze on Wild Horse Island. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

The transfer deal, hammered out in the late 1970s, was complex and controversial, involving legislative approval and funding from state and federal agencies and conservation groups. The bottom line was that the MacDonald family agreed to sell much of the island at half of its appraised $3.5 million value, with the other half a donation to the state to allow it to be preserved and publicly owned. The private land on Wild Horse today is just a 50-acre sliver of the island’s 2,160 acres.

These days, all that’s left of the three-story Hiawatha Lodge is a stone fireplace. But the bighorn sheep, wildflowers, rich human history and wild horses remain, along with a unique feeling of solitude that the big island in the big lake exudes.

Noting the mix of Native and white culture, the wildlife and wild tales, Grout, the FWP ranger, is a Wild Horse fan. And she marvels at the foresight of the MacDonald family and many others from around the state who had the vision to preserve it. 

“To me, the island brings so many things together in one place,” she says. “We are just blessed to have it as a public park.” 

Butch Larcombe worked for three decades as a newspaper editor and reporter, as well as editor of Montana Magazine. He lives near Woods Bay.

Correction: The story was updated to reflect the fact that Wild Horse is one of Montana’s largest state parks, but not the largest.

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