December 1918: Elliott Perkins’s Holiday Letters Home

Elliott Perkins was born to Thomas and Louisa Perkins on March 16, 1901 in Massachusetts. His mother’s maiden name was Adams, making him directly related to Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.  While raised in a well to do and influential New England family, Elliott was entranced by the notion of being a cowboy. His father, Thomas Perkins, was acquainted with Senator John Kendrick of Wyoming, who owned multiple ranch properties. At the behest of Mr. Perkins, Sen. Kendrick arranged for Elliott to spend some time on the OW Ranch in Montana before attending college. Sen. Kendrick met with Elliott beforehand in the Senate café, and the Senator said in a letter to Elliott’s father that the luncheon “convinced me that he was not lacking in either ability or spirit”. Elliott arrived at the OW Ranch in late summer 1918, and planned to spend about a year working there receiving no special treatment of any kind. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision what he must have looked like when he arrived at the ranch. He was 17 years old, about six feet tall, and all his work clothes were probably brand new. It didn’t take long for Elliott to prove himself though.

Elliott eating a peach.
Perkins Collection, 2016.043.004

In the same letter from Sen. Kendrick to Mr. Perkins, the senator writes “I need hardly tell you that it is immensely gratifying to me to have Elliott derive benefit from his stay on my ranch. I was anxious that he should succeed for reasons fully outlined to you and for reasons which I know more than I have even spoken. The boy’s success in measuring up to his work is not by any means a one sided [sic] affair…As I have stated to you before, I have great faith in the broadening process of such experience, and there are as many risks and hazards involved in the way a boy secures such experience as any incident of his life. I was glad to have the boy go out to the ranch on your account, and I am now glad that he went on his own account.”

Judging by the letters in the museum’s collection, Elliott enjoyed his time as a cowboy on the OW Ranch and had plenty of adventures. On December 7, 1918 he wrote to his parents: “I have been to town over Thanksgiving, Old Tug and I went in, and I couldn’t get him out for a week. He was most remarkable drunk, even for him, and when drunk, he just won’t leave town until the mood strikes him. That trip showed the wisdom of always refusing.”

Tug, the veteran cowboy
Perkins Collection, 2016.043.094

Enjoying himself though he was, he did enjoy the brief forays into civilized society that came his way. He was invited several times to visit the Moncreiffe families in Big Horn. The Moncrieffe brothers were originally from England, and had polo ranches in the area where they breed horses. In the December 7th letter he also wrote his parents that “Sunday I went out to Mr. Moncreiffe’s and my, I sure did enjoy it. Mr. and Mrs. Moncreiffe were just as nice as they could be, and the sensation of civilized life again was most pleasant… That night the Malcolm branch of the family came to dinner. I have lived rough so long that I just tore into the first course, forgetting that there would be more to follow.”

His letter on December 17th laments not being home for Christmas, but assures his mother and father that he has some fun Christmas plans. “It was sure a funny feeling to realize Christmas is so near, and me not home. It’s the first time I’ve not been with you and it’s a bit disconcerting, still, the festivitys [sic] will be by no means gloomy here. We’re going to a Christmas Tree, Dinner, and Dance at a farmer’s on the head of the Seventy-Six. We have been to one dance there, just last week, and oh boy, those girls up there can sure rip things up the back. It was just us cowboys, and every one of us danced right through until 2.00 A.M. Usually we sit by the wall and look sleepy.”

Saddling a bronc at the mouth of the seventy-six.
Seventy-six may refer to a creek that ran through the
OW Ranch.
Perkins Collection, 2016.043.050

Christmas Day was a little less festive than the dance. In a letter dated December 30, 1918 Elliott writes his father that he spent it in a cabin with a cowhand, teacher, farmer, his wife, and two kids. The children were “just at the age to cry frequently, and yell all the time”, but they made a festive day out of it with fried chicken, fruit, cake, and tinsel. The dance that evening was much more entertaining. “You’d never recognize your early retiring son in the gay ‘heel’ that danced straight through until 3 am. You should see me in the mazes of an old time quadrille. I can hold my own, waltz or one step, in this country, but the quadrille has me distinctly mystified.”

Elliott recognized that he would never be as great a cowhand as men like old Tug. The experienced cowhands could work way more efficiently than him. Due to the World War I draft there were few of the experienced cowhands left.  As the greenest man on the team he wrote to his father that he got all the worst jobs like working the feed wagon. “That damn hay is casting its shadow over me once more. (The adjective is really necessary).” He recognizes that the best he could hope for in the year that he is there was to be a promising youngster.

Cowboys ready to circle on OW Ranch.
Perkins Collection, 2016.043.083

What could a young man spending a year on a ranch want for Christmas? Elliott didn’t want more gear because he was “outfitted to perfection”. All he wanted were books and food. “The books should be the cheapest editions you can get, and the grub should be pretty plentiful please, nothing extravagant, but there’s six of us, and every one with a good sweet tooth that needs filling. Mixed candy, and maybe a bottle or two of ripe olives for my edification would be fine.”

Elliott Perkins left the OW Ranch before the start of the 1919 school year, entering Harvard University. In 1923 he graduated with a degree in history. In 1930 he took a position as a Tutor at Lowell House, one of the resident dorms at Harvard University while working on his PhD. Mary Baker-Wilbraham entered his life in 1934 when she came to the United States from England to visit a friend. Her father, Sir Phillip Baker Wilbraham, was the legal advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury at one point in his illustrious career as an English barrister. Elliott followed Mary to England to study English history at Cambridge for a few years, and they were married in 1937. In 1940 the couple moved into Lowell House and remained there until 1963, eventually becoming the House Master of Lowell House. As House Master he and his wife oversaw life at Lowell House to foster the students’ personal and intellectual development. Elliott continued to teach classes on English history until 1969. Harvard remained an important part of his life, and he continued to work for them in various ways. He passed away in 1985.

Maybe Sen. Kendrick got his wish that Elliott’s time on the OW Ranch helped him grow in unexpected ways that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In the letter he wrote to his mother on December 7th he said “One year ago I never thought I could learn to skin and quarter a beef without any squeamish feelings. But I just done so.” He never forgot his time at the OW Ranch, and how he grew during that year as a cowboy. His stories and many more like them are kept alive in the Museum at the Bighorns collection.

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