A Ranching Legacy: The Fortier Family
The Fortier Ranch is 20 miles from Canada and 30 miles from Montana, where the last glacier in the United States melted. It’s “tough country”, says William “Bill” Fortier.
Fortier’s great grandfather, William Heckman and his 10 children came west to North Dakota from Indiana. On the open range, they summered cattle for other cattlemen and shipped in the fall, owning few cattle of their own, and not being able to winter cattle well on the brutal North Dakota prairie. In 1912, when the country became awash with homesteaders, they sold out and moved to Great Falls, Montana, where they eventually went broke running a horse operation after World War I. One of the Heckman daughters, Daisy, stayed behind in North Dakota and married a cowhand named Fred Fortier.
Fred worked for the LaPorte Cattle Company whose range was said to be 50 miles wide and 80 miles long, running up to 20,000 steers at one time, if memory serves. Fortier’s grandpa told him one time that he never knew of a calf born in that country unless it was in a barn. “He never talked about it much, but I think [the cattle company] went broke. It’s tough cow country,” he says. His Grandpa Fred “squatted” on a piece of land, eventually homesteading it. To make a living, Fred purchased horses out of Miles City, halter broke, and started them as work horses to sell to the homesteaders moving into North Dakota. There, near the little town of Wildrose, he and Daisy raised their children, including a boy named Charlie.
The original Heckman place on Willow Lake, north of Fred’s, was out of the family for nearly 50 years. When it came up for sale, it was appraised for $21 an acre in 1957, and William’s father, Charlie Fortier, bid $30 for it. He was not only the highest bidder, but he was also the only bidder. “But we’re pretty glad he got it back,” laughs Fortier.
Bill went away from the ranch in his adolescence, attending college and rodeoing for Montana State University in Bozeman. He studied agricultural business, which would later lead to his career working for the United States Department of Agriculture. His wife, Kay, studied Home Economics and animal science at North Dakota State University. The couple had known each other since childhood, but Fortier jokes, “the only reason I married her is because she did a good job doing chores when I left my horses with her.”
Bill and Kay decided to return to Willow Lake Ranch, buying out his brother. They built a house, sheds, and dug wells, working side by side for the better part of 50 years. “It’s been kind of a challenge, but we’re never sorry we came,” he says. They had two sons, John and Jay, who were raised on the ranch and are still active operators. Jay had the opportunity to purchase what the family calls “the home place”, settled by Bill’s grandfather Fred, and John is on the Willow Lake Ranch, settled by Bill’s great grandfather, William Heckman.
Nowadays, there are a few more sheds and windbreaks than in times past, making the Fortiers able to run a successful cow/calf operation. Throughout the years, they raised Quarter Horses by their own stallion. They also raised bucking bulls sired by a PBR bull owned by Beutlers, having up to 20 cows at the herd’s peak, which was “fun while it lasted.”
Uniquely, many of their summer pastures are watered with “potholes” left by the glacier melt with no drainage. “There’s a lot of water,” he says, despite the ground being rocky and integrated with a small mountain range. Looking at a map, the whole region is dotted with small lakes and water holes. The Willow Lake Ranch is located on the banks of the sizable lake for which it is named, which Fortier says only dried up one time in 1937. Otherwise, he says, their country fares well in drought.
Some tough personal times came to the Fortier Ranch when Bill lost his brother, Farrell “Bud” to leukemia at the age of 59. “My brother was 18 months older than me. That was pretty rough. I saw the guy everyday and (we) did everything together,” he says. Just 10 years later, Bud’s fourth daughter, the ranch’s “main cowboy” also died of leukemia before her 40th birthday. She had rodeoed for Dawson Community College, Casper College, and the University of Wyoming, qualifying to the College National Finals Rodeo several years.
Rodeo was, and still is a large part of life for the Fortier family. Most recently, Bill and Kay’s granddaughter, Jacey Fortier, won the Pendleton Roundup in breakaway roping “and she’s still smiling,” says Bill. They have an arena at the place, and both of their sons attended UW on a rodeo scholarship.
Throughout their years together, Kay served on the school board, was involved with their church, and raised two sons. For a time, she was the clerk for all of the Goldsberry Horse Sales in Sidney, Montana, which was how they paid the grocery bill. “She figured one time she probably handled $2 million for Goldsberrys. I didn’t ask how much she kept,” Bill jokes. Mostly, though, Kay remained a stalwart part of operating their ranch.
With both of his sons managing the day-to-day operations, Fortier says, “I think it’s in good hands. The thing about it is, with the farming and cattle, to be competitive, everybody has to expand every year to continue. The worst part about it is that the iron is so expensive. All the equipment you need is unreal.” Ever the optimist, he adds, “But, the calves sold pretty good [this year] and the farm part was good, too.”
“I don’t work very hard anymore,” Fortier says. “I do go see some cows every once and a while to get a fix. I’m a young 81. We’re both getting up there and getting kind of smooth-mouthed.” The best advice Bill can give to anyone in the ranching business is: “Treat everybody fairly and hope they laugh at your jokes. Try and be truthful, but don’t forget to have a little humor too. You gotta have fun.”