Trudy Kempton Dana didn’t grow up listening to fairy tales.
Her father told her true stories of the Wild West: of farmers, traders, pioneers, cowboys and ranchers.
They were stories about her family.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Kemptons were one of the most respected and celebrated families in eastern Montana. The Kempton name resonates today in the town of Terry, Montana, where the family built a ranch and hotel that still exist.
Young Trudy loved the stories her dad, Jerry Kempton, told her. When it was her turn, she retold them to her daughters and granddaughters.
“One of my daughters said, ‘You know, Mom, when you’re gone, the stories will be gone forever,’” she said. “I started writing them (down), thinking I maybe had enough for a thin book, (but) it just kept going and going.”
Dana, of Edmonds, spent five years researching and writing a historical trilogy, “The Kemptons: Adventures of a Montana Ranch Family, 1880-1964.” The first book was recently published by Farcountry Press. The second is scheduled to publish in 2020, followed by the third book in 2021.
A retired crime prevention officer who spent 20 years with the Lynnwood Police Department, Dana, 73, pored over photographs, historical records and diaries to help flesh out her dad’s stories.
“They were a good family, trying to do the very best they could in tough times,” said Dana, who wrote the book to illustrate the grit, integrity and endurance it took to thrive on the frontier.
The Kempton family’s Western saga began in the mid-1800s, when Joseph Kempton (1817-1909), a whaling ship captain who was Dana’s great-great grandfather, and wife, Sabrina, traveled west in an oxcart. They first settled in Michigan, where their children were born, then moved to Colorado, where they established a hay farm.
James Berney “JB” Kempton, their eldest son, grew up on the farm. After fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War, JB moved to Montana to make his fortune.
He established the Kempton Ranch in 1882 near Terry. On its more than 3,500 acres, he raised horses for the army and polo-playing royalty. Kempton Ranch also was the first to ship beef cattle on the Northern Pacific Railway.
JB (1843-1910) invested in the town of Terry, just a few miles away, by establishing its first bank, a church and a ranching supply company. He and his wife, Maria, whose mother was Sioux, raised six children.
Among his other distinctions, JB was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, the 29th president of the United States. Dana said JB likely forged a friendship with the future president during his days as a rancher in North Dakota. Later, Roosevelt personally helped the family when a government livestock agent gave them trouble over shipping cattle to the Midwest.
JB’s eldest son, Berney Edmond Kempton (1870-1942), grew up with a rope in his hand. He became one of the most famous rough riders and bronco busters in the West. In his late teens, he toured the world with Doc Carver’s Wild West Show, which was best known for its diving horses attraction, dramatized in a 1991 Disney movie called “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.” His mother had taught him the Sioux language, and he chatted with native men in the show.
Berney’s cowboy skills are remembered to this day; he was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2015.
Away from the ranch, Berney built the Kempton Hotel in 1913, which lodged two notable guests: Theodore Dreiser, author of “An American Tragedy,” and Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a famous German-American operatic contralto.
The family sold the ranch and hotel a few years after Berney’s death. His son Jerry Kempton (1912-1994) married and moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where Dana was born and raised.
Jenny Steinhagen, Dana’s daughter, said she’s impressed by her mother’s research. She’d heard the stories many times growing up, but not with this level of detail.
“It’s amazing the amount of effort and time that she’s put into this,” Steinhagen said. “We knew there was a property in Montana, but I didn’t really know any specifics at all. I think that’s why this is fun for her. There were some things she found (out) that she never knew.”
Dana’s book is getting attention in Terry, Montana. Kathy Galland, owner of a gift shop there called Prairie Unique, displays the book near the front door. Locals and tourists alike come in specifically asking about it.
“The Kempton is the oldest continually operated hotel in Montana, so just hearing the name draws them in,” she said. “These are true stories, and people here can relate to it.”
Galland, 66, grew up in Terry’s Prairie County, and her family were also homesteaders and cowboys. She was particularly touched by one scene in the book when a young Jerry asked Berney why he never revealed his fame as a star performer in the Doc Carver show.
“He just says, ‘Well, it’s not relevant,’” Galland said. “A lot of these old homesteaders were like that. They never bragged about themselves. That made it so personal to me, because my dad was like that.”
Dana stopped in Terry this month during a book tour. She stayed in the Kempton Hotel and toured the ranch, which has been renamed to Beefland.
But she’s no cowgirl.
“Here I am, writing about cattle, horses and ranching, and I don’t like horses,” she said. “I don’t even own cowboy boots.”
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, email@example.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
About the author
Trudy Kempton Dana, of Edmonds, has written a saga about her family of Montana pioneering ranchers. The Kempton family includes a Mayflower pilgrim, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Sioux chief and a star roper and rider with Doc Carver’s Wild West Show. Both the ranch and the Kempton Hotel still exist in the small town of Terry in eastern Montana. The first of three books is illustrated with nearly 100 historical photos.
“The Kemptons: Adventures of a Montana Ranch Family, 1880-1964”
By Trudy Kempton Dana
Farcountry Press. $17.95.