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Life of adventure, prowess with guns made Elmer Keith famous

By Linda Emley

As an adult, I’m always sad when Christmas day is over. We spend a lot of time and money getting ready for Christmas and it is over in a flash. Many women spend time cooking Christmas dinner and it’s over and done even faster than Christmas day.
I was thinking about this and realized that as a child, Christmas day was the beginning of a vacation with lots of new toys. As an adult, very few of us get a “Christmas break,” so we have every right to dream of the good-old days of our childhood.
Since I grew up in the country, “Christmas break” was different because I didn’t see my school friends until we returned to school after the new year had started. I’m sure it was different for the kids who lived in town because they got to play together every day of our Christmas vacation. I did have some friends who lived close to me and we would get together and go sled riding if we were lucky enough to have some snow.
PostcardsOne of my favorite things to do after Christmas dinner is shooting a few rounds of target practice. This year it was just me and my big brother, so I got to spend a few minutes of quality time with him. We were shooting at cardboard boxes on our family farm in Missouri, but for a few minutes I felt like Elmer Keith.
A few years ago, I wrote a story about Elmer Keith and my brother was one of the few people who knew who he was. He was a local man that made it big.
Please allow me to introduce you to Elmer Keith, the man from Hardin that got to see the world because he knew how to shoot the heck out of things.
The 1881 Ray County History Book tells about the early days of hunting. “Bison browsed on the prairie, and elk and deer were abroad in the forest. On the present site of Richmond, in 1818, Winant Vanderpool and John Stone killed five bears.” Store bills were paid with wild honey, coon, deer, otter and other skins of wild animals. Taxes were paid with fox and wolf skins.
So what do modern day deer hunters do when they are not hunting? They go to Cabela’s and check out the latest hunting gadgets. There is a Cabela’s store in Boise, Idaho that is also the home of the Elmer Keith Museum. I’m sure you are thinking, “Who is Elmer Keith and why do we care about his museum in Idaho?” Elmer Merrifeild Keith was born in Hardin in 1899, the son of Forest and Linnie Merrifeld Keith.
Elmer Keith was larger than life. His autobiography is appropriately titled, “Hell, I was there! Adventures of a Montana cowboy who gained world fame as a big game hunter.”
Before moving to Montana with his family, Elmer had his share of adventures in Hardin. John Taffin said it best in his tribute to Keith. “Elmer was born right at the end of the frontier  period March 8, 1899 in Hardin, Missouri, and consequently knew many Civil War veterans and gunfighters in his early years. In fact, he recounted learning to shoot a handgun from a former gunfighter turned barber, shooting at the patterns in the linoleum in the back of the barber shop.”
In Elmer’s book, he said that his grandfather, Anson Merrifield, was the first marshal of Hardin who lived any length of time. The first few pages talk about Elmer’s early days in Hardin and then it covers the rest of his life. Every time I turned a page, I was amazed by all the things that happened to one man. There is no way to do a condensed version of his life, but I am going to share a few of the highlights.
One of my favorite stories was when Elmer was three years old and his father took him to Carrollton to see the trotting horses race. Elmer said, “Frank James was starting the race at that time after the governor had pardoned him. We drove up and Frank came over and said ‘Hello, Farley. That’s an awful pretty girl you have there.’ Dad said, ‘Girl hell, Frank. I’ll have you understand that’s a boy.’ Well they had me dressed in a polka-dot dress, long black socks, button shoes, a Windsor tie and long yellow curls down to my shoulders. Until I was 4, it was dresses that I hated.” This was normal for little boys in 1900, so there are some things from the good-old days that are better left in the good-old days.
When Elmer was young, Ray County didn’t have any deer or turkeys. They would be reintroduced back to our county at a later date. Elmer did get to go hunting for small game like prairie chickens, cranes, geese, ducks and rabbits.
When the Keith family decided that Hardin was getting too crowded, they packed up the spring wagon and headed for Montana. They drove to Hardin and wanted to take the evening train to Kansas City. Due to muddy roads, they arrived in Hardin a few minutes late and missed the train. Elmer’s dad was upset that they had to stay in Hardin overnight, but before morning they got word that the missed train had wrecked before it got to Kansas City and 48 people had been killed.
In 1911, Elmer was burned in a fire in Montana and he had scars from his burns and his hand was damaged. Elmer recounted, “My left hand was just turned upside down and back on my wrist. I told Father I had to have a left hand so I could hold a rifle and do normal things. Father contacted every doctor in Helena to try to get them to operate on the hand and break it over and straighten it out. None of them would tackle the job. They all said I would never live to be 21 anyway, and they were not going to torture me any further. Finally, I had enough of going with only one hand, so I asked Dad if he would break it. Mother said, “Can you stand it?” I said, “I don’t know, but you can go ahead and do it anyway.”
Elmer got good and drunk so his dad could fix his hand. “Dad put my arm on a heavy table and sat down on it with my hand between his legs. When he picked up those fingers that were doubled back of my wrist and broke them, the pain was terrific and I passed out. Father took a board he used for stretching mink and sanded it until it was smooth and slick as glass and would reach from my elbow out past my fingers. When I came to, my hand was straight. It was all laced down solid to the mink board.”
Elmer was one tough guy that could have gone “bear hunting with a hickory stick,” but he chose to use a gun most of the time. He went big-game hunting all over the world and wrote over 10 books and many magazine articles about hunting and gun ammo. In 1979, he was executive editor of Guns and Ammo magazine.
This would be enough to make any man a living legend, but his story does not end here. Keith hooked up with Smith and Wesson and developed the first magnum revolver cartridge, the .357 magnum, as well as the later .44 and .41 magnum cartridges. He created a number of bullet designs still popular today that are called “Keith-style” bullets. This was a man that could really say “go ahead, make my day,” so I’m sure he would have given Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry a run for his money. Harry Callahan would be proud to go bear hunting with Elmer Keith.
Elmer was never seen without his Stetson cowboy hat. A friend told a story about meeting him at the airport one day and asking where his hat was. It seems that on Nov. 14, 1979 Elmer was on American Airlines Flight 444 going from Chicago to Washington, D.C. and a bomb exploded in the cargo hold. The plane was able to land, but Elmer had to evacuate and leave his Stetson in the overhead bin.
In 1996, the FBI arrested Theodore Kaczynski and it was determined that the 1979 bomb had been the handiwork of Ted, also known as The Unabomber.. Who would ever have thought the Unabomber almost took out one of Hardin’s home-grown boys.
Elmer Keith survived more than one brush with death and lived a long, interesting life. He died at the age of 84 and is buried at Salmon Cemetery in Idaho. Elmer passed on in style with a full Masonic service. He also had a bagpiper lead his funeral procession from the church to his graveside service, where his 21-gun salute was performed with .44 magnum pistols. Yes I think we can say that Elmer Merrifield Keith left this world with a bang that would make any hunter proud. RIP Elmer.

Have an Elmer Keith story? See Linda at Ray County Museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday or email her at raycohistory@aol.com.

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