Cowboy lived with guns a-blazin’

Elmer Keith

By Linda Emley

Every Ray Countian knows that when Halloween is over deer season is just around the corner. The 1881 Ray County History 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 wild-animal skins. Taxes were paid with fox and wolf skins.
So what do modern deer hunters do when they’re not hunting? They go to Cabela’s and check out the latest gadgets. There’s a Cabela’s in Boise, Idaho that’s the home of the Elmer Keith Museum. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Who is Elmer Keith and why do we care about his museum?”
Elmer Merrifeild Keith was born in Hardin in 1899, the son of Forest and Linnie Merrifeld Keith. Elmer still has some family around town, one of whom is Charlie Merrifield.
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 this tribute: “Elmer was born right at the end of the frontier period on 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 marshall of Hardin who lived for any length of time. The first few pages talk about his early days in Hardin and then covers the rest of his life. Every time I turned a page, I was amazed by all the things that happened to Elmer. There’s no way to do a condensed life story, so I’lll share a few highlights.
One of my favorite stories was when Elmer was 3 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 which I hated.”
This was normal for little boys in 1900, so there are some things from the good-old days that are better left behind.
When Elmer was young, Ray County didn’t have any deer or turkeys. They would be reintroduced in the 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 and headed for Montana. They drove to Hardin planning to take the evening train to Kansas City. Due to muddy roads, they were a few minutes late and missed it. His dad was upset that they had to stay in Hardin overnight, but before morning they got word that the train had crashed and 48 people had been killed.
In 1911, Elmer was scarred in a fire in Montana and had his hand 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 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 chose to use a gun instead. He went big-game hunting all over the world and wrote over 10 books and many magazine articles about hunting and ammo. In 1979, he was executive editor of Guns and Ammo magazine.
This would be enough to make anyone a legend, but the story doesn’t end there. Keith hooked up with Smith and Wesson to develop the first magnum revolver, the .357 Magnum, as well as the later .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum. He created a number of designs still popular today that are called “Keith style” bullets. This was a man that could really say, “go ahead, make my day”. I’m sure he would have given Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” a run for his money.
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. when a bomb exploded in the cargo hold. The plane landed safely, but Elmer had to evacuate and leave his Stetson in the overhead bin. In 1996, the FBI arrested a suspect and it was determined that the 1979 bomb had been the handiwork of Ted the “Unabomber” Kaczynski. Who would ever have thought that the Unabomber almost took out one of Hardin’s homegrown 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 a graveside service where a 21-gun salute was performed with .44 Magnum pistols. I think we can say that Elmer Merrifield Keith left this world with a bang that would make any hunter proud. RIP, Elmer.
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