A Diamond in Coal Country
In 2019, County 17 is embarking on a new endeavor to spotlight those in our community who go above and beyond to make a difference; those shining stars, or diamonds in the rough that aren’t just surviving, but working to help themselves and others thrive in Campbell County.
Each month, we will bring you one of these stories. If you know someone who stands out in a crowd, feel free to send us their name and contact information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone who has spent any time with Mary Kelley has no doubt heard about Roy Montgomery. “Her buddy, Roy,” as Mary fondly refers to him, was one of the more colorful characters she’s discovered as she continues unearthing Gillette’s past.
As an amateur historian and volunteer at the Rockpile Museum and member of the Campbell County Historical Society and Gillette Historic Preservation, Mary likes retelling stories of the past and the Wild West roots and people who settled the area, particularly downtown Gillette.
Roy Montgomery factors heavily into the events of this era, and in her mind, represents the lawless wildness coupled with the governing entrepreneurial class that formed the economic cornerstone of the early city. And though some might think that Montgomery once owned the Montgomery Bar on Gillette Avenue, he in fact, only managed it and turned it into a makeshift office for himself.
“He was the epitome of an old West cowboy,” Mary said, from her “unofficial office,” a table in the break room in the Rockpile Museum. “He drank, gambled, and even took a shot at the county attorney at the time, who was trying to clean up the town.”
And as the owner of a brothel, Montgomery had a vested stake in keeping things clandestine.
“He (Montgomery) was a rancher, a drinker and gambler, and he liked his ladies,” Mary said as she laid out the history.
Montgomery arrived in the early 1900s, arriving first in the Newcastle area at age 19, before migrating to Gillette with his mother.
When Montgomery decided he wanted to become the mayor, according to Mary, he took matters into his own hands. Calling then-mayor and bank president Mark Shields into the street downtown, Montgomery proceeded to beat the tar out of him, injuring him to the extent that he landed in the hospital. Many townspeople – including the sheriff – watched the incident unfold without intervening.
“Nobody stopped it,” Mary said. “It was 1911, and Roy said ‘now I’m the mayor.’ He moved the office of mayor into the Montgomery Bar, where he was the manager.”
Later, Montgomery divested his assets, literally speaking, and opened the Pea Green bar and brothel.
“Eventually, Roy was arrested for violating the Mann Act,” Mary said, explaining that it was a law that forbid white slavery or bringing girls across state line for monetary purposes.
Montgomery had a trial in Cheyenne and lost.
“He said it was because he was a Democrat in a Republican town,” Mary laughed. Montgomery was then sent to Leavenworth prison, where he studied and earned a law degree. Once out of prison, he became a rancher, and later was reelected mayor. “You start finding stuff like this, and it’s too good to be true.”
Montgomery’s saga continued with more twists and turns, which Mary is more than happy to recount in her unofficial capacity of historic tour leader, a role that keeps her especially busy during the summer months. She frequently gives presentations and even accompanies bus tours with her broad stretch of local and state historical knowledge, which she’s more or less turned into a full-time passion after retiring from her “day job” two years ago.
Originally from the Indianapolis area, Mary became interested in history after watching the 1977 television mini-series “Roots,” an adaption of Alex Haley’s novel that chronicles the history of an African slave in America and his descendants.
The story of ancestry struck a chord with the then, young 20-something, who started to wonder about her own family’s past. This was before Google and Ancestory.com made such endeavors much easier to track down, and back then, it required lots of visits to the library, sorting through old newspapers and court records, and reaching out to relatives, a method she still relies on today.
“Start with the oldest person and work your way down,” she advised.
Then, she weeds out the truth from the fiction. In her case, she learned that she’s a distant cousin, several generations removed, from George Armstrong Custer, but has never validated her Aunt Rose’s claim that they’re also descendants of Kaiser Wilhelm.
“We’ll have to settle for Custer,” she laughed.
Her passion for genealogy stuck with her through her career, and was exasperated when she moved to Gillette, where her interest in local history skyrocketed. She’s not interested in talking about her career or early life as much as she is about extoling the many merits of her adopted home and the rich history of the once-rollicking, oil boom town.
Downtown Gillette, and its many reincarnations as founding families sold businesses and new ones moved in, fascinates her. Right now, she’s focused on Wyoming’s 150th anniversary of suffrage, where the Campbell County Historical Society is hosting a series of events and activities, including creating a deck of cards featuring local historic Campbell County women. As of April 20, they still had 16 cards available out of 54, which includes two jokers. Prices for these cards begin at $75, and she, true to her interest in Roy Montgomery, purchased a card for his wife, Anna, who had an interesting life of her own, which Mary is happy to tell you n about.
Right now, she and her fellow volunteers are getting ready to host the second annual Historic Building Bender, Friday, May 3, where for a donation of $10, attendees can learn about the history of several downtown buildings while carrying a drink in tow. Several businesses are participating, with guests in period dress sharing knowledge of various downtown establishment. There are also drink specials, and according to Mary, lots of fun history to learn.
“There are so many stories from Gillette Avenue,” she said. “That was all there was when the town got started, and those founding families are the prominent people in our history.”
They’re not as interesting as “her buddy, Roy, of course, but they nonetheless also have their own, unique stories, and she’s eager to share this history of a city and place she finds endlessly interesting.
“I love this community,” she said, “and I’ll never leave. It’s been fun learning and sharing it with people.”