Bette Duncan (nee Wolf) came from a long line of proud ranchers and
farmers. Her maternal great grandparents and grandparents, were from
Prague, East Germany and pioneered the early settling of N. Dakota.
While her paternal grandparents immigrated from Silesia, Germany (now
Poland), and helped settle Montana in the early nineteen hundreds.
Bette was born on a ranch in Stillwater County, Montana, May 21st, 1930
(in cattle and rodeo country). This was at the beginning of hard times
for our nation. The Great Depression was just getting a foothold, and
folks in the middle of the country couldn’t keep dirt underfoot from
blowing away in the Dust Bowl. All was not well for farmers, ranchers,
bankers, or the stock market. But at least country folks could raise a
garden, and usually had fresh milk and eggs. Urban dwellers fared far
worse. Thus began a life of hard times and good for miss Bette Wolf.
Bette was introduced early to cowboy poetry by her mother who often read
these poems to she, and her three younger siblings. The poetry of real
cowboys was just a part of everyday life back then. Arthur Chapman, was
the poet of the day, and all the kids knew at least one stanza of his
most famous poem, OUT WHERE THE WEST BEGINS, (Bette’s favorite). As a
birthday gift, her mother once made a wooden-covered scrapbook she had
designed with a burned imagine of a cowboy taming a bronco, and one
stanza of this poem on the front. Bette began filling it with her own
cowboy poetry and found she could write as well as read these stories
and rhymes of verse. She treasures this sixty-eight year old memento to
After a few years on the ranch, her parents moved to Billings where she
began grade school and continued right through college. It was in
Billings that her parents divorced when she was only eleven. Bette, her
sisters, cousins, and friends spent many happy hours exploring the hills
and caves in the area. Money was short, but country life was good.
WW11 broke out, and troops overseas needed vegetables as well as meat,
so those ranchers who were smart, planted part of their land in beans,
sugar beets, and wheat to match the supply of beef they sold the
government. This provided work for Bette with a huge pay raise when she
was just a young teen; She had been earning ten cents an hour
babysitting, but by picking beans, she could earn fifty cents an hour.
This financed all her clothes and needs for the school year when she
worked the summer months. She also worked as an usherette in movie
theatres in high school. Then worked her way through college as a long
distance operator for the telephone company. She was both smart and
ambitious, and these traits would carry her through.
Bette graduated from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana in
1954, and for the next eighteen years worked as a Medical Technologist,
chiefly in the field of toxicology. In this same year, she married the
love of her life, Bill Duncan. Because of his job as a civil engineer,
they trekked from Alaska to Texas, (birthplace of their daughter, Robin,
born in 1958), then on to Los Angeles, and finally Iowa, where they
partnered a ranch with their son-in-law, Don Barber.
Bill graduated from Montana State, and was one of six who were
instrumental in getting rodeo added to the curriculum as a college
sport. He was raised on a ranch, and had the dubious distinction, along
with his brother Pete, of riding calves bareback with none other than
Bud Linderman, (who later became World Champion Bareback Rider of
Broncos.) Bill did his share of bronc riding in rodeos too after he grew
up, but as a boy, was actively involved in the family ranch. Every
spring, he helped herd their cattle fifty miles to high ground leased
from the Crow Indian Reservation. In fall, he helped drive them back
down again. He claims he did this at least twenty times. This, and other
experiences and chores of running a ranch, was grist for many of Bette’s
poems. Most are found in her book, “RUSSELL COUNTRY” published in 2002.
The poem ‘Rustler’s Roost’ is just one that reconstructs the tale of a
band of rustlers operating out of the Big Horn Mountains where a
surveying crew of nine, Bill headed, was working prior to the
construction of the Yellowtail Dam in Montana. At that time, they
traveled through country few white men had ever seen. For sustenance,
they lived chiefly off the land and wild game that was abundant back
then. In a remote section of the mountains, the crew discovered a narrow
passageway into a canyon. Across boulders at the opening, and stretching
over the adjacent river, was a heavy chain attached to granite walls at
either side. Beyond the canyon was a fertile plateau. They had found the
rustle’s hideout, but luckily, the bad boys were nowhere to be seen.
This place is now underwater, a part of the Yellowtail Dam Reservoir.
Bill and his crew were fortunate to have glimpsed a piece of the old
west before it disappeared.
In 1974, Bette graduated from Drake University Law School where she was
one of only thirteen women among one-hundred, eighty in the class. She
subsequently was employed as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s
Office, Des Moines, Iowa, as Director of Regulatory Division and legal
council for the Iowa Department of Agriculture. During her last eight
years of employment, before retiring in 1995, she was an administrative
law judge handling tax cases.
Bette still resides in Iowa near her daughter and six grandchildren,
plus, three great-grandchildren.
Throughout her life, Bette has continued to write cowboy poetry, and in
my opinion; is among the very BEST in the field!
To become a fan, as I have, check out these web pages:
Casey’s Corral of Cowboy Poetry
Charlie Russell’s Stagecoach
Written by Tamara Hillman