Sun River Valley rancher living life she loves despite MS
GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) – At the base of Shaw Butte in the Sun River Valley, Ruth Mortag makes her life on a peaceful ranch made of work.
“I don’t call it work,” she said. “If I cease to have fun – or I die – I’ll get out of the business.”
Mortag, who turned 70 this month, tends cattle, sheep, a pair of llamas, two terrific border collies and a standoffish cat on her ranch.
Women have been sidelined at times in agriculture, but since 1978 the number of farms and ranches operated by women has more than doubled, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reported.
Mortag grew up on the family ranch near Cascade and always wanted to be a rancher, too. Her mother had sheep, and when she wasn’t able to keep them anymore, Ruth took them on. This year she has three bum lambs to tend.
“I’ve been told by everyone, all the big ranchers, that that’s how they made their money. The sheep kept them afloat during the Great Depression. The sheep kept food on the table,” she said.
“They’re fun to be around, and I get two paychecks, lamb money and for steers in the fall,” she said. “I shake my head sometimes, but they’re fun to be around. They have to eat, too, though, and it costs money for hay.”
Mortag quipped that she’d like to put out a sign in the spirit of the Broken O Ranch, with its various divisions. Hers would read: “Mortag Ranch: Poverty Division.” She’s been asked, often, why she keeps sheep when so many have turned to cattle.
She used to raise goats but couldn’t seem to build a fence that would keep them contained.
She has 40 head of sheep and this year welcomed twins, triples and a couple of quads but “that is way too many. Even one good one is better than quads.”
With the cold, wet winter, “I don’t know how they made it,” she said.
It wasn’t an easy year for the rancher, either, out in bad weather all night long through lambing and calving.
“You just have to watch them, and you take a little nap in the afternoon. I can’t get too comfortable in bed,” she said. “Fortunately I had easy deliveries.”
Mortag has been in the valley since 1972, when she and Norman Banta married.
After 11 years, they divorced but remained friends even as he remarried. He died March 26, after collapsing while working on a tractor.
His absence was keenly felt as she branded, but she had a good turnout of family and neighbors to help.
“If he needed help haying or I needed anything, I knew I could call on him,” she said of Banta.
“I always said if I couldn’t do the work, I would get out,” she said. “But the neighbors never say no when I call them.”
Mortag said she’s never thought about what her legacy will be. She didn’t have children but has family in Cascade and Millegan.
“I’ve had fun in life and been fortunate to have good neighbors, good friends and a very good family,” she said. “This ranching means nothing without friends and family.”
“My parents were wonderful – glad I picked them,” she joked.
Kathleen Brown, a friend through the Montana Cowgirls Association, praised Mortag as one of the best supporters of her neighbors and community and saluted her generosity.
“She always rises to the occasion,” Brown said. “Ruth is the toughest lady.”
Brown said she admires how Mortag always has wanted to breed the best sheep and cattle she could. She has Suffock-crosses in her flock and Simmental-Angus crosses in her herd.
Mortag uses a 45 brand that was her dad’s and her grandpa’s.
Like her brand, toughness runs in Mortag’s family.
Her grandfather, Adolf, came to the United States under mysterious circumstances. He remembered being 5 or so years old and on a ship, nothing to see out the window but water everywhere. Meals were slid into his cabin, which he couldn’t leave. Mortag wonders if he’d been kidnapped.
He only spoke German, didn’t know anything but his first name and when he arrived in the United States, a prostitute put him to work selling newspapers on a street corner. She’d lock him up at night, eventually sending him to Great Falls.
Herman Mortag, who had recently lost a son about the same age, drove his horse and buggy by and saw Adolf being mistreated.
“He grabbed grandpa,” Mortag said. The kindly rancher gave Adolf his last name and his lost son’s birthday.
Mortag’s grandmother was a tiny woman and a stagecoach driver, from Cascade to St. Peter’s Mission. She knew how to make discreet whiskey deliveries, hiding bottles in post holes. Mortag’s mother was a schoolteacher from Opheim, star basketball player and first chair violinist. Her father ranched.
Growing up in the Chestnut Valley, Mortag rode a horse to meet the school bus. Her dad built a shed for it. She became a barrel racer and likes to joke about riding Nude (the name of her horse) in the first rodeo in Cascade.
She rode bareback until she was 12.
“Mother always thought we’d get our foot hung up,” she said.
This winter, Mortag fell against her wood stove and severely burned her arm from elbow to fingertip. After a difficult night, she called Banta, ‘I think I’m in trouble.” He took her to town and changed her dressing every day for two months.
“I branded myself,” she said
She kept on with the chores, tending the livestock, chopping wood, seeing to the land.
“I had to do them, but it hurt,” she said. “What would I do? I’ve got to live.”
In 1990, Mortag was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which attacks the nervous system.
“It’s amazing how the body gets used to it,” she said. “It just is what it is.”
Medication was going to run $10,000 a year then and the doctor mostly talked about himself, so she didn’t pursue treatment. After the first year, she stopped thinking about the diagnosis much, and her symptoms have stayed about the same.
“I get tired,” she said. “Once I sit, that’s it.”
The disease has come with dizziness and weakness.
“If I don’t keep going, I’d be in a wheelchair. That would be the end of me,” she said. “If the body quits, that’s the end of ranching.”
She jokes she’s been “all the way to Ulm” and muses about cruises to Alaska or other travels in the world she might have taken if it weren’t for ranching.
“I’m married to the animals. That’s all there is to it,” she said. “If I resented it, I wouldn’t be in the business. Someday, I’ll go on that cruise … though my ‘cruise’ might be straight up.”
After checking in the with llamas, Sandy and Midnight, which Banta rescued and thought fit best on her ranch, Mortag tried to herd a skittish sheep and two lambs into their pens for the evening.
“Where’s my buddy, where’s my buddy,” she said as she as she tried to bring the wayward trio back into the flock.
She heard a splash in the pond and looked for fish. Maybe the turtle was back.
“My life is good,” she said.