Pierre Wibaux (January 12, 1858 – March 21, 1913) was a highly prominent cattle owner and ranchman in Montana during the turn of the 20th Century. He emigrated from his native France to seek business opportunities in America and was among the most successful in the second wave of "Frontier Cowboys".
Pierre Wibaux was born on January 12, 1858 to a prosperous family (Achille Wibaux, Cécile Vernier) of century-old textile industrialists in Roubaix, situated in the north of France. Pierre's father, Achille, ran the family textile factory he had inherited from his own father, Desiré Joseph Wibaux, and it was expected that Pierre would be the next in line to manage the family business.
He received a liberal and technical education. In 1876 he spent a year serving in the army with the French Dragoons (as Pierre was an excellent rider), then left to England for 2 years to observe how English textile industry worked. It was during this time that he first heard mention of the promising cattle-ranching opportunities in America from relatives of British families who had emigrated and found success overseas. He also met a young lady who was to become his wife.
Upon his return to France, he announced that he was going to travel to America to try his luck at cattle farming rather than taking over the family business in his Roubaix. With much reluctance his father agreed and gave him $10,000 to start his new venture.
In 1883 Pierre (age 27) gets to America and travels to Chicago to learn more about the range stock business before investing any capital. There he meets the Marquis de Mores, a fellow Frenchman, who tells him of the prairies in North Dakota and Montana. Wibaux and an army friend came to present-day Wibaux in 1883 and engaged in ranching. During this time he lived in a very primitive dugout where he ate and slept during brief intervals while learning the duties of a cowboy, foreman and rancher while eating and sleeping beneath the stars. After three years he was at the end of his resources and returned to France.
The region was hit by an extremely harsh weather that winter of 1886-87. It is estimated that around 70%-85% of the cattle in the area perished in the long snowstorms. Pierre Wibaux saw an opportunity in this: only the sturdiest and most resilient beasts survived this trial, In 1887 Wibaux returned to Montana with his young English bride, French servants and an almost unlimited supply of capital. Undaunted Pierre bought the remnants of the large herds that had survived. Also, the shortage of beef available ensured high sale prices for Wibaux's stock for the following 3 years. In the 1890s, Wibaux had amassed one of the largest herds in the world, with over 65 000 cattle heads and 300 horses. He ran cattle on the open range in an area covering nearly 70,000 acres. This prestige earns him the friendship of a certain Theodore Roosevelt, who was then ranching about 30 miles east of Wibaux in the Dakota badlands, who would give up the stock business to go on and become the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. He remained friends with the Marquis de Mores, who had undertaken a grandiose meat packing and meat marketing enterprise in Dakota.
The W Bar Ranch operated from 1885 to 1895, employing 25-30 cowboys. The ranch's cattle ranged from the Little Missouri on the east to the Yellowstone, from the Norther Pacific Railroad on the Yellowstone to the Missouri river. The main ranch for his family and servants was 12 miles north of Mingusville, which he had renamed to "Wibaux". He had a secondary ranch 60 miles north of Wibaux where most of the cowboys lived. A string of line cabins were maintained ?along the Yellowstone?. A wolfer was employed who ran two 50 dog packs on alternate days.
Shortly after locating on Beaver Creek he induced the Northern Pacific to build stockyards at Wibaux, while he took the town of Wibaux in hand and began improvements in the little town. He built an office (originally shared with another rancher) in Wibaux with a sleeping room and kitchen which is currently a museum. The office sported a lawn and many beds of flowers.
He divested himself of cattle as more settlers came into the country and competed for resources. By 1900, Pierre had moved to Miles City, but he still engaged in some cattle business near Miles City until 1908. One of the first rodeos was put on by the W Bar cowboys as entertainment for visiting Frenchmen. (Source calls them "nobility", probably included his father.)
The house on the main ranch burned down in the 1920s. A stone barn survived much longer.
Wibaux, being a main land-owner in the area started to develop infrastructures and services in the area. He became the President and 95% owner of the State National Bank in Miles City, and also opened his own national bank in Forsythe of which he was the president. This particular position gave him the right to sign dollar bills to issue money, making him the only ever Frenchman ever to do so. Pierre was also to be the only owner of the Clover Leaf Gold Mining Company which was thriving on gold-mines in the Black Hills region. He was one of several stockholders in the Yellowstone Coal Company around 1907 which mined low quality lignite coal from the north side of the Yellowstone. He also had business interests in France, Mexico, California, and in the Klondike region of Alaska. By 1910, Pierre turned to traveling, but his plans were cut short by liver cancer. He died at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago March 21, 1913 (age 58). His wife Nellie and son Cyril returned to France, spent the rest of their lives there, and are buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Like the Carnegies and Rockefellers of his time, Wibaux too was a philanthropist. He always remained attached to his native Roubaix and was among the large contributors to help building the Hôpital de la Fraternité. He donated 25 000 Francs to establish "model Farms" which would produce quality milk for those in need (in early 1900s France, bad nutritional hygiene was a major cause for infant mortality). This generous contribution helped put in place the "Goutte de Lait" foundation, of which Wibaux was named president. Finally, for all of his industrial and agricultural achievements and philanthropic work, Pierre Wibaux was awarded the "National Order of the Legion of Honour", the highest and most prestigious decoration in France (much like Knights and Dames in England).
Wibaux's "W-Bar Ranch" was so successful that a community of employees, cowboys, cattlemen and their families emerged from this business and grouped to form a village then a town, named Wibaux after Pierre himself. Wibaux County, surrounding the town of Wibaux, is also named after him. The town which emerged from the Wibaux's gold-miner community in the Black Hills region also bore the mark of Pierre Wibaux as he named the town after his beloved and native Roubaix. St Peter's Catholic Church in Wibaux is named after him. The original church that he had built is still standing, although a newer building replaced it in the 1960s. Supposedly, when Wibaux's father visited him from France, he was upset to find that there was no church for his son and others to worship in. A twice-size statue of Pierre Wibaux stands on a hill west of Wibaux overlooking the town, looking north toward the ranch twelve miles away, and some of his remains are contained in the base of the statue. In Miles City, a large building bore his name until it burned down in the 1960s. A city park stills bears his name. Wibaux Park was created using the $10,000 that Pierre bequeathed in his will to the city of Miles city for a park. The city bought the land from L. W. Stacy who had purchased the land from the estate of the deceased Judge Jason W. Strevell.
Wibaux was known as a good person to work for, fair to his employees, kind and thoughtful to proven friends, but overbearing and haughty to those who tried to use him for their own purposes. He loved to display his wealth, but didn't put on airs. His horsemanship served him well first in the French army, but also on his ranch, were he would participate in some work with his hired cowboys, taking orders from his foreman on roundups and enduring cold and rain. He was a capable boxer. A little taller than average, he weighed about 200 lbs. when he first arrived in the US. He loved flowers and brought his gardener Jules Accart with him from France.
It is assumed that he wintered in England at least briefly in 1884-85, since his son was born in 1885.
While in France during the winter of 1886-87, Pierre married Mary Ellen "Nellie" Cooper, a women that he had met in England and arranged to have several hometown locals accompany him to work as servants. When returning from France, the men came first, followed by the women (Nellie and servants) who were met at the railroad station in Keith by a group of Indians, but were soon escorted to their new home by Pierre and some of his cowboys. Stories are told of the women being alone at the ranch and having to hide when a stray Indian would come by and finding no one, would ransack the house. Nellie and her servant Victorine Accart returned to France in 1890 and returned with her maid's son and another servant girl. Victorine's husband Jules was Pierre's gardener and caretaker.
Cyril, the Wibaux’s only child was born in 1885. He was educated at home until the age of fifteen when Wibaux leased a fashionable apartment in Paris for his wife and son from 1900 on, in order to assure that his son served in the French army and received a thorough business education.