‘Old Bill’ Brown and His Lost Love: Somebody Should Have Told Him to Get Off His High Horse

But Bill, he kept a traveling and a trailing up his sheep,
And he knew that he was ailing for at night he couldn’t sleep.
He thought he saw a woman come afloating from above,
And Bill was morally certain he’d discovered puppy love.

So he went and bought a diamond and hit for Silver Creek,
He took it from his pocket and he pinned it on her neck.
She took it and she shook it and stamped it on the floor,
And Bill was positive certain she didn’t love him anymore.

Excerpt from “Old Bill Brown,” a poem by Lester Wilson and James Earl Smith, circa 1930.

Canby Then is brought to you by Retro Revival. They are not your average antique shop. Open daily. Find them on the corner of NW Third and Grant in downtown Canby.

A brief break from our series looking at the history of Canby’s parks this week, as we revisit an earlier story.

Longtime listeners will remember our previous series recounting the incredible life of William “Old Bill” Brown, the kid from a New Era farm near Canby who grew up to become, for a time, the legendary “Horse King of the West.”

Overcoming adversities that would have broken the hearts of weaker and more conventional men, he amassed an empire of almost 40,000 acres across four counties in central and eastern Oregon that he owned outright, with an additional 100,000 acres he controlled through water rights.

His prized herds of wild horses numbered as many as 10,000 — only a rough estimate because Bill kept no records — and he kept upwards of 30,000 sheep and other animals that formed a lucrative wool business.

His annual income in those days, as near as anyone could tell, was $140,000 — a sum worth several million today. With his lands, animals and other operations, we would roughly estimate his net worth at somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million in today’s dollars.

In 1914, he built a fine new home on his main headquarters at the Buck Creek Ranch. It had eight bedrooms, an office, indoor plumbing, and a dining room table that sat 12. It was known as one of the most finely furnished homes in the western half of the country.

It was a home built for the wife and family that he, sadly, never had. Today, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we share the story of Bill Brown’s lost love.

The tale comes from Roy Stauffer, an old Union rancher and former homesteader in the high desert, as recounted to author Ralph Friedman in his 1970 book A Touch of Oregon. Roy was one of the few people who knew Bill in his prime, when he acquired the reputation of being a colorful character — even eccentric.

“There was a story that Bill Brown had only one sock during those hard times,” Roy remembered, referring to the exceptionally hard winter of 1889, when Bill Brown lost all but 500 of his 10,000 sheep. “They say he wore it on one foot one day and the other foot the next day.”

Roy worked for Bill as a horse wrangler.

“There’s no one sport in the world as exciting as rounding up wild horses,” he said. “If you’re raised in that country you feel a certain attachment to the wild horses. When you’ve got a good saddle horse and you take off after a wild horse, I tell you, it’s fun, it’s a chase.”

Old Bill once had a chase of his own, but the prize wasn’t a wild horse. No, it was something much more precious than that: the love of a young lady, and her name was Myra Shields.

It was a story, according to Roy Stauffer, that had never been told before.

“He fell deeply in love with her,” Roy said. “Bill Brown came to our house once and stayed about three hours and was telling my Dad all about his love affair. He said that when he was out herding the sheep he could see her flying above them, like an angel.”

Awww. So, what happened? Well, I’ll tell you.

You see, Myra was a good 26 years younger than Old Bill. According to biographers, Bill always wanted to marry a younger girl so he could, quote, “breed her in the fall and lamb her in the spring.” Not surprisingly, his way of thinking wasn’t acceptable to any lady that he met.

Myra was the daughter of Judge Thomas and Julia Garrett Shields of Silver Creek, and the oldest of six children.

Bill was “mighty stuck” on her, as they said in those days, and when a man owns 40,000 acres of land and 10,000 wild horses, I guess it’s oh natural that he might start to think he can get whatever he wants.

He came to see her, wearing a nice, brand-new suit that he had just bought in Burns. Legend says that he actually wore it over his old clothes, with his work pants showing through.

“He had one suspender over the new suit and one over the old clothes,” Roy recalled.

Then, Bill made his mistake. He had this diamond locket that he’d had custom-made in the shape of his brand — the famed horseshoe bar.

It was a symbol that was immediately recognizable anywhere in the high desert, and he guarded it with a ruthlessness that would have impressed Steve Jobs.

He refused to sell horses to his neighbors — or anyone who planned to use them in Oregon — and so, any horse in the state bearing the horseshoe bar was presumed to be the property of Bill Brown.

Bill took this special diamond locket to Myra, clasped it around her neck and said, “Anything that wears the horseshoe brand belongs to me.”

It was a marriage proposal, but not exactly the stuff romantic tear-jerkers are made of. Pro tip this Valentine’s Day: If you’re looking to impress your sweetheart with an expensive gift, don’t accompany it with a metaphor likening her to a beast of burden.

Myra ripped the locket from her neck, breaking the chain in the process, and threw it on the ground. Heartbroken, Bill picked the locket up and left, never to see her again.

Instead, Myra married a Joseph Vanderpool three years later. The couple had six children and moved to California in 1918, where Myra died in 1961.

It’s said that Bill was so in love with Myra that after her rejection he began seeing images of her face in the sky while he was out herding sheep. Much later, he told Roy’s father that he “hadn’t gotten out of life what he thought he should,” by which Roy guessed he meant a wife and kids.

Once one of the most eligible bachelors west of the Mississippi, Bill Brown never married. He died in 1941, 85 years old and completely penniless.

“You know, it’s a kind of funny thing about Bill Brown,” Roy Stauffer later mused. “He was a mighty independent man and didn’t like anybody to put a halter on him. He could appreciate wild horses wanting to be free. And here he’s treating Myra Shields, who was as independent in spirit as he was, just like a stock animal.

“I s’pect Bill just didn’t know better. Maybe that was the biggest tragedy in his life: being too close to sheep to know how to deal with a woman.”

Ah, well. Happens to the best of us I suppose. Happy Valentines Day to all you lovers in Canby, and much love and appreciation to all of you singles as well. We’ll catch you next time on Canby Then.

Hear this segment in all of its audio glory on Episode 144 of the Canby Now Podcast: “It’s Da Bomb.”

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