Biographies,  North Dakota History

Biography of Charles Franklin Martell

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Watford City North Dakota: Celebrating 100 Years

    Copyright 2014

In August, 1908 a young man traveled from his home in New York to North Dakota. He got off the stage operated by his uncle, George Nohle, and walked the last seven miles to his uncle’s ranch. He started with nothing and established himself as a well-respected successful rancher and farmer.

Charles Franklin Martell was born December 1, 1885 in Montague, New York. He was the oldest of eight children. His father was born in Ireland and his mother was the daughter of German immigrants. Martell’s father died in 1905 leaving his mother to care for her children alone. After his father’s death Martell stayed to help with the dairy farm along with his brother Ray.

Two of his uncles, George and Andrew Nohle, were ranching in North Dakota. In August, 1908 Martell went west to visit his uncles. He worked the fall harvest and did some “cowboying”. He was given a pinto mare as his pay which became his most prized possession. He returned to New York for the winter leaving behind his mare. Martell filed an application for a quarter of section of land under the Desert Homestead Act before he left. In 1909 his application was accepted and he returned to North Dakota. That original homestead remained part of his ranch.

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Martell by his homestead cabin

Upon returning Martell continued to work for his uncle George. He cut and hauled logs from the Yellowstone River to build his homestead shack. In 1910 he began farming his homestead. Farming methods common in the east would not work in an area where rain falling at the proper time was not dependable, so Martell adjusted his farming practices. Also, in 1910 Martell began his horse trading business. His uncle George offered him half interest in a herd of sixty unbroken horses, so Martell learned to break horses. He also acquired barber skills and for extra money would shave and cut men’s hair.

The Great Northern Railroad had started construction and was building a bridge on the Yellowstone with a tunnel on the east side. Martell contracted with them to provide hay, beef, pork and potatoes. However, since the bridge camp was on the west side of the river, he had to load the supplies in a row boat to reach the crew.

By 1913 it was getting harder to run stock in the area because most of the land was being filed on under the Homestead Act. These small patches were being farmed. That summer Nohle and Martell purchased thirteen sections of land from the railroad south into the badlands. This land was only fit for grazing and was around the homestead of another Martell brother, Ernest.

In the summer of 1914 the Martells and Nohles began fencing the land they bought from the railroad. They put up a log house, log barns and corrals. That ranch became headquarters of the operation; Ernest was the foreman. The land bought was odd numbered sections. Most of the even numbered sections were government properties still open for homesteading so they filed on this land too. Over the next ten years they built 45 miles of fence and ran several hundred head of horses and some cattle. The place became known as “Horse Camp”.

In 1914 Nohle bought more railroad land and wanted Martell to go in on it with him. Martell feared he would be in over his head and declined the offer. In 1916 black rust hit the area and for most farmers there was scarcely any crop; just 2 bushels to the acre. Fortunately, some of Martell’s crop was seeded early on and he made 20 bushels to the acre. The loss of crop that year was devastating to the county.

The following year was again dry with no crop. No hay forced the farmers to winter their stock on Russian thistles. Eastern hay was shipped in but many cattle had to be mortgaged. World War I brought good prices but with no crops and no hay there was no money. Due to these circumstances Martell could not keep up with Nohle and dissolved their partnership. He took with him the railroad contract, the horses and 320 acres of farm land. He already had cattle of his own. In 1921 George Nohle went to Arizona to try to regain his health and Martell operated George’s place as well as his own.

By the late 1920’s the local horse market was in decline. Local traders tried shipping their horses to Midwestern states but expenses absorbed the profits. Prices in eastern markets were still high for farm horses offsetting the high shipping costs. In 1926 Martell took the risk and initiative to bring a load of horses to New York. It was slow at first, but eventually his horses sold and he knew this would be a profitable market. He began buying surplus horses from neighboring farmers and ranchers and was able to pay them well. Martell had a novel approach to horse sales; he had men handling the horses for him on a percentage basis, a customer had to be satisfied or he could get another horse or his money back, and he would sell on installments. Martell’s horse business grew and began to include southern markets. He had to go as far as Chicago for stock.

Over time the eastern market also declined as times changed and machinery replaced animals. Martell then turned to raising mostly cattle and wheat. During these early years McKenzie County was getting hit hard by rustlers. In 1918 Martell was instrumental in catching and bringing to justice a gang of rustlers he tracked all the way to East St. Louis.

After the panic of 1929, Western North Dakota went into “The Dirty Thirties”. Dust storms obscured the sun and cattle starved on the range. Homesteaders stayed as long as they could but the drought forced many to just walk off leaving their stock, machinery and farms.  Martell hung on until cattle ranching and farming became profitable. He then increased his land holdings, the size of his cattle herds and his farm acreage. He had a full bunkhouse in the 30’s and 40’s. He kept many people employed and fed during the depression. Over time his acreage grew to about 3000 acres and he ran over 200 head of cattle.HC3 - Copy - Copy


When the Roosevelt Administration came into power the government started purchasing tax lands. They divided and fenced these purchases into pastures of different sizes and allotted each operator up to 350 acres. After the land was fenced the government turned over the running of the pastures to the stockmen who lived there. Martell was one of the founding members of the McKenzie County Grazing Association in Watford City which still operates today. He was a member until his death, still serving as the association’s director. He was both an advocate for and practitioner of sound farming and ranching practices.Early Days - Copy

In 1929 Martell married Lila Vanderhoof of Fairview, MT. The first of their children, Charles Junior was born in 1930. Four daughters followed: Alice, Patricia, Helen and Dora. When the children became of school age the family lived in Williston for the school year. There were no schools near the ranch; the last school district in which the ranch was located closed in the early 1930’s. Martell remained on the ranch operating it throughout the year. The family would come out during school vacations.

Martell attended high school for only 2 ½ years; he was an educated man because he was an avid reader. The formal education of his children became a priority. In 1948 he moved the family to Los Angeles to be close to schools and colleges. Martell would spend part of his winters in California but remained in North Dakota the rest of the year. The family would spend their summers in North Dakota.

Martell was known as a generous man. He was always there to help a neighbor in need, including allowing neighbors to graze their animals on his land when there wasn’t enough feed. Martell was a skilled horseman, cowboy and cattle man. He broke and trained horses. He always respected his animals and even learned to medically treat them. Area ranchers would come to him for advice. In addition to the grazing association, Martell belonged to the North Dakota Stockman’s Association and the Elks.

Martell had a great interest in preserving the history of the pioneers. On his ranch you would find “relics from the past”: everything from early automobiles, furniture, a sheep wagon, to old phones and radios. Often when a one room schoolhouse would close he would buy the building and its contents moving it to his yard. Many of these were used as granaries. Toward the end of his life he was working to get a museum started in Watford City. Unfortunately a museum was not realized until after his death. The original board members were finally able to get a museum up and running in Alexander. The Martell family donated many items from the Martell ranch to the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum. He is a member of the museums hall of fame. In 1961 The Dakota Territory Centennial Commission gave the Dakota Territory Centennial Homesteaders Award to Martell and his wife Lila.

Martell would make generous donations to church and charitable organizations. One he was particularly fond of was The Home on the Range, a school for troubled and disadvantaged youth. In 1962 he set up the C. F. Martell Memorial Foundation to provide scholarships for needy students and grant support for schools, orphanages and intellectually disabled children. It is a self-perpetuating fund and still operates today. One of the main recipients of foundation grants is the Home on the Range. There is also The C. F. Martell Endowment for the expansion and development of the Fort Buford Site established in 2006 by the Martell family.

Martell never really retired. He was out feeding cattle the morning of the day he died. Martell died December 22, 1966 in the Denver, Colorado airport. He was traveling to California for Christmas. The Williston Herald stated in his obituary: ”The whole fabric of western homesteading was woven into the fabric of his life. That success should stalk his trail is a testimony to his trust in the natural fecundity of the western prairies and his fostering of an everyday tradition of sociability.” After Charles Jr.’s death in 1969 the Martell ranch was sold to a local family.

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