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"Higgins Family Tragedy" Part 3 - The Death of Young Jockey "Speck" and Brino Tricks - Horse with the Right Stuff

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The Death of young “Speck” and Brino Tricks, a horse who had the “Right Stuff”

Less than a year after a fire destroyed the Higgins Brothers’ new Missoula N. P. Depot in 1896, they would suffer another tragedy by fire. Sadly, this one killed a young man and a stable of fine race horses. Once again it appeared to be the work of arsonists.

The Higgins family loved horses. Captain Christopher. P. Higgins had a long history with horses and mules, especially in 1853 when he traveled west from Minnesota with the Stevens Survey Expedition as a wagon master. Passing through Montana and the Hellgate Ronde in 1855, on the way to Washington, Higgins’ mind was never far away from the beautiful valley that became Missoula. With his partner, Frank Worden, he left a business venture in Walla Walla in 1860 with a string of 75 pack animals loaded with supplies and traveled back over the Bitter Root Range to start a new life at Hell Gate. His career later included many things – cattle, banking, mining, lumber and flour mills – but seldom mentioned was his passion for horses. As with several Missoulians, the Higgins family took great pride in breeding and raising fine horses.

Historically, Missoula was not viewed as an important factor in any discussion of Montana’s horse racing cities. While Helena became the early center of Montana’s horse racing culture, with Anaconda, Deer Lodge and Butte not far behind, Missoula is rarely mentioned. In her long article about Montana horse racing history that appeared in the National Register of Historic Places for Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds Race Track[1] , Helena historian Ellen Baumler does not even mention Missoula’s horse racing.

Closer to Missoula, notoriety came to Marcus Daly and his Bitter Root Stock Farm as he produced fabulous horses such as Tammany and Scottish Chieftain, and it also did with several other Montana breeders such as Glendale’s Noah Armstrong, whose Spokane won the Kentucky Derby in 1889, and others such as S. E. Larabie, Silas Harvey, and Conrad Kohrs - but Missoula had reason to feel neglected.  Part of that might be because the town had a sparse ranching community - without the tradition and presence of numerous horse loving millionaires. Large ranches of several thousand acres were not common in the Missoula area, and neither were millionaires. No Montana city could match Helena in that respect.

In her historical account of early Missoula, author Lenora Koelbel gave only one paragraph to Missoula horse racing in her book, Missoula The Way It Was. In his discussion of Missoula sporting history that appeared in the Missoulian Centennial Edition in 1960, Missoulian reporter Ray Rocene provided a bit more on the subject of Missoula horse racing, describing it as the “first sport thought of in Western Montana,” but then only discussed the subject briefly. Mentioning “many a stirring tale” that had been unfolded by the “old-timers,” Rocene had little to offer on that score.

But an Anaconda Standard article in 1901 devoted almost an entire page to the subject of fine horses in Missoula. Titled “Missoula Fast Ones and Their Owners,”[2] the article featured several photographs of prominent Missoula men driving their fine horses and buggies over the good roads and pleasant streets found there.

The article also cites an incident involving an “old-timer,” Tom McTague, who was once known to come to Missoula to race horses. “Ever since the days when Tom McTague was a feather weight jockey and used to come over to Missoula to ride the gallopers in the Frewen string there has been a lively interest in and about Missoula in horseflesh . . . At that time the interest in harness horses was beginning to develop. Frewen always had one or two with his runners and down in the Frenchtown valley there has always been a lot of enthusiastic horsemen. “

The Standard article leads one to believe the time period in question was considerably in the past, but it avoids specific dates. If the Frewen referenced in this article was the famous Wyoming cattle baron, Moreton Frewen, the time would precede the terrible winter of 1886-7, since Frewen’s Powder River Cattle Company suffered a collapse after the devastating winter of 1886 and he soon abandoned his huge ranch operation to return to England. Tom McTague was a well-known Deer Lodge rancher, horse racer, and Montana State Penitentiary warden. According to one source, McTague was “instrumental in establishing the race track in Missoula.”[3] McTague and his partner, Frank Conley owned the large Circle Bar ranch outside of Deer Lodge, where state prisoners allegedly worked as caretakers and cowboys for little to nothing. C. P. Higgins’ daughter, Hilda (namesake of the Missoula street) was married to Frank Conley.

The article quotes an unnamed Missoula banker who stated, “I remember one morning when Frewen drove up in front of my office and reined up his horse. The animal had been driven fast and showed it. When Frewen came into the office I asked him if he had a new horse. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘he’s two-forty.’ I asked him how he knew that it was that fast. ‘Why,’ he replied, ‘I speeded him coming in this morning and I counted the fence panels as we passed.’”

This article then discusses some of Missoula’s local horse history.

“Dr. W. P. Mills on his Lolo ranch has, along with his Jerseys, some finely bred horses and his animals are all well regarded. Down at Grass Valley John Cyr has bred some excellent road horses, the head of the stable being the well-known eastern horse Obispo, closely related in blood to the famous Maud S. There are other excellent breeding animals in the valley, notable among them being Hayes & Marsh’s Bozeman Junior, Sam Dinsmore’s Roy C. and Marcus, who sired so many excellent roadsters. Until the unfortunate destruction of their fine stable by fire, Higgins Bros. had a magnificent sire in Brino Tricks, the handsome pacing stallion that was killed in the fire. There are numerous fine horses in Western Montana who trace their lineage through this splendid horse. . .

“Higgins Bros. have two youngsters, full sisters, by Brino Tricks, out of Rena N. Miss Tricks is a handsome gray filly much resembling her dam, who will be remembered by all turfmen in the Northwest. Frank L. Darbee has as good a roadster as anybody ever need wish to sit behind. He is called Charlie Winters, and is a son of Brino Tricks, out of Electioneer mare. Al Chamberlain has a speedy young pacer, also by Brino Tricks. Dr. E. A. Crain’s Muggins is a very fine road animal with good action and lots of speed. Dr. W. P. Mills drives a team of Copper King colts that is very attractive. Sam Elder always has one or two good ones. The list might be extended indefinitely, there are so many good ones in the city.”

As the article said, tragedy by fire struck Missoula and the Higgins family once again in 1897. The fire that killed the Higgins’ race horse, Brino Tricks, occurred late the night of June 13, 1897, and it also killed a young man who worked for them. At first, he would be mistakenly called “Speck” Ryan because of his freckles and because he was little known about the city of Missoula. The fire also burned the Higgins Brothers stable and barn 2 miles west of Missoula, which was likely about where the Sussex School now stands, just off of South 3rd St. According to an Anaconda Standard article on June 16, a coroner’s jury on the 15th found that “Speck” was really Frank Straughter, aged about 16 or 17, and that he died the night of the 13th of June in a fire, “started by a party or parties unknown with incendiary intent.”

Further information about “Speck” was learned quickly and was also printed in the Anaconda Standard article cited above on June 16:

“There is, it develops to-day, in town a boy who used to live in Newtown, Mo., the home of the dead boy, and he says that he went to school with “Speck”: and knew him well. The jury made an error in regard to the name of the boy, which was Straughter, and not Strausser. Young Rolls, the boy who knew the lad back in Missouri, says that the jockey was always called “Speck” on account of his freckled face, and that he was a jolly, companionable fellow in those days. He had an elder brother who was a jockey, and he ran away from home when he was quite young, and Rolls did not know what had become of him till the news of this accident was published . . .

“There is much indignation here over the dastardly work of the incendiary in this case, but it bids fair to end in talk. It ought to be possible to find some clue to the perpetrator of this outrage, and it is to be hoped that there will be some organized effort that will at least result in preventing any repetition of such an affair.”

Frank Ryan (Straughter) was buried in the Missoula City Cemetery at grave 3, row 6, block 015. Date of death is listed as 6/13/1897.

An Anaconda Standard article on June 14, 1897 revealed many details of the fire:


Higgins Bros.’ Valuable Stable Destroyed by Fire.


Five Other Animals Dead – It Is Believed That Jockey “Speck” Ryan Perished – Origin of the Fire Is Unknown

Special Dispatch to the Standard,

Missoula, June 13. – The extensive racing stables of Higgins Bros., two miles west of town, together with Brino Tricks, the famous pacing stallion, with a record of 2:13 ¼, and six thoroughbred colts, were destroyed by fire shortly after midnight to-night. A young jockey named “Speck” Ryan, who recently came from California, cannot be found and is supposed to be dead in the ruins. Bill Howard, the famous old sprinter, and a 2-year-old colt Saco, by Eolian, were all that were saved.

Billy Dingley discovered the fire. He with the other employes of the stable were (sic) asleep in a room in the south side of the stable and were awakened by the roar of the flames. The stable was in the form of a circle and that part above the stalls was partly filled with hay, so that the fire made terrible progress. Dingley rushed at once for Bill Howard’s stall and the wise old horse permitted him to lead him from the burning building. The other men went to Brino Trick’s stall, but he fought them furiously, seriously injuring one of them before they abandoned the attempt to get him out. Of the string of youngsters only Saco, the 2-year-old, was saved.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. It was probably incendiary, as it started on the opposite side of the building from the kitchen, which was the only place where there had been any fire. A strong west wind was blowing and the fire started on the extreme west end of the building, and in 45 minutes from the time the blaze was discovered the splendidly equipped stable was in complete ruins. Besides the horses, the sulkies, saddles, blankets, and entire stable furniture were lost. There was $2,000 insurance on the building in the agency of Stoddard & Winstanley. The Higgins Bros. have the sympathy of the entire community. How this will affect their racing plans for this year is not known. George Higgins said at 1 o’clock this morning that he could not tell.

“The right stuff”

What type of horse was Brino Tricks and how good was he? Here is more than you probably wanted to know.

Brino Tricks was a very fast pacing stallion whose career was peaking in 1895. He was a standardbred harness race horse, rather than a thoroughbred horse. Standardbred horses are not as tall as Thoroughbreds, although they usually have a longer body. They race in a harness with a driver riding behind the horse in a small 2-wheel sulky.  Standardbred originally referred to a certain standard time over a distance of 1 mile, the common early standard time being 2 ½ minutes. Yet, pacing horses broke the 2-minute mark by 1897, while the most famous pacer of all time was the crooked legged Dan Patch, who ran a 1:55 minute mile in 1906.  A pacing horse has a gate that involves moving his legs on one side in tandem, left front and rear, then right front and rear. Trotters move their legs at a diagonal. A pace horse is sometimes known as a ‘sidewheeler’, yet they are faster than trotters.

If you are not familiar with these types of horses, or the mechanics of racing them, don’t be alarmed. In Missoula, familiarity with these horse racing sports, and horses in general, began to collapse in 1901, when the first automobile arrived. Interest, although it still exists, has never recovered. To that point, horses and buggies were still the lifeblood of popular transportation in 1897, excepting the railroad and the occasional mule, the likes of which Charlie Russell brazenly displayed in a Missoula parade in 1915. Never one to resist a good rib, Charlie Russell likely slaked his anti-establishment fires when he joined the Missoula parade riding a ‘long ear’ mule down Higgins Avenue in 1915. A great photo of this exists at the Montana Memory Project. Charlie was not noted for painting Standardbred race horses, but harness horse racing was important in Montana at one time.

In 1895, one of the racing publications of the day was “The Breeder and Sportsman,” which followed California horse racing as well as races all over the country. In a series of postings, this publication followed the results from races at Irving Track in Portland, over a period of nine days, beginning on June 20th, 1895. It had plenty to say about Brino Tricks and the Higgins Bros.

“There was an unusual stir in the grand stand and around the pool annex when the five contestants for the big 2:15 class pace came out on the track to warm up. Each horse had his admirers. Many believed Del Norte was destined to carry off the prize. Other believers in Altamont stock thought Touchet would wear the others out. Ottinger, the California crack, was not without supporters, but Brino Tricks and Our Boy seemed to be generally overlooked. And right there is where the talent fell down, for the Montana stallion won the race in three straight heats, and the Higgins Bros. were able to add another victory to their well-earned list . . .

“Nothing much was known of Brino Tricks, and even his owner did not have confidence enough in him to play him in the poolboxes. If they had they would have won a barrel of money. Fifteen tickets were sold on him in the mutuels for the first heat. Some “lagtails” dropped it in the box. But when $112.70 was drawn out on each one, those who thought they knew all about it nearly dropped dead. It was the biggest mutual so far during the meeting . . .

“Brino went to the front early in the third heat and was never headed. Del Norte crowded him to the half-mile post, where Our Boy, who had been pacing indifferently during the two former heats, crept up into second place. Ottinger broke two or three times between the wire and the half-mile post, and was in last place. He soon began to creep up, however, and passed Touchet. Meantime Brino Tricks kept up a hot pace, and came into the stretch four or five lengths in advance of Our Boy and Del Norte. The race down the stretch was for second place, and Our Boy took it. Tricks came under the wire strong winner of the heat and race by seven lengths . . .

“Brino Tricks broke the Northwest record for three heats by going in 2:14 3/4, 2:14 ½ and 2:15 ½. He made a mile Wednesday in 2:14. He was not pushed yesterday, and could have gone several seconds faster if he had been. Tricks is a great horse, and his owners know it . . .

“Brino Tricks, the surprise of the present race meeting is a very handsome seven-year-old bay stallion. His sire is Mambrino Wilkes, and his dam Kitty Tricks, by Patchen Vernon. Brino Tricks inherits the blood of George Wilkes through his sire, and the blood of George M. Patchen through his dam. Higgins Bros., his owners, purchased him last fall from J. L. Carrison, of Ogden, Utah. He had a mark only at the time of 2:18 ½, which he made at Butte, Mont., last season . . .

“Higgins Bros., who are always on the lookout for good horses, believed Brino Tricks had the right stuff in him. They took him to their ranch at Missoula and wintered and trained him there under the tutelage of their driver, C. D. Jeffries. His two splendid performances here are the result and show what a good horse will do when properly handled.

“Higgin Bros. have won more money in purses and more races than any other horsemen at Irvington. The have lost but two events they were entered in. They have eight horses in their stable – Brino Tricks, George Ayers, Antrima, Violetta, Bill Howard, St. Croix, Miss Elm and French Lady. The last four are runners. They will go to California from Irvington, and expect to surprise some of the fast ones. Higgins Bros. are engaged in the banking business at home, and follow the turf because they enjoy it.”

As with many Missoulians, Frank Higgin’s career was affected by a war. One of the more famous, iconic photos of prominent Missoulians was taken the year following the Higgins stable fire, in 1898. It includes Frank Higgins, Will Cave and Charles Hall - all three seated at a small table, wearing officer uniforms after they had volunteered their service in the Spanish American War with the Troop F, 3rd. U. S. Cavalry. Their service has been documented and preserved in the book “Grigsby’s Cowboys.”[4] The book presented short biographies of the officers along with a two-page list of other Missoula area volunteers who also served with the regiment. Higgins did not go to combat during the conflict. Many of these men suffered from typhoid at Camp Thomas in Chickamuga Park, Ga. Higgins would perish in Portland at age 42 in 1905, while suffering “complications of diseases” he had contracted during his service in Georgia.

Higgins and Will Cave are to this day prominent in Missoula history, but Charles Hall, from the photograph, is not. Hall was at one time a Missoula County attorney and a grandson of the “distinguished Montana jurist,” Charles S. Marshall.[5] Hall gave a stirring eulogy for Frank Higgins at an Elk’s memorial service, which was included in an obituary for Higgins that appeared in the Sigma Chi Quarterly (p 221) in February, 1906, quoted below:


The death of Francis Grant Higgins, Theta Theta 1886, which was noticed briefly in the last issue of Quarterly, came as a great shock to the whole Fraternity. For a number of years he has been a prominent figure in the politics of his native state (Montana), and his interest in the larger questions affecting the whole nation has been keen.

He was born in Missoula, Mont., December 29, 1863, and spent his entire life in that city, with the exception of several years when he was receiving his education. His first schooling was received in the public schools of Missoula, and later he attended the Philips-Exeter Preparatory School in New Hampshire, afterward entering the Law School of the University of Michigan, from which he graduated at the age of twenty-two. Upon his return to Missoula he entered the practice of law, forming a partnership with W. J. Stevens and W. M. Bickford, under the firm name of Stevens, Bickford and Higgins.

Brother Higgins was a member of the first legislature which convened after the admission of Montana to statehood, and it was his bill that provided for the establishment of the state university at Missoula. He was elected mayor of Missoula in 1892, serving one term. When the Spanish-American War broke out he was among the first to offer his services to his country, and served two years as captain of United States Volunteers. Upon his return from the South, during the campaign of 1900, he was elected lieutenant-governor of Montana, taking his seat in 1901 and serving until January 2, 1905.

His keen interest in Sigma Chi is shown by a remark which he made to Brother Frederick C. Scheuch in Missoula, just before the last Grand Chapter. Brother Scheuch says:

Shortly before I left for Cincinnati, I met Frank Higgins on the street. He had been ill for weeks, and it was his first trip down-town. I spoke to him about the convention, and he said: “I should so like to go: but tell the boys that whenever Sigma Chi enters the University of Montana, there will be three lots on the south side for them, and my men can drive down the stone from my stone quarries for their house.” This was a few weeks before his death, and showed his interest in Sigma Chi, and his good heart. He was heart and soul in favor of our Fraternity at Montana University, and intended joining the Montana Alumni Chapter which is being worked up.

With permission, we quote from the eulogy on Brother Higgins delivered at the Elks’ memorial services by Mr.  Charles Hall, an attorney of Missoula, the following excerpts:

As a friend of twenty years’ standing, it is a privilege and a consolation to me to pay public tribute to the splendid character and attributes of our departed brother, Frank G. Higgins.

In judging the character and manner of man that Frank Higgins was, it is necessary that we glance at his environment, his early life, and the associations of his childhood. His father, the late Christopher P. Higgins, came of that splendid stock that has fought liberty’s battles in every land on earth. One of the pioneers of the West who came with Governor Stevens, following the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, he sought for the most beautiful place in all the West where he might settle and build him a home. On the plain at the junction of the Missoula and the Bitter Root Rivers, where the city of Missoula now stands, he found the ideal spot for which he sought. Here he came and builded his home, and here Frank G. Higgins was born.

As a lawyer, Frank G. Higgins was proud of his profession and jealous of its ethics, and never did I know of his doing an act that would bring discredit upon his profession. He was the first native-born son of Montana admitted to the bar in this state, and was, I believe, the first native son elected to the legislature, and the only native son elected mayor of this city. In 1900 he was elected lieutenant-governor, and was presiding officer of the senate for the years 1901 and 1903.  These were stormy sessions, and it required the firm hand and steady eye, the indomitable will, of Frank Higgins to guide the destinies of our state through those troublesome times.

Frank Higgins was a man of parts; he had his faults, and they were grievous ones; he had his virtues, and they were godlike. He was a man of impulse - one who weighed not the consequence of his act, but acted on the moment.  He was strenuous – a man who in the heyday of his youth was good to look upon. He was an athlete of superior ability. It is told of him that when he first went east to school, the son of the nation’s secretary of state, who was the bully of the school, made jest at the tall, slender westerner, and finally sent him word that he must fight. The messenger warned Frank of the powers of his challenger and advised him to apologize for the fancied insult. Higgins said: “No, I’ll not apologize; and when we get through with this fight, this bully will be out of a job.” The fight was had; the tall and slender Montanan was uninjured, while his burly and heavier opponent was in the hospital. Frank Higgins’ name is still a by-word at Phillips-Exeter Academy.

Frank Higgins had his faults; they were known to men; they were discussed and made public by his enemies, and by them ever kept in the public eye. He had his virtues; he had some of the noblest attributes of any man I ever knew. He came of a strong race; he had strong likes and strong dislikes. Nothing was too good for a friend; no punishment too condign for an enemy. One who did him a good turn was never forgotten; one who betrayed his confidence or abused his trust was never forgiven.

He was a man of exceptional ability, and, had he devoted his years and his talents to his profession, would have taken high rank as a lawyer. As a statesman and politician he excelled. A clear reader of character, a natural leader, he seldom made a mistake in his judgement of men, and seldom failed in his purpose. He led a host of friends, and always to victory. In my acquaintance with him he led his party in a hundred fights, and never once led it to defeat.

Frank Higgins was a scholar. The classics and works of political economy were his favorite books. He cared not for fiction, but dwelt on facts. He was an ardent lover of animals. Every horse he owned loved him and came at his call; every dog he owned was absolutely devoted to him and knew but him alone. He was passionately fond of flowers, and the last time I saw him alive he lay with a single carnation clasped in his hand.

He was lavishly generous, and his generosity was not paraded before the public. He hated publicity; so that the good that he did was known to but few, and they could not tell it. I have known of his doing acts of charity secretly, so that the recipient might not know from whom it came. When a sum was to be raised for public purposes or for charity, Frank Higgins would say: “Get what you can, and I will pay the balance.”

To a few of us was given to know a side of Frank Higgins that the world at large did not know. When the call for volunteers came in 1898, the great heart of Frank G. Higgins answered the call, and by unanimous consent he was made captain of the troop of volunteers that went from Missoula. They were sent to the Southland, and by egregious oversight confined in a pestilential area, where the strong, perfect sons of these mountains withered and died. Here the true nature of Frank Higgins was shown. When his own men were stricken and the inadequate attempts of the government to care for her soldiers were so palpable, Frank Higgins out of his own means took care of his own men. I have seen him on his knees on the ground by the blanket-bed of a comrade, administering to his wants, and I have seen him rise from the stricken bedside with tears streaming down his face. In this work and in this way he himself was stricken. Here he contracted the ailment that brought about his death.

[An earlier version of this article stated that Charlie Russell resided in Helena. Not so. He lived and worked in Great Falls, Montana at that time. My apologies.]

[1] National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – Montana State Fairgrounds Race Track - Helena


[2] Anaconda Standard, Sept 8, 1901 (p 7)

[5] Montana, Its Story and Biography . . . (1921). Stout, Tom (p 458)

Last Updated on Friday, 17 November 2017 16:37