The town of Roundup was officially established by virtue of a post office in 1883, across the Musselshell River to the south of present-day Roundup on the McMillan Ranch. The name was chosen because of the numerous annual roundups of cattle on the open range that extended from the far upper reaches of the Musselshell River to the Lower Musselshell. The heyday of open range livestock grazing boomed through the early to mid-1880s. Roundups were most successful when stockmen worked together, relying on the honor system to sort cattle, brand calves, and ship the animals by rail for sale in the more populous eastern United States. Stockmen had plenty of other reasons to cooperate – wolves, coyotes, rustlers and newcomers all threatened their cattle. No one could survive without the help of fellow ranchers.
While the days of open range and huge roundups of cattle are gone, the spirit of cooperation lives on in the stubborn little town of Roundup. Life hasn’t gotten any easier for residents, with Mother Nature dishing out floods, wildland fires, hail storms, drought, and hordes of grasshoppers. Citizens of Roundup are always willing to give from the little they have to help those in need. The record-breaking flood of 2011 inundated more than 50 homes and the Busy Bee Restaurant with 12 feet of water, changed the course of the Musselshell River, and left Roundup isolated for weeks. Residents immediately opened their homes to displaced families, and a recovery fund grew into the thousands of dollars in just a few short days. The next year, fire destroyed another 70 homes in the Bull Mountains, and the community’s response was just as strong and united. People in Roundup let their big hearts shine and continue to care deeply about their town and their neighbors.
Economic challenges have tested Roundup as well. The harsh winter of 1886-87 killed up to 50% of the cattle that were trying to survive blizzards and a devastating shortage of food on the open range. Many large ranches were forced to close operations. The Milwaukee Road railway pioneered its way through Roundup in 1907, only to see most of its bridges over the Musselshell River washed out in a flood that very year. It rebuilt and began bringing homesteaders to the area, with families flooding the valley in search of a free piece of land and an opportunity to plant the roots of their growing families. Severe drought brought the days of successful dryland farming to an end by 1919, and families began leaving just as quickly, abandoning their dreams of homes on the prairie. Those resilient enough to stay ensured perseverance would be a thread in the fabric of Roundup long into the future.
When the railroad shut down in the late 1970s, the regions demand for coal severely declined, many of the coal mines were closed and the economic slump continued. Stores in downtown Roundup were shuttered, and life slowed down. The oil boom brought a brief glimmer of hope, but production eventually stalled. Decades later, a new underground coal mine opened in the Bull Mountains, and is still operating as Signal Peak, sending coal to the west coast for shipment to Asia. The steady underpinning of Roundup’s economy is still, however, agriculture. Cattle ranches and wheat farms are persistent in the face of price fluctuations, extreme weather, and the ubiquitous grasshoppers.
Roundup is a slightly tarnished exemplification of rural small town America. Flags adorn Main Street all summer long, green trees along the sidewalks are growing taller each year, and a community garden blooms in brilliant colors in a pocket park. The 100-year old grandstands at the county fairgrounds still stand in good repair and 4th of July celebrations bring cowboy whoops at the rodeo and fireworks at dusk, while the new city bandstand rocks with country bands enjoyed by fans sitting up close in their lawn chairs. People stroll along the River Walk in the cool morning air next to a summer-tame Musselshell River, listening to birds singing. Children enjoy the free public swimming pool during the summer months and a brand new elementary school is a treat for teachers and students alike while standing proud as a sign of a more prosperous future. Life goes on in Roundup, and it is good.