Every small town has a community festival, but few have such a colorful character to commemorate as Wilbur’s Wild Goose Bill Condon.
The Wild Goose Bill Days celebration that starts today and runs through Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of a celebrated shootout in which the town’s founder died.
Samuel Wilbur Condon was 62 years old and known throughout the region as Wild Goose Bill when he and another man shot each other to death on Jan. 21, 1895. The gunfight resulted from Condon’s unrequited love for his young housekeeper, Millie Dunn.
The circumstances would have branded Condon a villainous domestic abuser by today’s standards. But Wild Goose Bill was a highly regarded frontiersman despite his flaws.
“Impulsive and generous, warm in his friendships and bitter in his enmities, quick to anger but ever ready to acknowledge errors and make reparation - these were the characteristics of William Condon,” said Major R.D. Gwydir, Indian agent on the Colville Reservation from 1887 to 1890.
Gwydir described his friend Condon as “a typical frontiersman” who often wore a bandanna around his neck and a slouch hat.
Condon also was a businessman of some stature at the time of his death. He built roads, operated a ferry on the Columbia River and prospered from hauling goods to mining camps and settlements in the Okanogan Highlands.
Condon left his native New Jersey when he was 17 and still known by his true name: Condit. He either changed his name because of a disagreeable childhood or had it changed accidentally by a Chinese worker who made a mistake in filing a land claim for him.
Condon, also known as Conden, reportedly made and squandered a couple of fortunes in the California gold fields before coming to the Washington Territory about 1860. He acquired a stake in a Walla Walla freight business and, by 1875, had a ranch at what later became Wilbur.
The Spokane Chronicle reported in 1936 that the town might have been called Goose Town except for a woman named Nannie Robertson, wife of a pioneer blacksmith. Robertson reportedly declared she wouldn’t live in a community called Goose Town. Civic leaders accepted her suggestion to use the founder’s middle name, Wilbur, instead.
Details of Condon’s colorful history have been muddled in numerous accounts over the years - none more than the story of how he acquired his nickname. The common thread in all the stories is that Condon shot up a gaggle of domestic geese with his revolver.
By some accounts, Condon thought it was a great joke on himself that he couldn’t tell wild geese from tame ones. Others say he knew the difference but felt like shooting the birds anyway.
Several accounts have an amused Condon receiving an angry tirade from the woman who owned the geese. In other versions, the woman’s husband confronts Bill and is warned to keep quiet or lose the rest of the geese. One storyteller goes so far as to have Condon shoot the man.
Most historians say Wild Goose Bill had a number of notches in his gun, mostly for Indians, but none for the goose owner.
Condon is reputed to have killed several Coeur d’Alene Indians who tried to interfere in his domestic affairs. It seems that his in-laws didn’t approve when he took his first Indian wife, known as Lop-eared Julia because a tribal court mutilated her ears for sexual immorality.
Julia and Condon’s second Indian wife, Mary Ann, a daughter of the San Poil band, both left him for unknown reasons. But they bore him a number of children, including a severely disabled boy, Charlie, whom he adored.
Condon hired a young white woman, Millie Dunn, as a housekeeper and attendant for Charlie. Dunn was about 20 and in the process of divorcing her second husband.
Condon fell in love with Dunn and determined to marry her as soon as her divorce was final. She had other ideas and fled with another man to a ranch on the Columbia River north of Wilbur.
Dunn’s sister sent word that Condon was coming after them, and her lover, Jack Bratton, fled.
Perhaps the best account of the ensuing shootout was told to The Spokesman-Review in 1953 by Dunn’s son, James Sykes, who was the only remaining eyewitness.
Sykes recalled that his mother was convinced Condon wouldn’t harm her and ignored her sister’s warning. A young hired hand named Barton Parks, or maybe Burton Park (history hasn’t been kind), was with Dunn for protection when Condon arrived.
Sykes said Condon entered their cabin without knocking, sat Sykes on a box, gave him some candy and asked whether Sykes would like to come live with him.
“He always treated me kindly,” Sykes said.
He said Condon put him behind a stove for protection before asking his mother whether she would marry him.
When she flatly refused, Condon said, “All right, then, damn you, I’ll kill you.”
Sykes said his mother threw her arms in front of her face and Condon shot her twice in the arm with his Hopkins and Allen .44-caliber revolver. Then Parks opened up on Condon, who returned the fire and backed toward the door.
Condon fell dead through the door, landing face-down in the snow. The mortally wounded Parks then shot a companion of Condon’s in the heel even though the man was 200 yards away.
Sykes said Parks “then turned and walked to the foot of his bunk and got down on his knees and said Dunn, ‘I’ve done all in this world I can do for you,’ then he died with his head down on his arms, as if in prayer.”
It was Condon, though, who was remembered as a tragic hero.
A couple of historical footnotes:
Dunn returned to her cowardly lover Bratton and, according to the Wilbur Register newspaper, the two were charged with fornication. A jury convicted Bratton of gross lewdness and fined him $60, which Dunn is said to have paid by mortgaging several horses Condon had given her.
Condon left most of his then-considerable fortune, around $15,000, to his son Charlie. The money was to go to the Wilbur school fund upon Charlie’s death in March 1899, but Condon’s second wife challenged the will and prevailed in the state Supreme Court. Lawyers got half the money.