BILLINGS – Spending the entire winter trapping in Wyoming’s remote Thorofare Valley – just southeast of Yellowstone National Park – produced a big pay day for a young Indiana man in 1918.
Max Wilde, along with partner Ed “Phonograph” Jones, packed out $10,000 worth of furs acquired during their winter of work. Wilde used the money to buy a string of horses and begin his career as a noted Cody-area dude rancher and hunting outfitter. His outfit would become an attraction for Major League Baseball stars of the era, including Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane and Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.
“He was a farm boy, but he was in socially with all of the elite guys in Cody,” said Eric Rossborough, associate librarian at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.
Rossborough, a Boston native, was attracted to Wilde’s history because of his association with MLB greats. He began researching the one-time Hoosier and discovered a man with a connection to some of the greatest athletes of the era, as well as corporate chiefs and well-known outdoorsmen.
Wilde was born in 1888 in Franklin, Indiana, the seat of Johnson County – about 20 miles south of Indianapolis. He grew up on a farm near the smaller community of Needham Township. As a young man, he trekked to Canada in 1908 before moving on to Alaska the next year. While there, he hunted and trapped across the tundra.
After Alaska, he returned to Indiana and married his hometown sweetheart. He got restless again and in 1913 traveled west. In Cody, he found a job driving horse teams for local outfitter Tex Holm, hauling tourists from town to the Holm lodge and on to Yellowstone Lake, a two-day trip.
With the money he earned, Wilde purchased land along the South Fork of the Shoshone River – about 50 miles west of Cody. The spread of 152 acres became the Lazy Bar F Ranch. When sold recently, it fetched a discounted price of $3.4 million.
Pete Simpson, whose father was friends with Wilde, remembered the outfitter as “hale and hearty.”
“He didn’t have a swagger, but he was good-looking, and bow-legged,” he added.
Starting out as a teamster, then the cook and finally a guide, Wilde made connections with other woods-wise men in the area whom he hired when he started his own outfitting business.
“He had some of the best guides,” Simpson said.
That included the locally well-known Jones, who either got his name from being vaccinated for smallpox with a phonograph needle or because he talked so much, Rossborough said.
Wilde was also “smart as hell,” Simpson said. He had to be to work with guides while also catering to well-heeled clientele that included the heads of corporations like Coca-Cola, Capitol Airlines and the owner of the Red Sox.
“Max was an ideal host,” Simpson said. “He kept track of the needs of his clients.”
Rossborough said Wilde was smooth when it came to social skills, “He knew how to handle people.”
Wilde also guided a few well-known outdoorsmen of the era, including Grancel Fitz. Fitz helped devise the complicated scoring method now used to measure trophies for the Boone and Crockett Club. On an elk hunt into the Thorofare, after 19 days, Wilde guided Fitz to a trophy 7x9 bull with antlers spread 64 1/4 inches apart.
Charles Elliott, dubbed the dean of southern outdoor writers, was also a frequent visitor to Wilde’s ranch, and in return hosted Wilde when he would venture south for the winter where the duo would fish for bass and bird hunt. Elliott’s articles about hunting with Wilde helped promote the Cody area to a wider audience.
A 1958 article by Elliott in The Atlanta Constitution newspaper on Wilde was headlined: “Portrait of a successful big game guide: Max Wilde.”
“Some of my finest hours in big game country have been spent with the old guide,” Elliott wrote. “There are not many square miles in that million acres of big game range that we haven’t covered by saddle or afoot.” Wilde guided Elliott to his first bull elk.
In a 1959 article, Elliott hails Wilde as a “vanishing breed” from the “rough and tumble days of the West.” By 1960, Wilde had retired. Elliott praised Wilde for helping “American sportsmen collect some of the top game heads” in Wyoming.
Photos show Wilde and his clients with all manner of trophies: bear hides, bighorn sheep horns, deer, moose and elk antlers stacked in front and behind the hunters. The monthlong trips into the Thorofare would remove dozens of animals with some of the meat going to the clients and the rest given to the guides, Rossborough said.
All of that traveling into the mountains for long periods meant Wilde wasn’t home much.
“Never being home is tough on domestic life,” Rossborough said. As a result, Wilde was married three times but never had any children.
Active in Cody’s community life, Wilde also served on the Wyoming Fish and Game Commission. Although he moved south for a while after selling his ranch, he eventually returned to Wyoming. In 1970, at the age of 82, he died in a Powell nursing home. His hometown Indiana newspaper carried the headline: “Max Wilde dies in west.”
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