Charles Franklin Martell: A North Dakota pioneer

Charles and Lila Martell family ranched in western ND

Charles Franklin Martell is in front of the homestead cabin in this circa 1908/ 1910 photo. Submitted Photo

In 1908, a young man left his family dairy farm in New York going west to fulfill his dream in western North Dakota. Charles Martell arrived with nothing, worked for his uncles and was on his own by 1914. He established a ranch headquarters known as “Horse Camp,” running several hundred head of horses and cattle. Martell learned to identify and purchase strong breeding stock and expertly break horses.

The 1920s saw local horse markets declining, but Martell found new profitable markets for local horses in New York. As farming practices became more mechanized the horse market again declined, so he shifted his focus to cattle. Martell’s ranch grew to 3,000 acres where he ran over 200 head of cattle and raised hay and wheat.

Martell provided numerous opportunities for employment giving many their start, paying good wages and sharing his expertise. He was respected and admired for his generosity, honesty, skill and knowledge of animals.

Martell contributed and facilitated much of the development of McKenzie County.

Instrumental in getting roads built in McKenzie County and postal and railroad service established, Martell also facilitated the establishment of a John Deere dealership and grain elevator in Charbonneau.

Submitted Photo The Martell Ranch is shown in the late ‘30s/early ‘40s.

Martell and his wife, Lila, were honored with the Dakota Territory Centennial Homesteaders Award in 1961.

A founding member of the McKenzie County Grazing

Association, his understanding of good grazing practices proved useful during his long tenure as director. Prior to his death he was helping establish a museum to preserve the history of McKenzie County.

Ben Johnston, (NDCHF inductee in 2015), broke horses for Martell. Andrew Johnston, (NDCHF inductee in 2006) and Fifty Years in the Saddle author, was a friend and supporter.

Martell’s investigation and single-handed pursuit of a pervasive group of rustlers ultimately enabled the state’s attorney to put six in state prison in 1919. (Story published in North Dakota Horizons magazine.)

Branding is being done on the Martell Ranch in this 1910 photo. Submitted Photo

A benefactor of Home on the Range and other charities, Martell created and self-funded the C. F. Martell Memorial Foundation; a self-perpetuating educational fund operating since 1962, assisting thousands of disadvantaged youth. His legacy endures through the C. F. watermark Martell Family Endowment at the Fort Buford State Historic Site/Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center.

Martell was born in 1885 and died in 1966. He was inducted in the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in the Pre-1940s Ranching category in 2019.

Ranching by the Martell family in North Dakota ended with the untimely death of Charles F. Martell Jr., Charles and Lila Martell’s only son. The Martell Ranch, about 12 miles east of Charbonneau, is now owned and operated by Jesse Monson.

Martell’s livestock brand was a C lazy F. The brand is still in use today and registered to the grandchildren of Mathias Koch, a friend and ranch foreman for more than 20 years on the Martell’s ranch.


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