Dakota Datebook

Mustache Maude

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Mustache Maude. . .with a name like that you know there have to be a few stories. And there are. She didn’t start out with that name, of course. Her real name was deceptively soft and feminine: Clara Belle Rose. She was born in July 1873 in Tracy MN.

While Clara Belle loved her father, she locked horns with her mother and ran away when she was 15. But, even in this act, she showed the resourcefulness that would define her for the rest of her life. Using the excuse of going to Minneapolis to care for her sick sister, Clara waited until her mother and father were away. Then, she loaded a wagon with grain and used a second team of horses to take it to town. She sold the grain, left the wagon at the elevator, and put the horses in the livery stable, and then found some people who were heading for Minneapolis. With money in her pocket, she hitched a ride.

Clara Belle spent the next six or seven years living with her sister, Dora. She worked a variety of jobs, including waiting tables and learning the seamstress trade in a tailor’s shop. In 1895, she moved to Aberdeen, where she worked for her brother in his hotel. She also worked in hospitals and theaters and drove a hack, a type of carriage with a driver’s seat high up behind the cab.
By the time she was 23, Clara Belle had a bankroll large enough to set up her own business and moved to Winona, ND; her brothers, John and William, were among the area’s first white settlers. The town was across the Missouri from Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation; no liquor was allowed on the reservation, and the dance-hall town of Winona had become a magnet for shoot-em-up soldiers and cowboys.

Clara Belle soon proved she could do a whole lot more than wait tables. She put up a building and opened her own saloon and gambling parlor. She ran the place with a six-shooter on her hip and, from all accounts, she wasn’t afraid to use it. She rolled her own cigarettes, cut her hair short, and became widely known for her razor sharp humor and a certain kind of big-heartedness.
It was the “Gay ‘90s,” when women were wearing prim Victorian dresses that reached the ground. Clara Belle wore a big cowboy hat, men’s shirts and cowboy boots, but that’s not what got most people’s attention. Clara also wore short skirts.

Living in nearby Ft. Yates was a young Frank Fiske, who collected glass bottles to sell to Clara and other Winona saloonkeepers. Later, as a photographer and newspaper man, Fiske described Clara Belle as: “A contemporary of Calamity Jane and Poker Alice of Deadwood fame; known to cowboys and frequenters of the glittering palaces of frontier towns as Mustache Maude, this woman was as fearless as the wildest gunman and was able to ‘hold her own’ in any company.”

In the fall of 1897, a herd of Texas cattle arrived in Dakota Territory. One of the cowhands was Arthur Pierce Black, who didn’t use either one of those names – he went by the name of Ott or Otto. Ott left the herd when it reached a cattle crossing near Mobridge. He was anxious for adventure and wanted to see a crazy little town named Winona before heading back to Texas.

He did more than visit Winona; he met and fell for a 24-year-old saloonkeeper, and on this date in 1898, Clara Belle Rose became Mrs. Ott Black. But if you’re thinking our Mustache Maude settled down at that point, you’re mistaken. Ott and Maude had a lot of adventures awaiting them.

Source: South of the Cannonball: A History of Sioux County, the War Bonnet County by May E. Hinton. Published 1984 by Washburn Printing Center, Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Fiske, Frank. Clara Belle “Mustache Maude” Black, contemporary of Poker Alice, Calamity Jane, cashes in. Sioux County Pioneer Arrow. Sept. 16, 1932.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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