Walking Tall in Custer County
Summer 2020 by Cyd Hoefle photos by Stu Hoefle
Sheriff Tony Harbaugh has protected his community for over four decades
Miles City is an authentic western town located in eastern Montana, where the Tongue River meets the Yellowstone River close to where Captain William Clark is said to have once camped. Ranches, held in families for generations, spread from the plains to the badlands. In the last century, cattle barons, Indians, buffalo hunters, trappers, miners, riverboat captains and cowboys have all left their footprint on the town, contributing to its character and reputation. Custer County is cattle country, farm country and recreation country and covers almost 4,000 square miles.
To be sheriff of such a county takes a big man with a lot of character. There have only been eighteen since 1882 and the two holding the longest term are the last two. Sheriff William Damm, served from 1966 until 1985 and the current sheriff, Tony Harbaugh has served since he took over after Sheriff Damm 35 years ago.
At 6-foot-6 with broad shoulders and a deep, husky voice, Tony can be an intimidating force. He has to be, he and his deputies patrol a lot of territory. But under the tough exterior is a gentle man who is well liked and highly respected in his community. As authentic as the town, Tony talks with pride about his heritage, his town and his county. He was born and raised on a ranch near Jordan, a ranching community 80 miles northwest of Miles City. He played basketball for Miles City Community College and after graduation, left for a year to see what the world had to offer.
“Montana has always been in my blood,” he said. “I thought I wanted to get away, but a year away was all it took, and I was back.”
Back in Miles City, he took a job as a car salesman, but it didn’t last long. As Tony said, “It was a quick way to starve to death.” One day, as fate would have it, a deputy came to the lot to trade in his car because he had taken a job out of state. Tony started asking him about the job he was leaving and before he knew it, he was at an interview for the job of county jailer.
Upon entering the office of Sheriff Bill Damm, Tony noticed a mark on the frame of the door. Just above the 6-foot-4 measurement was written, “If not above this line, do not apply.” Tony easily passed the first test. The sheriff then had two questions. The first was, “Can you take care of yourself in a fight?” When Tony said he could, then came the second: “When can you start?”
That was June of 1978. Forty-two years later, Tony still puts on a uniform every day representing Custer County’s sheriff’s department, and he does not see himself doing anything different any time soon.
“I’m blessed to be here,” Tony said. “I love Custer County and the people that live here. This will always be home.”
In the first year of his law enforcement career, Tony was the only jailer (officially, “detention officer”) in the county. He worked five days a week and ended his day at 5 p.m. “It wasn’t a high-stress job,” he joked. “There wasn’t a huge need for me because the jail just wasn’t that full.” Less than a year later, he was sworn in as a deputy, just three days before the infamous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale.
“I was a rookie at the beginning of that weekend,” Tony said with a laugh. “But I was a veteran by the end of it.”
The sale, famous for the bucking horses sold at auction, is also renowned for its partying. During that first Bucking Horse Sale of his career, Tony was involved in 17 calls for misuse of firearms.
“It was pretty crazy,” he said. “At one point I was delivering one guy to jail and, as was protocol, I had turned my gun in. In the middle of doing that, I took another call of a couple guys in a confrontation using guns. I raced out of there and realized too late that I’d left without my handgun. I improvised and proved that a 12-gauge pump action is a universal language breaker.”
His career has had its share of difficulties, as would be expected in law enforcement, and at times it has been far from glamorous. Tony has found himself in some extremely dangerous situations over the years.
“I’ve had threats on my life and on my family,” he said. “The scariest was early on when someone showed up with a gun at our home and threatened us.” Making sure his family was safe, Tony then dealt with the perpetrator. “You never really stop worrying about the safety of the ones that you love,” he said.
Crimes have changed over the years too. Marijuana and alcohol have been replaced by meth and a comeback of older drugs like heroin, cocaine and LSD. “It’s definitely the Bakken influence,” Tony explained. “Being on I-94, we’re on the pathway of a huge drug trade. That’s the downside of the world creeping in on us.”
Domestic abuse and cases involving children, especially deaths, remain the hardest for Tony, who also serves as the county coroner. “One of the hardest things I do is to have to tell someone that they lost a loved one.” Tony always takes the time to deliver the difficult news in person. “Some things I still believe in doing the old way.”
The sheriff also believes in staying involved in the community. He coached youth basketball for years and was a hunter safety instructor, in addition to being on several community boards.
“I like to be involved,” he said. “One of my greatest pleasures is when I see a group of teenagers hanging out and one of them steps out of the crowd and addresses me because they knew me from basketball or hunters’ safety.”
Tony has run unopposed in the last seven elections and holds not only state awards for his lifelong law enforcement career, but national awards as well. He was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Montana Board of Crime Control and has been appointed to a presidential task force to represent Montana sheriffs and peace officers.
A lot of things have changed over the course of his career. This year is no exception. As the protector of the community, he was as surprised as anyone with the effect of the recent pandemic. The cancellation of the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale — for the first time since it began in the early 1950s — was a big hit for the town, since it is the biggest economic weekend of the year.
“I can’t imagine what a tough decision that was for the board to have to make,” Tony said. “There’s so much history and heritage in the sale, but we’re all doing what we can to move forward.”
Tony was quick to add that not only Custer County, but people all over Montana are stepping up to do their part to help end coronavirus.
“I’m proud that Custer County has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19,” he said, “and we’d like to keep it that way.” Tony and several doctors are part of a community board that met each morning during the peak of the pandemic to stay abreast of the news and make decisions about any changes that needed to be implemented.