ST. IGNATIUS, Montana -- On the empty plains of Big Sky country, a night's loneliness can stretch clear to the moonlit horizon. Just ask Larry Strow, the Wyoming rancher who got so tired of solitude that he sent out a distress call to the man they call the Cowboy Cupid.
Mr. Strow wrote that at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, he was neither tall, dark nor handsome and, in fact, was "about as good lookin' as a bucket of rattlesnakes." But he loved riding, hunting, fishing and camping, and was also big on "smiles, communication, back rubs, smooches (Oh how I love smooches), honesty." And as a "non-smoker-non-chewer," he didn't spit much, either.
Within two months of his call for help, Mr. Strow heard from 52 prospects for back rubs and smooching.
Chalk up another one for the Cowboy Cupid and his partner Cupcake, a.k.a. Charlie and Katie James, married for more than 32 years. From their log ranch house at the foot of the Mission Range in this town north of Missoula, they distribute up to 15,000 copies of each monthly issue of Sweetheart. It is a quirky magazine of personal ads that circulates in some of the loneliest stretches of the once wild West.
After five years of publication, it can claim results that hearken back to the days of the mail-order bride.
"We've had somewhere around 150 to 170 marriages," Mr. James says proudly from beneath the brim of a black cowboy hat. "We don't know how many divorces."
Sweetheart caters mostly to ranchers (both male and female), women in search of ranchers, cowboys, cowgirls and variously employed residents of rural towns where it takes only a few dud weekends to go through the list of dating prospects.
Though most ads come from Montana, with Wyoming and Washington also showing strong, there are subscribers scattered in 49 states and six foreign countries, and lately there has been a mini-surge of inquiries from cities back East, mostly from women.
Mrs. James attributes that to a couple of things. "Number one, east of the Mississippi there are more single women than men," she says. "But second, I think there is a mystique idea about this area for people there. They are tired of urban life, and this is the kind of area they often fantasize about."
There was the "Eastern Gal" from Pittsburgh, for example, who advertised recently for a "clean cut, caring, emotionally secure man who wouldn't mind tangling with free thinking, always curious, fun loving, romantic, one-man woman. . . . They say opposites attract -- well, let's use East-West for a start."
But city slickers should beware, Mrs. James said. Ranch life is no idyllic stroll among the dogies. "It takes a special kind of woman to live on a ranch, and I think a lot of the urban women just don't understand what it takes."
One of Sweetheart's regular advertisers, Barb Wire Bob, seems to have come up with a solution for that sort of problem. If a prospect moves out to his ranch and things don't work out romantically, he gives them a job doing chores on his ranch. Good Ole Barb Wire Bob.
Most everybody who advertises seems determined to find a companion who likes "critters" and horseback riding, and who has the solid rural values of hearth and home. There was the woman from Spokane who said she liked "visiting old country stores and driving mountain roads and listening to the crickets in the evening air. . . . I'm not a cud-chewing, dope-smoking fool and believe in God, my country, four-wheel drives and apple pie."
Then there are the genuine characters, such as the animal trainer who appeared in a photo seated on his motorcycle in front of his pet black bear, or, one of Mr. James' all-time favorites, the plain-speaking cowpoke who said in his ad, "I'm looking for a gal who wears Levis, drives a pickup and can turn a cow on horseback."
Such bluntness is usually the way with cowboys, sometimes to a fault. "They have a tendency to be pretty brief when it comes to describing what they want," Mr. James said. "All one said one time was, 'Wanted: Young heifer near my age.' But I encourage them to shoot from the heart, to be honest."
Putting an ad in the magazine costs $45, $5 extra for a photo. If you want to spring for $200-$250 a page, Mrs. James will interview you and write a full-blown feature, complete with photos, that might even land you on the cover.
But for some customers, even that's not enough. For a fee starting at $100 plus expenses, Mr. James will do some active searching. Recently, he's been "all over the Western states" trying to fill the needs of a Greek-American millionaire with a 40,000-acre ranch. He seeks a Greek woman of childbearing age who won't mind the isolation of rural living, but so far no success.
Mr. James comes by his role partly through ancestry. His dad found a wife by advertising in the personals section of mail-order catalog in the 1920s, eventually landing the love of his life from all the way down in Louisiana. (Other forebears were less lovable, Mr. James says -- his grandfather was the uncle of outlaws Frank and Jesse James.)
But even with that heritage it took something of a fluke to get him into the matchmaking business. While he was publishing a shopper magazine in Helena in 1975, one of his female employees was driving the place nuts with her inability to land a man. He decided to help everybody by secretly placing an ad for her in the shopper. She wasn't thrilled about it until the responses began to pour in.
"She was married and gone in about six months," Mr. James says. "She met a fencer and was off for Alaska."
That prompted the Jameses to begin a personals column, "Yoo Hoo," but they gave up the shopper when they moved to their St. Ignatius ranch in 1977. Five years ago they got bored with ranching and started up Sweetheart. Since then they've sold some cows and some acreage, and now, both in their 50s, they put together each issue on a personal computer that sits at one end of their living room, amid the comfortable clutter of bric-a-brac and mounted steer horns.
Once a year the Jameses invite their regulars to a weekend bash at their ranch. When all these hunters and searchers gather, the speed of the results can be astonishing. In the most recent event last July, Mr. James complains, "We had about eight of them pair off and leave before we even got going good. And later one of them called back and said, 'It didn't work, you got anyone else there at your party?' "
But the weddings do blossom, and the Jameses try to make it to at least a couple each year.
The latest one they attended was that of Zane Smith, a second-generation saddlemaker from Columbia Falls who paid for a big splashy feature and photo spread that had landed him on the back cover of the magazine only nine months earlier. Cynthia Roos read the ad a few miles down the road in Whitefish, and the courtship was short and sweet.
The Saturday afternoon of their wedding in Whitefish was gloriously sunny as the Jameses parked their car out front. Women streamed into the church in their best dresses, though most of the men -- as is often the case in weddings out here, Mrs. James says -- sauntered through the door in sport shirts and jeans, tank tops and shorts.
Mr. James, a bit more formal in a suit and a string tie, placed his cowboy hat beside him as he and Katie eased into a back pew. A few moments later, as Zane stood at the altar in his tuxedo, beaming down the aisle toward his approaching bride, Mr. James broke into a grin, then leaned over and whispered, "Sometimes it's hard to believe I caused all this."