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.