Harley O’Donnell, 92, who built a commercial-scale turkey operation and wrote two books on local history, died Thursday morning, April 4, 2013, after a brief illness.
He was born in Billings on Sept. 11, 1920, the second son of Ignatius and Afton O’Donnell. The family lived on Hesper Farm, west of Billings, and the boys attended Elder Grove Elementary and Billings High School.
He married Lucile Thiel on Nov. 9, 1941, and they built the only commercial-scale turkey operation in Montana.
Mr. O’Donnell was a 4-H leader and active in the Elder Grove School, Yellowstone County Farm Bureau, Yellowstone Historical Society, Pioneers of Eastern Montana and the Western Heritage Center. He was a board member of Parmly Billings Library for 10 years.
After he retired, he became an expert on local history beginning with his grandfather, I.D. O’Donnell, a pioneer who had been instrumental in the introduction of irrigation to the Yellowstone Valley and had helped build the sugar factory in Billings.
Harley O’Donnell self-published two books, “The Big Ditch” and “Montana Monographs,” which was based on interviews conducted by his grandfather with pioneers who came to the state in the 1870s and 1880s. Mr. O’Donnell’s third manuscript, his grandfather’s biography, is awaiting a publisher.
Mr. O’Donnell and other volunteers have worked for years to uncover evidence of Lisa’s Fort, which was on the Yellowstone River near a sandstone rock inscribed in the early 1800s with signatures of Manuel Lisa and John Colter. He spearheaded the formation of the Yellowstone Basin Preservation Society.
Survivors include daughters, Sue Carol Delger and Patricia Jeanne Wiggins of Billings and Dawn Lucile Remington of Smithers, British Columbia; three grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and one great-great grandchild.
Services were at Smith Funeral West Chapel. Interment was in Mountview Cemetery.
Memorials may be made to Yellowstone Basin Preservation Society, 2212 Hoover Lane, Billings, MT 59102; or Yellowstone County Museum, 1950 Terminal Circle, Billings, MT 59105.