The romance and whimsey of Thomas Molesworth, Western furniture legend

Sometimes in life, events braid together so remarkably that you immediately understand, with undeniable clarity, that magic is in the making.  This very thing happened with this year’s ‘LIVE Montana’ cover.   Very quickly, our idea of an outdoor setting consisting of two chairs by the side of the river evolved into a timeless Thomas Molesworth couch perched on the banks of Big Creek under the magnificent beauty of St. Mary’s Peak and the Bitterroot Mountains.  This photoshoot inspired me to embark on a journey to learn all I could about Thomas Molesworth’s life, design, and success, and what a story it is – the American dream personified. 

As a young man, Thomas Molesworth showed an artistic talent which led him to enroll in the Chicago Art Institute in 1908. Unfortunately, his tenure at the art institute was short-lived due to his family’s financial strain.  His father told him he was “no Charlie Russell” and requested Tom return home to work on the family ranch in Forsyth, Montana, which he subsequently managed for seven years.  Molesworth then became the manager of Rowe Furniture Company in Billings, Montana.  During this time, he frequently visited the 4K Ranch at the base of the Beartooth Mountain Range in Fishtail, Montana.  The 4K Ranch’s burled fir furniture – constructed with materials from nearby forests – would influence Molesworth’s future work. 

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In 1931, Thomas Molesworth and his wife Laverne, with their two children, Lee and Jean, relocated to Cody, Wyoming.  There, he opened the Shoshone Furniture Company and began selling his iconic burl wood furnishings.  Upholstered in bright-colored leathers, Molesworth partnered with painter, Ed Grigware, to paint unique and original Western themes on his furniture – the most recognizable is the bow-legged cowboy featured on numerous Molesworth designs.  Authentic Chimayo weavings often set off these designs.  Artistically and strongly constructed, Molesworth’s designs combined straight cowboy moxie with cosmopolitan sophistication, all of which have become synonymous with Molesworth’s Cowboy High Style.  

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It was in 1927 when Moses ‘Moe’ Annenberg, media mogul and owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Racing News, and the future American Bandstand, was traveling to Yellowstone National Park with his son, Walter.  They experienced car trouble near Spearfish, South Dakota.  While in Spearfish, Moe ordered a trout dinner and declared it the “best trout dinner I have eaten since leaving Europe.”  After being informed that the trout had come from a portion of Sand Creek that ran through a ranch in Beulah, Wyoming, Annenberg hired a car and drove to the 639-acre ranch  complete with a commercial trout farm.  Annenberg tried to purchase the ranch but was refused.  Moe continued to offer the owner money until the owner could no longer refuse.  The deed was signed in 1932 with Moe as the owner, and Ranch A was born.

Image via Kat Hobza

In 1933, during The Great Depression, Molesworth, like many Americans, was facing hard times.  The furniture company was failing, and he knew he needed to adapt if he wanted to thrive.  From this adversity, he decided to build and design an authentic log cabin display, filled with his furnishings, for the front window of the Shoshone Furniture Company.  Moe Annenberg happened to see this window display and hired Molesworth on the spot.  This chance encounter with Annenberg and the Ranch A commission was the start of Thomas Molesworth’s legacy.

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Molesworth built 245 pieces for Ranch A, an opportunity that put him and his design genius on the map.  Molesworth was soon commissioned to furnish many beautiful hotels and ranches in Montana and Wyoming –  most notably the Plains Hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Many influential guests from the East Coast would visit the Plains Hotel, fall in love with Molesworth’s furniture, and want to purchase his pieces immediately.  From designing Annenberg’s Ranch A, to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal library, Tom Molesworth was known for having a great sense of humor, which was often present in his whimsical designs.  To strangers, he was known for being cold, and he had exacting standards which he applied to his furniture company, but to those who knew him, he would do anything for them.  It was said that Molesworth was “always the same person, regardless of what crowd he was in.” 

One day, the Shoshone Furniture Company received a phone call from a woman requesting to speak with Thomas Molesworth.  She was calling for her boss, and they were inquiring if he would come to their Jackson Hole ranch with the hope that he would furnish and design it.  The caller was very persistent, and Molesworth was a very busy man.  He said, “I’m busy and wouldn’t go to Jackson Hole if Mr. Rockefeller himself called.” The lady on the phone said, “But sir, it IS Mr. Rockefeller.” 

Image via Sharon Dedmon

Molesworth’s designs and powerfully crafted furniture have stood the test of time. Sotheby’s Auction House auctioned a notable Molesworth collection in 2018, and it was no surprise that these pieces were fetching three times the amount of the reserve bid.  The only person it may have surprised, according to Tom’s son, Lee, would have been Molesworth himself, never having been enamored with money – it was the art he loved. 

From being commissioned by the who’s who of American history to winning over the New York crowd with a window display in Abercrombie & Fitch in 1936, it remains clear that Thomas Molesworth will always reign as the King of Cowboy High Style.  Classic and timeless, his work will be revered for centuries to come. 

Image via Kat Hobza

In closing, we at Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty wish to bestow many thanks upon Kevin Nagel, The Nagel Ranch, and to Sharon Dedmon.  Without Sharon’s seemingly endless knowledge, generosity, and talent, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to create the spellbinding moment you see on the cover of this issue of ‘LIVE Montana’.  We also want to thank the creative team behind ‘LIVE Montana’ and the photographic stylings of Teleport Photography.  Thank you, Jason and Whitney, for capturing the magic that was in the air the evening we shot this cover.

Jenny Cannon has lived in Western Montana for most of her life, with a focus in the Bitterroot Valley. Jenny is licensed in both Montana and Idaho, making her your Northwest real estate connection. She cares deeply about the people and these beautiful areas we are all lucky enough to call home. Whether buying or selling, Jenny is a skilled real estate and marketing professional, who looks forward to helping you discover what’s next. 



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