The Firehole River in Yellowstone is known for its tremendous fishing and gorgeous scenery.
Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a three-part series on visits to small-town Montana.
In the last writing, your mind’s eye saw a historical vision of the Japanese military signing the surrender papers on the deck of the Destroyer USS Bagley on Aug. 31, 1945, and the formal surrender of the Japanese Empire on the deck of the Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Our story covered Virgil Gust and his service as a member of the U.S. Navy on the Destroyer USS Bagley. He is now a clothing dealer in Big Timber, Mont., and celebrated his 100th birthday on Feb. 20.
This week’s writing will also originate in Big Timber, recalling the 1940s. As you know, my folks were raised in Montana, my mother in Gray Cliff.
In September 1945, my mother’s stepfather was quite ill. Mother and I went back to be with family, again by Northern Pacific train, to spend time with my grandmother, and my mother’s sisters. My mother’s younger sister had two daughters and a son. Cousin Rosie was about six-to-seven years older than I was. Danny was one year older, and Patsy one year younger. Danny, Patsy, and I would roam around Big Timber to hometown events and go to the movies.
I remember the State Theater, next to the fire hall. We watched Buffalo Bill, with Maureen O’Hara and Joel McCrea, Road to Utopia, with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, among many other features of the late 1940s.
With the surrender announcement of the Japanese forces on Sept. 2, 1945, the streets of this small town in south-central Montana were packed with happy mothers and fathers and sisters, because their sons and husbands and uncles and brothers were coming home from a major world conflict.
It was my first exposure to real firecrackers being set off on the sidewalks of a city. Roman candles seemed to be shooting everywhere. It was as close to a Mardi Gras celebration as I have witnessed.
My mother’s three brothers were in the Pacific. They were being prepared to invade the nation of Japan, when Japan surrendered.
My mother and I made many trips to Montana from Everett, Wash., by train, because in those years gas was rationed, vacation travel was almost nonexistent, and my father had a high-priority job as a turbine operator with Weyerhaeuser in Everett.
The two cousins, Patsy and Danny, along with other cousins, spent time in and around the hills of Big Timber, and grandmother’s home in Gray Cliff. We fished and swam the Boulder River.
There was a small irrigation canal on the residential edge of Big Timber. Patty, Danny, and I were wading in the canal one day and Patty stepped on a piece of broken glass. It was a terrible cut, and a very vivid memory of real panic and fear. But she survived with no lasting effects.
In 1946, things loosened up. My mother’s brothers were home from the Pacific. Her other brother, who had a priority job as a shipyard welder in Everett, returned to Big Timber. The entire family spent 12 days camping in the Yellowstone National Park. This is where I got to know my mother’s cousin, Violet Widdicombe, and her husband Joe. I think we had one tent, but thankfully the weather was great – we slept on a tarp spread on the ground. It did get chilly at night so we had lots of blankets.
Breakfast was early – boiled red potatoes, bacon and eggs, biscuits – cooked over a campfire and a Coleman stove. At this altitude, it takes water longer to boil.
Violet’s husband Joe would take me to the Firehole River early in the morning and in the evening we would fish for trout. In those days, the streams were full of various edible fish that we enjoyed for breakfast and dinner.
We moved around the famous National Park every two to three days. On two different occasions, second cousin Joe would take Danny and me to Yellowstone Lake and we would fish.
Cousin Violet spent 44 years as an educator in Sweetgrass County, Mont. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and my dad loved to tease, as did all of his brothers. One morning when we got up and my father was hanging the blankets up to dry from the dew, Violet mentioned having a backache as they were preparing breakfast. My dad picked up a rock from somewhere and as he rolled up the tarp that we laid on, he snuck the rock in where Violet had slept. He showed her the rock and told her – here is your back problem! She couldn’t believe she had slept on it, and took it home as a lasting souvenir.
Violet was seven years older than my mother, and they went to the same one-room schoolhouse in Gray Cliff, as they were born on ranches in the area. Violet went on to graduate from high school in Big Timber and attend teachers college in Dillon, Mont., and obtained more education at Eastern in Billings, and graduated from Montana State at Boseman. She went on to teach in one-room schools for the next 37 years. She was appointed Superintendent of Schools for Sweet Grass County on the resignation of the Superintendent. She was elected at the poll for a second term, and served 7½ years as Superintendent of Schools.
On a trip through Montana with my parents and my wife Jean, we visited with Violet in her home in 1985. My father and stepmother had their camper, but Jean and I stayed with Violet. I had an occasion to set up my video camera and interview Violet regarding her teaching career. Many of the one-room schools in early years – the teacher was expected to be in the building early, start the fire, bring fresh water from the well, clean the outhouse, and prepare for the school day.
Like so many things in my video recording history, I have it stored away – someday I need to find and view the interview with a very delightful cousin. Those early years of teaching were in schools with unique names: Cedar Creek on Upper Deer Creek, Stockaee, Swamp Creek, taught 10 years at Ratsead, and a year at Howie, 18½ years at Bridge, and two years at Dry Creek.
Violet was an extremely enjoyable human being – kind-hearted. I feel the time spent with her was a real education in my life. My mother’s entire family left lasting impressions on me.
On trips in the early 1940s, my mother’s youngest brother, LaVern, was still at home with his mother – my grandmother. As I mentioned in past articles, it was a log home that my father and step-grandfather built around 1930. They hauled logs by horse and wagon from the nearby mountains to build it. LaVern would roust me out of bed – I was 5 or 6 years old – when we were visiting Thanksgiving or Christmas – grab fishing poles and go to the Yellowstone River, about three blocks from the log house where my grandmother lived in Gray Cliff.
He was still in school, and in 1943, went into the Army. During the time leading up to his leaving for service, he taught me many lessons about life and the “Montana Way.” Even as a young 18-year-old, he had a tremendous respect for nature and nature’s way.
Up until a short time ago I still had a slingshot he cut out of a willow tree for me, fastened two strips of red rubber innertube tires. This red rubber was originally rubber, probably from Malaysia.
On my mother’s side, her uncles and brothers who served all came home safely. On my father’s side, that was not the case. The family lost several in the Marine Corps.
I must say the Yellowstone Park in 1945 was a great adventure and a huge learning curve. In those 12 days in 1946 we hiked many trails. So many people visit there and never get off the blacktop roads.
There are so many adventures I could cite (will write in future articles adventures in the Yellowstone). My parents, and later my own family, made numerous trips through Yellowstone, as we made that part of our route on our visits to my grandmother, who lived 90 miles from the north entrance at Gardner, Mont.
Here is one example of an adventure in 1985: We visited Yellowstone. My father and stepmother had their camper, and Jean and I had our Impala. We were at a picnic area on the west side in Yellowstone, had our picnic lunch, my stepmother was out hiking, Jean went in the restroom before leaving, my dad and I were sitting on the picnic table with our feet on the bench, when we heard this kind of rumble/snort.
The picnic area was about 8-10 feet above the river. The bank was a gentle slope from the level ground to the river. Coming on a half-run was many head of buffalo – in the lead a huge bull snorting with every step. In the mind’s eye I still have the vision of Jean opening the door of the restroom, and there, within six feet, was a herd of buffalo – it didn’t take her long to close the door.
Memories of a wonderful time of life.
I hope this will spark memories in your life and bring back happy times and happy thoughts.
I would like to add my sincere thanks to Susan Metcalf, Virgil Gust, the Crazy Mountain Museum (Jean Chapel), Bob Hoffman, and The Billings (Mont.) Gazette for helping gather information for the series.