Saturday, March 5, 2011


A view of the main street businesses in Heron, Montana, looking east. Circa 1930. The businesses face the Northern Pacific Railroad line. Note logs decked on the railroad right-of-way. Courtesy Georgia Knott MacSpadden collection.
The Heron area had not burned in the 1910 holocaust. This chapter should have much to tell of the terrible tragedy that destroyed the timber industry in the west end of Sanders county, wiping out more than one sawmill and thousands of acres of the finest timber standing. By the time the flames had died down in 1921, not much of anything was left. I found no mention of it in the Sanders County Independent Ledger. Editor McKay had moved to Kalispell, and few people came forward to tell me what happened.

Dreams by the hundreds went up in clouds of smoke that turned sunshine red for weeks. The schoolhouse had been spared, as had the church. All I found to relate this dreadful catastrophe that changed all development and settlement in the western-most area of northern Montana are the following accounts.
"In 1921, sparks got into a sawdust pile at the sawmill on Elk Creek. Fire got away and burned right up to the Heron Store. When the wind changed, firefighters were able to save the store by keeping the roof wet," is recorded in Georgia Knott MacSpadden's papers.
"Heron burned in 1921," Ruth Dettwiler said. "Our cousins were visiting from Plains. We saw the big black smoke from the fire across the river.
"There were coal storage buildings in Heron and they blackened the sky as they burned. Our parents weren't home but they'd instructed us what to do in case of fire. Take all the furniture into the cellar. Put wet towels over our heads and get out into the fields away from any buildings that might burn."*1.
Flave and Jesse Lee lost 40,000 cedar posts in the fire that burned most of the town.

Main Stree businesses at Heron, Montana in westen Sanders County, circa 1930. Note the hitching rail in the right hand side of the picture. Courtesy Georgia Knott MacSpadden collection.
Looking west along Heron, Montana's Main Stree. Circa 1930. Courtesy Georgia Knott MacSpadden collection.
Georgia Knott's aunt had just purchased a new mattress, made in sections. Hurriedly they took it out to the garden and spread green grass sod over it. Household dishes, silver, and everything they could bury were spaded under the garden soil.
"Heron stores and saloons burned," Georgia said. "The NPRR backfired at the wooden trestle to save it and that kept the fire from reaching the Knott's ranch. On our front porch, at midnight, you could read a newspaper with the light from the fire."
Young Georgia had gone to get the mail in Heron. Coming back she saw the fire begin up the mountain. By night it had engulfed the entire hillside. Smoke hazed the sun for three months. They had gravity flow water from a spring. Not much force to it, but it was the only place in Heron that had running water in the house.*2.

But the greater loss to thirty-two year old Patrick Duffy was his wife. His three-year-old daughter, Katie, clearly remembered,
"My mother was crying and screaming in the back bedroom when the last baby was born in 1921. It was when there'd been a forest fire. When I asked where the baby come from he said the poor little thing was out watching that fire. For years and years I believed him!
"Dad raised us nine kids but never remarried again. He had a wonderful sense of humor."*3.
Sawmills never rebuilt. The timber was destroyed, and many families left the area.


1. Ruth Dettwiler McQuaide, oral history.
2. Georgia Knott MacSpadden, tape-recorded oral history March 7, 1972.
3. Katie Duffy Rasmussen, tape-recorded oral history Heron Reminisce Day July 12, 1982.

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