Saturday, March 19, 2011



"History books which contain no falsehoods ~~ are extremely dull." Anatole France
Here's to a lively read!
Mona Leeson Vanek

Good humor and optimism buoyed the pioneers struggling to recover and survive the barren years following the whirling holocaust of the 1910 fire. Two days of roaring flames had ravaged the virgin timber greening northwestern Montana's steep mountain slopes and ridges. Timber harvesting, the only significant industry in the Clark's Fork River valley became ankle deep ash and shattered dreams. Desperate years tempered those who remained, hardening them to salvage and survive.

Before recovery was complete, World War I, prohibition, and changing social and political attitudes beleaguered them as the crucible of war and patriotism remolded allegiances, fracturing trusts and friendships still in their infancy.

Interest rates soared, lumbermen and miners went broke and some pioneers left. But the isolated valleys opened to settlement scarcely thirty five years, nestled between lofty, spectacular peaks with names such as "Squaw Peak", "Billiard Table", "Sawtooth", "Ibex" and "Chicago", continued to attract people. Enthusiastic planners came with all their worldly wealth, then too quickly went broke and left, to be followed by a new wave of dreamers seduced by the shining mountains ringed by sparkling waters.

Deer and bear and coyotes still skirted the edges of lamplight spilling from log cabin windows across deep winter snows, lighting the darkness. While the scattered population in this remote haven in the Rockies had only wagon roads and ferries to get about on, the automobile began to replace the horse, altering their lifestyles - and their dreams.

While political beliefs were shaping and reshaping throughout Montana and the United States, state government and federal government activities and policies wielded major influences.

Agriculture began to augment timber as an economic base in the lands where the Cabinet National Forest managed the timber. Ranchers in the valleys grew cattle, hay, spuds and families.

As timber and loggers flowed through the valley, changes also tricked in. Some of each stayed. The United States forest service, which had established tenuous roots against strong opposition in 1906, gained ground after the 1910 fire threatened not only their existence, but also the very sustenance of life for everyone in the valley.

Slowly US Forest Service ideology spread like rapacious weeds whose flowers bring beauty while its roots infiltrate the environment. When preservationist butted heads with financial solvency, settlers' quickly innovated ways to use this new partner to their own advantages.

Living conditions improved, from the simple nomadic wagon train life, simple snug log cabins sans water or electricity, abreast with timber and agriculture markets. Social activities and community culture became more complex as education, religion and gathering places expanded.

Refusing to relinquish the land so recently hard won, those who stayed laughed at their hardships and determined not to flounder. With little more than faith, hard work and tenacity, they built a bridge, a church and a high school.

Grandmas rocked the babies while mammas whirled at Hard-Times dances. "Use it up or wear it out. Make do or do without," became their motto. Patches, if clean and neat, were honorable.

Bountiful harvests of a variety of flavorful wild berries, venison, grouse, and bear, the unlimited fish offered free makings for gourmet meals.

Worldwide events affected valley residents mainly through economics. When timber didn't sell, times were lean. As tourism money flowed past the valley on the wheels of the automobile, on other roads through other valley routes, settlers and businessmen enlisted the government to funnel it in.

Highway building was added to bootlegging and new arrivals as the newest economic enterprise.

Twelve years after "the boys came marching home" insistent prodding and pushing finally resulted in Forest Highway 6, a through roadway, blasted, shoveled and graded ninety miles west from Plains, Montana to the Idaho-Montana border. This highway broadened their trade routes and opened new possibilities for tourism.

Never the less, as the decade of the 1930's loomed on the horizon, those who'd come to the valleys behind these mountains, couldn't rub two nickels together to leave them.

All were captivated: Those who came, set deep roots, and reveled in the simple way of life amid the mountain splendor; those entrapped by poverty into a way of life whose quality lay in the beauty and bounty of the mountains and its peoples; and the government, who owned most of the land.

This carefully documented history of northwestern Montana, sixty miles south of the Canadian border, continues the story of the life and times of a singularly independent and resourceful people, focusing understanding of the mountains and it's inhabitants.

Peep into personal histories; examine geography, climate, and events that made the population a fragmented and transient one in Montana's western mountains.

Exclusive tape-recorded histories, personal letters, courthouse records, newspaper files, Northern Pacific Railroad files, Bureau of Mines compilations and many other documentary sources collected over more than twenty years, bring refreshing insight into the history of western Montana and the people who sojourned there.

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