Friday, July 6, 2007

Americana: Montana

July 4th/Independence week:
I’ve a few stops before Istanbul. I’m in Miles City, Montana until the 5th.

It takes longer to fly from Saratoga to Miles City than it does to Harrison all the way across the country, but that’s because there are no direct flights to this sparsely populated ranching town of barely over 8,000 people. Miles City was established as a military outpost (charged with controlling the remaining Native Americans) after the Battle of the Little Bighorm in 1876. That’s where George grew up, and where Scotty, his father, still lives. At age 90 Scotty continues to play tennis, ride his young horse, Scooter, and take good care of himself. Scotty’s spirit is indomitable—something he inherited, I believe, from his father, John, who left Scotland and wound his way, through Ellis Island, to Montana, where the United States government was giving away (seized) land (from Native Americans) to anyone willing to fare minus-50 and 100-plus weather. Well, stipulations required a little more than that: the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed a United States citizen to obtain title to 160 acres in Montana, if he or she lived on it for five years and made some type of improvement. (Montana became a state on November 8, 1869, after the discovery of gold.) The Expanded Homestead Act of February 19, 1909 increased the acreage to 320. To further encourage settlement and development, Congress granted more than 94 million acres to railroad companies.
Like many other Europeans, in 1910, when it was a lot easier to become a citizen of the United States, John rode the train from New York to Montana where he knew he could find a job sheepherding. And indeed for over two years he lived in and worked out of the sheep wagon that still sits at the ranch. John filed for 320 acres of land Scotty describes as “rough and hilly, unsuitable for farming and without much water” in the Little Porcupine area of southeastern Montana. There, John eeked out a living, built a log home, and in 1912 married Louisa, another Scottish immigrant, and started what would be a family of six children, each of the four boys named after a United States president. Scotty is their second-born; by the time he was 20 most of the early homesteaders had given up and moved on to greener pastures (California!), and by the time he started managing the ranch it had grown to a completely fenced 25 sections unit (that is, over 16,000 acres).
Early Tuesday morning, Scotty, George and I drove the 73 miles from Miles City—through Forsyth, the mostly gravel Little Porcupine Road, pass hundreds of massive cows and bulls, herds of sprite antelopes leaping over buttes, burrowing prairie dogs, tall foxtail grasses undulating in the occasional breeze, black-eyed Susans and the sweet fragrance of crushed thick sage bushes wafting up our truck—to the homestead. It’s an unassuming cabin, certainly not what most people in our society today would consider acceptable quarters for raising six kids, even now after renovation. But it’s a truly beautiful home, filled with the echoes of pain, happiness and the forging of courage, fortitude, integrity and deep love: three rooms about 10’ x 14’ each, a kitchen, bedroom and family room; the bathroom was added in the 1960s when plumbing and electricity arrived in the area. Scotty has written a memoir, I’m ‘a tellin’ you: Homesteading the Little Porcupine (now available at, where he remembers his childhood there:
Before Dad owned a car he would make two or three trips to Forsyth during the year to purchase enough groceries for three or four months. Flour, sugar, and potatoes came in one hundred-pound sacks. Canned goods usually were in crated boxes for ease in transportation by team and wagon. Bacon came in big slabs, so you could slice your bacon according to the cook’s desires. Syrup came in a one-gallon tin can. Beans were also purchased by the one hundred pounds. I recall watching Mother and Dad sorting out the good beans for the household. The culls (broken beans) were re-sacked and fed to the sheep. Fresh fruit at the ranch was a rarity, although fresh apples, peaches, and pears were available in later years after the automobile replaced the horse and wagon trips to town. Dried fruits (such as apricots, apples, prunes) and crackers came in wooden boxes approximately ten inches wide by eighteen inches long by four inches deep in size. Canned milk used at the ranch and by the sheepherders was purchased by the case (24 cans per case).

Scotty goes on to describe life for his mother:

She never wasted anything. The flour sack became dishtowels after being washed and scrubbed to remove the printing. The washed sacks were also used for dishcloths. I always wondered how Mother could do a big washing for eight people and also coordinate the daily chores of three meals a day in addition to everything else she had to do… Washdays were probably the most intensive days, since of all the home chores, washing involved lots of preparation. The water for washing the clothes had to be carried up the hill from our water well. As we became older (age seven and eight), two or three of us boys were assigned the chore of carrying the water the day before washday. When we were younger we used one-gallon buckets, or sometimes two of us would coordinate by using a stick we passed through the handle of a large bucket. When mother was ready for washing, she would set up a ten-gallon tub of hot water and a washboard. That way she scrubbed the dirt off our clothes. A similar size tub was used to soak and rinse the clothes. A spare ten-gallon copper boiler sat on the stove with hot water to replenish whatever water she used. Once the clothes were washed and rinsed, they were put in wicker baskets and carried outside to be hung on the clothesline. Many a time I wondered how my mother kept a smile while enduring those arduous tasks, which she did without the aid of electricity, running water, and any of the other niceties of present day living… Dad also built a dugout cellar, which was used for storing Mother’s canned vegetables and the meat that was raised on the ranch, as well as the above-mentioned purchases that came from town. A small wood-coal heater was used in the cellar whenever needed to keep produce from freezing during the winter months. We usually had a good garden, so excess products that weren’t canned also were stored in the cellar. Cream, milk, and home-churned butter were stored in the cellar, as we had no such thing as a refrigerator until the icebox was purchased in the early 1920s. Of course, we never had running water in the house, so Mother had to contend with a wash-stand that was approximately eighteen inches wide by three feet long by two feet high. That was large enough to hold a washbasin for all of us to use, plus a bucket for water that had a dipper for filling the washbasin and for drinking.”
On Tuesday at the ranch, Scotty, George and I drove all around checking the cattle’s water holes, dallied about and rode Scooter. The next day, back in Miles City, everyone celebrated the 4th of July, Independence Day, with the annual town parade—cowboys in tall hats and hefty boots, bagpipers in tartan kilts, and of course caravans of cattle. Later in the evening, at 10 pm when the summer sun finally disappeared, there was homemade ice cream and lots of loud and brilliant fireworks. The last time we visited, in February when daylight is substantially shorter and your lungs hurt from just trying to breathe in the freezing air, George and I shared freshly made Dutch scones with our friends at trendy Café Utza off Main Street; we talked about how methamphetamine has become pervasive among adolescents and young adults in Miles City. Today 14% of the people live below the poverty line. Still, children play freely in their yards, best garden competitions take on fierce importance, and on hot summer evenings you can bring your lawn chair to the park and see a fine performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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