Cabin Fever
Call of the Wild
Holland Lake and the Upper Swan

l988 Mildred Chaffin

Lester (Dobb) Wilhelm was interviewed in 1988 and provided most of the information in this story. The letters in the history album at Holland Lake Lodge also were used to prepare this article.

The guest ranch operation at Holland Lake was started in the early 1920s by Arthur and Ada White, and is located on a United States Forest Service lease. The Whites were joined in the venture by Mrs. White’s brother, Babe  Wilhelm, and his wife, Ruth.

“The Whites operated the lodge and the Wilhelms did the packing,” Dobb Wilhelm, Babe’s son, remembered. They outfitted and took their guests into the South Fork of the Flathead even before it became a Primitive Area. It is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

“The trips were mostly for fishing,” Wilhelm recalled, “since hunting season didn’t open until the middle of October, and you’d darn well better be tout of there before the trail got snowed in!”

The families together owned a sawmill powered by a threshing machine engine. They sawed their own lumber and burned the slabs for steam power.

The road ended at the Holland Guard Station, situated about where the bathing beach is now. At that time, the Guard Station was manned by a “ranger-smoke chaser” named Bob Hartwick. (Hartwicks homesteaded on what is now “the Clark Ranch” south of Holland Lake). The families’ next move was to build road to the building site so they could transport lumber by team and wagon.

Lacking equipment to grade around the hillsides, the road went the hard way: up and over a ridge.

The original lodge was built from rough lumber and the residence house came into being some time later, Wilhelm said. The rustic lodge burned down in the 1940s. The replacement is part of the present structure.

Dobb Wilhelm started school in the new Rumble Creek school in 1921. Ironically, the little building lasted until he graduated from the eighth grade 1929, then it burned down. The Rumble Creek School was one of several Swan Valley schools that served area children over the years. “Whenever were were transportation problems, Swan Valley just built another school,” Wilhelm chuckled.

Heavy snowfall in the Swan often contributed to the “transportation problems.” According to a letter written by Paul Judge (who operated Holland Lake Lodge from 1930 to 1932), the road from Seeley Lake to the Swan Valley wasn’t plowed in the winter. The mail came “occasionally” by horse and sleigh.

Packers, Fish and Game
Dobb Wilhelm made his first trip over the very rugged old Holland Pass into the South Fork of the Flathead at the age of twelve. Several years later, he and Harold Haasch were making a “meat haul” when the Forest Service men stopped them while the trail was being blasted and the debris cleared away. These packers, then, were the first commercial packers to use this “newly improved” Holland-Gordon Pass trail. Holland Lookout stood on a pinnacle squarely above the old trail at that time.

“Fishing was real good in those days,” Wilhelm said, adding that population declines since the 1960s are a result of over fishing. “Cutthroat won’t stand a lot of pressure,” he said. Wilhelm recalled the good old days of fishing with much pleasure.

“Why, over on Hahn Creek (South Fork) you’d have to get behind a tree to get a fly on your fishing pole! It’s not that way anymore.”

Regarding the hunting, Wilhelm said hunter success has been hard to evaluate. Game populations seem to be shifting. “We had lots of deer and we were allowed two bucks, but there were hardly any elk in the valley then.” Many other old-timers tell the same story. The elk populations in the Swan and Clearwater Valleys, they say, increased in the fifties.

Trapping was a popular way to make a living for some bachelors, and even a few families. Wilhelm remembered two people who were regular trappers. Jalmer Wirkilla was a Finlander who trapped in the valley and also used the Big Prairie Ranger Station as headquarters. Maurice Thompson homesteaded on Cooney Creek and also did a lot of trapping.

“And, of course, we kids trapped small animals, weasels and mink,” Wilhelm said.

The Keywaydens
During the 1930s, a summer vacation business headquartered in New Jersey began scheduling annual six-week pack trips in western Montana known as the Keywayden Youth Camps. These people provided a boost to local outfitters. They would book their trips months in advance. Anywhere from one dozen to three dozen “campers” participated in the summer outings.

Many of the young girls in the Keywayden groups were daughters of prominent doctors and lawyers. The six-week ranch vacations were billed as a once-in-a-lifetime “western experience” for these well-to-do women. The vacationers stayed at three different camps: (1) the Lake Ranch at Holland Lake, (2) the cattle Ranch (Kelly Ranch near Ovando) and (3) the Pack Trip (from Holland Lake Lodge through the South Fork of the Flathead) during their six-week Montana vacation.

The brochures used to advertise the Keywaden Youth Camps included promotional material with plenty of western romance:

Before long you are unpacking...or dashing to the corral to pick out the pinto, roan, black or buckskin you think you’d like for your own.

Before modern telephones were installed in the country (the 1950s) the people at Holland Lake Lodge kept in touch with the outside world by way of a Forest Service circuit telephone. The lines went from Big Prairie Ranger Station in the South Fork out over Gordon Pass to Holland Lake Lodge. A separate line went from the Lodge to the Seeley Lake Ranger Station. The phone, in later years, was also connected at the Seeley Lake Mercantile and the Log Cabin Bar in Seeley Lake.