Cabin Fever
Breaking Ground
In Sickness or in Health

© 1989 Mildred Chaffin


Life in the Swan Valley was not for the meek or the timid in the early nineteen hundreds. Joe Waldbillig of Missoula, a son of Joseph and Ethel Waldbillig, related some of the tales that were told to him by his mother and by his father. His parents, Joseph and Ethel Waldbillig, settled on the Gordon Ranch about 1908 shortly after their marriage. Travel was by wagon, on foot or by horseback and pack train. The road was barely wide enough to allow passage and the doubletrees scraped the bark off as teams and wagons passed through the timber. Those who did not move out in the fall stocked provisions to last through the winter. “When the snow came you were there. You didn't get out,” according to Joe Waldbillig.

Joseph Waldbillig was a surveyor and timber cruiser for the Northern Pacific Railroad. As a surveyor, he was tops. Although the implements of the time were nothing to boast about, his surveys were exceedingly accurate, and it is said that his lines still stand today.

Waldbillig was also a packer and guide and worked for Doctor Gordon who had established a ranch near Holland Lake. (The ranch is still referred to as “the Gordon Ranch” though it has been decades since Dr. Gordon lived there.) Waldbillig guided hunting parties locally and into the South Fork of the Flathead, now the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He worked as a guide for the Karl Woodward survey party in 1908 (commissioned by the Forest Service and the Northern Pacific Railroad). These surveyors named a number of natural features in the Swan Range. One of the peaks in the Swan Range still bears Waldbillig’s name.

When Joseph Waldbillig was working away from home, his young wife was left to tend the ranch alone. She was described to me by a younger sister in the family as a “spunky little character” and the only white woman in the upper Swan Valley at the time.

The Dog That Bit
Indian camps dotted the Swan Valley during the early 1900s, according to Waldbillig. The Indians came here to hunt and fish. The lonely young bride hungered for the sight of another woman’s face and welcomed the Indian women, although she wasn’t able to converse freely with them. But with the men it was somewhat different. They had not learned the white man’s courtesy of knocking at the door before entering one’s home. Sometimes Mrs. Waldbillig would “feel a presence” and would turn to see a moccasined Indian who had slipped in quietly and stood watching her inside the door. Later, her sons teased her, “Well, Mom, how would you knock on a teepee?” But the young woman, extremely perturbed, demanded that her husband provide her with a dog—one that would bite! So he provided her with an Airedale—famous for just such tactics. The trouble was, the dog had not been told just whom he was supposed to bite. The Indian men could straddle the pole to go over the fence. But the women, when they came to call, crawled under. Came a time when one of her new-found friends crawled under the fence and the Airedale bit. He bit where it would do the most good, or the most hann. The woman screamed and Mrs. Waldbillig, quite devastated at this turn of events, ran to the rescue. Now, she thought, she would lose the only friends she had. She took the injured woman into her log cabin home and did her best to remedy the situation. The woman “howled” when the iodine touched the wound and young Mrs. Waldbillig’s spirits plunged even deeper. The dog must now be tied up.

But the Indians did not desert her.

“Like you and I” Joe related, “those Indians could smell bread baking half a mile away.” So young Mrs. Waldbillig would continue to find one or more of them standing inside her door looking wishfully at her table, laden with fresh-baked bread. She would wrap a couple of loaves in a tea towel and hand them to her visitors, who would then depart in a hurry toward their own camps. Later, some of the Indian women would enter her door bearing buckskin and beautiful bead work to repay her.

Card Games and Medicine Men
The Indian men also loved to gamble and would arrive at the Waldbilligs’ cabin and con Mr. Waldbillig into playing cards with them. It was on just such an occasion when the Waldbilligs’ firstborn son was a few months old. Some of the Indians appeared out of the snowy dusk with cards on their minds. The parents were not up to entertaining anyone that evening for their baby was very, very ill. They knew that he had pneumonia and in that long-ago day, pneumonia was nearly always fatal. They could not get out for help and they could not get a doctor in. Little John Waldbillig was going to die. One of the Indians, taking in the sad faces of the parents, walked over and gazed long upon the tiny figure under the blanket. Then, Mrs. Waldbillig told, he put his finger in the sick child’s mouth for a moment. Turning, he put on his snowshoes made of willows, pulled his blanket around his shoulders and departed. Soon he was~back, carrying a pouch. Joseph knew enough of the Indian language to communicate somewhat and he got the cup and water that the man asked for. Mixing the potion, the man again used his finger to put it in the baby’s mouth. He then rubbed the sides of the small throat until the baby swallowed.

“What have we to lose?” the young mother said. “We’ve done all that we know of to help him.”

The patient taken care of, the Indian motioned Joseph to the table and, Mrs. Waldbillig declared, “Beat him at a game of cards!” This done, the pseudo doctor administered another dose of medicine and instructed the parents to do likewise at intervals throughout the night.

Their long, anxious vigil began with very little hope. The name of the medicine man and the ingredients he used will never be known, but with the morning light, the fever was broken. The baby opened his eyes and a wan little smile played about his lips. There was joy in the snowy valley that day for little John Waldbillig was going to live!

Joseph Waldbillig and his wife Ethel, lived in the Swan Valley at the time of the Indian and Game Warden Battle during which a warden and four Indians were killed. The year was 1908. It was to be Joseph’s unhappy task to help pack the game warden to Joseph’s own home and load the body in a wagon to be transported to Ovando. Much has already been written about this story.