Cabin Fever
Breaking Ground
Seeley Lake's Founding Family

© l989 Mildred Chaffin


The word "Seeley" gained an extra letter "e" by mistake when a survey crew renamed Clearwater Lake in 1890 for J.B. Seely. Mr. Seely came to the Blackfoot-Clearwater country in 1881 as a timber cruiser, working for A. B Hammond.

Born in Niles, Michigan, in 1857, Seely began teaching school at age sixteen. After four years of teaching he joined his father in the lumber business and then migrated to Washington State at age twenty-three. Eighteen eighty one found him moving to Missoula and into the Big Blackfoot River drainage where the Hammond Company, also called the Montana Improvement Company, had a contract to furnish ties for the Northern Pacific Railroad. A few years later he was joined by a brother, Elmer, and the two bachelors lived in a cabin on the west side of the lake where Camp Paxson now stands. They cruised timber, cleared meadows for hay and built up a herd of cattle.

Seely left the Hammond Company in 1889 to begin a freight and stage line operation from Drummond to Ovando. At the time, he was associated with Ovando merchants Jakways and Faust. He also had a contract to carry mail between Drummond and Woodworth. Woodworth, according to Seely's daughters, then boasted a small store with a post office that Seely dubbed "Hell’s Half Acre." Woodworth was the Seely family’s mailing address.

During his freighting days, Seely’s cattle were left in the care of his brother. There were small cabins and homemade boats at strategic points along the lake to facilitate crossing to take care of the "cow critters" grazing the timbered area at will. The country, at that time, was all open range.

Seely’ s stage route led past the George Turrell Ranch near Ovando and his stops there led to his marriage to Leonora "Nora" Turrell. The new bride and groom immediately moved to the cabin on the west shore of "Clearwater Lake" (now Seeley Lake). As was the ranch custom of the times, the cabin became the "cook" house and another cabin was built as living and sleeping quarters. Mr. Seely built furniture and a cellar for storage. This became a well organized ranch, complete with a barn, fences, hay meadows and corrals.

Daughter Jess (Mary Jesuita) has written that her father and "Uncle El" made a good part of their living by trapping. "Good furs brought good money," she said, remembering that there were many and various kinds of traps around the place. In History of Montana (W.F. Sanders, 1913), Seely tells of killing twelve bears in one season, a pelt being worth thirty dollars. Some of the pelts were made into robes for the family’s beds.
The first two daughters were born while the Seelys lived at the west shore ranch and a third one after they moved to the east shore homestead. However, Mrs. Seely went to her mother at the Turrell Ranch for the births.

In 1887-88, Seely homesteaded 160 acres on the east shore of the lake and in 1899 Mr. and Mrs. Seely built a large log house, doing the work themselves. The house was modern for the time with lace curtains, carpet on the living room floor and wallpaper! Water was carried from nearby Seely Creek and there was even a tin tub for baths. Many trips were required to move their belongings across the lake by boat.

Mrs. Seely always had a large garden and "strawberry patch that you wouldn’t believe". There was a cellar of logs with dirt between the walls to keep a winter’s supply of potatoes and root vegetables. Hams and bacon, boxes of dried fruit, sacks of flour, oatmeal, corn meal and such were hauled from Ovando before the onset of winter. Ovando was an overnight trip by team and wagon.

After the homestead was established, the fall roundups terminated at the east shore place and hay that was put up at the old place was hauled across the frozen lake to feed the cattle through the winter. This east shore place was called "The New House" and the west shore residence was always referred to as "The Old House."

According to information provided by Seely’s grandsons, Dick and Bill Samson, bands of forty or fifty Indians were frequent visitors on their way to the South Fork of the Flathead, complete with pack and saddle horses and loaded travois. The Indians loved Nora’ s cooking and the Seelys would barter fresh vegetables, fish or beef, for their labor. The Indian women would trace the children’s feet and when they returned a few weeks later from the South Fork there would be beaded moccasins for the kids.

"We thought they were the most beautiful things we had ever seen," wrote Ruth Seely Odom, a daughter.

The Seelys did much of their shopping from Montgomery Ward catalogues. Yards and yards of pretty calico made ruffled dresses and more yards of woolen materials went into warm winter coats.

The first children were taught to read at home. Their few books included the Bible and a large dictionary. Frances Seely Johnson envied her older sister’s ability to sound out words and was afraid that she would grow up and not know anything.

As children have from the beginning of the human race, the Seely girls were able to entertain themselves with whatever was at hand—modeling tiny mud items and letting them dry; romping with their dog; lying on their stomachs on the small bridge to play with the fish in the "crick" (Seely Creek). Their father made little chairs and doll cradles for them and they were probably as happy as our present day moppets with their forty dollar store bought dolls. There was a logging camp a half mile from the homestead property. The nearest real neighbors were the Hollands at Holland Lake and a few homesteading families in the Woodworth area, many long saddlehorse miles away.

In 1897 Seely went into forestry, becoming Seeley Lake’s first Forest Ranger on what was then known as the Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve. There was no ranger station at Seeley Lake at that time, so Seely operated from his home.(As the story goes, he had also built a cabin north of "The New House" near the present site of the Forest Service offices. Though this cabin was later abandoned, it appears on some early maps.) His duties were to watch for poachers, prevent timber theft, evict squatters and put out fires. He told of having seen two million feet of timber floated down the river to the mill at Bonner. In 1904 his brother Elmer lost a leg and died after an accident while working at the Bonner mill.

Mr. Seely was personally acquainted with Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the Forest Service.

The Seely holdings were sold to the Big Blackfoot Milling Company in 1906 and the homestead became the site of a logging camp. (The "Seely House" later became known locally as "ACM Headquarters" for the Seeley Lake area after Big Blackfoot Milling Company sold out to the Anaconda Company.) "The New House" was unoccupied at the time of the sale. It burned down in 1920or 1921.

Seely became supervisor of the Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve in 1900. He then transferred to Virginia City and brought into being the Madison National Forest in 1902. In 1908 he became the first supervisor of the Jefferson National Forest, then became supervisor of the Helena National Forest, moving his family to Helena. About 1920 he was transferred again to become head of the Kaniksu Forest. He retired in 1927 in Missoula as the longest-serving supervisor in the Pacific Northwest.

Seven children were born to J.B. and Leonora Turrell Seely: Mary Jesuita, Doris and Ruth were the oldest daughters. Mr. Seely worried about not having any sons to carry on his name so he named the fourth daughter Joyce Beatrice, making certain that her initials at least would carry on the tradition. Frances was the fifth daughter and then a son, Jasper Bradley was born in 1912.

Another son was born to them but died in infancy.