Cabin Fever
Breaking Ground
Trials of the Homesteaders

© 1989 Mildred Chaffin

At the turn of the century and for years afterward, homesteaders pioneered these western valleys. They came from the north into Swan Valley by way of Swan Lake by boat, since there was as yet no road around that body of water. They came from the south into the Clearwater and the Swan Valleys by team and wagon, by pack train and on foot. They came from the east into the Blackfoot Valley by ox-team and horse conveyances, each one with a dream and a hunger for land. Some were from the cities and even from foreign lands. Many were totally inexperienced and unequal to the drudgery, the loneliness and deprivation which this mountain country offered.

A story is told of two brothers from England who complained to one of the Lynn brothers of Ovando that they couldn't make the rooster “set”. They were advised to bore two holes in a wooden box, put some eggs under him and tie his feet together under the nest. The prankster thought they would surely know that he was joking, but the poor bird “sat” until he starved to death!

I personally know of one woman who stood watching while a gentleman milked his cow, her nose wrinkled in sheer distaste. “Back in New Yawk,” she said, “we get our milk from a nice clean can!”

The wonder of it is that some were able to hold on and to win their battle with the country and the elements. These were the nucleus of what became successful ranches in later years. Some gave up and sold their holdings to those who stayed, for a small sum. Some would gladly trade two skinny, sorefooted oxen to an established settler for one that was fat and able. The worn-out animals were turned out to feed and recuperate. This way, the new owner added greatly to his herd. (It must have been a circus getting the wild steers yoked into the ox train to take the travelers on to their destination!)

The first homes were cabins built for shelter and not for beauty. They were essentially small and “any company that came slept in the hayloft”, according to Mr. Warner Lundberg, Swan Valley. Often as not, refrigeration took the form of a covered box under the floor—after they had floors. This was reached by raising a trap door. After sawmills were established, people cut large blocks of ice and stored it buried in sawdust to supply ice boxes through the summer. This was living in luxury.
Food was no great problem in those post homesteading days. Wild game and fish were a staple until families were in a position to raise their own meat.

“We burned logs, pulled stumps and cleared land. We raised wheat and cut it for hay with a hand scythe. We had a milk cow and a big garden,” Lundberg said. “We bought only what we had to have and paid the grocery bill once a year.” According to Mrs. Hilda (Rover) Johnson, Montana’s Little Legends, most people in the Swan planned to kill a bear in the fall “for the lard”. She was invited to a neighbor’s cabin for dinner one evening, “But,” she said, “they had nailed the bear’s feet over the door and I couldn't eat the biscuits!”

Bugs, Bugs, Bugs
Housewives were plagued by those little black critters that swarmed around the sugar bowl and left little brown specks all over the window panes. Before screen doors arrived in the Blackfoot-Clearwater-Swan country, it was standard procedure for the queen of the kitchen to wave a dish towel over the heads of the diners to “shoo the flies away” at meal times. When the flies went to bed the mosquitoes came out. It was also standard procedure at the onset of darkness for somebody to fix the smudge bucket. Any old rusty pan or pail that would hold a small fire of chips would do. This was smothered with a handful of grass, to create a dense cloud of smoke. When the house was fogged, somebody would cover his mouth and nose and dive in to take the smudge bucket outdoors to burn itself out. As soon as the air had thinned out enough to breathe almost normally, all doors and windows were closed tightly and the family could sleep the night away. The gray film that built up over the walls and ceiling was of secondary importance compared to being chewed up alive. (If we had to go back to living that way today, the human race would soon die out. The old folks would rise up and scream “pollution” and the young ones would never make it to puberty.)

Wagon Trails
Travel was complicated by the condition or absence of roads. Where the road ended, the traveler carried on by pack train and saddlehorse, on foot or on snowshoes. Communications were relayed by the age old “grapevine”. The wayfarer and the freighter endure blizzards,, mud or blistering heat in the proper season. Folklore has it that the first road going north into the Swan was chopped out by trapper, surveyor, Charley “Kid” Young and his crew of five men. The road, cleared during the 1890s, enabled residents of the “lake country” to come and vote. The Copper Kings, Marcus Daily and W. A. Clark, were warring over the location of Montana’s capitol. “And,” Young told us when we he was interviewed for Montana’s Little Legends, “people drove out over those stumps to vote.”

Doctors, Death and Dying
When there was illness in the valley everyone helped each other. “I was the community doctor,” said Mrs. Hilda Johnson from Swan Valley, “and we relied largely on a patent medicine called Lincoln Tea.” When death occurred, if it was not feasible to take the body to a regulation cemetery, neighbors provided a pillow and blankets and a homemade box to bury the remains in the valley. In the Seeley Lake area, sufferers were sometimes taken to a doctor or hospital by team and wagon. According to James Sullivan, Seeley’s first ambulance many years ago was an old Rio truck. “The driver came down on a bell with his heel and if you weren't sick when you started,” Jim said, “you darned well would be when you got there!”

Mr. Lundberg tells of a very old Indian burial ground once located on his father’s homestead in the Swan. The Indians came to camp there, honor their dead and hunt in the area. The site was destroyed in the excavating for a small lake shortly after World War II and after about 1945 the Indians came there no more.

Odds and Ends
Some early trappers in the Clearwater Valley, excluding Hudson Bay trappers, were: George Montour, Elmer Findell, Bill Babcock, Charles “Kid” Young, the Vaughns, Charley Anderson, John Anderson, ? Marshall, followed by Herb Grover and Tex Baker. Most of the trappers were homesteaders and the furs were their only source of cash.

Automobiles and improved roads were inevitable. The first car to come into Seeley Lake was a Model T Ford in 1918. It came down the hill from Tote Lake Road under its own power around a hillside into Morrell Flats. The road can still be found there. The Ford had to be pulled back up the hill by a four horse team.
“When automobiles came into the country,” says Warner Lundberg, “they were put up on blocks in the Fall and not put back on the ground until Memorial Day. My mother was so accustomed to walking that she wouldn't ride in one!”

Special thanks to Warner Lundberg, Swan Valley, for information contained in this article.—M. Chaffin