Once Upon a (Life)time
Growing Up Years
Growing Up Years - Part 1

Mildred's "pre-school" years were spent in the backwoods.

I was born at Evaro, Montana, May 11, 1908, arriving a couple of jumps ahead of young Doctor Randall, they tell me, but of course I was traveling light, whereas he left Missoula encumbered by a horse and buggy.

I was 19 months old when my mother (Edna Geneva Johnson Palmer) died after the birth of my sister, Ellen. My aunt, Stella Mackie, recently married at sixteen, took over the job of keeping up with me. She was too young to handle two little snipes so our father, John Palmer, took his other tiny daughter to Missoula by horse and buggy and caught the train (the Bitterroot stub) to take her to live with our great-grandparents, Oliver and Cebrina Gregg at Charlos Heights.

My aunt and her husband often spoke of having lived "up Pattee Canyon" but my earliest memories are of the log cabin and their homestead near LaValle Creek, ten miles from Missoula. The cousins started coming and I don't remember the advent of the first two, Lillie and Remilia. But I remember Nathan when he came along. I must have been about five years old then. He was born on the homestead with the help of a neighbor and midwife, Julie Lynn. Kindhearted Julie drove her horse the two or more miles and back each day to care for the new mother and baby. She arrived one morning with a freshly baked pie and parked it on the one and only table in that cabin.

She always laid the naked baby on a pillow on her lap where she could reach the wash basin. This being the first boy in the Mackie family we small-fry looked on in wonderment. This morning the warm washcloth applied to his little round tummy gave him an urge to sprinkle. The two women erupted with laughter. They were still laughing when Julie threw the pie out to the chickens, but I held a low opinion of that young man for a day or two for nothing much came to our cabin those early days to make a pie out of.

The new baby became a toddler and while he and Remilia were restricted to the yard, Lil and I developed into two full-fledged "brush rabbits" We Were now judged old enough to stay at home alone in summer while my aunt took the two smaller ones with her to deliver butter and eggs to Missoula to trade for necessities. Those were lean times. Uncle Bill was obliged to find work away from home since the homestead was not a paying proposition. He saw that we always had potatoes and there was always milk from a cow or two and flour to make our bread—but usually not much else. I don't like to remember when the dog brought in a rabbit that he had killed and we took it away from him, skinned and fried it, but I well remember how good it tasted! "He can catch another one," Aunt Stella said. And catch one he did. But when we kids would have taken that one she said, "Oh, let him keep it. He gets meat hungry, too."

A few times she carried the baby, I carried a blanket and we all trudged the half mile down to LaValle Creek where she cut a willow pole and caught enough fish for our supper. We ate the bread and butter from our lard pail then picked wild gooseberries to take back to the cabin. I will never taste anything better than those meals of bread and potatoes with fried fish and gooseberry sauce.

In those days of barter, cash money must have been hard to come by. There was an evening when Aunt Stella bring in the mi1k cow and came with a dead coyote. We kids shrank from the animal but she was all excited.
"I'm going to skin him," she said. "And maybe I can collect the bounty."

Skin him she did—all over the cabin floor. We kids looked on and when she had almost finished she gave a low moan. We thought she was going to cry. At the most delicate point in the operation she had cut the tail off! Then determination took over and she hunted up a piece of twine or string. "I'm going to take it in anyhow," she declared. So, the next morning the coyote hide went to Missoula with the tail tied on. Lil and I played around the place until she drove back into the yard a few hours later with a smile on her face. That dollar or two was a real windfall. We laughed about the incident many times down through the years.

Our nearest neighbors were the Hamilton family: Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, Viola, Leonard and Elsie. Their shortest route to town was not past our place, but via O'Keefe Canyon, so we almost never saw a passerby. When Aunt Stella left on her butter-and-egg run we were given explicit instructions regarding our chores, most of which were forgotten once the buggy was out of sight.

"It will be time to eat your lunch when the sun is straight above your heads," she pointed upward. "And I'll be home when the sun gets just about over there." She poked a hole in the sky in the direction of late afternoon.

We had no television, no toys, no tricycles, no games, but we were not aware that we were lacking. Give us our heads and we would make our own entertainment. Lunch was one diversion that we were real enthusiastic about. We could sit on the hewn doorstep and flip bits of bread and milk to see the chickens scramble for it. Running out of bread and milk we could tear down the woodpile to build a stick house even though we knew we would have to pile it all back up the next day. There were big husky grasshoppers which, when wrapped in mullein leaves and tickled in the mouth with a straw, would spit "tobacco juice." Then with a slight stretch of imagination we could "change their diapers" making them a good substitute for babies. We burned a lot of energy climbing up on the barn roof and flapping our arms violently while we landed on the manure pile. But no matter how many times we jumped, or how hard we flapped, we never learned to fly. And, unbelievably, we never broke any bones.

Another diversion was the making of mud pies. Two wooden barrels that stood down by the well were kept full of water so they wouldn't dry out and fall apart. One had held the winter's sauerkraut (long since eaten). The other was used to water the horses. We dipped water out of one barrel to mix our mud pie dough. An idea clicked in my nimble mind. "If we mixed mud in the barrel we could make lots of mud pies," I said. I was the older and the ringleader. Lil was my loyal follower. We mixed about a foot of the black stuff and spread mud pies all over the place. When this palled, we mixed more of the juicy ooze, took off our few clothes and climbed into it. Squealing with delight, we plastered ourselves and each other and took turns chasing each other through the woods. Why didn't we think of this before? But all things must come to an end and when the mud dried and began to crack, I knew it was time to take it off. The water in the barrel was worm from the sun. More squealing while we poured it over each other's head. Had there been anyone within a half mile they would have crept through the timber to see if some Comanches had come. We must have done a good enough job of getting cleaned up, because we were never found out. However, when bedtime arrived, Lil crawled into our bed and slept like a baby, but my ornery little hide was so chafed and sore that I could hardly stand the covers on me. I knew better than to complain or else I'd have to explain how I got that way and I was seven years old and supposed to know better.