My Forty Years Scribblin's
A Conversation With Mildred and Allen Chaffin

From "The Trail" Eureka, MT (Formerly The Historic Tobacco Plains Journal) Vol. IX, Number 2 Summer, 2000 #57 by Gary Montgomery

It was only recently that I was able to enjoy the privilege of meeting Allen and Mildred Chaffin. Up until then I didn't know Allen at all and only knew Mildred through her writings and two telephone conversations. Her granddaughter, Geri Stinger, perhaps her grandmother's greatest fan, has been telling me things about Allen and Mildred for a couple of years and I became interested in this couple, who to me are classic born and bred Montanans. They grew up south of Tobacco Plains Country, but not very far south and their story is well worth publishing. Besides, Mildred and Margaret Fornall, whose story and writings have appeared herein, are friends from way back and I was intrigued by the possibility of meeting two avid writers that go back almost 40 years. The Chaffins had driven up from Seeley Lake and were parked in their camper a short distance from Margaret's home in Rexford and were planning on attending the Amish Auction the following day.

Trail: "I stopped over and saw Margaret before coming here. She's thrilled that you've come up for a visit. Did you two meet as a result of a mutual interest in writing?"

Mildred: "No, she taught school at Seeley Lake for quite a few years."

Trail: "Geri lent me a copy of your book 'Scribblin's' and I've published a couple of the stories. I have to apologize to you. I discovered after I published one called 'Oldtime Remedies' that I left the end off."

Mildred: "Well, It's alright as far as I'm concerned."

Trail: "Most writers would at least roll their eyes."

Mildred: "I've never considered myself a writer. A writer lives with his work. I'd starve to death pretty fast on what I sell. But I still do stories for Bugle, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation magazine."

Trail: "Do you work with a computer?"

Mildred: "No. My grandson brought over a computer and set it up for me. Four different people told me how to work the thing four different ways so I didn't get very far with the computer. I was wasting time trying to learn when I could have been scribbling."

Trail: "The nice thing about using a computer is that you only type it once. From then on you're just making corrections."

Mildred: "I can see the advantage, but I didn't have time."

I learned somewhere along the line that Mildred married at the tender age of 15, bore five children and then lost her husband in a railroad work-related accident. It happened at the height of the Depression and I wondered how such a momentous event affected her

Trail: "One of the most interesting things about your life is how you went on after losing your first husband."

Mildred: "The thing about that is my dad had said, 'Girls don't need any education. Boys need an education because they have to earn a living.' If I have any education it's from self-education and I didn't do any better at that than I have anything else."

Trail: "I think you've done well at that."

Mildred: "If you can read—which a lot of people nowadays can't—you can do pretty well for yourself. I used to read everything that came along that was written in English, I guess. Some that was beyond me and some of it that wasn't always good. We didn't have a library at school even at that time. One morning our teacher came carrying an arm full of books and I wore those books out, I guess. People don't realize what a great thing an education is. I think there's people have it and don't use it. I've known college educated people who do nothing, absolutely nothing with it. I think that's a waste."

Trail: "My problem with that is that my mother might say I was one of those people. I got a degree and then never worked in that field. I decided I wanted to live in Montana instead and have the kind of life that you and Allen have led. I always dreamed about riding way back in the wilderness. While I did that once, you two have done it for many years and that's the kind of life I craved."

Mildred: She looked at me expressionless. "You think so?" Then she laughed.

Trail: "I realize that's easy to say, not having been there."

Mildred: "You can tell by the way I write how I lived, I guess. But, I spent my time raising seven children and working out. Ask him (Allen). We built barns and we built fences. I got mad at him one time and I told him I figured up I'd built enough fence to reach from Seeley Lake to Arlee, which is 37 miles and I'd put in enough miles on horseback to take me to Fairbanks."

Trail: "You sat down and figured this?"

Mildred: "Yes I did. She said it laughing. And he didn't dispute my word so I guess it was right. But, I've never been sorry for the way I was raised or for the way I've worked. So many people are not able to work. And like you said, you would rather do without money and live my kind of life. I learned a lot of things in doing that I use in my writing."

Trail: "What kind of things are you writing now?"

Mildred: "We were outfitters commercially for 18 or 20 years and then we put quite a few other years out in the Bob Marshall (Wilderness Area). And Bugle is happy to have that kind of material. I have lived it. All I have to do is get it down in readable form. That's quite a job sometimes. I should call it, 'Heard Around the Cooktent Table', because when the men came in at night and they would be telling each other about the day's events, and who killed what and who didn't and the trouble they had and all. That's were it all came from. I've had six stories printed by Bugle and I have another one out this winter some time. So that's where my material comes from now, but, that little Scribblin's book that Geri loaned you, a lot of that is how I grew up."

Trail: "One of the most interesting aspects of talking to people of your generation—Margaret is a good example—is how deprived nearly all of you were when you were kid."

Mildred: "But we didn't know it."

Trail: "Right. You were only deprived by today's standards. You had good strong families and home life for the most part. You took pleasure in the simple things. I imagine myself being handed an orange and a few walnuts for a Christmas present..."

Mildred: "That's what we got."

Trail: "I happen to believe that you people who went through the depression wanted to shelter your children from all of that. Starting with my generation (1943) the children have been more and more pampered; less in touch with reality."

Mildred: "We all tried to give our children a better life than we had. I'm not sure now that that's right."

Trail: "You probably can't help yourself. It's a natural instinct."

Mildred: "The way I grew up and lived and raised my kids, that's my life. That's my story. And of course, every life is a story. Of course, they don't always put it down."

Trail: "That brings us back to something that I asked awhile ago and that is, do you remember how you felt the day you faced raising five kids? What were you, 25, 26 years old?"

Mildred: "Twenty-seven, but I don't want to remember that. You don't see those years until they've passed. I think you take one day at a time and do what you can with it."

Trail: "When did you meet Allen?"

Mildred: "When he was about that high. She held out her hand to indicate a small child's height. I can't remember when I didn't know him. Right? She asked Allen. I've known him most of his life."

Allen: "I didn't know her until, oh, I was a kid of about 15, I think."

Mildred: "You were a little kid running off to the neighbor girl's place to play when I first knew you."

Trail: "What year did you guys get married?"

Mildred: "Well, 63 years this August."

Allen: "Thirty-seven."

Trail: "Is that when you started outfitting?"

Allen: "No, we didn't start until 1945."

Trail: "Did you just sit down one day and say this is something we'd enjoy doing? What got you into it?"

Allen: "I was in that country ever since I was nine years old. It wasn't called the Bob Marshall at that time. I was in there with my folks. It would have been as early as 1928. Kept goin' huntin' in there with the old man and other people and finally after we was married and I run the school bus and ranched, I thought I'd like to do that so we did. We never made any money, but we liked it. It's a good clean life. Takin' care of people and stuff."

Trail: "And God knows they need taken care of when you take them into a place like that."

Allen: "I had two guys get lost one time. I didn't get 'em back to the camp 'til after the third day, but I run 'em down."

Trail: "That'd be a good feeling—for them—and you. I can't remember the name of the story you wrote, Mildred, but a terrible storm set in and you and Allen rode out together. You described how cold it was."

Mildred: "In the middle of November, which is when we usually left, on a good trip out it's usually cold."

Trail: "How long since you've done that?"

Mildred: "When did we quit. Sixty something?"

Allen: "Sixty-two, sixty-three."

Mildred: "No, we outfitted longer than that. Sixty-seven?"

Trail: "Well over 30 years ago. If I may ask, aren't you in your nineties?"

Mildred: "I'm 92."

Trail: "Isn't that how old Margaret is?"

Mildred: "She's 94, 95."

Trail: "How long have you known Margaret?"

Mildred: "Forty years anyway."

Mildred's granddaughter, Geri, spoke up and reminded her grandmother about some of her cooking stories that she'd recently heard, calling them the "soup kitchen days."

Trail: "What were those days?"

Mildred: "School lunch. That was during the war. It was during rationing. They had trouble getting things to cook because sugar was rationed and fats and things. I had this little woman helping me. She was going to help me take fourteen gallons of boiling soup off the stove and she almost dropped it. It would have killed her. After that I took it off. Everything was hot and everything was heavy. It was hard work. We had buffalo. On account of so many Indian children the government gave us buffalo. That was most of our meat. As a treat once a month, I sent a note home to 10 or 12 of the parents and ask if they'd care to donate a chicken so we could have chicken and noodles. I don't remember ever being turned down. The chickens would come minus heads and feathers and the rest was up to me. The chickens would come on the school bus. Can you imagine the kids now bringing a dead chicken to school? So that day I'd stay late and finish dressing those chickens. The next day we'd cook 'em and the third day we'd have chicken and noodles for 175 kids. We made our own noodles. I dried them at night on the three long tables that we sat 30 kids at."

"The school lunch tables, that's quite a story in itself. It was volunteer work mostly and the people who had an apiary, they donated honey to the kitchen. Well the man in charge, he thought he saw a good use for that so they bought linoleum to cover all the tables. He glued that linoleum with honey. When that place got warmed up the honey would drip through the cracks. She is laughing heartily as she tells the story. All these women who come dressed up ended up with honey in their laps and all over the men's suits. After awhile that honey sugared, well then the kids would come along and lift that linoleum and eat that sugared honey."

Trail: "How did your parents come to the Arlee country?"

Mildred: "My father came across the United States on the timber crews, cutting green timber. My mother's folks came from Kansas in a covered wagon to the Bitterroot (Valley). They brought three children besides their own. They raised 18 children. Nine of them were their own, but they lost some of theirs with the diphtheria or something. That's how people lived. There was no food stamps or welfare or anything like that. You took care of your family. My sister was the last one they raised. When my mother died when my sister was born they were already great grandparents. My dad had to find some place to put my (infant) sister. My aunt took me but she was too young to take two of us. So, (great) grandma said, 'Bring her up here.' My dad took her with the horse and buggy to Missoula to catch a train and then up the Bitterroot to my great grandparents—in March. So she was a tough little bugger too. I think she was about 11 when grandma died. She stayed there for a year with grandpa 'til he died and then they farmed her out among the family. She's still living. She's 90."

Trail: "How much older were you than your sister?"

Mildred: "A year and a half."

Trail: "Do you communicate with her?"

Mildred: "Yes. Letters. We've been down there two or three times. We weren't raised together and we saw each other once every two or three years when we were kids. Then she lived with me a short time and went to high school. Then she went up the Bitterroot to pick apples and married the foreman. That's the way it goes."

I asked if they'd traveled to the Tobacco Valley just to visit Geri and Margaret. While that was high on their list they also wanted to attend the Amish auction and try out their new camper that they got last Christmas.

Allen: "I got to get her away from home every once in awhile. She used to get out and ride horseback, but she doesn't do that anymore."

Mildred: Speaking quickly. "Does anybody ride horseback at my age?"

Trail: "So when you outfitted you were pretty much the camp cook and Allen was the guide?"

Mildred: "I was the camp cook, veterinarian, camp guard, complaints department. I was kinda the mother hen."

Trail: "I bet you were a good one."

Mildred: "I tried."

Trail: "One of your stories that I read had you staying behind as camp guard while Allen rode out for another party of hunters and he couldn't get back in for... how long?"

Allen: "Four days."

Trail: "Four days you were stuck in there by yourself I can imagine myself in there and that would keep your senses on edge. It's nice that you had that dog."

Mildred: "That's the time I got snowed in there. I had the dog most of the time. Once or twice a year he'd run off and follow the pack string. And then I wouldn't have anybody."

Allen: "She had about five or six horses with her too. The guys that was supposed to go back in with me didn't show up. Finally my brother and three other people did come and we got started up over the mountain. It snowed like the dickens for two or three days there. I was ridin' a little horse and comin' up over the mountain he was the only one that would follow the trail. My feet was draggin' in the snow and it breasted him right there. Allen indicated the juncture of his chest and neck. I had to give him his time, but he followed that trail wherever it went. The big horses didn't want to buck that snow but he bucked it all the way over the top. I always hollered when I come into camp. That night we got in about 11 o'clock. She didn't have no light. There was no dog. I said, 'What's happened now?' Walked into the cook tent and the dog woke up then and she was still there. I tell you, I was scared."

Mildred: "If they hadn't come that day I was going to go down and break into the ranger station. That's coming out this winter sometime in Bugle."

Trail: "So it was your job to stay in camp and defend it from bears. My mother would love that job."

Mildred: "Well, you do what you have to do."

Allen: "We had quite a life."

Trail: "It looks to me like you're still having one. I think that's the secret to a long life and that is living your life everyday; not sitting around dreaming, but actually doing it."

Mildred: "I always wanted to write. I'll tell this story for the thousandth time. When I was nine years old in Evaro the teacher couldn't find a part for me in the play so I wrote one. That was the beginning."

Trail: "What was the part?"

Mildred: "I can't remember. It was a little poem about a hole in the toe of my stocking and I couldn't hang it up that way because everything would run out. So the teacher had the boys paint me a fireplace with colored chalk. Where she got the colored chalk I'll never know. She brought a rocking chair for one of the older girls to be my mother and I spoke my own part. I'm thankful to be able to write and I feel as though I'm leaving a little something for posterity."

Trail: "I think it's remarkable that both you and Margaret continue to write into your nineties. James Michener did that, but not very many people manage it."

Mildred: "We've both lived our stories. I think you have to write about what you know."

I asked Mildred how she liked to spend her time now and she said she wrote and did some cooking. Granddaughter Geri got up and soon set a piece of prize-winning apple pie in front of me. As I ate it I soon realized that Mildred could both write and cook. The only apple pie I've ever had that could have been better was my mother's, of course. The only thing that could have possibly made it better would have been vanilla ice cream. I complimented Mildred on it without mentioning the ice cream. "I had a little bakeshop one time too that kept me kinda busy for awhile," she told me. Allen added that on the days that she baked cinnamon rolls the truckers lined up for blocks to buy them.

Mildred: "It's been a wonderful time to live, I think. In my lifetime there have been more changes in the world than ever before."

Trail: "What do you think of some of them. You've gone from horse and buggy to the space shuttle."

Mildred: "Nothing is all good or all bad. I think we could have done without some of them, but they've made life easier in some ways, but we still don't seem to have the time we used to have. We used to have time to visit your neighbor and go on Sunday and have a picnic or something. We don't take time to do those things anymore. It's hurry too much. Life is too hurried. The more money you make the more you have to have."

Enough said.