My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
A Visit to Grandpa's

This piece was written in 1997 and published in the November-December 1997 issue of The Montana Journal. Mildred's first memories of the Gregg's farm began when she was about six years old.

Eighty years ago a trip to Grandpa's was something of an adventure. It had kept us humping to dress, have breakfast, and drive the ten miles to Missoula to catch the train at 8 a.m. The Bitterroot stub stood churning and steaming and ready to run. We were going "up the Bitterroot" for a visit to my great grandparents' farm near Charlos Heights, and my uncle would be back with a team and buggy to take us back to the homestead on LaValle Creek when our vacation was over. What a handful we must have been—four small kids, a baby buggy and several suitcases.

We left the train at Truman, a whistle stop consisting of a platform of ties filled with dirt and cinders. The train (one passenger car and a car for baggage and mail) went chugging on its way, and my auntie unfolded the collapsible baby buggy and deposited the baby Nathan inside. She piled the suitcases around him, and we started off on foot. We promptly ran the buggy wheel over a yellow jackets' nest.

"Run," she screamed. By that time we were running, jumping, and screaming—not knowing what had hit us. I was wearing my favorite black patent leather shoes that buttoned up my legs about eight inches high. and I was stung through my white stockings between nearly every pair of those straps. The smaller children fared somewhat better having one or two stings each, and the baby, luckily, had escaped, as had my aunt, although she found one of the ill-tempered beasts inside the barrette that held up the bun at the nape of her neck. Uncle Henry Gregg was a little late with his horse and buggy, so we were sorted out and rubbing the burning stings and wiping away the tears when he got there to meet us.

We made the trip only every two years, so I had dim memories of our previous visit. I had been told that I would see my little sister, and I sensed that a sister was someone closer than the cousins who were so much a part of my life.

We had two glorious weeks. Two weeks to swing under the huge, old cottonwood trees, two weeks to romp with Coaly, their little black spaniel, two weeks to explore the orchard where the apples covered the ground so thickly that we could scarcely put a foot down. The apples had been canned or dried, and the apple butter was made. Now the pigs had the run of the orchard, as we did. A row of bee hives divided the orchard from the yard, and we were warned to keep our distance from the hives or "You'll get stung!" We knew all about getting stung, but it was bound to happen occasionally.

"Put some mud on it," Alba, an older cousin advised. So we would go tearful and "hurtin'" to the spring that ran down the hillside into the watering trough. Hundreds of little tadpoles and frogs lived in the muddy seepage. The milk cows and work horses also drank at the wooden trough, but they must have all been germ free since we didn't get any ill effects.

At Grandpa's farm, the day began with the tinkling of a musical alarm clock that played and played as I lay listening upstairs. The music was soon followed by the whirring of the coffee grinder as Gramma Gregg ground the coffee beans fresh for each morning's breakfast. We kids were not called until the men had eaten, the horses harnessed and taken to the hay field, or whatever constituted the day's work.

Oliver Gregg had been one of the "Boys in Blue" and had brought his wife, Cebrina, across the plains from Kansas in the late 1800s. To those southerners, hot biscuits were standard fare. Those breakfast biscuits went down mighty easy smothered with comb honey, apple butter or plum preserves from the screened and shaded pantry. The pantry was a feast for the eyes with big bowls of eggs, crocks of milk and cream, and goodies from the orchard, the garden and the smokehouse, all prepared at home because a trip to Hamilton, eight miles away, was an adventure that occurred only two or three times a year. Cooking for the family, the hay hands and drop-in company was all done on the wood range, of course, the main utensils being the two heavy iron kettles, one with three legs and one with none. These were set "under the lid," which meant next to the fire, and almost guaranteed that the dish washer would be black to the elbows after the cleanup work was done.

At Gold Creek, a couple of miles down the road, there were dipping vats that the ranchers swam the sheep and cattle through to rid them of wood ticks. When my little sister found something she didn't want to eat, she would say in her small girl's voice, "This stuff tastes like sheep dip!"

The milk house was shaded, covered with hop vines, and the milk was set in shallow pans so the cream could rise and be skimmed off to be churned into butter. The pigs and chickens enjoyed what milk we kids and the calves didn't get.

The ice house was a haven where we covered each other with sawdust to escape the heat. As a preventative measure, we were dosed with bitter chokecherry bark tea. It didn't always work. When we all developed a violent cough, my auntie and Uncle Henry's wife took the horse and buggy, a pair of heavy shears, and came back with a dishpan full of prickly pears. The syrup was thought to be a cure in case we had caught our death of whooping cough. The concoction was thick and flavored with lemon and sugar, and I could manage a whoop any old time as long as that syrup held out!

Each day ended with a "shirt hunt" when we were inspected from head to heels for "ticks." None of us was ever infected, but our uncle Willie Gregg later died of the dreaded spotted fever.

Mildred (left) and her sister Ellen (Palmer) GlasseyMy sister Ellen was the eighteenth and last child to come under the Greggs' care, and only nine of them had been their own.

The Greggs' house burned down many years ago. I went back there in 1988 to note that a new house stands almost on the site of the old one. The cellar that contributed so much to their livelihood and the smoke house still stood. It was gratifying to find that steps had been taken to preserve what was left. I half expected to see barefoot little girls come tearing out of the bushes. What did we need of toys, when there was so much to do at Grandpa's farm?

The old cottonwoods are gone, but two huge yellow rose bushes that I remembered had, unbelievably, bloomed. They seemed a monument to a worthy couple who journeyed across the plains in a covered wagon to build a life and a home in the Bitterroot Valley.