My Forty Years Scribblin's
Historical Accounts
And That's the Way It Was

This piece was written in 1993 and published in the Fall 1993 issue of The Montana Journal. Western Montana's first Forest Service employees came from hardy pioneer stock.

The Forest Service today bears little resemblance to that which came into being when the Forest Reserves were transferred from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture in 1905. What is now the Lolo National Forest was first headquartered at Ovando. Travel at the time was by saddle horse or pack trains which wound their way through The Bob Marshall Wilderness to points as far away as Glacier Park. Early day rangers were hired for their capabilities, and refinement was not a required qualification. One such ranger later had charge of an office force, and a lady in his employ wrote to higher authorities that he should be fired. Asked why she thought he should be fired, she answered that he never took his hat off in the office, sat with his feet on top of the desk, and referred to the women help as "heifers."

An early ranger of note was Charles "Kid" Young, who was, among other things, a trapper, surveyor, and timber cruiser. Young's Creek and Young's Mountain in The Bob Marshall are named for him. Young quit his Forest Service job on account of too much red tape. He was irked because he had to leave his camp in the backcountry to come out once a month to report to his superiors whether he had anything to report or not!

A ranger at that time had to be self-sufficient. He furnished his own saddle horse, hammer, ax, and nails and built a cabin to store his supplies, all for a consideration of from $60 to $80 a month.

Henry Thol was one of these men. I asked if he had known a ranger who had to outrun a fire near Haun Creek cabin.

"Yes-siree," he replied, "and a little black bear ran right down the trail ahead of me!"

They had little to work with, those hardy ones, but they could take a stick and draw you a map in the dust to get you anywhere you might want to go in their district.

James (Jim) Girard was a legendary figure, a scaler and timber cruiser who began his career at Seeley Lake, arriving in 1907. A plaque in his honor is placed near the entrance to Camp Paxson, and a grove of larch trees has been reserved as a memorial to him.

Forest Service workers formed a coordinated unit from the bottom up, from the lowly camp cook who, though he was good or bad, was dubbed a belly-robber. The dynamite man was called a powder monkey. The pick and shovel men of the trail crews, the lookout observers, and the mule string packers were all more or less dependent on each other. Before the advent of lookouts there were ridge riders, men who rode the ridges looking for smoke that told of lightning strikes that could mean wildfire.

Building the lookouts must have been a stupendous task. Mountain peaks had to be blasted off to make a place for a small abode and room for a pack string to get by with building materials and supplies. Primitive telephone lines were strung to enable the occupants to report fires. The "bird house" was manned mostly by "green" kids who spent their summer months on the lonely mountain tops, their only contacts with other lookouts many air miles away. A few were "manned" by women. One, Dorothy Taylor, spent more than twenty summers atop the peaks beginning on the St. Joe Forest and ending on Double Arrow Lookout at Seeley Lake.

The packers had no easy berth. They had to supply the fire crews, trail crews, lookouts, ranger cabins, or whatever. They worked long hours, and more often than not, with renegade mules that would just as soon kick their heads off.

An incident at Big Prairie Ranger Station is remembered in Ranger Charlie Shaw's book of Forest Service doings. Nine full pack strings were tied, loaded and ready to travel. The packers went into the cookhouse to have a quick lunch before heading out. One known troublemaker horse reared back and pulled the hitching rack down. The resulting commotion brought nine packers to their feet to see ninety head of terrified mules and horses go bucking and kicking in every direction. A week's time was required to corral all the animals and gather the broken gear and scattered packs while the work crews waited for supplies.

Some vestiges of the old days remain where aged cabins sit harboring memories of days gone by. Traces of old Indian trails appear at intervals in the maze of pathways that leads to the backcountry and beyond. May they never be completely lost in the scramble that we know as progress.