My Forty Years Scribblin's
Interviews
Homesteading In The Swan

Interviewed in 1961 for Montana's Little Legends(1963), Mrs. Hilda (Rovero) Johnson told how she came to the Swan Valley to homestead.


The Clearwater and Swan Valleys have retained their wildly beautiful state longer than most of Western Montana due to the fact that they were thrown open to settlement much later.

The first permanent settlers there left most of the comforts of civilization behind when they came to hew homes out of the wilderness. One of these hardy souls is Mrs. Hilda Johnson who came to the Swan, as Mrs. Hilda Rovero in 1913.

Already adept at pioneering. she had come to America alone from Sweden at the age of ten, because there had not been enough money for her to come with her mother.

When the Swan country was thrown open for homesteading she heard the news from a woman lawyer friend in Minneapolis.

"I was a grass widow," she laughs, "but I wanted a home for my children and decided against the advice of my friends that life in the Swan Valley was for me."

"They said I wouldn't stay," she recalls. "Some of the homesteaders didn't, but I did!"

There being no road into the Swan at the time, Mrs. Johnson tells how she and her four children walked from Corlett, where the first post office and stage station was operated in the old log building which still stands at the Morrell Creek bridge, to their homestead a distance of twenty-eight miles.

There was, as yet, no town at Seeley Lake, so the settlers must stock a year's supply of essentials which were freighted in by pack train—even mowing machines, Mrs. Johnson tells. And finally, when they were ready for building materials it cost sixty cents for a sack of cement, she says, and two dollars to get it freighted in.

They were able to leave most of their household goods and work implements through the winter months. And naturally there were no trips out except in case of dire necessity, for they were obliged to make the long hike out to catch an indefinite stage, all of which required five days for a trip to Missoula and return.

There was only a trail through the stumps from Clearwater Junction across Blanchard Flats, so the stage went by way of Tote Road Lake, now Fish Lake, and Woodworth. And even in that long gone day, there was a fish hatchery at Tote Road Lake owned by a man named Dilts. The stage used four horses, Mrs. Johnson relates, "And still got stuck in the mud!"

"We dug stumps and cleared land in the summer; but moved out in the winter so I could work and save money for the next season while the children attended school."

Her first cabin was a lean-to and one spring they arrived at the homestead, stage-weary and footsore, to find that some candidate for the world's meanest man had emptied the cabin of its entire contents.

"I sat down and had me a good cry," the lady said. "Then I borrowed from the neighbors until I could replenish my provisions, and went at it again."

Fish and game abounded in the Swan Valley, which was a welcome supplement to the dry staples they were able to store.

"Most people used bear-lard," Mrs. Johnson said, wrinkling her nose, "but the neighbors killed a cub and nailed the foot up over the door, and I couldn't stand it! And once when I had to be away for three weeks I came back to find that my sourdough had 'whiskers' on it."

There was lots of trapping. The trappers, running their lines in winter, would burn a log, then rake out the coals and lie down for the night, covering themselves with their parkas to keep in the warmth and keep out the cold—often in below zero weather. There are tales of frostbitten feet and privation, which tends to show what a human being will endure for his chosen way of life.

"The Indians hunted the area, but they never bothered us," Mrs. Johnson remembers. "The only signs of their camps were a little deer and elk hair where they had done their tanning."

The people banded together to provide schools, one building being hauled in from Missoula at a cost of nine hundred dollars. Schools were built at Elk Creek, Smith Creek and Rumble Creek since even by horseback some children were too far away to attend a centrally located one.

By 1917 there were fifty or sixty families in the area. "I was the community doctor," Mrs. Johnson says. "Our home-remedy and cure-all was a patent medicine called 'Lincoln tea'."

Mrs. Johnson remembers two burials in the Swan Valley; one, Ike O'Jannin, a man of Finnish nationality, and the other, Joe Berger. "There were no relatives that we knew about. And communications and roads being what they were, we couldn't get a coroner, so we did the best we could," she tells.

In one case, objectionable neighbors made off with the man's household wares soon after his demise and Mrs. Johnson was quick to demand that they bring back a pillow and blankets so the body could be interred as appropriately as possible in the homemade pine box. These undesirables it seems, did not last long in the Swan Valley.

Later, after roads became a reality, Mrs. Johnson remembers a homesteader who was in dire straits, without food or money and with a small child and a sick wife.

Game Warden Harry Morgan shot a deer for the family, she says, but the woman died and the poor man was obliged to haul his wife's body to Ovando in a wagon where the people of Ovando helped with the burial and loaded his wagon with supplies before he returned to take up his lonely task of proving up on his homestead.

Doors were never locked and "Rovero's" was a stopping place for travelers.

"Devilment? Oh, no"—she laughs. "We were all good people!"

Mrs. Rovero married a neighboring homesteader, Jack Johnson, and they were the oldest couple and the only couple left, she states.

Sometime after her marriage to Mr. Johnson they were awakened one night by "an awful roar."

"I ran outside to see the whole world on fire," she said. Burning needles and ashes were flying, the flames were scarcely a mile away, and her husband was in bed with a badly cut foot. The Johnsons stayed and saved their place, but the neighbors had moved out for the winter and their homes and haystacks burned.

Mrs. Johnson remembers the advent of one of the earliest automobiles in the Seeley Lake area. It came down the Tote Road and the steep hillside road at Morrell Flats, traces of which can still be found.

"But it took a four-horse team to pull it back up," she recalls.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson recently left the Swan Valley ranch to reside with a son, Alvin Rovero, at Seeley Lake. Mr. Johnson passed away a few months ago.

She is a modern, progressive thinker, eighty-odd years young, does not wear glasses, is very active and has remarkable hearing.

"I only registered once," she proudly declares. "And I haven't missed an election in over fifty years!"