Lifetimes Spent in the West

INTRO BY TYLER ALLEN | STORIES BY CORINNE RICHARDSON
PHOTOS BY JENNINGS BARMORE AND DANIEL BULLOCK

 

My grandmother, Elaine Ross, grew up on an island in Holeb Pond, outside of Jackman, Maine, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. Her father would take her and her brother to the mainland in a canoe each morning, where they would walk the train tracks over a mile to school. Once the pond froze solid, they would walk across the ice; in the fall and springtime, when winter’s grip began to thaw, her father would drag the canoe along in case the ice failed.

Tales like these are liable to vanish when we lose the storytellers. In an effort to preserve such narratives and the history that lives within them, Mountain Outlaw gathered the memories of some exceptional residents of the Northern Rockies. In the process, we learned an important lesson about seizing the moment.

One of our intended subjects, 95-year-old Irwin Allen of Ryegate, Montana, passed away on April 6 before we could conduct his interview. Irwin was born in Rothiemay, Montana, in 1923 and grew up on his family’s homestead there.

Irwin worked hard on his Ryegate ranch, but he also carved out time for his many hobbies, including restoring antique cars and tractors, flying his Piper Super Cub airplane, and hunting big game. Irwin was also an avid photographer, and took a camera with him nearly everywhere he went, including frequent trips to Alaska.

In the following pages, you’ll find stories captured and chronicled by Bozeman writer Corinne Richardson. Her search for rich anecdotes took her around the region, from Browning, Montana, near the border of Glacier National Park, to Hoback Canyon south of Jackson Hole. What she found, coupled with the loss of Irwin, made us realize that there is no time to waste if these tales are to outlast their source. We encourage you to sit down with the older people in your lives and tease out the histories that are sitting there in plain sight—you may be astonished at what you find.

AGE 82 • FOUR CORNERS, MONTANA

 

To an outsider, Four Corners may look less like a community and more like the intersection of four highways leading to more prominent places. But for locals, its nucleus can be found at Kountry Korner Café with owner and Montana native Betty Nason.

Like the sitcom Cheers, with its flawed but endearing characters, Betty’s restaurant isn’t about the place itself, but about family and community. Since opening in 1976, she’s had three generations of key holders—a group of local guys who arrive at 6 a.m., make coffee and converse in the dark until she arrives—the same men who brought their tractors and trucks to help move her business across the highway in 1980.

There are the hires off the street—people whose trucks broke down or had injuries and needed jobs—and other employees who were so loyal they ended up staying for 40 years. “Most people think restaurant work is a small job, but mention that you work for Betty, and they radiate,” says her son Kurtis.

Building up her own business after a divorce required tenacity. “In 1980s Montana, no bank would lend money to a single woman,” Betty says. But a friend, who happened to be the president of First Security Bank, took a chance on her. She thrived, her love for people propagating like seeds.

For decades, Betty has catered to wildfire hotshot crews, leaving for remote parts of Montana at 4 a.m. and sleeping in her van. She devotes her spare time to volunteering her time and catering services to an adaptive sports program called Eagle Mount, and a nonprofit that supports kids with cancer. “The kids steal my heart,” she said. Once you meet Betty, you understand why so many want to be wrapped in her warm-hearted embrace.

A throwback in an age when connections happen largely online, Betty worries when she sees customers texting instead of talking. But for now, most come in hungry for food and conversation, both of which the Kountry Korner Café serves by the plateful.

AGE 93 • HARRISON, MONTANA

 

In the shadow of the Tobacco Root Mountains, where the long western sky stretches over miles of undeveloped sage hills and grasslands, the Montana light flushes the valley in rose and gold. Deep in this beautiful landscape lies the Jackson family compound, an Angus-Hereford cattle and Morgan horse breeding ranch homesteaded in 1873.

Head of this fifth-generation ranch clan is 93-year-old Bill “Chief” Jackson, a traditional cowboy undaunted by the physically demanding work required of him from sunup to sundown: cattle drives, feeding in blizzards, calving, branding, and fixing irrigation and fences.

Bill began ranching when he was old enough to carry an egg from the hen house to the ranch home without it breaking. He knew it was his calling and returned to ranch life after serving in the army and then graduating from Montana State University. He still works the ranch daily, now riding a four wheeler, but occasionally he saddles up his cow horse, Mortana Mitzi, using a mounting step and electric pulley system he designed to hoist the saddle.

Bill is reticent about his near-century on the ranch, and deflects conversation that draws attention to him. He won’t tell you that he won a Madison County award for stewardship, or that he was in the 7th Cavalry Regiment during the Allied occupation of Japan. He won’t back-fence talk about legendary local characters like bank robber Whitey Jackson (no relation), or dwell on the dangers of ranching that have taken the lives of loved ones.

You have to hear from others about the time he broke his finger in the backcountry and fashioned a splint out of a snip of barbed wire in order to keep working. “Being a rancher means accepting the way life comes,” Bill says. “One day at a time.”

Bill will tell you that ranching is a lifestyle, not a job. “If you don’t like it, don’t do it. You won’t get wealthy.” He hopes the lessons he learned from his father about surviving the Great Depression and droughts, and his efforts to stay current with changes in the industry and issues of sustainability, will help the next generation.

“Saying we’ve always done it that way is the worst excuse,” he argues. “We change with it or get plowed under.”

AGE 95 • BOZEMAN, MONTANA

 

For 95-year-old Lillian Kessler, family goes beyond basic love and biology. It’s a deliberately woven fabric comprised of three generations of extended family that include orphanage matrons and guardians, lost brothers and sisters found again, and faith. For Lillian, the essence of family encompasses faint childhood memories of her father playing the violin in “sweet, mellow” tones, and her mother’s tender voice cautioning care while peeling a potato.

Lillian was 6 when her 23-year-old mother died of pneumonia in 1929. Her father, a traveling violinist, unable to care for four children, sent Lillian and her three siblings to the Montana State Orphanage in Twin Bridges. Her baby sister joined a new family first, then Lillian. She remembers, at age 13, the day she was summoned to the office and chosen to go home with a Bozeman woman, Anna Seifert, to help out at their boarding house on Main Street. In Seifert’s loving and caring home, she helped care for Anna’s elderly mother and prepared meals for college students and farmhands working the fields south of town.

Her memories of the orphanage are not unhappy, and she recalls listening to Bing Crosby and top 10 songs on a radio for the first time, which seemed like magic. “I had three meals a day, didn’t have to wear a uniform, and did backbends across the yard,” she says. But losing contact with her siblings was painful.

For children raised in an orphanage, lacking a sense of belonging can remain a painful ache, but not for Lillian. She’s now surrounded by a large, loving family that includes 11 grandchildren. Listening to her recount stories of the happy partnership she created with her husband, Fred, it’s as if she summoned something sacred from the spinning wheel of life. How did she attain this? Simple, she says. “Having the right mate, doing things together as a family, and having faith.”

AGE 83 • HOBACK CANYON, MONTANA

 

You can tell a lot about a cowboy by his hat. And guns. Gap Pucci’s hat is worn soft and thin, and banded with sweat. He sleeps with a .357 Magnum and 9mm Glock, and the pocket-sized pistol he carries has worn a visible hole in his jeans. This cowboy has 45,000 miles on his saddle and a temperament that carried him through Wyoming’s Gros Ventre Wilderness for 50 years, guiding sportsmen for his business, Crystal Creek Outfitting.

Gap is one of the last traditional cowboys, a breed that lived through the Dust Bowl, rode 25 miles a day, and hired outlaws as hands. He let horses drink from his hat, and lived for nine months at a time in wilderness camps without running water and electricity. It was a time when wranglers knew how to throw a diamond hitch, a bedroll was a piece of canvas, and cowboys stayed in the backcountry until weather drove them out.

Standing beside the spurs he finally hung up over a decade ago, he confesses that retirement was rough. When his doctor told him to give up cowboying because a fall might kill him, he removed the rifle from his saddle scabbard, replaced it with a cane, and rode in the wilderness for two more years.

Now, from his cabin in Hoback Canyon, Gap spends his time caring for his Morgan horses—some bred by his old friend Bill Jackson, and “the best Morgans you’ll find,” Gap claims—and writing, to keep his wilderness stories alive. Occasionally, you’ll get a good town story—like the time he went to Jackson for a haircut and withdrew his entire savings when the bank refused his wrangler use of the rest room. Animals always appear in his tales, as they are part of the fuller mosaic of his life. He’s immortalizing these stories because most of the cowboys of his era are gone, and soon, there will be no one left to remember them.

“In the wilderness, it’s all about life and death,” Gap says, as a pair of red-tailed hawks lift from a pine and circle his house. “In between is where the stories live.”

AGE 98 • BROWNING, MONTANA

 

Perhaps the most arresting memory of Nora Lukin’s childhood was the moment Charles Lindberg circled low over the railroad station in Browning, giving her a wing wave with the Spirit of St. Louis. It was September 1927.

Ninety years later, Nora shares stories from an era when the toilet was outdoors, refrigeration an icehouse, and bread was 17 cents a loaf. “To get groceries, we had to flag down the train,” Nora says. To get to school, she and her siblings rode 3 miles on horseback, then were picked up by a car and driven 4 more miles to the schoolhouse. Medical care was limited then. “While roping, my Uncle Vic lost an index finger at the knuckle and wrapped it in bacon rind until he could get to the doctor,” she says.

Born in Browning in 1919, Nora is the oldest living member of the Blackfeet Nation. Her grandmother, Jennie Nearly Died, was a full-blood Blackfeet who married an Irish New Yorker. She was given the Blackfeet name Otssko Aapini, for her blue eyes. The year Nora was born, a harsh winter wiped out cattle ranches and her family’s home burned down. Times were hard. “You survived because you had to,” she says. “We went barefoot to save our shoes, and when the soles wore out, we inserted cardboard. Our toys were sun-bleached bones.”

Nora also describes a dark past of growing up when tribal land was divided into allotments—an assimilation policy that removed land from Indians, transferring it to settlers—and kids were punished if they spoke their native language in school. Despite hard times, Nora remained hopeful. While raising a family, she ran the Blackfeet Trading Post and Teepee Café, and continues to oversee farm operations on her allotted land.

In 1959, 32 years after seeing Lindberg in flight, she took her first plane ride from Great Falls to Billings. Since then, she’s been around the world twice, has ridden camels and elephants, and was in China for the historic handover of Hong Kong. One of her favorite trips was to Ireland, where she learned about her “blue-eyed” ancestors.

Corinne Richardson grew up on an island in Maine where she always felt her world was a little too small. She ventured west to earn a master’s in English and nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and subsequently landed in Bozeman, Montana. When not writing or teaching, you can find her exploring the outdoors, or the world—most recently, teaching in Italy, China and Nepal.