Harmon’s Histories: Family history tells of early logging, adventures
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Last week, I shared some of my family’s history from the 1920s, including my paternal grandparents’ move from Malta to Libby.
My father, Lee Harmon (in his wisdom, in the 1990s), penned his recollections from that earlier time period, so that the stories would be preserved for generations to come.
Today, I continue to share his stories with you, in hopes you’ll find them interesting but also in hopes you’ll document your family’s stories so they’re not lost to time.
Lee Harmon (my Dad) recalled his father, John’s, early life:
“John (aka, Jack) was born at Rolla, Missouri, and when he was only 4 years old, his Dad (Levi) died. Soon after that, his Mother moved Dad & his sister Maggie and Uncle Will to be near relatives in Texas. I do not know when they moved to Malta, but Grandma had a sister there, which gives a reason for the move.
"At some time after coming to Malta, Levi’s widow, Alice (Stuart) Harmon, was remarried to a man named Levin Dores, who was a carpenter and cabinet maker in Malta. Dad ran away from home when he was 15 and got a job as a cook’s helper on a survey crew working to map for the U.S. Government.
"He had not been on the job long when the cook decided the camps were too far from the bottle so he quit. Dad was asked if he would do the cooking and he worked at that until winter, when the job ended until the next year. He eventually went to work for a rancher near Philipsburg, and later he worked for a man who had a place near Polson.
"While working in Polson, he met the Sterlings. Clarence and Grace Sterling had a blacksmith shop and I suppose Dad probably went there for horseshoeing or other work and they became great friends.
"During the early 1930s, Dad and Mother decided to take a few days of vacation, bringing John and I along for a trip to Coeur d'Alene and then over to Polson on Flathead Lake. The vehicle was a 1929 Model A Ford, which was the second car they had owned and quite different from the model T.
"When we arrived in Coeur d'Alene we found the hotel was filled and Mother asked if they would recommend another hotel.They said there was one just about two blocks away.
"After getting two rooms and then going out to dinner we all went, to bed listening to women laughing and continual traffic up and down the hall all night. Mother later described it as probably a house of ill repute including a bar downstairs which contributed its share of noise also.
"After that experience, Dad and Mother were invited by Aunt Goldie to go duck hunting with Will, at Dover, near Sandpoint, ID. We took the Union Pacific to Dover where we had to basically jump off the train, as it was only a flag stop at that time. We stayed a day or two, while Dad and Will hunted ducks.
"The interesting part of the duck hunting was the use of live decoys. They were Mallard ducks that Will had raised, along with chickens, at their place at Dover. A leather strap was buckled around the duck’s leg along with a small metal ring and when you were ready to hunt, a lead weight was snapped to the ring so the duck could swim but not fly away.
"The limit on ducks was probably more than you could shoot in one day, so many ducks were brought home. While Mother and Aunt Goldie were in the kitchen plucking these ducks, my cousin Eloise and I were chasing each other around the house through the kitchen and back when Eloise fell into the wash tub being used to accumulate the feathers.
"Feathers flew all over the place and Eloise and I were banished to the yard and told to stay there until the duck plucking was complete. It was a fun time for all … well, except the parents of all of us.
"The next day we embarked for Polson and reached there about 11 a.m. When Dad found a service station for gas, he asked if there was a blacksmith named Sterling around the area anymore. The station operator said yes, and we could find the shop about three blocks away on another street.
"It was easy to locate, and Dad wanted all of us to go into the shop with him, but Mother said to take me with him and find out if Sterling was around. Inside the blacksmith shop it was quite dark. However, we could see a man working at the forge with a piece of iron. He nodded his head then went on with his work, bringing the red hot iron out and shaped it until it got cool, then put it back into the forge to reheat.
"At that point he turned around, took off his gloves and walked up to Dad and said, ‘Hello Jack’. Dad nearly fell over as he thought Sterling would have forgotten him by that time. Sterling’s comment was, "I'd have known you in a million!”
"After vacation, Dad was back to work. He sawed timber in the woods for a while, and while doing this, he always filed his own saws. At the Swede Gulch camp, the Company was expanding and needed a filer. They asked Dad if he wanted to take on the job, which he did after much encouragement from Mother.
"He filed for a time until the camp was moved and then he went back to woods work, which included among other things making ties for the logging railroad, using the broadaxe to hew the flat sides needed for the rails to lie on.
"Sometimes on Saturdays I would go along to camp and go to the lumber company’s barn and bring a big black horse to the tie site, and spend part of the day skidding ties to the railroad right of way. For all of this work Dad was paid 22-cents a piece for the ties when they were decked along the tracks for use.
"Each spring after the National Pole Company bought the winter’s supply of cedar poles from the Neils Company in Libby, there were always some cull poles which were rejected because of heart rot or were not straight enough to pass inspection. When the loading of poles was accomplished Dad would split the poles into fence posts, thus utilizing the otherwise useless products.
"At that time Dad was paid 2-1/2 cents for each post after it was split and piled counted and then loaded into a boxcar for shipment. I sometimes got to help with the loading so it would go faster and give Dad more time to split posts for the next carload. The prices paid for these labors seem very low, but in those days $4.00 was the going day-rate and Dad sometimes made between 8 & 13 dollars a day which was very good.
"Later on, when the woods boss found that Dad could use an axe and could square up timbers, Dad was asked to build small timber bridges for the railroad lines the lumber mill used to haul logs to the site in town. From that time until the depression he was busy building various projects in the woods and around the plant in town.
"I believe it was in 1928 when radio became available in Libby. Mr. Anderson, who ran the local drug store, started selling radios in addition to his other wares. The first ones were battery operated and when the folks went to the drugstore they would see the druggist sitting at the phone in the back room holding the headphones to the telephone so his wife could listen at home when the reception was good.
"For two years or more Anderson tried to sell the folks a radio, but Mother always said she would not buy until they were made to run on household current instead of batteries. When this became possible Dad and Mother bought their first radio which was an Atwater-Kent in a very nice cabinet.
"During the next year or so, Mother would stay up at night until midnight or so to tune in and keep track of all the stations she could receive. I believe she eventually listed all of the continuing programs as well.”
By the way, I inherited the cabinet - but not the radio, which my Dad pirated for parts in various electronic projects over the years.
Again, my hope, in sharing this story, is to encourage all of you to document your family’s stories before those stories are lost to time. There are a number of available lists with suggested family history questions, to get you started. Here’s a link to one example. Happy documenting!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.