Harmon’s Histories: Treasured family stories preserve Montana’s hardscrabble history
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
This weekly column, as regular readers know, is all about “the news” as reported by the quill drivers of the past – primarily the 1800s into the early 1900s.
Today, I’m going to break from that pattern to offer a story from my family’s past.
This winter I’ve been digitizing old family documents. I encourage everyone – if you haven’t already done it – to ask your parents and grandparents to share stories from their past because, as my father realized, the accuracy of those memories can diminish with time.
In his words, “When we look back on our lives and try to remember all of those happenings which go to make up our history and our parents’ history we realize we did not listen too well. Whatever is fact, and what is remembered as fact, may be miles apart. But the years cannot be brought back to give us a second chance to correct our errors.”
Today, I want to share my dad’s story about his dad. We’ll call it, “Mistaken identity leads to a lifelong friendship.”
Lee Harmon (my dad, born in 1916) penned a family history in the 1990s, recalling, “Early in 1919 Dr. Clay, who was the family doctor at Malta told (his) dad (John Harmon, born in 1888) that John had what was then called grain asthma and should move to a different climate.”
“In July 1919, John and another carpenter, Tom Mattox, came west to Eureka to look for work as the mill in Eureka was hiring people at the time. When they arrived there, a mill foreman told them that they had all the men they needed. However he said that the J. Neils Co. in Libby was looking for men, so John and his friend came on to Libby.”
“Tom Mattox was hired as a carpenter, but they only needed one. John was asked if he would like to try sawing in the woods and he took the job.
“By September he wrote to my mother and told her he was feeling much better and had built a logging camp shack, and asked her to sell the place in Malta and come to Libby. Mother was not able to sell the house at that time but found a renter, packed most of our belongings and brought me to Libby where I took root and never got dug up.”
“When we arrived here Mother had to get a room at the old Richards Hotel overnight, and dad came in from logging camp the next evening to get us, and take us to camp. It was a very primitive place to live.”
“The camp shacks were built on skids in those days so they could be loaded on railroad flat cars and taken to the next camp site, wherever that might be. Dad always tried to go to the new location and pick as nice a spot as he could for our home to be planted on. Mother was always afraid of fire, so dad had to clear off, as much as he could, the brush and weeds around the site so it was reasonably safe for us when we finally were moved to the new site.”
“How we ever got our family and a great-grandmother, grandmother, and my mother's aunt all in the one room shack for a visit I'll never know. After moving to three different camps, between the years 1919 and 1923, in the fall of 1924 we moved into the house on California Ave (in Libby) which the folks had built for them on lots which they had purchased from the John Roche family who lived across the street from them.”
“Frank Pival who was one of the local contractors at that time built the house for them. It was wonderful to have the bathroom in the house instead of out by the big pine tree – real progress!”
“At the logging camp, a fellow named Gus Svedin had been sawing with another man and when the fellow quit, Gus needed a new partner. Dad went out with Gus and had a very unique experience - the “mistaken identity” incident referred to earlier.
“Gus had heard that a ‘much discussed and disliked man’ was going to be his partner. He jerked the saw and banged Dad's hands against the tree as they (cross-cut) sawed, and did a number of other things to make Dad mad.”
“At the end of the day Dad asked Gus just what he had done to make him act this way and he replied he didn't want to work with the so & so, and named the other man. Dad explained that he was not that man. Gus said he was sorry, and from then on he and Dad got along very well.”
“Gus (as a single man) was living in the logging camp, which was not very exciting, so Mother and Dad began asking Gus to come to Sunday dinner with them.
He was very happy to eat a home-cooked meal on Sundays. Mother would make a batch of fudge and they would spend the afternoon playing whist.”
“In succeeding years, Gus sold some oil land he had purchased near Kevin, north of Shelby, and moved to the west coast near Bellingham. Gus bought a small dairy farm and eventually got married, and when his first son was born he named him ‘John’ after Dad.”
“Many years later Dad and Mother went to Bellingham to visit relatives, who took the folks to see Gus and his family who lived near them. It was one of the best reunions Dad ever had. He talked about it for a long time afterward.”
Hopefully this yarn will encourage you to take the time, now, to ask your parents and grandparents to share stories from their past. Don’t live to regret not having done it!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.