The View from Dunrovin: My Immigrant Grandmother

The old Montana State Orphans Home. (Photo courtesy of SuzAnne Miller)

By SuzAanne M. Miller

Whenever Dunrovin Ranch hosts summer weddings, my husband and I get out of Dodge to avoid the crowds, take our boisterous dogs out of the picture, and enjoy a weekend retreat away from the hectic responsibilities of operating a guest ranch. These weekend jaunts have proven to be unusually and unexpectedly restful. Perhaps their charms result from a total lack of purpose – we are not going away to do anything. We are simply going away.

As soon as weddings are booked, I make a note on my calendar exactly six months before the date to remind myself to go online and reserve a Forest Service cabin somewhere within an easy half day’s drive. Not much thought goes into picking a place other than our general desire to be in the mountains. Since we have been doing this for some time, not much preparation goes into it. We have two large totes packed with everything we might need. One has sleeping bags, pillows, towels, lanterns, etc., while the other has all the essentials for eating such as silverware, plates, cups, salt, pepper, napkins and paper towels. We pack a small cooler with fresh food, put a couple patio chairs in and some good reading material, and off we go.

This last weekend’s wedding retreat took us through the Jefferson and Ruby River valleys and up into the Highland Mountains to Hell’s Canyon Ranger Station. Before departing, I had not really made note of the fact that we would be going near Twin Bridges on what would have been my mother Phyllis’ 99th birthday. Once I did make the connection, it was imperative that we drive the extra 10 miles to visit the old Montana State Orphans Home.

Like many children of the depression era in Montana, my mother’s beginning years were anything but pleasant. Her mother was a Swedish immigrant who passed through Elis Island as a 19-year-old, desperately seeking a future. She ended up marrying a young Montana boy with family roots in the Bird’s Eye area north of Helena. They were dry-land ranchers who barely fed themselves. The very few surviving photos of my mother as a child loudly shout out poverty.

My mother’s father was not a kind man. He frequently used his fist to rule his growing family. Tales of him switching his children with willow sticks were passed among my relatives. However, Phyllis found beauty and love from my grandmother, Hilma. Phyllis had vivid memories of her singing lullabies in Swedish to each new baby as it arrived. A few verses stuck in her mind and were sung to me as a child.

After giving birth to six boys and three girls in rapid succession, Hilma died. My grandfather lacked the temperament, desire and means to raise his children. He broke the family up. The boys were offered up for adoption by neighboring ranchers. Aunt Margret was sent the Deaconess home in Helena while Aunt Betty was taken in by the Brown family. Mother was sent to the orphanage at Twin Bridges.

Life at the home was harsh and at times unkind. But there were joys as well, especially from the families that lived in the area. One ranching family who lived along the Jefferson River frequently brought mother to their home for dinners and parties. They even arranged for some side trips to Whitehall to participate in school sports. Mother kept her friendship with their daughter, Zorine, alive throughout her life.

School mates became family to the orphans. When mother was in her 80s, I would take her every year to a summer class-reunion potluck held at one of her classmate’s ranch. We would first drive to Helena to pick up Zorine, and the two old women would sit in the back seat of my car, reminiscing. It delighted me to be a fly on the wall, quietly absorbing their astonishing stories of immigrant parents who risked so much and worked so hard to find a shred of opportunity in America; families who saved everything to send one couple across the ocean in hopes of their gaining a foothold and being able to send a little money back; families who became totally isolated as their European relatives were lost to war and famine.

SuzAnne M. Miller
SuzAnne M. Miller

As a youngster listening to my mother’s stories of her early childhood and her life at the Children’s Home, I had no way of appreciating what it all meant. Neither did I understand or value the incredible effort she made to knit her siblings back together into something of a family. Nor did I comprehend the depth of support that my father gave her, both emotionally and financially, as he paid for relatives’ dental work or car repairs. But as I matured and began a family of my own, and as I listened to Phyllis and Zorine each summer during our reunion jaunts, the deprivations of her childhood came more clearly into focus. How did she do it? Where did she learn the love and the nurturing support that was a hallmark of my own childhood? Clearly she embodied the strength and the love of her Swedish immigrant mother.

As Montanans debate whether to roll out or roll up the welcome mat to refugees from across the ocean, I would ask us all to remember our own immigrant heritages. We are all, with the exception of the American Indians, immigrants. Our immigrant relatives have created a beautiful life for us here in Montana. I for one feel a tremendous sense of obligation to those from whom we took the land – our American Indian citizens – and to those who planted my own feet on this ground. I personally owe both groups much.

That sense of obligation and gratitude pushes me in several directions. It strongly compels me to welcome those who follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, seeking nothing more than a shred of opportunity for a real future.

SuzAnne M. Miller is the owner of the Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. Her column appears regularly in the Missoula Current. Visit her websites at and