Harmon’s Histories: Unraveling the mystery of Dunn Creek Nell

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

The weapon she had in a large carrying bag (the one with which she threatened my dad) was likely a Winchester model 1895 repeating rifle. She was also known to have carried a .38.

From the early 1900s until her death in 1967, Dunn Creek Nell was the subject of much talk around Libby – but, the question remains: how much was talk, and how much was truth?

Here’s what we think we know, compiled by various researchers and writers. “Dunn Creek,” as my dad called her, was born Sara Theodocia (“Docia”) Yeary in Anita, Texas, in 1879.

Mary Frederickson, in the book, “Pages From The Past,” published by the Libby Writers Group, described Docia as having a “happy early childhood … riding across the Texas prairie on her white horse.” She attended a girls’ finishing school until her family went broke.

Libby’s newspaper, The Western News, reported “she came to the Libby area with her mother and step-father when she was still in her teens.”

Frederickson, in her article, though, said Docia, as a teen, was sent to stay with an “Aunt Bess” who ran a bordello in Butte. Later, she “hopped a train” to Wallace, Idaho, where she worked in a bordello and later in a dance hall. It wasn’t until 1900, at age 21, that she headed to Libby where her parents had begun to establish a homestead on Dunn Creek.

Despite her education, Docia showed no sign of ever having attended a finishing school. She was described variously as rude, loud, wild and/or cantankerous.

She seemed to have an insatiable desire to be married. The number of husbands is uncertain, but Mary Frederickson listed six of them: Turner, Tigner, Daniels, Ali, Sultas and Guffee.

Hassan Ali, known in Libby as “The Turk,” was a colorful character, who wore “a big white turban and large signet ring.”

As she she moved on, from one husband to another, rumors circulated that she killed some or all of them. She was said to have told a young neighbor girl that she had 17 husbands and burned them all in her cook stove.

None of the rumors was ever substantiated. It’s much more likely the husbands (whatever their number) just tired of being around the woman and left of their own accord. Some folks believed Nell to have been rather theatrical – someone who just liked to tell a good story.

That was reflected in a comment on the Western News’ Facebook page by a woman who said, Nell “was delightful and could tell stories like no other. I enjoyed knowing her.”

One undisputed fact was her connection with the J. Neils Lumber Company from the late 1930s into the 1940s.

Dr. Pat Neils (whose husband’s grandfather founded the J. Neils Lumber Company) has conducted arguably the most extensive research into the life of Dunn Creek Nell. Pat, writing in Montana Magazine in 1981, said George Neils was “one of the few people (Nell) trusted and respected.”

George won her trust by negotiating a right-of-way through her property, in exchange for the company installing a water system to her cabin.

The Neils company set up its camp along the rail line where Dunn Creek runs into the Kootenai River. Pat Neils says George hired her “as a camp guard,” watching over buildings and equipment when the company wasn’t actively logging. They paid her $30 a month.

That brings us to Leon L. Lake, who retired from the Forest Service in 1951.

Lake says he was sent out to deal with Nell during that period, after she had fenced off the access road to the logging operation. The Forest Supervisor, Assistant Supervisor and a dispatcher all refused to go along. The assistant supervisor had already had an encounter with Nell, in which he was reportedly told, “Don’t you come any closer, or I’ll bore you a center!”

So Lake, alone, knocked on Nell’s cabin door: “She opened it, and immediately dashed for her 30’06 rifle, threw a shell into the chamber, and laid it across the table. I asked her why the rifle, and she said that she was always prepared for action. I opened up my coat and made the statement that I always went armed also.”

Writing for a USFS publication, Lake recalled, “We discussed the fence across the road, and she cussed and raved about the J. Neils lumber company and what thieves they were along with the forest officers who all robbed poor widow women.” Lake said she threatened to “shoot every last man (who came up there) and roll them over the bank.”

Exasperated, Lake changed tactics.

Given her threats, he told her they wouldn’t be able to help her should a forest fire break out on her property – they’d just have to let it burn until it reached the fence. “She thought a minute and said, ‘Let’s tear the G.D. fence out.’ ”

By the 1960s, Docia and her husband, Carl “Slim” Hovis, both in poor health, moved to a cabin closer to town. Docia was in her 80s and virtually blind. Slim was said to be serving her meals in a wooden box, and she’d eat with her hands.

Pat Neils says when Hovis died, Docia was taken to a convalescent home. “She hated it there and gave the nurses a very hard time.” Soon she was transferred to Warm Springs for mental evaluation and care. She died there on February 27, 1967.

Paul Sievers, a semi-retired photographer at The Western News, tells me he discovered – after some digging through courthouse records – that Nell is buried next to a tree in an unmarked grave at the Libby cemetery.

That’s a shame. She was a “character,” and characters are a big part of Montana history.  A woman described as “the wildest, most cantankerous and contrary woman who ever passed though these parts” should have a marker reflecting her place in Montana’s past.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Montana broadcaster who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current.