Harmon’s Histories: Keep your distance from Dunn Creek Nell!

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

Her name was Sara Theodocia Yeary, but she was known as “Docia,” or more commonly, as “Dunn Creek Nell.” My dad just called her “Dunn Creek.”

As one story goes, she terrified a young neighbor girl, telling her she’d had 17 husbands and burned them all in her cook stove.

There were stories told at our house in Libby, too, back in the day.

Lee Harmon with parents, John and Pauline Harmon. Circa 1942

My dad said the crazy old woman fired shots at my grandfather one time and, in a separate incident, threatened him with bodily harm.

In the early 1900s, she settled on a piece of land along Dunn Creek (thus, her moniker), where it flows into the Kootenai River, northeast of Libby.

My dad, Lee Harmon, had his first encounters with her around 1930 when, in his teens, he was working as a weekend usher at Libby’s Dome theater.

“Nell would come to the show, and she’d sit down where there was a side entrance, where you could get out after the show. During all the old Westerns with Tom Mix, she’d get up and stand and yell, ‘Come on Tom! Get ‘em, Tom!’

“I’d have to go down and try to quiet her down. The only way I could quiet her was by saying, ‘Nell, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to throw you out that door!’  She’d give me a look, and she’d settle down for five minutes and then we’d be back at it again!”

Later, when my dad worked for the Plummer family, who were neighbors and owned the local mercantile, Nell would come to the store for various provisions.

“She’d come in with a rugged-looking old shopping bag, all rolled up,” said my dad. “One day she gave me her grocery order, saying, ‘I’ll be back. I gotta go over to the ladies-ready-to-wear.’

“Well, she was gone for a while, so I got the order put up and I thought, well, I could put it in her bag for her.

“I just opened that doggoned bag and here lies a rifle in the bottom of that bag. Just then, she came back and she lit into me and chewed my butt from one end to the other, ‘Don’t you ever open my shopping bag again or I’ll take care a’ you!’

“She worried me a little bit until I saw her slam the thing shut and not pull the trigger. But, quite an old gal!”

John Harmon, my grandfather, had worked at various times for the J. Neils lumber company, before and after a stint as Libby’s police chief, and had vivid memories of the mercurial Dunn Creek Nell.

As my dad told one story, “(John) quite often was asked to go along with a surveyor named Clem West who worked for the ‘Company’ (J. Neils) at that time, and pack stakes for him and drag line and one thing another.

“George (Neils) had gone up and talked with Dunn Creek Nell and made arrangements that they were going to start loggin’ up there, and so Clem asked my Dad to go with him one day and they were gonna go up the river and go across and run some lines.

“So when they got down to the tin boat that they’d gotten for ‘em, why, they’d had a couple of boxes of dynamite and a box of caps thrown into the boat for ‘em to take across and leave over there.

“Dad and Clem started across the river that morning rowin’ the boat (when) something went ping, and bounced off the water, and ping again. Clem says ‘darned,’ he says, ‘l think that crazy old woman is shootin’ at us.’ Dad said, ‘Let’s not hang around – let’s get out of here!’ ”

The two rowed back across the Kootenai and headed into town to report to George Neils that “they didn’t get a day’s work done because they didn’t get over there.”

My grandfather (according to my dad) “was darned happy when he got home that night he didn’t have a hole in his hat! It always kind of amused us, as long as it had a happy ending without anybody getting hurt by it.”

“True or not, I don’t know,” said my dad, George (Neils) later went up and straightened things out with Nell.

Because of those family stories, I was always curious about Dunn Creek Nell. It turns out, she had quite a back-story in addition to the local tales told around Libby.

Dr. Pat Neils, whose husband’s grandfather founded the local lumber company, spent considerable time researching the mysterious woman. She has written and lectured extensively about “Nell,” describing her as “the wildest, most cantankerous and contrary woman who ever passed though these parts.”

Others, including Mary Frederickson and Leon Lake, have also penned their recollections.

Next week – based on their stories – I’ll describe how a well-educated young woman from Texas, the granddaughter of a Georgia plantation owner, ended up in a Butte bordello and later in a cabin on Dunn Creek outside Libby, Montana.

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