Harmon’s Histories: Working the wild backcountry with Rastus Reed and a backpack full of beer

Jim Harmon

Jack Puckett is a great storyteller and a good friend. He turned 91 this year.

Jack (given name, John V. Puckett) was born in Burgettstown, Penn., on April 18, 1927, entered the U.S. Navy in 1945 (serving briefly on a destroyer in the South Pacific) and in 1950 graduated from Penn State with a degree in forestry.

For the next 32 years, Jack worked for the U.S. Forest Service in north Idaho and Montana. Along the way, he encountered, or heard about, a variety of backwoods characters like “The Norwegian,” “Swede John,” “Old George” and “Rastus Reed.”

With Jack’s permission, I’m going to tell some of those stories in this column from time to time. One of my favorites is the tale of Rastus Reed.

Rastus was an older fellow, probably in his 50s, when he came to work for the USFS. “In those days, when you hired a guy longer than six months,” says Jack, “you had to fill out an extra form that wanted more information on the poor soul.

Jack Puckett

“So I got to fill out the form and it wanted to know in there if he’d ever been in jail,” recalls Jack. “Well, Rastus was a little reluctant to say … but (the jail time) wasn’t very long and it had been back east in Kentucky or someplace,” so Jack said it was no big deal.

Everybody knew Rastus – he was hard to miss in a crowd. He wore an old mackinaw coat, a red hat and was always accompanied by his dog, “Spot,” who could hardly get around. Jack figured the dog was probably about as old as Rastus.

“These guys would work hard, when they worked,” said Jack, “but they also liked to drink.”

You could always hear Rastus approaching, given his ever-present supply of beer. He kept it in a big pouch in the back of that mackinaw coat. Beer, back in those days, came in glass bottles “and you could hear the bottles clinking as he came walking down the street.”

Now and then, Rastus wouldn’t show up for work. That would generally be on a Monday morning.

“I went over one day. His cabin door was shut, so I knocked on the door and pretty soon here comes Rastus and I says, ‘You coming to work today, Ras?’

“ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘No, I don’t feel very good; I think I had a bad can of beans.’ Of course, he’d been drinking all weekend – but the beanswere what got him!”

His old dog would go with him wherever he went. When Rastus “was doing something physical, he’d take the coat off, lay it down, and the dog would lie on the coat. That’s the way it went.”

Jack recalls, “We were on a fire one time. I came around the fire line and old Rastus was digging out a stump and he’s working hard and sweating. And so I said, ‘Hey Rastus, take a break here.’ So he sat down.

“I thought I’d ‘job him’ a little bit. I said, ‘Boy, wouldn’t a cold beer go good now?’

“He said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah.’ I said, ‘Don’t you wish you had some?’ He says, ‘What makes you think I don’t?’  He had the back of the coat full of beer!

“He was a nice guy who just had a little drinking problem at times.”

When Jack worked on the Priest Lake District of the Kaniksu National Forest, he encountered a number of fellows who contracted with the Forest Service. They’d set up cabins and work all winter making cedar poles and posts in the backcountry.

“They didn’t seem to have families. They were individuals, lone individuals. We had a picture on the wall in the ranger station chronicling the ‘cedar savages’ or ‘cedar beasts,’ ” as they were known.

“They’d snowshoe out every once in a while to get groceries, then snowshoe back in and go at their cedar work.,” recalled Jack. “I don’t think they worked every day, but they’d stay in their cabins. They had plenty of wood from scraps to keep warm.”

One time, the ranger on the district became concerned about one of the “cedar beasts.”

This particular fellow hadn’t come out of the backcountry for some time, so the ranger and the “alternate” (the assistant ranger) decided to snowshoe in and see what was going on.

“They got to the cabin and it was all quiet around there.

“They opened the door and the old cedar maker is there, sitting at the table, slumped over, dead!”

He’d apparently been there for some time.

“So the alternate says to the ranger, ‘What are we going to do now?’ ”

The ranger, as Jack tells the story, contemplated for a moment, then calmly drawled, “I don’t know about you.” He pulls out a chair, sits down at the table and he says, “I’m going to eat my lunch!”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.