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Buicks and stumps

In 1972, we chanced upon a creek valley in northwest Montana and fell in love. At the junction of two creeks, an old homestead spread its skirts. A two-story, cement-chinked log house was surrounded by a yard full of fruit trees and scented with lilacs and peonies. Hay meadows reached up both branches of the creek. A huge weeping willow spread graceful shade. A broad open hill rose behind that house. In the winter of ’73, we skied that hill, and by a series of other fortuitous coincidences, were able to buy 40 acres at the junction. Our love affair with the valley is still hot.

When you feel passionate about something, and you are a writer, you write about it. Sometimes you write just for yourself, so you will never forget. Stories that neighbors in the valley have told me, and memories of those who return for a visit, need to be remembered. For they are part of the beloved valley.

Alice Lee, our gentle and gracious neighbor to the west, came to this valley as a bride. With white hair swept back in graceful waves, and blue alert eyes, her enduring beauty belied the tragedies in her life. Perhaps to console or instruct me after our house burnt down, she told the tale of the Stumps and the Buick.

Two young WWI veterans returned to their parents’ ranch on the West Fork. Jesse Lee had been a muleskinner with the army, and was stationed in nearby Washington. Flave had been in France, as General Pershing’s personal bodyguard. No longer boys—How You Gonna’ Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?—these fellows wanted and needed more than sustenance farming could provide.

They looked upstream from their father’s hayfields, at a long, surprisingly flat valley. Here the West Fork has a furious run-off, then sinks underground when the snow is gone. There is a dark, deep, humus-rich soil lying over past creek cobbles and gravels.

Up that creek today, a Swainson’s thrush is singing its spiraling song; a squirrel chatters and warns the white tail to raise its flag. In dips and low spots, wild ginger is sending out its exotic, beautifully geometric blossom. The flower is hidden under its glossy colts’ foot leaf. In the dappled shade of grand fir, there is a mysterious green mist floating ankle high. The horizontal leaves of wild sarsaparilla, golden thread, and small western hemlock create the hazy mirage. A grove of big stumps pushes through the understory. The flared base of nose-level stumps, the six to 15 foot, breast-high diameter of the dark giants proclaims this is a cedar growing place.

When the young veterans stood here and saw a vision of the future, it was not stumps they visualized. It was a shining, shimmering Buick. All winter they labored in the cedar grove. They felled the giants with cross cut saw, limbed them with axes, and sawed them to length. Then with wedge and sledgehammer, the brothers spilt thick, triangular fence posts. They loaded the posts on mules and hauled them to the dry rocks of the underground creek. During the brief, high water of spring, the rushing current drove the fence posts home.

The rest must have seemed easy. They loaded the thousand of posts onto wagons and hauled them four miles down the road to the railhead in Heron. The brothers stacked a year’s labor on the railroad siding to be loaded on the next westbound train. Gleefully anticipating a good price for their posts, the young men caught the eastbound to Missoula, and the closest Buick dealership. They wanted to run their hands over the glistening fenders, open the hood and behold the perfection of the internal combustion engine, they wanted to see Buicks.

When Jesse and Flave Lee departed around noon on that summer day in 1921, popular shade trees, a three-story frame hotel and large dance pavilion were prominent features of the bustling village. Several hours later, a fire started in a shake mill on the west side of Heron. Fortunately, the school on the east side of town was spared, but nearly every other building was consumed. The fire burned brightest in the stacks and stacks of cedar fence posts.

Life goes on, and eventually both men owned automobiles. An occasional ponderosa pine and larch took seed in the sunshine around the cedar stumps and rose above the ferns. Both provided enough shade for grand fir to germinate. The fir has now stolen sunlight from the bracken fern and is reaching through the pine branches. And after nine decades, amidst the white bead lily and purple ginger flower, making a three-inch appearance, young cedar life is going on.

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Author info

Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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