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A school, a tree and a sign

An unusual tree grows near the forks of the creek. Tall, with branching leaves formed of small leaflets on thin stems, the tree sports half-inch thorns and creamy, sweet pea-like blossoms.

In the early 1900’s, there was a one-room log schoolhouse up this small valley. It was easier to bring in a teacher than to take the kids into Heron. For several winters, the legendary Lois LeFray, legs wrapped in burlap and wearing snowshoes, hiked four miles up from town to teach the children of the Ovnicek (pronounced Overneck) and Dabrovnek families, along with the Lee children if the old patrician would let them attend with a bunch of Bohunk immigrants.

By the thirties, the roads were better and the children mostly grown. The last teacher, Helen, married one of Martin and Johanna’s older sons, John. The new Mr. and Mrs. Ovnicek did some remodeling on the log schoolhouse and set up housekeeping. John transplanted a small Honey Locust that he dug from a friend’s backyard in Spokane, and Helen planted bulbs.

The Honey Locust and the white narcissus are all that are left of this little bit of history. The locust has been a blooming wonder for all the years we have been here. The tree’s lush June blossoms sweeten the air and leave a taste of honey on the tongue.

John and Helen always came to visit over Memorial Day, and consequently, never experienced the June froth of the tree they had cared for. I sent them a photo of the tree in full blossom, but couldn’t cap up the honey aroma.

About 18 years ago, the new owner of an established hunting lodge nailed a sign to that old tree. It was a well-made sign, with the words, Wilderness Lodge, and an arrow deeply routed in the thick wood. There is no defense for what I did after seeing the sign hanging from the historic tree. I can’t claim impetuous youth, or use a bad day of work to excuse this vandalism. Although, discovering that other Forest Service employees, building fence, had used big trees as corner posts, tightly wrapping them with barbwire, had set my attitude. As a GS-3 seasonal employee, my complaints to a supervisor had as much effect as yelling down a well, but this little outrage against a living tree, this little sign, was mine to correct.

Carefully the sign was removed and the nail holes filled with tree heal. I tossed the sign over the bridge, and before the splash, knew I had gone too far. A law had been broken. The sign jauntily floated away. 

For a year, the sign was stuck in a debris pile on the first bend in the creek. I felt ashamed whenever I saw it. Finally, it flushed out and joined the main fork of the creek. My guilty feelings were washed away with the evidence.

Seven years later, I was visiting a friend who lived on the reservoir close to the Cabinet Gorge Dam. We enjoyed a swim and while walking back to her house, I noticed a well-made sign with the deeply incised words Wilderness Lodge leaning against a stump. The arrow below the words pointed to my friend’s house.

“Where did you find this?”

“It floated up to our dock this spring,” was my friend’s reply.

After joining the main fork of the creek, the sign had floated north for two miles, over beaver dams, through flooded fields, and turned east for three miles as the creek curved through a Glacial Lake Missoula clay bench. Every bend held the potential to trap the sign until the next high water. Breaching the clay barrier, the creek determinedly turns north for the final two mile run to the trapped Clark Fork River. The sign would have gone over the waterfall by the railroad trestle before entering the bay.

Stoutly made from a thick plank, the sign bobbed around the reservoir for months, perhaps years, being pushed by the wind upriver and carried downriver by the sluggish reservoir current. It took seven years for the sign to travel ten miles. And once found, the sign was appreciated for its fine workmanship again. 

In knowing that the sign had been rescued and was valued, I could feel less guilty for a rash act. After all, I was trying to protect a tree.

To no avail: the old Honey Locust is dying. Taking signs (there was a realty sign, but I didn’t throw it over the bridge) off didn’t keep the tree from aging. Half of the tree isn’t able to leaf out this year. When it dies, and wind or saw bring the snag down, that little bit of schoolhouse/young married couple history will fade away.

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Author info

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

Tagged as:

education, history, Lois LeFray, honey locust, Ovnicek

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