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The Montana Scribbler has History at her Fingertips

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The Montana Scribbler has History at her Fingertips

A Q&A with the Sanders County Historical Author

For history buffs who have lived in this area for a while, Mona Vanek is one of our favorite little secrets. A prolific and award-winning author, Mona spent years researching, interviewing and compiling stories of the “old-timers” of Sanders County, a treasure trove of local history neatly bound in the three-volume series, “Behind These Mountains.” Long out of print, copies of these books are like written gold, and many an hour has been lost between their pages.

Not content with the one-shot publishing of what she looked at as a service project, Mona developed a website, behindthesemountains.com, where the contents of these books have been made freely available to any who want to learn a little more about the people who carved communities into the western edge of Montana. Mona’s accessible and engaging writing style will keep you glued to the page, and her stories of hard work and hardship will leave you in awe of the grit and determination demonstrated by the pioneers of our communities. Included with the stories are a stunning array of early photographs. 

Mona graciously took the time to answer a few questions about herself, as well, and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of making her acquaintance, we are honored to introduce you to Mona Leeson Vanek.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

A: My life was transformed from city luxuries to near homestead conditions one month before my thirteenth birthday. On November 1, 1945, my parents retired and moved our family from Spokane, Washington, my birthplace, to a remote ranch in the Bull River Valley in Sanders County, Montana.

Instead of electricity, hot and cold running water, libraries and museums, dancing, acrobatics classes and swimming pools, I read Range Land Romances in the glow of gasoline lamps, milked cows in pre-dawn hours by the light of kerosene lanterns, fetched buckets of water from a hand-pump or river, and bounced over nearly 20 miles of primitive dirt road, in a converted van/school bus, to a combination elementary and high school in Noxon.

Before the end of the school year, I read through the 6th, 7th and 8th grades’ miniature library housed in the coat closet. Four years later I graduated grade 12.

At age 16, I married Art, my handsome logger. We settled down, built our home five miles west of Noxon on Highway 200, and raised our daughter and two sons.

Q. What led you to become interested in history?

A. I began writing news for the Sanders County Ledger after a five-year stint as Noxon’s Clerk of School Board and Secretary to the Superintendent ended with a disabling injury. I was left with a BIG VOID to fill and bills to pay.

To write news stories, I interviewed homesteaders, and become aware of the incredible challenges faced by people who opened the area to settlement after the Northern Pacific Railroad’s arrival in 1883. My first questions were: “Where did you come from?” “When?” “Why?” and “Why did you stay?”

Although I was 32 years old and had spent nearly 20 years in the fabulously beautiful northwestern Montana mountains, I could not conceive of a single reason anyone would willingly remain in a region so economically depressed. It didn’t even have a library.

I’d learned just how hard it is to exist on beautiful scenery, pure air and clean water. My writing income for a year paid for our kids’ gym shoes and rented musical instruments, so they could continue to play basketball and remain in the school band.

Q. In writing “Behind These Mountains,” what lessons did you come away with?

A. After recording the homesteaders’ stories and copying pictures from their private photo albums—during a dozen year or longer time-period—I began to understand what history classes made no mention of: those remarkable, enduring people and what they accomplished. To my immense pleasure, additional research revealed how these homesteaders had helped shape pivotal eras of our nation’s development.

Q. How long did it take you to write?

A. In the late 1970s I began compiling the interviews, documenting my research and writing many drafts of the actual manuscript. After I pitched it to several publishers who rejected it— saying it had everything but the kitchen sink, and I should cut and compile it into a proper history—I despaired of my book ever being published. However, Marylyn Cork, my friend and writing confidant since 1969 when we met in a creative writing class in Sandpoint, Idaho, suggested I offer the manuscript to Patrick Graham, owner-publisher of a newspaper, the Statesman-Examiner, in Colville, Wash. Marylyn lives at Priest River in Idaho and I lived at Noxon, in Montana.

She and I still laugh about getting lost early that morning in the mountains between Priest River and Colville, when she accompanied me to offer my manuscript to Graham. We backtracked from a logging operation before taking the right road, and I was scared to death of being late for my appointment. But, Graham put us at ease by laughing about our escapade.

He welcomed my big box full of pages, and didn’t want even the smallest detail omitted. I was such a novice, and knew nothing about publishing, so it was a revelation when Graham explained that perfect binding a soft-cover book meant separating the material into several volumes.

Graham, whose passion is saving local histories, envisioned at least five volumes. I went home from our meeting walking on air but terrified. However, on that sunny day in May, I had no inkling that my work had just begun.

Six months later, in November 1986, Volume 1 rolled off the presses, was bound and published. I was thrilled, and honored and feted at autograph parties. Nevertheless, my health continued to severely limit me, so I didn’t have Volumes 2 and 3 ready until late 1991. By then, Graham had invested in other local history books. The best he could offer was a deal whereby I paid publication costs only as the books sold, and he didn’t take a commission. Volumes 2 and 3 were published in 1992.

I wasn’t able to physically or financially continue the project. I donated my research and the unpublished material for two or three more volumes to Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana. I donated copies of all three published volumes to the Historical Society at Heron, Montana, and to Eastern Washington Historical Society, Spokane, Washington. Each also maintains permanent files of much of my research. All my donated files are available to the public, and I hope some day another writer will continue the uncompleted and unique history series. Idaho Writers League awarded me as its 1992 Writer of the Year, mainly for the detailed documentation. Every resource and every picture is noted in bibliographies.

Q. What is your favorite story of the history of this area?

A, Ohmygosh! There are so many incredible stories! Frank Berray and Clifford R. Weare tell hilarious, outrageous stories, filled with pathos, and in more than one instance, nearly unbelievable. 1910 fire stories are heart-rending. The railroad building stories are eye opening, because the Noxon division was the most difficult and dangerous portion of the entire NPRR line. It also brought Chinese into the region. The laws that resulted from World War I are unbelievable. Accidental deaths break your heart. The stories about the beginning of the U.S. Forest Service are compelling, defining, and pivotal. At their most elemental level, they teach about the federal government’s impact on the region. I created a 28-minute docu-drama, “Aunt Lena, Cabinet National Forest’s Unsung Heroine.” That video is comprised of verbatim tape-recorded memories and actual pictures from the era. It aired on  Montana PBS-TV, and a college cable-TV for an entire summer in Virginia.

Q. What made you decide to make “Behind These Mountains” freely available to people on the Internet?

A. Naive as I was, I wrote the history to honor and commemorate the homesteaders and intended that it be available for posterity. However, the limited edition (1000 volume 1; 500 each volumes 2 & 3) are out of print, and long ago became rare collectibles. Being softbound, they deteriorate rapidly, and many libraries no longer allow them to be checked out. When I learned how to publish online—voila—it provided a way to make the history available to anyone anywhere who has a digital connection! The books can be accessed by computer or mobile iPhone. The Google domain license costs me $10 a year, so why not make them freely available? I only regret I haven’t the time to complete formatting all the homesteaders’ pictures to get them online. I need a helper!! ;0))

Q. Any final words?

A. The online editions, which are digital, will cease when I die. So I decided to learn how to create e-book editions. As I format them for electronic books (Kindle, Nook, etc.), I’m editing and revising to add information I didn’t have access to earlier. With luck, all three volumes will be available by 2013. I’m told that Amazon.com will also format and publish print copies of Kindle e-books—for a nominal fee. It’s my hope to make Edition 3 of “Behind These Mountains,” Vols. 1, 2 & 3 available in print as well as in as many e-book formats as I can learn. However, the pictures won’t be included. I don’t know how that is done, but God willing, someday I’ll figure out how to make those incredible images available, also.

Behind These Mountains online

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Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, Noxon, Montana, history, Sanders County, Mona Vanek, MT Scribbler, Behind These Mountains, Sanders County Ledger, Frank Berray, Clifford R. Weare, Northern Pacific Railroad

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