The Pacific Northwest Forum
Second Series Volume II, Number 1, Pages 24-40
Winter, 1989

Louise Walters: A Montana Childhood

by Diane Louise Berger

Diane Berger, a free lance writer, has worked on magazines and newspapers in California and Washington. This article is based on interviews she conducted with her grandmother in 1972. The article reveals dramatically the hardships of growing up on the Montana frontier in the early twentieth century.

This is the first of two parts of this oral history. The second will take the story of Louise Walters through her first marriage and her experience during the Depression in eastern Washington.

IN THE SPRING OF 1972, I spent a month with my grandmother, Louise Walters, as part of a college project in oral history. All my growing-up years her family stories of homesteading in the wild west, salted with her sense of humor, painted such vivid pictures of life before my time, that I was drawn to spend what would become very precious time with her, recording these stories.

Now, 17 years later, I read the original manuscript and feel remiss that I did not ask for more information. Then I remind myself that Grandma Louise was sick with cancer at the time, and in weak condition. I felt I could not press her, and was fortunate that she was allowing this at all. Indeed, it was the following July that I received news that she had died, and I recall reflecting on the timing of my stay with a great deal of gratefulness.

She was born Karin Louise May in 1905 in Chinook, Montana, the granddaughter of Norwegian and German immigrants. She didn't like her name Karin with its Norwegian pronunciation of "karn." So in the second grade, she matter-of-factly announced herself to her new teacher as "Louise Karin May," and thus she (25) was "Louise" ever after.

Louise Walters in 1971

This take-charge attitude saw her through a life full of difficulties. North-central Montana was a bleak windswept place to grow up without many resources. Then, as a teenager, her family moved to Michigan, where she stayed with relatives, some of whom were less than sympathetic.

Out of high school, she headed back to Montana to try her hand at teaching. This is where she met her first husband and had an ice cream parlor for a time. Then a series of events took her and her daughter to the wheat-farming country of Wilbur in eastern Washington.

She remarried there into a large family of Volga German immigrants, and settled with her husband into wheat farming, had two sons, and became a solid citizen of the community.

I remember Louise as a very strong, opinionated and assertive woman, a wonderful cook, an immaculate housekeeper, a self-disciplined farm wife, with a good sense of humor and a wonderful laugh. She wasn't always an "easy" person because she felt she knew just how thing should be done... didn't get away with much as a youngster around her.

But I always knew she loved me. (26)

Louise told of the network of relatives who found their way from Norway and Germany to the United States during the nineteenth century. Louise's grandmother and her sister had worked in a queen's kitchen. "Which queen," I asked.

I don't know. Queen of Norway. That's all I know. There's a little side-light there about the hired help who would not eat the food. So, the queen came down to find out what's wrong with them.

"Everything's got weevils in it.

Everything's got bugs in it, maggots in it."

"Oh there's nothing wrong with this food. I'll show you there's nothing wrong." Then she picks up a fork and she eats it.

"Now you can eat it. If I can eat it, you can eat it."

That's one story grandmother told. There were bugs in it, but the old queen was gonna make them eat the weevily food.

Part of the family came to the United States and lost track of other family members. In those days when so many families were separated by immigration, a Nebraska newspaper helped them find each other.

Grandma and Grandpa used to take this paper. It was printed in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where people would write in and advertise.

"Does anybody know the whereabouts of so-and-so?"

"Warn so-and-so."

"This came from so-and-so." "Please contact so-and-so." Here was her sister's name. So she wrote to her, and sure enough, it was her sister. Grandma and Grandpa (this was a big deal), they got on the train and went down to Scottsbluff and visited her relatives.

I've got a picture of these two little white haired ladies. They were small, you know - most Europeans were small. But here they are in their white aprons, and their little white hair was so cute. They didn't pretend to be anything they weren't. They were just neat little Norwegian ladies.

Louise's grandfather, newly arrived in America, fought in the Civil War. He joined up for a practical reason - one that must have appealed to many immigrants, even if they were not devoted to the Union cause.

A lot of people won't believe that your great-great grandfather was in the Civil War, but he was. He fought in the battle of Gettysburg. The reason he did was because a foreigner could come over and get his citizenship by joining the service. If you were in only six months you still got your citizenship. You didn't have to go (27) through all the bother of learning the Constitution, Pledge of Allegiance, and all this. A lot of foreigners did this.

Two of the more colorful family members were Uncle Charlie and. Aunt Phoeme, who lived in Michigan. One year Aunt Phoeme rode the train to Montana...

Uncle Charlie lived by the Saint Clair River, Michigan. He would get up in the morning and he'd sing. You could hear him across the Saint Clair River, which is I don't know how many miles.

He was like Pop. You couldn't have civilized him. I don't know why. He married this little French-Canadian girl who wanted everything just right. So that was a pretty sad marriage, really.

Old Charlie, chewed tobacco couldn't get him to dress up for love nor money. He enjoyed himself. He knew everybody on the street He was just a good guy.

I don't know what happened to Phoeme. She probably died from apoplexy. Apoplexy. She was the one they had more fun with when they came to Montana that time. She wanted to come along. Nobody wanted her because she was a little fuss budget. She was a little French-Canadian gal who was so different from our German background. They'd be riding along in the train and finally they'd get so they'd pester the life out of poor old Phoeme.

Brassieres were just coming into style. Just getting away from the old corsets, you know, and the corset-covers. [1920] So, then they'd say, "Oh, I'm uncomfortable. This brassiere is tight." So they'd dig around in their suitcase and go back in the ladies' room and take the brassiere off. Then the other one would dig around in her suitcase and take her brassiere off. Then Aunt Phoeme would have to do the same thing.

Pretty soon, Aunt Toot would say, "Oh, I think I'll put my brassiere back on." So they'd go back to the ladies' room, and they wouldn't put their brassiere on. But they made Aunt Phoeme think they had. They were just teasing the poor thing. "I think I'd better put my brassiere on, too." So back she'd go and put her brassiere on.

They said they had her changing brassieres from Detroit to Chinook, Montana.

Louise Walter's father, Theodore May, went from Michigan, where the family had settled, to Montana on a job. His brother, Herman May, was already in Chinook. He liked it so much he decided to stay.

Uncle Herman was in Montana a few years ahead of our dad. My dad was a cabinetmaker by profession. This company that built furniture in Detroit sold a (28) whole household of furniture to a big cattle ranch in Montana. (The people that didn't have much money - you know how they will run down the rich ones - they called it "The White House.")

They didn't want that furniture damaged on the way. So, they hired my dad to ride on the same train with it. Every time the train stopped, he'd go around and check and see that nobody had been messing with it, or anything was being scratched or damaged.

Then, when it got to Big Sandy, he was through with his obligations.

He joined Uncle Herman.

Herman wasn't married then, either. So there they were, two bachelors, two handsome bachelors. And of course, the first thing anybody did out here - out West - was to buy themselves a beautiful riding horse and beautiful gear. What else did anybody need? Well, a single man wouldn't buy a buggy unless he had a girlfriend or something. So Pop bought a horse, and this is where he learned to ride and to work for the cattle people.

I suppose one of the first places he headed for was Johns0ns' out on Clear Creek where they had the three beautiful daughters. Our mother married quite young, at 18... just like you'd see an I8-year-old girl right now - with her hair flying in the wind, curly, wavy, and her riding outfit on. She had a riding skirt which was a divided leather skirt and rode a side saddle.

The Johnson girls were known locally as the "Belles of the Bear Paws," after the Bear Paw Mountains. Theodore May was not the first man to come courting at their ranch. He had a famous predecessor.

The commander of the combined Allied Forces during World War I was General Pershing. When he was a young lieutenant, they were training at Fort Seymor. Lieut. Pershing came to buy hay from Andrew Johnson. Pretty soon he came without any excuse - just came out. He used to come over to take my mother [Amelia] out.

Grandpa didn't allow "no neckin' around there!" So he got chased off pretty fast. But he did chase our mother over the hills on horseback. You know, just young people, which is quite a story in that he was so famous.

Uncle Bill Johnson [brother of the Belle] likes to tell the story that Gen. Pershing remembers him. He said when he was in France, for some reason or other Gen. Pershing was reviewing troops Uncle Bill says he [Pershing] walked up to him among these thousands of soldiers, shook his hands, and said, "Hello there, Bill Johnson. How are you?" It's kind of hard to believe he'd remember one farmer he bought hay from. (30)

The "Bear Paw Belles," left to right, Annie, Helma, and
Amelia Johnson, with their brother, William. Late 1890s.

Theodore May was persistent and resourceful - in courting Amelia.

The women used to have a Bible study. This was with Brother Van. He was called the "Highline Sky Pilot." The Highline was the Great Northern Line that ran almost straight east and west. They called him Sky Pilot because he was leading people to heaven.

The women were all in there holding their meeting. Our mother played the organ for the singing. The meeting went on and on and on and on, and Pop was supposed to take our mom home. They each had their horse. He got tired of waiting, so he crawled up on the summer kitchen roof. He decided it was time she got out of there. So, he got a couple of gunny sacks and stuck them down the stove pipe. Smoked 'em out and that was the end of that meeting.

Louise recalled a picture of her mother.

She was pretty. She had naturally curly hair. She wore it a great deal like the kids do nowadays. I'd say about your length. It was pulled back, and I think she had a ribbon around it. The side curls ... she'd been riding apparently, you know, and her hair was quite wild. The wind had been blowing her hair around. It's the prettiest picture.

Amelia and Theodore May were married in 1901. The couple settled in Chinook and began raising a family. Louise was born on October 28,1905, the second of seven children.

I was born on Snake Creek in the Ramburg place. My mother went over there to have me, and I was slow as usual. I didn't arrive on time; I was two weeks late. They were short on beds, so they put her in one of the kids' beds, which was a bunk.

Most of the beds in those days were built up against the wall. They'd put two posts out and two boards from there to the wall, and they would put slats across. Then they would make a straw ticking on the slats. You didn't have such a thing as a mattress. We didn't out in the country, but we did when we moved to town.

Everybody said that they thought the reason my foot was turned was because she was in one of the children's beds and it was so short for my mother. She was all doubled up. She laid in that bed waiting for me for two weeks. This right foot was turned, so this old nurse that happened to be up at Mount Baldy, she came down and put a splint between those two feet so that this one had to straighten out, or else!

The May children grew up in a world that was still very much a (31) wilderness - as "Pop" found out one wintry night.

I'm sure this story is true.

Where Pop was going, I'll never know, and what he was doing out on foot on a cold winter's night. ... Maybe it was too hard for the horse to get through the deep snow.

He couldn't have been going too far because he was walking. But pretty soon he realized that some wolves were on these peaks, little hills all around him. They were following him. He knew they were talking about him - whether he could make a good supper or something.

But anyway, they were after him, just taking their time. He said it was so eerie to have a wolf over here barking at you, and one over there barking, and one over there. And then all at once there'd be one close behind you barking at you. He said he was scared. He had to run, as hard as it was in that deep snow. He had to make a run for it to get to the house before they got him. Ordinarily, wolves don't bother people unless they're terribly hungry. With the snow as deep as it was, I Suppose they were very hungry.

Theodore got home safely.
Amelia May had her own "close call" with a wild animal.

Mom took organ lessons. I suppose as fall grew farther along, it got dark earlier, and she was in the habit of coming home at a certain time. It began to get dark a little earlier each time. She had to walk a long ways - more than two miles at least. She had all that distance to go without a break or anything to hide in. She said it was so scary because these bobcats' eyes would light up in the dark. She was so frightened that she thought her heart would never stop beating. She would be walking down a lane and the cats would be sitting each one on a fence post out there. I guess she quit organ lessons when it got to that point.

The wilderness was close to Chinook, and so were the Indians. As in many other parts of the West at that time, the Indians were slowly adjusting to white ways, while maintaining many of their own traditions. Often their paths crossed those of the settlers. Louise Walters recalled hearing the story of Chief Joseph, who led his band of Nez Perce across hundreds of miles of rugged Rocky Mountain terrain in an effort to escape confinement on a reservation. The final battle was fought near Chinook.

Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce Indians didn't want to go onto the reservation. This was after they were defeated out at Bear Paw. Chief Joseph finally gave up. He was a man greatly admired as a (33) warrior, as an honest man, as a good leader to his people. He was very honored among white men and Indians alike. But the white people had to get rid of Indians in order to live if they were gong to take the land over. You know how wars are: it's the "spoils of battle." You go in and fight until you take the land... They were his band of "renegades," they were called. He didn't have an army, the poor guy. He had what few Indians were left over and lost, separated from their leaders, and tried to keep their families together. So they were defeated over at the Bear Paw.

Louise May [Walters] and sister Alma May in about 1907.
Bear Paw mountains are in the background.

The last Indian wars had been fought, but Amelia May still worried about the friendliness of the natives.

My mother and her sisters were scared to death of Indians. And so were we. The only experiences anybody in our family had with them was not bad.

They wanted to borrow an old saddle horse one time. Grandpa had an old white buckskin mixture. It was very tame. They borrowed the horse. Grandpa trusted them.

A couple days later here came the horse with a note pinned on his ear, thanking Grandpa for the use of his horse.

Racial prejudice was common in the early twentieth century, and Amelia May shared the common tendency to look down on the Indians - and a reluctance to be seen in their company. One day this disposition created an awkward situation.

Right down here from Big Alex towards our place on Clear Creek was the Griffin outfit. He was what you'd call "Squaw Man."

He had an Indian for a wife. She was, as Indians go, very clean. She had been brought up in a mission school, where they try and teach them to cook like white people. She made beautiful bread, people said. She scrubbed her floors, kept her house clean.

(Most of them had dirt floors.)

So lo and behold, here was my mother trying to keep the place, family, respectable, which was a struggle with our father and his drinking, and to not let Johnson's [her parents] know about anything they wouldn't consider respectable. It was pretty hard to do. She must have had a bad time. But she always looked nice, and us kids were always well-dressed while she was alive. We always had lots to eat. We were all right as long as she was around.

Anyway, one afternoon here pulled in this big old wagon loaded with Indians and all their gear.

Old Griffin and his squaw and a bunch of his kids. They had an awful lot of 'em, all ages. He probably brought six or eight with him.

It was quite a struggle my mother had. Should she invite them in the (34) house so people wouldn't see the Indians outside in the backyard? Or should she let them go ahead and put their tent up where they wanted to? (They put a canvas over the clothesline.)

But they didn't stay long as I remember. I guess maybe they got the message in a short time that they weren't welcome by our mother. She was a good-hearted person, too, but as I say, she was trying to keep the name respectable. And then to have Pop invite a bunch of Indians to come and stay with us. It was pretty rough, I'd say.

One Indian, a man named Pishy, almost managed to escape the common prejudice.

I know of only one Indian who was ever accepted. As far as I know, he was never married. How that Indian could dance! Any white girl would dance with him because he was such a marvelous dancer.

He was an Indian, though. You just didn't like Indians just because they were Indians. No, he was not accepted. He worked for Young. He worked for anybody around there. Every Saturday, he went to the little store in Warick and bought a new shirt and a new pair of overalls, and that was his Saturday night dance outfit.

He always rode along with the family. I can remember putting him in the back of a pick-up and all the rest of us riding in the pick-up. When we got to the dance, everybody else danced with him. So I did, too. I think he taught all the girls in the whole country how to dance.

His name was Pshaw. We called him Pishy. Who knew how to pronounce French names out there? Bill Pishy. That was the only Indian you ever spoke to, unless some Indian was working as a hired man for you.

Theodore May was in most respects a loving father, but he had strong feelings about certain subjects. He worked on Sundays, and one day came home unexpectedly early...

I will never forget the time Pop caught us kids; he caught our mother. He was supposed to be working. (Apparently Saturday night was too big for him.) So Sunday morning some of the city authorities went down to see how he was doing, and he was sleeping on the job or doing something he shouldn't have. So they fired him right then and there.

You see, Pop wouldn't let us kids go to the Methodist church. (There wasn't any Lutheran church.) So here us kids were all dressed up and in the Methodist church. Pop came home. He didn't very often raise cane about anything our mother ever did. But I know that we never went to the Methodist church anymore. (35) Just started out and did the best you could. The horses did a very good job because half the time we were on hillsides. You didn't know where you were.

The wagon was a sled, a big, heavy sled. In the wintertime, they took off the wheels, and they put on heavy runners. We sat on the floor of the sled. We had a lot of quilts under us. We each had heated rocks which were heated to keep our feet warm. We actually got out there in pretty good shape. Nobody froze. No frostbitten fingers or anything.

We stopped at Staffs [a friend's] overnight the first night.

And I guess they decided they'd do the best they could to keep Amelia warm. They bundled her all up real good, and they made her a hot toddy. That was the only medicine anybody had, was a hot toddy. That really knocked her out. She never woke up until we got to Grandma's. She was just wringing with sweat.

We got out there way after dark.

Then we unloaded way out at the barn. Lit some lanterns and walked to the house. The coyotes were howling, and those kids were so frightened. It was such an eerie sound and so scary. Where she lived, there were rocky points kind of all around there. There'd be a coyote on every point, howling at each other. Scared us kids to death.

The children spent the winter with Aunt Helma, one of the Bear

Paw Belles, and Uncle Charley, while nearby their mother was nursed by her mother. Then Louise herself became very ill.

I was in bed all winter at Helma's with rheumatism. Inflammatory rheumatism. Every joint in my body was swollen. Even my toes stuck out like little sausages. My fingers were all misshapen from arthritis. I had it in the back of my neck. Of course, my knees were real bad. I couldn't walk.

But Aunt Helma was real good to me. She said her role in life, it seemed, was to take care of other people. She wanted to be good to me and fed me exactly what I shouldn't have. I just loved puffed wheat with cream on it, real thick cow's cream. I never will forget, we didn't have fruit like you have for breakfast.

Sometimes we had dried fruit, but that was usually for dessert. For breakfast I had my dish of puffed wheat and cream, and I just laid there and cried, because it hurt so bad.

Louise's rheumatism grew worse, and it was apparent that she needed medical attention.

I guess the phone must have been working. But the snow was so bad, nobody could get through. Each farmer fixed the phone along his fence line so that they could get to Chinook. Then cousin Albert (38) he was just a few years older than I was - he got on a horse and rode in that bitter cold weather, and rode to Chinook.

Amelia is seated below the painting between Aunt Helma and Uncle
Charlie at their dining room table. About 1916, shortly before her death.

Well, good old Doc O'Malley had been everybody's family doctor for 20 or 30 years in Chinook. He was the first man to have a car that I know of. He'd get up any time of the night or day; he'd get in that little car and go call on people that'd ask it. Of course, we didn't ask him to come out there in the snow; he'd never make it in a car.

It took Albert two days by horseback to get to town and two days to get back to Aunt Helma's. The doctor gave him a bottle of medicine that tasted exactly like prune juice. It didn't seem to do any good. I just laid there and got worse and worse. But as it began to warm up towards spring, I began to feel a little better.

Then our mother died the 19th of April.

I don't think anybody really expected her to die. People in those days had medicine, and they didn't die from just having babies anymore. But you know the story on that: the doctor didn't take care of her properly.

Well, we didn't know much.

They didn't tell us anything. Uncle Charley came into the house and pushed back that cap so you could see all the bald spots in his hair. He was in the dining room talking to Aunt Helma, and all at once she started to cry.

Nothing was said to us kids, but I guessed what had happened. I got my clothes on and got up, went outside to the bathroom. First time in the whole winter I'd been outside. I went out there and just sat there, stunned.

A couple of days later Aunt Helma, she said, "I suppose you know what happened." All I could say was, yes, because I guessed it. The next few days were pretty hairy scary. Nobody knew what was going on.

You didn't hold your funeral in the funeral parlor. You had it at your home. It was a custom in those days when someone passed away, the undertaker had a big black wreath. Just the one big black wreath. That was always hung on the front door. That way you knew there was a death there. I can remember seeing it at our neighbor's when their mother died.

People died easier because they didn't have the medicine. All our mother would have needed was a shot of penicillin, perhaps.

Of course, we went back to town for the funeral. I don't know who got us ready or dressed us, because we weren't fixed very good. Not like our mother would have fixed us.

It was in April. It was too warm for winter clothes and too cold for summer clothes. I remember how funny I felt. I didn't know what to wear. So I put on my winter coat. And being in April, it was also rainy. (40) (You didn't get a taste of "Chinook gumbo," did you? It's the mud.)

Theodore May, shortly after Amelia's death, with six of their seven
children. Louise is second from the right.

The funeral home had extra buggies and horses. He bred them or something. Enough for the family. Us kids rode in one of those out, and oh, were those elaborate things. Black curtains all draped around it. It seems to me the buggies were always black. They may not have been, but it seems to me they were, because they were parked not too far from our place at the livery barn.

Sometimes when nobody caught us, we'd go play over on their horses. This was before our mother died. I don't think they got us near one afterwards.

Louise and her brothers and sisters were raised by their father and various relatives. The story of her adult life and her trials during the Great Depression, when she lived in Eastern Washington, will be continued in a forthcoming special issue of the Pacific Northwest Forum devoted the Depression in the Northwest.