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A rube arrives in Trout Creek

by Jim Elliott
| February 14, 2024 12:00 AM

I had been eyeballing a piece of property in Trout Creek for about a year. It was cheap enough, I had the money, why not? So, I bought it.

It was what around here people generously call a stump farm —stripped of timber, and in this particular case, filled with 2-foot-deep ruts from logging equipment. A strip of land that could only generously be called a road led a half-mile to the property from the county road. 

When the seller’s son heard his mother was putting it up for sale, he and a friend hustled over to take the timber. They logged in the spring, they were in that much of a hurry, hence the ruts. The access road was more of a canal because they had used a D-8 Cat to pull the loaded log trucks to the gravel road that led to the mill, and whatever ground had been in the original road was up where the borrow pit would usually be.

There were two buildings on the place, a chicken coop which I did not hesitate to burn down, and the roofless fox cabin on the back part of the place. There had been a well-built squared cedar log house, but I was 20 years too late for that because it had burned down. 

Barney, the logger-son, met me on the place and handed me a beer. Not a bad beginning, I thought as I looked out on acres and acres of stumps, ruts, and scraggly trees. 

“The thing this place is best suited for is timber,” Barney said. 

It was good advice, I now know, but I didn’t take it. I wanted to farm so I hired a woman with D-8 Cat and she stumped 25 acres for me. Acres with which I soon had an intimate and arduous relationship, picking sticks and moving burn piles around.

I had farm equipment left to me by my father, so I went back to the farm in Pennsylvania which I had left in 1960 and made arrangements to load it on a railcar and ship it to Montana. It took a month to load it. My most vivid memory of that time is the Farmall H (that I learned to drive on) dying in the middle of the busiest intersection in the town I was shipping it from. It was something I learned to take in stride.

So, the equipment loaded, I set out to beat it to Trout Creek, which shouldn’t have been very hard, but a blown tranny in my 1962 Chevy half-ton allowed me to experience a week in Dekalb, Illinois. But I did beat the railroad to Trout Creek.

A friend of mine and I were sitting in the old Trout Creek Café waiting for the local to arrive. I had had to find a place to off-load the equipment and the L-P mill had allowed me the use of their spur track and loading dock. 

“There’s your stuff!” my friend Roy shouted when the local came into sight, so we beat it over to the mill to watch them spot the railcar.

Honestly, I should have been embarrassed to ship it, there was so much junk in it, but there was good stuff, too: four tractors, a baler, a swather, a combine, two wagons with high sides crammed full of stuff, plows, discs — all the paraphernalia beginning farmer could want. 

As we were looking at the railcar and the work ahead of unloading it, two men approached, one of moderate size and build named Dude and the other a more or less mountain-sized man named (of course) Shorty, although he often went by the name of Copenhagen. They were brothers.

“How you gonna get that off?” asked Shorty. 

It had taken four weeks to load it, so I figured on at least a week to unload it with the help of a couple of friends, but my basic answer was, I didn’t know. 

Shorty did. If we waited to the weekend, Shorty said, the mill would gladly loan them the equipment to unload it. I don’t know if the mill ever knew about it, but they must have, because on Saturday morning, bright and early, Dude and Shorty used the mill’s 966 log loader to pick my equipment off the flatcar and place it on the ground. It took two hours.

I also learned that what might have been junk back east was welcomed in Montana. Looking at the wagons, Shorty said, admiringly, “High speed wheels!” meaning that the axles were fitted with roller bearings, not babbit.

I was beginning to feel at home.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.