Monday, April 10, 2006


When Glacier National Park was bought from the Amskapi Pikuni division of the Blackfoot Nation, three small tourist towns formed on the boundary. From north to south were Babb at the north end of St. Mary’s Lake, then St. Mary at the south end, and -- across Looking Glass pass -- East Glacier where Highway 2 leaves the reservation, heading west. East is quite distinct from the others in terms of who lives there, style, and so on. For one thing, the road from Babb to St. Mary, which once appeared to be solid forest, has been claimed by many small, not particularly upscale, allotment holders because global warming means they are not sealed in all winter. In East Glacier growth has been around the edges of town and has been summer recreation type.

I did some phoning last night because Scriver Wife Number Two, Jeanette Caoutte Scriver Chase, had died in Grants Pass, Oregon, in a nursing home at an advanced age and, since I couldn’t get the Browning paper to print an obituary, I needed to tell her friends. (In her eighties my mother used to froth and foam about her old friends disappearing without a trace -- no one bothering to let her know.) The young ones around here don’t remember Jeanette -- heck, they don’t even remember ME! (Third wife.) The youngest don’t remember Bob, who died in 1999.

Two of Jeanette’s good friends lived in the little resort towns. In East Glacier Doris Sherburne lives with her son and runs one of the better motels, where their clientele has returned every summer for many years. They live well -- they have the inland craving for shellfish so often eat bouillabase, accompanied by the proper wine on an elegantly appointed table. Sherburne is the name of one of the original white settlers. In fact, the patriarch hired Thad Scriver, Bob’s father, to come to Browning to work in his mercantile store in 1903 and supported Thad when he started the Browning Merc. One of his sons is the favorite “bad guy” on the lips of those who pursue reservation corruption. Doris married a different branch. I taught school with her son, Terry, who was hired to teach French and also taught Blackfeet (with the help of Katharine Grant) in one of the more sophisticated early attempts (they had headphone booths).

East Glacier is a railroad town -- in fact, in the early days (Fifties and Sixties) -- the rivalry between one side of the railroad and the other side was so strong that there had to be two grocery stores and in January snowdrifts emotions flared so high that people ran off with other people’s spouses or set fire to each other’s houses. The main Glacier Park offices are in West Glacier (the other side of the Rockies) but there is a significant ranger presence in East. The major railroad hotel is here, so in summer the place is overrun with earnest kids from Minneapolis -- or used to be. Now that the Great Northern has become the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, the summer help is much more diverse and much more expectant of adventures. The historic Clarke legacy is close to the surface here, since this is where their allotment was (they sold the land for the Big Hotel) and where they welcomed their high level friends. (Famous artists and movie stars like Clark Gable.) Today’s Clarke Art Gallery is run by his daughter across the street from the Sherburne’s motel.

Doris hires locals for her motel help and is inventive enough to have devised teams for room cleaning and set-up so the check-out turnover goes more quickly. Two women invade each room as it’s emptied and go through a prescribed routine of scrubbing, changing sheets, and so on. They are allowed to keep the TV on and follow the soaps as they go. They were the first in town to fold the ends of the toilet paper rolls into little V’s.

Everyone in East Glacier is a little careful about bears, which often come into town. In fact, another next-generation Sherburne daughter-in-law was on the phone when her small daughter came to tell her there was a bear on the roof. She didn’t believe it until she heard a lot of scrambling up there. Now her real estate business is called “Bear On the Roof.” Google it -- you’ll see.

St. Mary is also close enough to the Park to see an occasional bear. The major hotel in this town is Hugh Black’s. That’s not its name and Hugh has been gone for decades, but locals still call it that. One of the sons built a new detached multi-storied wing with family money, but when it came time to divide the inheritance, some family members demanded a larger share than he felt he deserved, since he had developed the idea. Legal measures deadlocked, so this son went into the building and stripped it: doorknobs, hatracks, toilet seats, wall-heaters -- all came out and were sold.

Ruth Johnson, Jeanette's friend, and her family have developed a different sort of presence based on a cafe and campground. She started the business in a little cabin on the highway and the family lived in a tent behind, alongside the supplies. If intruders got into the supplies, looking for booze but not finding any in this Methodist establishment, Ruth dealt with them harshly. I don’t mean a tongue lashing. Yet Ruth is probably the most trusted confidante of cowboys and ranchers up that way. I think they see her as an equal. Nowadays the family lives up the hill from the road but their well is just down from the Black dump, which is full of paint and preservative residue. They have been plagued by cancer.

The Johnsons have been the source of many teachers and administrators for the Browning schools. Ruth likes genealogy and has been quick to claim her heritage, which goes back to the Mayflower. To her, in spite of her family being mixed with Blackfeet, the Mayflower was the beginning of America.

sheltered no friend of Jeanette’s that I could think of. The tourist “industry” people there are a generation older than the ones in St. Marys or East Glacier. Thronson’s tried homesteading in the days when the new railroad was pulling in dreamers all along the Highline. When they went bust -- like everyone else -- they came to the Park and built small log cabins for tourists -- in those days a hardy bunch who wore jodphurs and laced boots to their knees. Every morning Thronsons carried over a bucket of water and armload of wood to each cabin. The sheets were washed by hand and ironed with the kind of iron one warms on the woodstove, so I don’t think they were changed daily. The log cabins are still there though not in use since the newer motel was built, the store is still there, and the Thronson’s granddaughter, who must be approaching fifty? by now, bought the Bob Scriver cabin which was halfway between St. Mary’s and Babb, about where the Winold Reiss art school was in the Twenties. Jeanette lived in that cabin and ran a little trinket shop in St. Mary to help finance the building of the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, now gone.

These towns at the interface between GNP and the reservation have always been “white” towns, but that’s changing. They’ve always been identified with the town's major families, but that’s changing, too. The feuds that used to be so bitter have been replaced by drug-fueled rages.

Jeanette’s friends. If you were casting them with movie stars, they’d be Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Ruth Roman. Women of substance and opinion. They got things done. In old age they are still formidable, and so was Jeanette, right up to the last.

1 comment:

Brian said...

This blog is fascinating stuff. You have gained a regular reader, that's for sure.

My maternal grandmother grew up on the Blackfeet reservation, and my mom and her sibings inherited my grandmother Cleo's trust land. Grandma Cline (as I knew her) was Cleo Cobell.

I really enjoy reading your posts about life on the reservation. Keep posting, and I'll keep reading.