What a fool I am! The author of “Dream Chasers of the West: A Homestead Family of Glacier Park”, namely Betty L. Wettstein, gave a reading and presentation about her book here in Valier -- but I missed it! Partly I didn’t realize it was about a woman I’d known about who was an eccentric who lived with chickens in a building I know very well, and partly I didn’t realize that in her early years she had been a clerk at the Browning Mercantile, Bob Scriver’s family’s business. Those are two strong connections I would have liked to explore.
Clara Augusta Miller Smiley was not unique and yet she was. Big strong women who strike out on their own, team up with a man who dies or leaves, and somehow make it through to old age in spite of huge economic difficulties, still live around here. Women who keep boxes of unpublishable stories they wrote, as Clara Smiley did, are also common among us. The genre of books about homesteaders, particularly the solo women, is a popular one among accomplished women of our time. Partly a certification of moral value, partly inspirational tracts, and partly sources of comfortable pleasure while reading about extreme circumstances, these books are a female form of domestic adventure parallel to the male genres of traveling exotic lands with hostile tribes.
East Glacier, once known as Midvale, is an ambiguous place -- not quite Glacier Park, not quite Blackfeet Reservation, totally different between seasons (a blissful short summer and winter so severe that no winter sports lodges have developed and people go a little crazy). It's served by generations of families who started hospitality businesses when homesteads failed. It’s the location of one of the Great Northern’s huge elegant log hotels on the railroad (America’s Switzerland) and the winter home of rangers and biologists who are happiest when the snow is up to their eaves. It’s story-spawning country.
Bob Scriver (b. 1914) knew the place well, partly because of the band at Mike’s Place and partly because of the Carberry family, whose fabulous collection of Blackfeet artifacts was spread on tables as a summer pop-up museum in Mike's Place, though they lived in Blackfoot, a railroad town that has since faded away. (The collection went to the Field Museum in Chicago.) Charlie Beil, an outstanding “cowboy sculptor” who finally settled in Banff, was part of the street performance of a gang of robbers, supposedly using blanks, though at least once there was a real bullet hole in his tapadero (the cover over his stirrup) which harmed neither he nor his horse. The stories of that area can be sliced six ways to Sunday but they aren’t even close to exhausted by books so far.
Among my favs are “A Woman’s Way West: In and Around Glacier National Park from 1925 to 1990” by John Fraley, “Growing up in Glacier Park” by Floyd W. “Bud” Lutz, Jr., and the old classic “Through Glacier Park in 1915,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart. No one has yet written the story of the Blackfeet families there except for Andrew Graybill’s account of “The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West”, which is crucial to the story of this Blackfeet tribe and others. The Malcolm Clarke family’s Dawes allotment is the land where the town and the hotel were built. Helen Clarke lived behind the hotel and John Clarke’s wood-carving studio was just up the way.
Betty Wettstein is an elementary school teacher who was close to the family of Clara Smiley back in Minnesota, where they had accumulated boxes of letters and stories meant to be published that never were. English was her second language (she grew up speaking German) and in later years cataracts destroyed her vision, so that her handwriting went off the page, overlapped, and wandered so that it was very difficult to read. It is a salute to Betty Wettstein’s persistence and ingenuity that she managed to get sense out of them, helped by the oral tradition of the family.
Homesteading in general, and the stories of specific people and places in particular, break open artesian springs of memory, speculation, fabulous tales, and all sorts of opinion and inspiration. My own father’s family homesteaded in Faulkton, SD, but they were Scots. Their journals read like bookkeeping. Clara, who didn’t look so much the fair maiden, had the heart of a Victorian sweetheart, bursting with romance and undergirded with steel determination. A farm girl, she declared she was happiest with a hoe in her hands -- lucky, since she did one heckuva lot of hoeing.
Her chronicler, Betty Wettstein, has a German love of the mystical landscape and embroiders the simple acts of maintenance in a harsh place (quicksand, blizzards, fires of both prairie and forest, bears and cougars) with dramatic descriptions even of the tough places. Here’s Clara stepping off the train in Rudyard: “Small businesses with dusty windows peered into the deepening twilight as the wind whipped across the platform and dust devils twirled like dervishes, howling and whining, disappearing into the distance as replacements chased behind in an endless game of tag through the stories before churning out over the prairie.” The style is not contemporary. It uses personification, lots of adjectives, flights of fancy, complex sentences full of dramatic verbs. The middle class feels this is the way writing ought to be. (Ernest Hemingway was a naughty boy. Nothing to do with us.) The fact that a book is about "real" people is important to the bourgeois.
Here’s a description of Clara’s first night at Lake Lubec, which is just a few miles beyond East Glacier along the highway paralleling the railroad through Marias Pass. (One of the reasons for the existence of East Glacier was that to cross the mountains in the early days, one loaded the automobile onto a flatbed car for the transit. Today people whiz past Lake Lubec with barely a glance at the remaining log structure.) “Darkness had enveloped the alpine valley when they ventured outside. Crossing the meadow to the edge of the lake, they stood hand in hand beneath the glittering pavilion of stars and studied the heavens searching for Orion, the North Star, the Big Dipper. Across the breathless stillness, the haunting question of a great horned owl drifted from the forest and lingered on the air, meadow mice scuttled beneath the grass, the mournful howl of a wolf echoed from the hills.” It’s romance novel writing. Like “Outlander” -- which my Scots cousins love.
Both writers and readers can sink into the spell of imagining such a scene, esp. the part about hand-in-hand. The writing is a kind much admired in certain circles: embroidered, conventional, inspiring. There’s nothing wrong with that. When I called the author and also the present occupants of the Brown House, I was almost blown away by the instant response of story, opinion, revelations, little known facts, and personal experience. It’s a layer of shared sentiment, something like patriotism, and the core that powers people through very tough times. Close to religious faith. Tourists have no idea. Neither do academics.
The Brown House is relevant because it was where Clara Smiley lived an impoverished old age, happy to be with story-telling friends in what was close to a classic campfire setting around a stove. They had witnessed -- now they testified. A humble but classic little building, it was reinvigorated when Terry and Susie McMasters, made it a pottery shop and studio. Terry creates classic bowl shapes in soft colors and Susie presents them in vignettes among the tableau of the original Smiley “Glacier Cash Grocery” arranged with small proud remnants brought in by locals.
My own checkered past has not been so desperate as Clara’s but when I was in need of a place to park my van for the summer, I imposed myself on Susie’s delphinium and daisy borders. Over the years -- because of Terry’s vision and woodworking skills and Susie’s taste and housekeeping -- the Brown House has become a popular summer refuge for tourists to rent rooms. But I doubt that many of them have slept on the foldout sofa where Gulley Jimson, the big gentle husky mix, guarded my day-clothes but not well enough to keep a packrat from stealing my underwear. (A sample of MY endless story supply.)
Ms. Wettstein included none of the violence, arson, erotics, and drunkenness of the reality, but most of us are not in need of more of those elements. Rather, this is the Great Dream of the American Middle Class that fancies itself as virtuous and deserving because of overcoming hardship. And it is -- mostly. Here and there. (No Indians appear in this story.)