Thursday, February 26, 2015


Winter in East Glacier

This time of year in East Glacier things used to get a little, um, exciting.  I’m talking about the post WWII years.  You could read some of the stories in “Dream Chasers of the West” by B.L. Wettstein, (2006, Riverbend Publishing), although the author is writing about the WWI years.  It was so primitive in those days that Clara Augusta Miller Smiley, who had already homesteaded in Minnesota, was repeating the feat in a cabin that could only be reached by jumping off the train when it slowed down to go uphill around a curve.  Not from a boxcar, but from the coach, because there was no depot and no dependable road.  Even when Clara came home from the hospital with her new baby, the only way to get it home in winter with the road drifted shut was to throw the infant off the train into the arms of a dependable man.  The bright side was that if he missed, the snowdrifts would cushion the baby’s fall.  Today you can see that place from the Marias Pass Highway #2 just before you get to Summit. The buildings are gone, I guess.  In old age she moved into East Glacier and her buildings became the Brown House, a pottery shop and bed and breakfast.

East Glacier is not the same as West Glacier, but they are both born of the enterprises of James J. Hill, Jr, and therefore children of the railroad. The sibs are nothing alike.  East Glacier can be one helluva bleak place in winter, even now, though the Browning teachers often live up there these days.  I rented a house there in the spring of 1971, a two-story yellow house built in the Thirties that I dearly loved, not least because I had just survived a divorce and a winter in our little ranch house on Two Medicine River which I also dearly loved.  But then I’m a nester -- luckily, a serial nester.

The viaduct underpass

East Glacier is bisected by the railroad.  The train only stops there in the summer because it is the feeder for the Big Hotel which is only open in the summer.  There is only one way to cross from the mountain side of town to the highway side and in a really fierce winter (and the one in 1972-73 was worse than this one -- ask the weather stat people) the crossing viaduct under the train tracks can be problematic.  That year, the sewer, which runs under the road, froze, broke, and filled the road with steaming water that instantly froze onto the undercarriage of any vehicle that ventured across it.


In the Fifties when everyone was already dislocated and forced out of their familiar conventional patterns, one side of town would get into a sort of enmeshed quarrel with the other side.  They stole each other’s wives, ran up too-high bills, neglected their children, and -- well, drank too much.  That’s when the two sides are rumored to attempt to burn each other out, though it might be that things just got over-heated in several senses.  Thus there had to be two grocery stores:  “Brownies” in the bottom of an old log dormitory built to shelter the railroad construction workers and “Krska’s” or the “Glacier Park Trading Company.”   They survive today, though “Brownies” is now a youth hostel upstairs and a very rewarding bakery downstairs.  In the old days no Brownie’s customer would trade at Krska’s unless he gotten into a fight on the mountain side of the tracks, nor would any of Krska’s people trade at Brownies unless his wife had run off with someone on his own side.


In the Seventies when I was divorced, there was financial trouble and population shrinkage all along the High Line.  Major changes were underway in Browning, the capital of the Blackfeet Reservation.  One was subsidized housing projects which caused the little old houses, like the ones I had lived in, to be demolished.  Moccasin Flats was partly demolished and partly sort of overbuilt so the little log cabins were crowded among newer buildings.  This meant that the white teachers had to find housing in East Glacier.  Until then, the Board would fire them unless they lived in town or on a family ranch.

The other dynamic that stretched along Highway #2 to the east was businesses that had been founded in the boom after WWII when veterans returned to start small businesses and marry Indian ranch women who were enrolled and nicely situated.  These were big handsome white guys with real world experience.  Their mixed-blood children have become major leaders in the half-century since then.  But in the Seventies the parent generation was aging, wanting to retire, selling out, or -- the saddest aspect -- running their businesses to failure because no one would buy them.  That is, they stopped maintaining buildings and inventories, let their tax bills run up, discovered that their children would not stay, and -- well, began drinking too much.  When I came to Browning to teach in 1961, Joe Lewis’ cafe was one of the nicest in town.  Now it is Ick’s, a source of abusable substances and street quarrels.  The image of Napi that Al Racine painted on the wall of the building is still there, but he ain’t eatin‘ no short stack no more. 

Great Northern Railroad, paralleling Highway #2

Things are a little better in Valier, so some rez folks are moving here.  It’s just off the rez so teachers can live here and still teach in Heart Butte.  There is no equivalent to Ick’s, at least where anyone can detect it.  In fact, this time the running to failure is more like consolidating the wealth.  The prosperous ranchers don’t live in town, but own town businesses, often collecting the better ones into the strongest families.  The rich get richer and the poor just hang on.  The churches can’t support a local minister, but protect their buildings.  Ministers and priests travel among three or four congregations, which is what I did in the Eighties.  The bars ran to failure.  Gone.  A few other businesses begin to struggle.

Bob divorced me in the fall of 1970 but I just ignored him for a while.  I was too confused to make decisions, though I’d asked him to get the divorce because he was terrified that I would divorce him and be able to take all his money.  He had bought a little ranch on Two Medicine, a couple of miles from the highway, so I went out there for the winter to let my head clear.  It was a thistle-and-gravel ranch since the flood of 1964 removed all the topsoil, but our horses were fine with that.  Their biggest problem was boredom  -- excluding hay, of course -- which they resolved by watching me move around in the house.  When I went from kitchen to front room, there were thundering hooves outside while they raced around to the window on that side.  Reality TV.   In spring I went back to teaching and moved to East Glacier.

Three developments happened without me really noticing.  One was that the alcoholic woman who took a run at Bob after his second divorce but didn't get anywhere, did better this time.  He was aging.  She moved right in with him and ended up being the fourth wife by common law, the widow.  The second was that the big rodeo series, which I had helped develop and cast, sold as a complete series to the Calgary Stampede or its collateral investors.  It was a LOT of money, enough to buy the Flatiron Ranch.  The third was that the divorce law changed in Montana and was far more generous to wives as well as including common-law wives.  But I just ignored all that.  I wanted a graduate degree and went back to Portland.  People around here were baffled -- one’s CHILDREN went to college and what the hell was a grad school anyway?  Was it worth money?

Flatiron Ranch

Since then Browning has gained a tribal community college.  Valier has a booming library, looking at expansion.  More and more people not only own computers but can operate them, which means that a lot of what happens is invisible, underground, unmonitored except by the internet megamedia.  The sheriff has proceeded upwards to being a county commissioner, our best deputy has left his job, and I don’t know about the other law officers (border patrol, homeland security) who live in town.  We’re not as secure as we were for a while.  The expected boom in housing that was supposed to follow frakking has gone out with the tide, the wind farm somehow doesn’t seem to be connected to us, and the water rights that sustain wheat farming are threatened by the activation of sovereign rights the rez had all along, but never developed.

People are scared.  They act badly.  They fort up and cocoon.  East Glacier still does that, too, but -- maybe because of the tourist summers -- they tend to lean to the left instead of the right and that’s all the difference.  What both communities have in common is that they know sex is fun but money means a lot more.  In the half-century since I came, that has seemed to be about right.  Not so many drink too much, but some have turned to drugs of one kind or another.  Or are hooked on bodice-ripper romance.

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