Dreaming of returning to ‘sunny skies’ and ‘white-capped mountains’
Submitted by Barbara Merriman
I had no choice but to leave Montana to attend medical school in Summer of 2009.
It was so stressful to be away from such a beautiful place, for four years of grueling studies taking 28 credits per semester… but I have stayed in touch with my friends in Montana and subscribed to Montana Magazine as a reward.
Now I am two years into my residency training in Pennsylvania, and dreaming of the day in two more years when I can return to the state I love once again.
For now, I dream of Montana’s sunny skies, white-capped mountains, clear, dry air, healthy residents, outdoor recreation, and perfect climate, until I can return for the last time and finally be home.
‘It is not where I grew old, but it is where I grew up’
Submitted by Mack W. Borgen
I left Montana this month. Probably for the last time. I refuse to be sad, but even as I sit in the warmth of the California sun, I miss Montana. I always will.
For now, I just need to get this story down before the sights, the sounds, the thick quiet of the woods, and the many memories of my Montana fade with time.
I am not objective about Montana – for I am a part of it, and it is a part of me. It is not where I grew old, but it is where I grew up.
It is impossible to well describe Montana. It is more than the high mountains, the rivers and lakes, the deep forests, the dark winters, and the endless summers. Words cannot capture the expanse of the big skies, the open miles of the Big Open, or what it is like to drop down Paradise Valley into the Clark Fork, to cross over Chief Joseph Pass into the Bitterroot Valley, to watch the clouds creep over the Swan Range, to drive the paved ribbon of the Hi-Line, or to feel the sweeping winds of the plains.
The names and memories in my reflections just keep coming. Cut Bank and Plentywood, Roundup and Red Lodge, Missoula and Miles City, Big Timber and Butte and Bozeman. The Gallatin and the Beaverhead, the Flathead and the Yellowstone, the Musselshell and the Missouri – and yeh, in Montana, the Missouri is a river, not a state.
Montana, like all places, has its problems. There are school yard bullies. There are barking dogs and grumpy neighbors. There are rainstorms that won’t quit, and everyone gets a bit of the lonelies every now and then. Like all places, there are some stubborn bureaucrats, and I have had good and dear friends suffer from the whims and wrongs of conflicted, small-town politicians. Worse yet, good jobs are hard to find, and the bars stay open far longer than the churches. Too many quarters are dropped at the roadside casinos, and too many dollars are spent on payday beers. Some say that Montana itself has been lost ever since the mines were closed and the logging was shut down. Maybe it’s not surprising that Montana doesn’t really know what to do with the flocking tourists or the shopping Canadians who flood the borders. And Walmarts and strip centers have carved their way into the skyline, and the roads can get choked with RVs — but it is still good and the greatest wonder of Montana is not the ridgelines, the mountain trails, or the fishing. It is the people.
Montana is a tough place to live – wonderfully so. And maybe that too is part of the reason that Montana is home to some of the best people – best in all of the ways that matter.
Montana is where all of my family — three generations now – are buried and where the rest of us will join them soon enough. And Montana is home to some of my best friends — best, again, in all of the ways that matter. I have been blessed with knowing an artist friend who paints glory onto canvas and spreads a caring radiance wherever he goes. Another friend of mine from high school moved to Montana many years ago and, with his wife and family, built an incredible home and life deep in the woods – not off the road, but deep in the woods.
I have lived there so long that I have outlasted most of my neighbors, now long deceased, who read their way and hobbied their lives though the long winters and who came out each spring and re-planted their gardens.
I have lived there long enough to watch my son play baseball and football – night after night – in the cold, pouring rain – never thinking to stop or pausing to complain.
I lived there long enough to know my stretch of the river like the back of my hand; to watch geese hover on ice shelves and bald eagles drift downriver on ice floes; to see my wife feed the deer and track the animals in the snow; and to hold my breath as my son dove to the cold river bottom just to snag a few turtles to keep as one-hour pets.
But again, it’s the people.
There’s a lot of talk in our society about entitlement and taking, but there’s little sense of either in Montana. The people have their hopes. They say their prayers. But they keep their dreams close – like the personal treasures which they are. The people ask for little, and they don’t expect much. Flash is for losers, and boasting has no place. Maybe it’s OK elsewhere, but in Montana people aren’t allowed to round the truth or break their word. Handshakes still means something.
People expect to work; embrace the hardships. They ride with their truck dogs and keep an eye on their winter money. Fathers work. Mothers work. Nothing is really easy, and everybody has two jobs. The lucky ones have three. People split their rounds for firewood; shovel their snow tunnels to the door; shop in the thrift stores; bring food to the needy, and help out their neighbors whenever they can.
Our babysitter gets up in the dark and waits for her school bus every morning. She waits in the cold; standing solitary in the dark and at the end of her road. Some days she’s lucky, and it’s not raining. Some days she’s lucky, and it’s not snowing. And she never thinks twice about the 45-minute ride to school – or the 45-minute ride home at the end of her day.
When compared with the hustle and bustle of the cities, some of the highlights of Montana life seem modest — the IGA chicken, the Dairy Queen that never closes, and the county fairs and Fourth of July parades that are a big things.
You can’t get Montana onto a postcard, but if you are lucky – as I have been – you can keep the memories and try to be better. But, once again and as said so often, it’s all good.
Maybe this story is too sloppy, too touchy, too feely — but even those words are city words, and a head bob from the neighbor down the road is still a lot better than another eblast from Macy’s or press release from Goldman Sachs.
It’s not my place really, but in closing, allow me to encourage you to find your own Montana. Montana is not the only Last Best Place. Yours may be in the mountains of Colorado, in the woods of Maine, or in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina, but almost wherever it is, your Montana is there for you. Don’t get buried in the clamor and procrastination of life. Don’t listen to what “they” say. Wherever your Montana is — you can still get there …. from wherever you are now.
Robert Sallee: A tribute to the final Mann Gulch survivor
Submitted by Philip Downs
- Read more aboubt Robert Sallee here
Robert Sallee passed away this past May 26. His name may not be familiar to you, but it is a name that stirs my soul, floods me with memories of my father, and causes me to reflect on the quiet strength Mr. Sallee exemplified.
When you are 10years old the world is a huge, fascinating place full of energy and possibility. Ten-year-old children are fully engaged in the process of measuring themselves against it. They swim, run, climb, experiment with the laws of physics and get dirty exploring all that God has provided just for them. The intensity brought to bear in these activities is due to an unconscious awareness in the back of their minds of Ernest Becker’s famous quote, “to live fully is to live with the awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
The world is never bigger than it is to a 10 year old and, when the rumble of terror reveals itself, the lessons it teaches them are intense and can capture their imaginations for their entire lives.
My father and I both spent our childhood summers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in our respective tenth years, the rumble of terror captured our imaginations and continued to haunt and teach us.
For me, it was the 1975 wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There are few little boys who are not fascinated by the Legend of Big Fitz. That I have seen third grade art projects, lovingly created, with Gordon Lightfoot’s commemorative song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” playing on a loop as background music, testifies to the visceral attraction of nature’s fury and the emotional shock of mankind’s failure to overcome it. The mysteries conjured by that November night never let go of the children who hear their siren calls. My son played a cassette tape of Mr. Lightfoot’s classic song until it broke. For my son, how the cassette broke is yet another mystery grown out of a fateful night. But not for me…I can only take so much.
In 1949, a small fire in Montana near the Gates of the Rockies turned into an inferno within minutes, killed 13 elite smokejumpers, scarred the lives of three others, and radically changed the study and practice of fighting forest fires. This was the Mann Gulch fire and was my father’s rumble of terror.
When I was 27, Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” was posthumously published. My father rushed out and bought two copies of the book, one for him and one for me. The book is a fabulous telling of the Mann Gulch fire, part history, part science, part philosophic, and part mystery novel. We read the book together and had long discussions about it: Maclean’s fantastic prose, the beauty of the terrain, the romance of the smokejumpers, the terrifying accounts of the fire, the fascinating science. We were 10 years old again.
Viktor Frankl said we can discover meaning in our lives in three different ways: by creating a work or performing a task; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Ten year old boys don’t spend much time thinking about finding meaning in their lives. But 27-year-old men with two children are forced into it. The obsession of my father’s youth began to gnaw at me in ways very different from my Big Fitz fascination. Ten year old boys view the disaster as the main character. I now found the people’s reactions to the disaster as the main focus.
Mr. Sallee was 17 at the time of the Mann Gulch fire. He was a member of the elite Smokejumpers of the U.S. Forest Service. The Smokejumpers’ job was to parachute into fires in remote areas and contain them before they could grow into major fires. They were first class, top notch, incredibly tough woodsmen. Unlike other firefighting outfits, they were trained to think on their feet and to improvise. They were the John Coltrane of the firefighting world. They were the best. For a boy spending summers in the woods of the Upper Peninsula, they were the ideal of what a guy was supposed to be ‑ either that or play for the Detroit Tigers; preferably both.
In what must have been a horrific 10 minutes, the small fire they had jumped on blew up into a fire that consumed the entire gulch. As the fire chased the Smokejumpers up Mann Gulch, Wag Dodge, the leader of the Smokejumpers, in a moment of desperate improvisation, lit a fire ahead of himself and tried to get his teammates to lie down in the ashes with him as the big fire passed around. The rest of the team, driven by terror, continued to run up the very steep gulch. Sallee and another Smokejumper named Walter Rumsey were cut off by Dodge’s escape fire and had to turn to their left. They were able to reach a rocky ridge and slide through a crack in the rock to safety. The three were the only Smokejumpers to survive: one through gut instinct and the other two by blind luck. Once the fire was out, Sallee helped to remove his brother Smokejumpers from the gulch.
How was he able to do that? How did he deal with the controversy and attacks on his character in the inevitable post-tragedy finger-pointing? Robert Sallee made a few more jumps and then left the smokejumpers to work in the paper industry. He went to college and worked his way up in the industry. He got married and had a son. In 1978, Norman Maclean talked him into a return trip to Mann Gulch as Maclean was working on the book. After the Storm Mountain fire in 1994, he began to publically speak about the Mann Gulch fire and became a soft-spoken advocate for firefighter safety.
I never knew him, but Mr. Sallee’s quiet strength, his toughness, his pursuit of meaning in the life he was given on that slope in 1949 in the face of unspeakable horror are an example to me. We don’t need to be giant figures on the pages of a history book to be heroes. All we are to do is to jump out of a figurative airplane into the smoke of our lives, improvise in pursuit of a purpose or meaning, and hopefully watch our children experience the excitement of this beautiful world as they measure themselves against it and learn its lessons.
A poem for the Big Sky State
Submitted by John Hartlieb, Whitefish
Photo by John Harwood Photography
Always dreaming of a better life,
one lifted by the soaring mountains
capped eternally with snow in
time and photos, I had to go.
I believed those that came before me,
drawn down the long road to the west.
Fool I was, thinking I would find peace
everlasting in the Montana.
Who also the fool, bequeathing
the word on unsuspecting souls.
Was it meant to draw me in,
the very word rising above all else,
lifting my spirits with visions
of pinnacles reaching ever upward.
Heaven is promised for all souls.
If only I could turn back time
and get it right.
Observe, the beauty is not from above.
It lies within the life giving fields of green,
grains of gold or seasonal colors ever changing.
The waters, cool and clear, turning,
twisting ever slowly, allow the soul
the time to accept life everlasting. . .
falsely promised by the higher appointed one.
It is from here, the gentle rolling terrain,
the real state of mine should arise,
the Flathead, Bitterroot, Big Hole,
the Gallatin and Paradise, all ignored and
overlooked by those that decreed before.
My promised land is not the Spanish word for mountain,
I would grant it forever the Spanish word. . . Valle,
for I now believe Montana is most beautiful in its valleys.
Memories of Moore
Submitted by Jo Anne Russell Pauling
Dear 1930s Moore Montana,
Lately, I’ve been dropping off to sleep, thinking of you.
There couldn’t have been a better place for little kids to grow up, a place where they knew all the adults in town by name, where they lived, where they worked, … knew all the kids, their ages and names, had the run of the town, just as long as they got back in time for meals.
As far as I know, you had the only school playground with giant-strides. I spent many
happy hours alone, running and coasting on them.
Just wanted you to know, I haven’t forgotten you.
Thanks for the memories,
Jo Anne Russell Pauling
Jo Anne Russell was born in Great Falls in 1932 and raised in Moore and Helena. She graduated from Helena High School in 1950, and went to the University of Montana where she met and married a wonderful Canadian, George Pauling.
Written and submitted by Willena Burton
Queenie had been gone for four days.
I could hardly wait for four o’clock and dismissal from the small one-room school that I, my younger sister, Pug, and two older brothers, Abe and Doc, attended in the Bull Mountains of Montana. There was a place that we hadn’t searched yet, and when Doc finally joined me after school we struck out for a coulee by the river where we had so often hunted rabbits with Queenie, a small brown and white fox terrier.
The snow, left by the first Chinook wind, was deep and heavy crusted with ice. Soon that snow would be icy rivulets racing into the coulees, filling the trails and falling over the cut banks in miniature waterfalls.
Deep in thought, I followed Doc’s tracks in the drifted snow. I knew that Queenie, an inveterate hunter, often went into the hills by herself, returning late in the afternoon, exhausted, her wiry fur matted with the orange-brown pulp of old rotten logs.
Queenie loved chasing rabbits. Although she never caught one, she never gave up trying, digging her way into the log where the rabbit was hiding.
It was beginning to get dark when Doc and I reached the snow-choked coulee. Though we searched for any sign of life, the only tracks to be found were those of a pack of coyotes or wolves. We called hopefully, but only hollow echoes of our voices came back. Disappointed and tired we turned back, floundering through the snow crusts that sometimes gave way and plunged us waist deep into the drifted snow banks.
“There’s one good thing about it anyway, Doc, Queenie is so light she can walk on top of the drifts,” I said hopefully. Doc looked skeptical but said nothing.
We were nearly home when we heard the wolves. The high-pitched nearness of the howls, echoing in the cold, dry air sent a shiver up my spine. Wolves were common in the mountains around us but they had never been known to harm anyone, even the livestock. There was plenty of other small prey, such as mice and rabbits to satisfy them. I drew closer to my brother and fear gave wings to our feet as we hurried on to the welcoming lamplight ahead and Mom’s anxious face pressed against the kitchen window.
With questioning looks in their eyes every head turned as we came stamping snow from our overshoes. I could feel them thinking,
“How can she be so sure that Queenie will come back? Doesn’t she know that Queenie is probably already dead?”
Everyone was quiet, knowing the search had been unsuccessful. Silently Mom filled our plates as we joined the rest of the family around the table.
I knew that all of us believed that prayers were answered, especially Daddy. I also remembered that Daddy had told us that sometimes God said, “No.”
I had already run this and a hundred other things through by mind, and after all had been duly considered, I knew that God would take care of Queenie and send her home to me.
Daddy was always the last one to go to bed. I could hear him walking around as he banked the fire and turned down the kerosene lamp. Then, I could hear him scraping frost from the window and thought, “Daddy’s looking for Queenie, too.”
I lay wide-eyed after saying my prayers and listened to the wind sigh through the pines, the creaking of the windmill and the yipping howls of the coyotes. Slipping out of bed, I scratched a patch of frost from the window and stared out into the clear winter night, searching the shadows. The sparkly-bright snow glowed in the moonlight and every star in the universe seemed to be out.
“Queenie can see her way home,” I thought with some relief as I jumped back into the flannel sheets, freeze-dried and sweet smelling. I fell asleep, dreaming of winter wheat, oatmeal cooking on the stove, and Queenie. All the sudden, Queenie was licking my face and I turned away laughing, trying to escape that rough little tongue! Someone was shaking me and Queenie was still licking my face!
I didn’t want to give up my dream, but the gentle shake was insistent. Was I awake or was I dreaming?
Daddy was sitting on the edge of the bed, his face soft and unguarded. “She ate four fried eggs! She must have hung up in a rotten log and starved her way out,” the words came out in a rush!
“I knew she’d come home, I just knew it!” I said.
Half laughing, half crying, I hugged her skinny, fur-matted little body close. The whole family came awake, crowding into the room to exclaim over Queenie’s miraculous return. As she was passed from one to another she basked in the attention she was getting and wagged her tail weakly.
After everyone but Daddy had gone happily to bed, Queenie snuggled down comfortably in “her” spot on the pillow. Suddenly she sat up and took stock of her surroundings, which included Daddy’s formidable presence.
Remembering former scoldings, she scuttled under the covers to the very foot of the bed. Feigning a look of stern disapproval, considering a “dog” in the bed, Daddy’s face broke into a resigned smile as he closed the door behind him.
Queenie squirmed from under the covers and with a tremendous sigh of relief settled herself back on the pillow beside me. And again, I fell asleep to dream of tomorrow, of sunshine and Chinook winds, of melting snow and waterfalls, of crocuses and pine-covered mountains to climb with Queenie and the reassurance that, with God, all things are possible for those who believe in Him.
August in Montana
Written and submitted by Kirsten Billingsley
There is an argument that, because they pass on the July crop in favor of chokecherries, bears do not like huckleberries. This is nonsense. The bears know that the larger, sweeter huckleberries that appear in August are worth the wait. Huckleberries are the grand finale of the mountain berry season. Bears simply save the best for last. I, too, am a huckleberry snob and have been since I was little. The year I turned 3, we lived smack in the middle of a huckleberry heaven.
In 1965, East Portal was a Milwaukee Railroad substation, tucked away in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. The tiny community consisted of two small houses, one for the substation manager and one for the electrician’s family; a bunk house for maintenance workers; and a brick building full of the wires, conduits and transformers that kept the trains running. The railroad tracks were only a few yards from the creaky wooden front porch of our house. You could hear the trains coming long before they arrived and, for some time after, you watched the caboose disappear into the woods. My father was employed as the substation electrician.
The morning of my birthday, my father prepared for a walk in the woods in search of berries for a much-anticipated huckleberry pie ala mode. After supplying the two of us with plastic ice cream buckets, my mother warned us to be careful of bears.
“Claws” raised above his head, my father growled a deep bear growl. The two of us laughed while mother shook her head.
The memory ends after we stepped across to the other side of the tracks. I do remember, from other huck hunts and hikes of my youth, that the forest ground in late summer is covered with dry evergreen needles that fill the air with the scent of pine as they crunch under your feet, mixing with hints of wild mushroom, grasses and earth, inviting you to breathe a little deeper.
As you hike, you feel rocks, twigs and packed dirt under your feet. If your huck hunt is rewarded with a berry patch, and you don’t hear the grumbled warnings or rustling of a grizzly bear, your buckets fill much more quickly if you do not eat the berries as you pick.
My older brother Tim always did just that – unrepentantly. It takes a stronger will than my brother possesses for the berry to make the trip from bush to bucket. There is nothing more intoxicating than deeply inhaling the sweet, tart aroma of a bucket full of fresh wild huckleberries; their scent more than hinting of their bold flavor. If left unattended, he would sneak berries picked by others as well.
Several years ago I visited my childhood home for the first time since I was 3. Now known as The Hiawatha Trail recreation area, East Portal, Montana remains just as I remembered it: a magically colorful and aromatic micro-climate of fairy story proportions. The railroad tracks have been removed, but the imposing 50 foot, rough, blackened wood tunnel door remains – as does the breathtakingly beautiful woodland of my childhood. One need only walk a few steps out of the warm sun into the cool shade to hear the creek that feeds into the Clark Fork River. Along the banks of the creek are lacy ferns, soft moss and a mixture of sweetly scented delicate wild flowers.
As I had as a child, I picked a bouquet of paint brush, glacier lilies and phlox. To retrieve lavender harebells and columbine for me, my younger brother Stephen braved the slippery wet rocks of the “crick,” as the Montana boy in him still pronounces it.
When I returned to Utah, I placed the flowers in my curio, on top of the brick I took from the pile of rubble that marks the place where my father died of electrocution on Nov. 9, 1965; three weeks after Stephen’s birth, and three months after my third birthday.
Whenever I return home to the mountain air of Montana, or hike in the woods, or taste huckleberries, or hear a train, I am transported back to a perfect August day from my childhood.
Who says you can’t go home again?
Submitted By Pamela Zortman-Rogers
It was the winter of 2005 and I was sitting at a file cluttered desk in my law office when the phone rang.
At that time, I had been practicing law for about 5 years in a large city 30 miles north of Boston. I expected the call to be from a client or from someone related to a client’s case but instead I heard a woman‘s voice with an accent that I wasn’t yet familiar with.
“Is this Pam Zortman?” she said with a soft almost Midwestern twang but with a Southern twist. Definitely not the Boston accent I was used to, especially since she had pronounced the “r” in Zortman. Even more unusual than the accent, the woman was using my maiden name which I myself hadn’t used since my marriage some 7 years prior.
I hesitantly replied in the affirmative.
“Well this is Candy Kalal. I’m from Zortman, Montana. I got your name from a relative of yours and she told me to call you.”
At this point in time, she had my full attention, not an easy feat.
“Zortman Montana!” I said with a shock, considering that Montana is clear across the country from where I sat in Massachusetts AND that the town shared the same name I was born with. My mind immediately went back to something my Grandpop had told me years earlier when I was a young girl.
He said there was a town out West, in somewhere like Iowa or Wyoming, maybe Montana, and it was named after a relative. He said it was a big gold mining town and went on to tell me about a fortune that his distant cousin had found in gold. I can remember listening in awe to a tale that seemed to me, to be as magical as Cinderella.
When I got a little older, I researched this seemingly tall tale and found out my Grandpop was right. There was a gold mining town in Montana named Zortman, after Oliver “Pete” Zortman, a distant relative of mine.
Candy continued on despite my lack of conversation due to the peculiarity of the call and the wandering of my mind to times long gone by.
“We want to dig up Pete Zortman and have him buried back here in Zortman and we need your help.”
Now I was laughing to myself, the call had gone from surprising to crazy.
How could I possibly help? Did she need to borrow a shovel to dig up a dead body? And who was the relative that gave Candy my name and number, I’d have to call them later and share a snarky “Thanks”!
“Wow!” I said, unsure as to what else to say. With trepidation, I continued, “How can I help you?”
“Well, old Pete is buried in Big Timber and we need a blood relative to fill out some forms with the town clerk to have his remains dug up. ince you’re a lawyer and a blood relative, your cousin Lois told us to call you.”
I paused for a moment, while all this sounded logical, it also sounded insane.
“So you want me to call the clerk and then fill out the forms?” I was kidding myself if I thought this was the only involvement I would have in bringing Pete home.
And that’s how this crazy and fun journey began for Candy and I.
Along the way, we filled in some historical blanks, solved a mystery, made new friends and found a member of the family that we didn’t even know existed.
Oliver “Pete” Zortman
“Pete” was born Oliver Zortman in 1865 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
He descended from Alexander Zartmann, the Zortman family’s patriarch in America. Alexander had two sons, Alexander II and Jacob. Pete and I both hail from the Alexander II branch of the family.
Our family history book states that Pete went west looking for gold. And after many attempts, Pete did find gold and he struck it rich, running a successful mining company in the town that would soon be named after him.
He married Rose Finn, a Wisconsin born school teacher and they had two daughters, Lucille and Helen. It is noted in a history book that Pete is one of only a few men who left Montana with a “good sized fortune.”
Not much is known about Pete after that. We do know he was a Mason from the Chinook lodge and when he was buried in Big Timber in a pauper’s grave, he received Masonic last rights.
It appears that Pete died alone in 1933 from prostate cancer.
So as crazy as it all seemed, I was on board with the disinterment of Pete’s body in Big Timber. I can remember placing the call to the town hall, it went something like this, “Uh, Hi…My name is Pam Zortman. I want to have the body of Pete Zortman dug up from his grave and I was told to call you.”
It was awkward to say the least.
Since my dad was still alive and technically one generation closer to Pete than myself, I had him fill out the clerk’s forms and I returned them to Big Timber.
We were told that Pete had been buried in a “pauper’s grave” in a local cemetery. There was no sign of a grave for his wife, Rose, or of his two daughters, Lucille and Helen.
Where they were was a complete mystery to us, one that would not get looked into until a later date. But first, we had a body to dig up and bring home.
Since I live about 2300 miles from Zortman, I was only able to help by making calls and sending emails.
I would wait patiently for Candy’s calls or emails and revel in all the details of the big Homecoming scheduled for August.
I contacted lots of Zortmans, from Fowler, Kansas to Hollywood, California, about the big event. I would tell them what was planned, see if they could make it and get them in touch with Candy if they could.
We wanted to make sure that lots of Zortmans were at the event. And since Zortman is so remote, we knew that only a few relatives would actually make the trip.
In late August, Candy let me know when Pete was dug up. A few days before the big Homecoming, some local veterinarians went to Big Timber and had a back hoe dig into the just located area where Pete was buried.
After awhile, they hit some wood splinters and some bone.
Apparently the casket had broken into pieces under the weight of water and dirt over some 72 years. But the body was found and brought back in a new casket. Pete was kept in the town fire hall for the big day.
On Aug. 27, Pete Zortman Days began in the tiny town.
I was told by a few relatives who were there that the event was moving. The ability to return a person’s remains to his rightful spot on earth was powerful.
A horse drawn carriage took Pete to the Zortman cemetery. A gravestone paid for by local Masons marked Pete’s final resting place.
I couldn’t make it to the Homecoming due to work but I read about it online and received calls and pictures from candy and relatives that were there. I was a bit surprised when the reburial made news around the world.
The Final Resting Place
I was finally able to make it to Zortman in July of 2013. On a beautiful July day, my husband, John, and I drove from Lewistown to Zortman and just stared in amazement at the beauty that surrounded us as we drove.
Living in the Northeast we are not accustomed to long flat drives on empty highways. Nor are we accustomed to the sheer beauty of big sky country. It was possibly the most amazing drive of my life. I was in awe.
After about an hour and a half we came across a sign on Highway 191 that said “Zortman” and my heart skipped a beat.
The place that my Grandpop had told me stories about, that I had researched myself as a young adult and then that had come to life through my talks with Candy Kalal was now becoming a reality. We drove down seven mile road, which looked to us like an abandoned dirt road leading to nowhere.
We went directly to the Zortman Motel and we were greeted by Candy Kalal and her husband John.
Even though we had never met before, I felt like I had known Candy my whole life due to the homecoming planning and all the calls we shared during the past 6 years. Candy and John showed us Zortman memorabilia, dinosaur bones, and gold nuggets.
We ate lunch at the Miner’s café where their daughter was our very pleasant waitress.
John shared stories of Zortman with us, fully explaining how gold mining worked. He then drove us in his Ford F350 all around the original claim that Pete owned. There were times when I had to take a deep breath and just go with the flow.
I think it was apparent to John that I wasn’t exactly a backwoods type of girl and Zortman is most certainly in the backwoods.
At the end of the tour, John took us to Pete’s grave in the Zortman cemetery. It was situated in the most beautiful spot you could find in town. As I approached the grave, the trees swayed close by, the fields were as green as green could be, and the mountain views were breathtaking. I declared it was a fit place for a great man. And I was thankful he could rest in this beautiful spot. I then took a moment alone to kneel down by the grave and talk to Pete.
I wanted him to know I was there with him. Pete is family to me even though we’ve never met, but we share the same blood and that means something to me.
I was proud to have helped him to get home. And I was even prouder to share his last name.
As one can imagine, records kept in a mining town during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s are hard to locate. That left Candy and I with a lot of questions about Pete and his daughters and what happened to them after they left Zortman.
That’s where Mary Hackett came into play. Mary is a Zortman by way of her mother. Born in Ohio, like many Zortmans, her dad moved them to Montana when she was a little girl and she now lives in Stephensville with her husband, Harvey, a true cowboy. Mary has the same nosey streak in her that I have. We just have to know and in turn, we will stop at nothing to figure it out.
Through countless hours of research Mary was able to find out that Rose had left Pete at some point in time after the turn of the century. There are census records that show Rose and the girls in Washington state, Iowa, and even Hollywood, California.
Mary even uncovered a newspaper article from Big Timber that said that Pete and Rose had renewed their wedding vows. No mention of the girls.
So why did the Zortman girls move so much? We still don’t know. Where did they end up? That we did find out.
It appears that Rose passed away in Santa Rosa, California around 1965. Her obituary mentions both daughters and a grandson, Richard Fugett. Daughter Lucille passed in 2001 in Seminole, Florida. She had no children and never married. Daughter Helen passed in 1962 and was divorced, with one son.
Mary was then able to find a death certificate for Pete’s grandson, Richard Fugett. t stated that he passed away in 1995, from prostate cancer, the same cancer that killed Pete in 1933. It didn’t mention any next of kin so Mary and I just sighed, fearing a dead end.
Mary decided to send me Richard’s death certificate in order to see if there was something she missed. And lucky for us, there was. As I scanned the certificate, I noticed a woman’s name listed as executor. The name didn’t mean anything to me, it was Mary Hermans. So I googled the name with Santa Rosa attached to it. I let out a loud sigh as I found another death notice. This one was from 2007.
It appears Mary had passed but left a husband and a few children. I went back to google and put in Dr. Colin Hermans. I quickly found many links and more importantly, an email address. Not knowing if it would lead to anything, I sent out another “awkward” email, basically asking if he knew a Richard Fugett from Santa Rosa, California.
I was shocked when I received a quick reply. It turned out that Dr. Hermans was Richard’s college roommate. And boy, did he have some stories to tell! It turns out that Richard, a former member of the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was quite a colorful character.
He told me “Dick” had passed in 1995, a fact I already knew.
Dr. Hermans offered his telephone number and I phoned, thankful that he was willing to share his time and memories with me.
Thirty minutes later, I had an overabundance of stories about Dick Fugett. It was obvious that Dick shared Pete’s genes. Pte had led such an adventurous and colorful life, so had Dick Fugett. With a heavy heart I thought of the two men, both relatives whom I wish I had gotten a chance to know but now, never would. But all hope wasn’t lost.
I found out from Dr. Hermans that Dick had a daughter, Kerry.
Named after the county in Ireland where Dick’s maternal grandparents were from. He thought she might be in her early twenties, probably living in California. Another Google search led me to my new relative.
Kerry and I have been communicating via emails since she lives in Ecuador, working with bears at a city zoo.
I smiled a weary smile when I initially communicated with her. It had been a long journey to find her, about 6 years.
Conflicted, I was overjoyed to have found Pete’s great-granddaughter and filled with sadness that she was all that was left of Pete. But the best part of talking with Kerry is that she knew nothing about Pete or the Zortman family and I’ve been able to enlighten her about her famous ancestor. I’m hoping to visit Zortman with her next summer.
Looking back on that first call from Candy Kalel, I never expected all the gifts that have come my way because of it.
I never expected to get to know Pete as well as I have. I most certainly never expected to solve the mystery of Pete’s lineage. I never expected to welcome a new Zortman to our family. Nor did I expect to make new friends or visit new places. I most certainly didn’t think I would visit a remote town in Montana and find it to be one of the most special places on earth with the most special people.
All I can say now is that I’m happy that Pete is home where he belongs.
Who says you can’t go home again?