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Fe, New Mexico
A Log House for the Ages
Rita Whitmer has written this short
story for Gatekeepers of History about her grandfather, James Crooks
Calk, and the preservation of his Montana ranch house.
One hundred years ago, in the Spring of 1906, the westbound
Northern Pacific train from Chicago steamed into the Bozeman depot and
a tall, thin, young man stepped into the sunlight for his first sight
of the Montana Rockies. His blue eyes sparkled like the skies above
him and he rushed into the waiting arms of his Aunt Ella and Uncle Frank
Culloden with all the hopes and dreams any young man of twenty-one could
carry. The road had been long from Kentucky, but he was here at last,
standing on the threshold of a new adventure in a new world. He could
hardly wait to live it!
What a world! What a future of freedom and promise waited for him in
the wilds around him! Surely hard work waited in the future, and many
challenges and disappointments, too, but most importantly, for the handsome
young man staring at the mountains looming, there was hope…real
hope…hope that would cut the prison bars of tuberculosis crushing
his chest, keeping his world only as wide as each breath, each step
he could take. For so long he wanted to be well, and now, today, that
possibility soared around him as high as the gleaming peaks. Feeling
the revitalizing energy of the crisp, mountain air, he vowed to do everything
in his human power to make each day count, to build a new life, to help
people, to make a difference, and…to be a man…a Kentucky
gentleman like his father and his ancestors before him. His name was
James Crooks Calk. He was my grandfather, and he turned his face to
the Montana sun and created a new world from his dreams.
The trip across America had been long, each day of new sights pushing
his memories of the green rolling Kentucky hills and his adoring mother’s
tears further into a yesterday he would not see again for nearly forty
years. Aunt Ella, his father’s sister, and Uncle Frank eagerly
settled him into their home in Bozeman, and Jim moved quickly into campus
life at Montana’s land grant university. The West demanded a different
kind of learning far different from the wealthy, dignified life he had
known in Kentucky. Now his classmates included cowboys and homesteaders
eager to study during the winter months as they waited for Spring. Jim
relished his world, decided to be a cattleman--with a great ranch someday--and
added horse-shoeing courses to his business and science and Shakespeare
classes—he would be ready for anything the Montana wilderness
So, the Kentucky boy became a Montana man, thriving in the dry climes
as the tuberculosis faded into unavoidable annual winter bouts of pneumonia.
Jim worked and studied through 1906, ‘07, ‘08 and 1909.
By then, older, mature and eager for an even better climate to support
his health, Jim ventured to eastern Montana south of the Missouri Breaks.
Only one quarter shy of his college degree, he chose his homestead,
fourteen miles west of Jordan and ninety miles north of Miles City,
the cattle capital of the world. Surrounded by coal-scarred buttes and
vast sage-covered prairie where sunrises and sunsets contended for God’s
smile, Jim built his homestead shack at the site for his ranch. He was
World War I claimed many Montana cowboys who took their superb marksmanship
and survival skills to the deadly trenches of France, but Jim’s
health exempted him. Instead, he gathered his cattle herd, bought and
trained fine saddle horses and teams for plowing and riding herd; he
cut hundreds of cedar trees for posts and pine trees for corral poles;
he hauled pole slabs from the mill to nail against the corral poles
for a stockade, snug and solid to protect the cattle in the winter.
He dug post holes, cut prairie grass for winter feed, dug a well and
fought summer heat and rattlesnakes hiding in the shade of the sagebrush.
In 1917, when a young man from Des Moines, Iowa homesteaded the quarter
section next to Jim’s ranch, a visitor appeared to inspect her
brother’s new claim. Her name was Emma Lee and Jim’s life
was changed forever.
Emma Lee called it “six weeks of Paradise”, written in white
ink beneath the photos of her, her brother and Jim Calk riding and camping
on the range with their cowboys. It was, indeed, Paradise, for during
those long sunny days and campfire nights, the two Easterners fell in
love. When Emma boarded the train to return to Iowa, the two besmitten
young people promised to write. She returned to Des Moines to care for
her dying mother and Jim rode into the Breaks to choose the fir logs
he would cut for the ranch house he would build for his new love.
Nearly two years of letters convinced them of their mutual feelings.
When the two distant lovers each boarded a train in January of 1919,
they steamed to a rendezvous in Aberdeen, South Dakota where they married,
celebrated with a brief honeymoon, and returned to their respective
homes. With the passing of her mother, Emma sadly and happily packed
her linens and laces and left city life behind. City living--with indoor
plumbing, automobiles, civilization—city life of piano studies
and luxuries and comforts would be unknown in the rugged world Emma
entered. Waiting for her instead were deadly weather, scarce human beings,
unsociable critters, unrelenting destitution…and a Kentuckian
who loved her.
While he waited for Emma, Jim and his cowboys camped in the Breaks near
the giant fir trees he chose for his ranch house. With a cross-cut saw,
they notched and sawed the trees, trimmed the branches, tied lariats
to one end and snaked them by horseback out of the hills to the waiting
wagons. With some over a foot in diameter, the great magnificent logs
became the only log house in the country, skillfully raised as only
a Kentuckian could do. Jim brought the best of Kentucky to this wild
Montana country and now with his bride, set out to build his ranch into
the haven he had dreamed.
Though Emma’s dream to be a concert pianist was dashed when, at
age 18, she became blind in one eye, she crossed the threshold of her
new prairie home, unpacked her sheet music and treasures from Des Moines,
and bravely stepped with her husband to meet the daunting reality of
their adopted world. She scrubbed every log, sanded every surface and
varnished every inch of the inside logs. Her loving fingers pressed
new hopes and wishes into the great walls as she lifted her head unknowingly
toward an unforgiving and hopeless future that would be thwarted only
by the love that was shared within those magnificent gleaming walls.
In 1920, Jim and Emma welcomed a son they nicknamed “Spike”,
and two years later, a daughter, Mary Lee, nicknamed “Molly”.
By 1929, a daughter, Rebecca, and another son, Joe John, completed their
family. Times were difficult at best, but with expert teamwork, Emma
managed the house inside and Jim oversaw everything on the outside.
She was born a lady and he never let her put a hoe in the ground, chop
a stick of wood, nor haul a bucket of water from the windmill. In turn,
she committed to ease the endless back-breaking labors her husband and
his cowboys faced by cooking wonderful meals, keeping a spotless house,
and attending the children. Jim managed the horses, cattle, hogs, chickens,
geese and guineas, and soon became renowned for the best cured ham and
bacon in the country.
So Jim and Emma Calk, educated, determined Easterners, lived the Code
of the West and took their place in the community. Together they battled
blizzards, illness, injuries and a thousand terrible trials, but it
was when Emma’s uncle shipped her beloved upright grand piano
from Des Moines that music changed their world!
Saturday night dances at the Calk Ranch brought ranch families and cowboys
from far and wide for the too-few reprieves from work. Furniture was
moved outside, the wives set up tables of food, the cowboys hung up
their Stetsons and the gleaming log walls echoed constant laughter as
Emma and the fiddlers played for the dancers. Remembering the days of
his glorious Kentucky youth, Jim never danced unless he knew some lady
could especially dance the waltz. Then he would graciously request her
hand, place a snow white handkerchief over his palm, and dance, never
allowing her hand to touch his own. When the night was ended, memories
lasted long after the visitors were gone, and the log house waited,
warm and welcoming, for the next time.
As the years passed, Spike and Molly joined their father on the range,
both becoming knowledgeable, capable ranchers, expert riders and marksmen
to boot. By age 14, Molly was a beauty—tall, with black hair and
green eyes, dazzling the cowboys with a flashing smile that sent them
spinning. Many a cowboy would ride long lonely miles to bunk at the
ranch, hoping for a glimpse of the girl who always rode under the watchful
eye of her brother or her father until they rode up to the hitching
post by the ranch house door. So it was, through seasons of rainstorms,
blizzards, cattle stampedes and prairie fires, the ranch house waited,
solid and strong, to welcome anyone who jangled the bells at the door.
Jim kept his vow to try and make a difference…not a soul was turned
from his door; he shared his skills and energy with his neighbors, rode
round-ups with ranchers needing riders, freighted goods and supplies
for ranchers, helped rescue people in floods. As one of the few educated
people in the area, he was hired to manage the relocation of ranch families
that would be flooded out when Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River was
completed in 1936.
Jim and Emma lived the Code of the West, true to their blueblood heritage
despite the ravages of Nature, circumstance and dwindling hopes to realize
a dream. But by 1938, after years of hardship, drought and the Depression,
desperation drove Jim to a decision he could hardly bear to consider.
He decided to leave the ranch and move to Wisconsin…he could sell
magazines…and make more money than the drought allowed for a starving
rancher on the barren Montana prairie.
The September winds were cold in Miles City when Jim slammed the cattle
car gate closed, locking Spike inside the railroad car with the household
belongings and the horses. All the cattle and livestock they would need
in Wisconsin were in the other half of the car--they were ready for
the trip to Wisconsin. With the whistle of the engine, the train started
down the track and Jim pulled the pickup truck onto the dirt road beside
the track. For the next week, Jim and Emma, with Molly and Rebecca and
Joe John in the back of the truck, followed Spike in the railroad car,
stopping when the train stopped to help feed and water the animals,
until at last they reached Wisconsin.
But if disappointment and desperation made living in Montana tough,
the reality of selling magazines in Wisconsin during the Depression
was worse than anything Jim and Emma imagined. Within a few weeks, Jim
knew he had made a terrible mistake; a scant six weeks after arriving
in Wisconsin, Jim and Spike and Molly loaded the horses and cattle and
their belongings into another railroad car for the long trip home.
By now the October days were nearly gone, but the whole family rejoiced
at returning to their ranch—the beautiful log house, the corrals,
sunrises, sunsets, the freedom of riding their range beneath gorgeous
blue skies. But as they drove up the road, a first glance showed that
the ranch was different--the corrals stood alone beneath the windmill--there
was no outline of the log house--no covered porch waited. The house
Aghast at such a possibility, the family approached to see the logs
lying in the yard, each marked with an identification number—someone
had pulled the logs down…now strewn on the ground, they were obviously
lovely enough to be coveted by another.
It was a dismal reality…When Jim left for Wisconsin, his sister,
Catherine, decided she would move the logs to her own ranch some two
hundred miles away in the Makoshika Badlands. She hired a man from Glendive
to disassemble the house, mark the logs and move them. After pulling
down the logs, he learned the house was not Catherine’s, that
she had no right to take the logs as her own. Furious at her deceit,
he left the ranch with his men, refusing to be a part of such a scheme.
His name was Mac Whitmer, brother to Boone, the man Molly was to marry
only a few years in the future…
Undaunted and relieved they had returned in time to save their beloved
ranch house, Jim hired local men to help re-assemble the logs, rushing
to have it ready before winter winds rolled in. Settled again safely
within the magnificent log walls, the family waited for Spring while
Spike and Molly finished high school together in Jordan.
In the fall of 1939, Molly left for business college in Des Moines and
returned a year later to her beloved Montana where she worked until
meeting Boone. They married in 1943 and began a family of their own
some 70 miles from the ranch. Spike stayed on the ranch until 1942 when
he joined the Navy, serving in the Pacific until war’s end. Rebecca
stayed at the ranch after high school; Joe John attended college in
Bozeman in the early 50’s and made plans to inherit the ranch
Even as Jim and Emma’s children went their separate ways, the
ranch house always waited for them to come home. But with Emma’s
death in 1954, Jim was left with Rebecca on the ranch, visited by Molly
and Boone and their growing brood of children. He made a pact with Joe
John to give him half the ranch if he would help build it up, but the
temptations of youth soon proved Joe John had other interests. When
Jim passed away two years later, he left a new will and a nightmare
for Molly that would last for yet another two years.
Rebecca moved away; Joe John contested his father’s will in an
effort to gain possession of the ranch and the law suit finally resulted
with the judge ordering a member of the family to live at the ranch
or sell it. So it was that Molly and Boone chose to move their eight
children to the ranch, believing they could build it into the successful
ranching operation Jim had struggled for so many years to make possible.
We moved to the ranch in the fall of 1958, the third generation to ride
the range, and began an unforgettable, magic adventure of battling the
brutal winters feeding cows, building fence, chopping wood, hauling
water…all of it no different than our grandparents and our mother
forty years before! And every day, the adventure ended with the jangle
of the harness bells on the ranch house door when we stepped inside
to feel the warmth and safety of those magnificent logs, now dark and
shining still from Grandmother’s varnish. We younger kids went
to school in the one-room schoolhouse that our mother and her siblings
attended, hiking the mile long path over the hills to school and then
hurrying home where Mother and Daddy and the great log walls waited.
In December of our second year at the ranch, our teacher angrily sent
me home from school in a blizzard. I was nine years old, and as I stumbled,
falling and struggling through the snow drifts in the freezing wind,
all I could think about was getting home…getting to the ranch
house where I would be safe…it would be warm…my parents
would be waiting. And when I staggered through the door, nearly frozen
to death, it was true, again. The harness bells jangled their welcome,
my mother and father were there, and those gorgeous log walls closed
around me…I was warm and safe again. There is no memory of mine
that is sweeter.
We had a dance at the ranch, too…on October 17th, 1958. Daddy
and the men took the furniture outside; the ladies set up tables with
food; the cowboys hung their Stetsons on the nails, and the log walls
echoed the laughter of the dancers…because Mother remembered those
wonderful happy times with her parents long ago…
But our dream only lasted two years, dying when our father had a heart
attack and changed our lives forever. Once again, the dream of making
the ranch a successful operation was gone. Daddy survived but we had
to sell the ranch and move away. I was ten when I stood with my mother
on the porch that last day. She stood in the doorway gazing at those
gorgeous log walls that held a million memories of life and cowboys
from another day, of times she wanted to live again, to keep for the
rest of her life. Then she stood on the porch for a long moment, remembering,
then gently closed the door, and never looked back.
The ranch was sold again and again; the corrals rotted and were torn
down; the windmill was taken down; the bunkhouse was destroyed when
they tried to move it—they burned it where it lay crumbled. Our
father died in 1972 and we returned again and again to see those wonderful
log walls, to remember those short years of the Old West when we were
children, telling and re-telling our stories so similar to Mother’s.
Now alone like her father before her, Mother gazed across the sage-covered
prairie with the same look we did, longing to live again where those
great log walls waited, just like we wished. And, always, each time
we visited, she worried about saving the house. She had reason to.
Just two years ago, when new October winds were cold and the skies had
snow clouds covering the horizon, I took my mother to see the ranch
again. The owner said he was tired of waiting for the Whitmers to do
something about saving the ranch house; it was coming down with the
first snow. I knew what he meant…the first snow meant the flames
could not start a prairie fire. When I asked, “Are you going to
torch it, Rick?” He couldn’t look at me, almost as though
he knew it were a sin to destroy something so lovely, although it was
so old, a nuisance and of no use to him. His eyes never met mine and
he replied, “Yes.” Quickly, suddenly desperate to save that
dream of my grandfather, to save his labor of love for his darling,
to save the logs he cut and carved and carried from the Breaks, I said,
“Can you give me six weeks, Rick? I’ll try and get something
together to save it. I just need six weeks.” Then he turned his
head and looked at me long and hard. Finally, somehow believing me,
and with that age-old Western bluntness, he said simply, “Yes.”
So it was that I began the search to find someone who could use the
ranch house, might want it, might need it, might honor it. I told my
siblings and they quietly thought of what they could do. No one had
a plan or a solution to save yesterday’s dream. Then my brother,
Boone, talked with the committee for the new Montana Cowboy Hall of
Fame and proposed that the ranch house be part of the complex for the
preservation of memorabilia, artifacts and memories of the Great Montana
West. The committee unanimously approved including Jim Calk’s
Ranch House in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
On the last day before Boone and his son, Wyatt, along with friends,
would take the logs apart for the last time, I drove my mother back
to the ranch so she could see that her beloved home would be saved.
She walked the grounds quietly, remembering again, and we stood inside
where the blue, blue skies were the roof. Once again, each log was marked,
and still, after nearly a hundred years, they shone solid and magnificent,
dark and lovely and warm with me wishing they could talk, every one!
When we drove away from the ranch for the last time, Mother was quiet,
knowing that at last that part of her life was over and gone forever.
Next day the crane arrived to carefully separate the logs. They were
placed in a semi-truck, safe from damage and weather, and hauled to
Boone’s farm where they wait now to be re-assembled at the Hall
of Fame site in Wolf Point, Montana.
My mother passed away on December 4, 2005, taking with her a million
memories of the happiest years of her life. When her beloved home is
complete again, it will be nearly one hundred years old, but her father’s
spirit and his dream, and her mother’s love and her own hopes
will live on in the lovely varnished logs--walls that will calm the
hearts of strangers again, this time modern-day visitors who will feel
the eternal warmth and safety waiting still, always welcoming, always
loved by anyone who walks through the door.
© Copyright 2009 Preserve America