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Rita Whitmer
Santa 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 offered!

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 home.

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 was gone.

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 someday.

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.


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