Montana Voices: It’s all relative when it comes to drinking and buggy racing

I don’t know if you need a break from politics, but I sure as heck do, so this is about my mother’s Uncle Davey. My mother’s parents were Canadian, from southern Ontario, but her father had somehow wound up owning a hardware store in a small town in North Dakota, so that’s where she was born.

Jim Elliott

Her mother’s family were farmers on 120 acres of very good land, and prospered at it. They had moved to the farm from Scotland in 1837. Her father lived across the road where his widowed mother ran a small hotel for travelers. It’s still there and the names of my grandfather and his brothers are carved in the brick along with the names of many who stayed there. Her mother had three sisters — Gert was the only one left living — and two brothers, Davey and Frank.

Davey was a small, dapper fellow who usually wore a coat and tie and sported a bowler hat.  Frank, the eldest, was a beanpole of a man whose idea of a good time was to bathe on Sunday morning, put on clean overalls — his version of dapper — and walk the fields inspecting his crops.

But Davey’s idea of a good time was one in which drink and horses figured prominently. The hotel was a source of some of that good time — not the whiskey part, the horses part — because it seemed to produce an unending supply of travelling men who could be talked into a buggy race with Davey. Of course, most of the men who put up at the hotel had come there in their buggies, and the sucker was usually approached by a local who said he admired the man’s horse and did he race it often and would he like to take a shot at beating the local champion, for a wager? It was a set-up and made Davey and his friends a fair amount of money.

But because Davey drank he was not always someone’s first choice for employment, so he often had to rely on odd jobs. One of these was cleaning out the undertakers in a nearby town, and lo, he found a bottle of whiskey, which he was drinking when the Presbyterian minister walked by. They exchanged pleasantries and Davey told the minister that he had decided he that wanted to be buried face down in the coffin.” Why,” said the minister, “would you ever want to do that?” “That way,” Davey said, “the people at my funeral can walk past my casket and can all kiss my behind.”

My mother left North Dakota to live on the farm in Ontario after her mother who was a nurse, died of typhus in 1916. She loved the farm, and eventually bought it from her Aunt Gert and Uncle Frank who were both well up in years, and that’s how I got to know that part of my family. It happened that Davey’s wife was killed by a truck in front of their home in the neighboring town, and he wound up living at the farm after Frank died. A choice neither Gert nor Davey relished. While Davey liked the bottle, Gert didn’t. If there was a Canadian equivalent of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she would have been in it.

So there was no booze and no drinking on the farm and the closest pub was seven miles away. Davey didn’t drive a car, but shortly after he moved in with Gert he bought a trotting horse and built a sulky which he used to visit the Iroquois Hotel bar on a regular schedule. Since Davey knew the road to the hotel and the horse knew the road back, it worked out pretty well. It was a little dicey sometimes because there were no lights or reflectors on the sulky, but being as Davey was usually asleep in the seat what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.

Gert, who never drank, lived to be 101 and attributed her longevity to a lifetime of fear and worry. Davey reaped the wages of sin and cashed in his chips at the age of 96. I think it’s all in the genes.

I never did find out if he was put in the coffin face down, but then there are some things a boy shouldn’t know.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.