Montana Viewpoint: Pondering small history’s big stories

Jim Elliott

Often, when I sit down to write, I have to search for a topic. It’s common for me to write three or more articles and then decide which one I want to run that week. For the record, this is version four. I figure if I’m going to write something, I at least ought to be interested in it.

I write a lot about politics because I was involved in it for a long time, but today’s politics is not a joyous subject. In fact, it’s downright depressing as far as I’m concerned. So, on occasions like this I try to write about something that is, at the very least, not depressing. That’s not a very high standard, I know, but it’s the one I work with.

I have written a couple of times about what I call “small history.” That’s the history that never makes it into the history books because it doesn’t impact a lot of people’s lives, as does “big history”. Big history is the saga of nations and world leaders. It is the saga of war. Small history is the story of one person in one war. It is the story of one person’s struggles and successes — and failures — in the course of a life.

Small history is embodied in an abandoned tool found while walking in the wood; the remnants of a dug-out dwelling in the prairie. There is a stretch of road not far from where I live that is lined with abandon homesteads. Many of them have a scrubby tree growing nearby, sometimes there’s no tree, sometimes just a tree. It is dry country, and I think how important that tree must have been to whoever lived there.

On two occasions I came upon the remains of dwellings in the woods on my ranch. The timber is thick and it is easy to get lost — or at least turned around — so while I have been able to find one of them again, the other, which was just a log foundation, is once again lost.

I know nothing about whose homes they might have been. I do know about the Fox place, a log cabin with a dog trot that had already lost most of its roof when I bought the ranch. I have let it, as a friend of mine so kindly said, decay with dignity. There were a barn and some outbuildings which I have seen on an old aerial photo, but no sign of them now. Perhaps a summer kitchen under a group of cottonwoods. At least I found the door to a Great Majestic cookstove there.

The Shade house burned down 20 years before I got here. The Melnricks, who lived here after Shade left said it was a beautifully made squared cedar log house. Whatever buildings the Melnricks built were also gone when I got here. There was, however, a fallen down chicken shed which made good kindling.

We don’t often get to settle on a place where no one has lived before, so the heritage of my predecessors is also my heritage, and it’s important to me to keep at least a small part of their memory alive. Twenty years ago Paul Shade, the son of the man who built the cedar log house came out to the ranch looking for it. I was disappointed he couldn’t see it but knowing him added to my personal collection of small history. He was raised here on the place from the time he was eleven, in 1924, and in his 80s moved back to Trout Creek from Seattle to live out his life.

Every once in a while I will find a small object — an old medicine bottle, a coal scuttle, a marble or two. They meant something to somebody once, so they mean something to me, and I put them someplace where I can look at them from time to time, and wonder.

Jim Elliott served 16 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. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at