When my grandparents landed in Montana long, long, long ago, they brought with them some interesting sensibilities. They were of the pioneer type, but missed the big push into the country and so ended up being, in reality, settlers. They arrived 34 years after the Northern Pacific, more or less, and so found other folks on the ground already. But not on the ground that they moved onto.
They were conservative in a liberal sort of way, and they passed those views on to many of their grandchildren. Being a member of the cadre who lived the closest — just down the hill and across the highway — I got some of them myself.
I think a main focus in life for them might have been to be just fine with what they had and not too concerned with having a bunch more. That view was probably reinforced by ushering a batch of kids through the Depression. Just the fact that they managed to hold on to the place my cadre still calls home speaks to their ability to make ends meet.
Grandma was a teacher and amateur scientist; an insect, stamp, coin and rock collector; and insatiably curious about the larger world. We watched the first moon landing in her living room. Grandpa was a farmer, teamster, jack-of-all-trades and Grandma’s rock handler. In the years that I knew them, they had — in my memory — one car, a huge old Nash that Grandpa drove very carefully while Grandma, who never learned to drive, supervised. They travelled quite a lot, taking trips to visit family in Kansas, from whence they came; and to California and Arizona, to where Grandma’s sisters moved to get out of Kansas.
Their greatest adventures — besides surviving the Depression in the Emerald Empire, which is how Grandma referred to western Montana and northern Idaho — were their 1910 honeymoon to Yellowstone Park and two trips to Mexico in their “retired” years.
They were married for 56 years, until Grandpa died at 86. Grandma lasted another decade, and passed at 94. Other than what they put together with their own hands, they didn’t have much more when they died than they did when they came to Montana, but, in every way, they lived a successful life. They raised six kids (and lost one in infancy.) By diligence and not a little luck, they managed to pay off the land they bought from the railroad. And, they passed the land to our cadre in a reasonable way. We were the kids who collected the eggs and filled the wood box, and our parents were the pair that kept track of and assisted them in their later years.
Sustainability was not a buzzword then, but they managed their property and their lives to be sustainable. Grandma taught school, gardened, tended her collections, wrote books and nurtured her grandkids by educating them and making sure they had molasses cookies (she called refined sugar “white death.”) Grandpa raised Guernsey milk cows, and sold a few calves every year to help pay the taxes. He planted an orchard that still bears fruit. He built every building on the place with the materials at hand, never threw a piece of metal away that hadn’t been used at least twice and logged the place somewhat continuously for all the time he lived there. He cleared his fields, but the forest left over was always — and still is— a forest.
We live now in a world my grandparents wouldn’t understand, somewhat of a throw-away world, in which things that aren’t “the latest” are jettisoned wholesale to make room for more “stuff.” As a matter of fact, I don’t understand it all that well, myself. I find myself thinking, “I just don’t get it,” about rampant consumerism, the titillating nature of marketing, advertising and entertainment and the seeming preference of some for ignorance over enlightenment. Nothing seems as real as Grandma’s collections and molasses cookies or Grandpa’s fields and buildings.
Maybe that’s because those things were personally made, and built to last. And, the records and remembrances they left behind tell me they never stopped learning. That’s the kind of conservatism that I can understand.
Sandy Compton’s books are available rom this website, at local bookstores and the Ledger office in Thompson falls, as well as on Amazon. Mariam’s account of their 1910 honeymoon, Camping In Wyoming, is also available in book form.