Montana’s Finest: “Swan River Memoirs” (Best of Days Gone By)

Date:

Montana 1st News is thrilled to publish “Swan River Moments” by Larry Eslick of Marion, Montana.


I recall a Christmas, probably 1955, when my cousins from Eureka were visiting. We
lived 1 ½ miles south of what is now Bermel’s. (Then it was the Echo Lake Store,
which I will mention later). It must have been 50 degrees or so on Christmas Day,
because it was only necessary to wear a jean jacket to play outside. I know we
walked the 2 or so miles down to Grandma Rost’s on Swan River after Christmas
dinner. The beautiful and warm day is one I’ll never forget.

“The First Day of School Ever”

What a traumatic experience! I arrived with Mom, new jeans with 2” cuffs (in case I got taller before they wore out), tablet, crayons (8 was enough – the others were colors I’d never use anyway),
pencils, and no pen – What would a first grader do with a pen? The next thing I
remember was Mom saying, “Look at Sharon – she’s not crying! And see, there’s
Rikki & Roddi – they’re not crying!” Of course not – they were old hands already.
Finally I promised to try school if Mom promised to stay outside and wait in the car.
As it turned out, I didn’t break my promise!

Some time that year there was a field trip planned for us to ride the train
from Whitefish to West Glacier. Everyone was excited but me – I was scared to
death. I don’t know to this day what I was afraid of, but it was very real. As
everyone else was loading into cars for the trip to Whitefish, I hid in the ditch,
and when everyone left, I walked home. I guess it caused some kind of flap
when they counted heads. I’ll never forget Mrs. Hedman’s look of relief when she
drove by my house that evening and saw me playing outside. She called me a
“Little Rascal,” light terminology compared to what she was really thinking, I’ll
bet.

“The Second Grade”

More Trauma! Mrs. Hedman was replaced by Mrs.
Ironfist, (er I mean Gilchrist). I suppose she was trying to be a good disciplinarian,
God bless her, but most of us thought she had a mean streak. She was a good
instructor, but she just wasn’t the “gramma” image Mrs. Hedman was.
The hot lunch program had a dessert dish they called Rice Pudding – ugh,
shiver – I absolutely detested it, especially the raisins. But Mrs. Gilchrist insisted
that I eat all of it. I warned her that another bite would cause me to up-chuck.
Of course she thought it a ruse that she saw through. I don’t think I was able to
get everything back into the right compartments on the tray when I refilled it
with recycled hot lunch. After that, I didn’t have to eat Rice Pudding.

Bill Butts and I were playing too close to the “Upper Room’s” ball field one
day, and somehow Bill was hit in the head by the tremendous swing of Robert
Rickard’s baseball bat. Robert was probably a 16 or 17 year old 8th grader, so
Bill’s 2nd grade skull was no match. Fortunately, Bill recovered completely after
being unconscious for a little while and a short hospital stay.

Sometime during those years I remember Aunt Bernice coming to the
school to pick me up instead of Mom. Bryant, my youngest brother, had been
run over by our 1941 Mercury with Mom at the wheel. Fortunately, 6.00 x 15
tires were skinny enough to pass between the chest & pelvis of a toddler, and
thank God, there was no permanent or severe injury.

The “Store”

Across the road from the school, there was the Echo Lake Store, owned and
operated by two of God’s beautiful people, Margaret & Herb Scott. Every Friday, we
got 5 or 10 cents to spend at their candy counter. What a delight! Some local
families bought most of their groceries there, because Herb & Margaret would
extend credit. Winter months were slim ones, because Dad worked in the woods
and was laid off for two or three months. Herb would allow a tab to run for several
weeks. “I’m not going anywhere” was his response when an anxious Dad would
assure him that he hadn’t forgot to pay his bill. Then when the bill was paid up,
Herb and Margaret would donate ½ gal of ice cream in your choice of flavor. If you
couldn’t pay in full, they’d give a large Hershey’s candy bar as a token of their
appreciation for whatever you could afford to pay. Consequently, they didn’t
have trouble with non-payment.

The “Hall”

The school’s Christmas program every year was performed at the Swan
River Community Hall. Everyone in the community showed up for the event.
Everyone in school had a part in the play or a “piece” to recite. After the
program, there were goodie bags, Santa’s visit, and visiting over coffee & homemade candies, cakes, cookies, etc. Yumm!

What with the yearly Halloween costume party, ice cream socials, and
community plays and get-togethers, the “Hall” seemed always a friendly & exciting
place.

“Lloyds”

A mile north of the store was Hockerson’s Garage, Lloyd Hockerson, prop.
Most of my memories of that place was thick-caked grease on the floors, an
acetylene generator, a huge wood-fired stove, and a pop machine. An old hand operated gas pump stood outside. The weathered walls were decorated with
Orange Crush & Coca-Cola signs on the outside, and with a few pretty ladies in
various poses on what now would be considered collectible calendars on the
inside. If Lloyd couldn’t fix it, it wasn’t broke.

“The School Picnic”

Every spring, just before school was out, the school would hold its annual
school picnic, probably at Star Meadows, or at the “Hall” if, heaven forbid, it was
raining.

The Sunday of the picnic was always a festive time for us kids, but our poor
mothers had worked all night in preparation. There was always church first at
our house, so when we loaded to go out to church, we loaded for the picnic, too.
We lived too far off the beaten path at that time to make two trips, so after church,
we all headed for the picnic. The ladies would start setting out the food on the
tables the men had set up, while the bigger kids would choose sides for that
afternoon’s baseball game. The smaller ones had organized games during the
ball game. I remember everyone tried to get their dads involved in the ball
game. Most that could, participated; those that couldn’t cheered and laughed
when someone slid through the inevitable green cow pie.

After the game, there was cake and ice cream, watermelons, and fellowship.
Ladies would clean-up and then visit; the men would congregate in groups, tell
stories and pick their teeth, while us kids explored or chased each other through
the ever present creek and mud puddles. What fun!

The “Upper Room”

I remember the time that I graduated to the “Upper Room.” I was a 5th

grader finally, and that allowed you to be under Mrs. Krause’s care. What a
wonderful lady! She was a working mother, lived just down the road in Mountain
Brook, and a talented and caring teacher. She insisted that we read lots,
appreciate and understand music, and do our homework. I excelled in the first two
categories, but sometimes had a problem with homework. Oh well, such is the
substance of life.

More people started to move to our community, and over-crowding became
a problem at our beloved Swan River 2-room school. Unfortunately, I never was
able to graduate from grade school there, because the 8th graders were bussed to
Bigfork the year I would have finished the 8th grade. It was just as well, because
I met…

“Mr. Anders”

Junior High! I’ll never forget the change it was from Mrs. Krause’s Upper
Room. Now we had several teachers to like or dislike. There was Mrs. McClurg –
a nice lady; Mr. Milam – crude, but effective; Mr. Potocyny – intelligent and
demanding. Then, Mr. Anders, the music teacher. Probably the most dedicated,
unselfish, and talented person that I had the privilege of studying under. I was
always interested in music, and it came fairly easy to me.

I wanted to be in the high school band so bad. Unfortunately, the “Upper
Rooms” music program didn’t include learning to play an instrument. What was I
to do? Then Mr. Anders, God bless him, offered to teach me the entire
elementary band program for the tuba in the course of the one summer between
my 8th and 9th grades. Due to his patience and dedication, I somehow learned to
play the tuba that summer well enough to join High School Band the fall of 1963.
I was in the band for four years; some of the best times of my high school
experience were in his band or choir classes. I would be content to have retained
1/10 of what that man had forgotten about music.

The only sad thoughts I have concerning my experience with Mr. Anders is
the fact that I was unable to attend his farewell service when God took him home
in 1990.

“B.H.S.”

It’s 6:30 am, Dec. 15 or so, 1965. Dark, windy, cold, and two miles from the
bus stop. Time to get up, dressed, and eat, then catch the bus at 7:35 if I drive
like a wild man. Not too wild, though, because Dad hasn’t had time to plow the
road clear to the highway). I somehow made it that day in time, in spite of my
mode of transportation, a 1941 International Pick-up, with worn out tires. Other
times, in better weather, we walked to the bus, or we drove clear to school, if we
had enough gas, (and we convinced Mom we had a good reason).

There were only 3 people on the bus when we got on, so we were able to
ride an hour with friends and neighbors – laughing, joking, flirting, and having a
pretty wonderful time. If Al Koppang was driving, we’d get away with murder. If
Chuck Barton was driving, we’d have to behave ourselves.

In spite of me and the system, I was able to graduate in 1967. One of the
memorable experiences of high school was that I had the opportunity to appear
in two Junior Class plays. My Junior year, I was Sir Sagramore in a “Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and then as a Senior, I was fortunate enough to
be asked if I’d sing a lead role in the musical “Paint Your Wagon.” A wonderful
opportunity!

“The Mountain”

In early 1957, our family moved to the home place east of Mud Lake on the
side of Crater Mountain. Nearly two miles of unimproved rough & slow road leads
from the Swan Highway to the 80 acres that had been in the Eslick family since 1941.

Dad and my Grandad, Paul Eslick, purchased the property for $1.00 an
acre, and built a small 2 story house. It was into this house our family moved
that year. There was no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no insulation, but plenty
of love and determination. In a few years, there was an addition completed,
another bedroom, a future indoor bathroom, a kitchen, & a dining area.
What with a new family member (the youngest sister, Kate, in 1959) the
addition was very welcome. There were 5 siblings, myself, Paul, Bryant,
Rebekah, and Kathleen; still no running water in the house, no indoor plumbing,
nor was there any electricity.

Water was packed from the creek, lights were provided by an old wore out
Delco 32V light plant, backed up by kerosene lamps & Coleman gas lights. The
“little house out back” was there for whenever nature called; cold in the winter &
ripe in the summer.


Tuesday & Saturday nights were bath nights – The water was packed from
the creek, poured into a steel tub, heated on the wood-fired cook stove, and the
kitchen floor was the stage for the ritual. The girls bathed first, then the younger
boys. I was always last; sometimes the bath water was kind of thick when my
turn came. When I was old enough to be aware of how I looked & smelled, I
packed & heated fresh water. I’ll never forget one time I’d stepped out of the
tub, grabbed the towel off the back of the chair, leaned over to dry my feet &
managed to brand my backside against the cookstove. The scar is still visible to
this day.


I left to join the Navy in 1968, and when I returned in 1971, I had a wife &
a family. Things really started to change in the 70’s. The home place now had
indoor plumbing, hot & cold running water, and a water turbine in the creek,
providing lights.


Mom and Dad were able to spend some time now improving the place,
running the sawmill that was restored in ’85, and pursuing hobbies, gardening,
old cars, and collecting old things. It was a very interesting and wonderful place to visit; there was always
something to see & enjoy, things to do, or just to sit & remember things the way
they were.


Sadly, the home-place on the Mountain had to be sold in 1994, as Dad and
Mom were no longer able to manage that lifestyle.

Please send us your Montana human interest stories! We’d love to read through them and possibly publish them! Send your stories to montana1stnews@gmail.com

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