A Window into Life in Montana, 100 Years Ago
BY MARY EDIGHOFER
My home was in Rapids, Minnesota. One day in January, 1912, I received a letter from my sister-in-law asking me to go to Wibaux, Montana, to care for a sick cousin as she was unable to go herself. She sent me $25.00 for traveling expenses and thinking the prospects for work would be better in Montana, I accepted her offer.
On January 11, 1912, I arrived in Wibaux with my small son George.
It was 48 degrees below zero and bitter cold. It was so cold our lashes would freeze shut. George kept complaining he couldn’t see. I was loaded down with two big suitcases so I said “Rub your eyes good with your hands. Then you can see.” We finally arrived downtown and went to the only hotel we could see. The town was full of cowboys and ranch hands and we couldn’t get a room there. Then we tried the restaurant of Louie Foug, but he didn’t have any room for us either. There was a big cowboy, Scott Gore, taking in our predicament. George said “is he a cowboy, Ma? Look at those two big guns. Looks kinda tough don’t he?”. Mr. Gore stepped up and offered to find us shelter across the street. We followed him and found shelter at last. This place hadn’t opened up for business but they cleaned up a room for us and set up a bed. We were there four days.
On the fourth day Mr. Still took us thirty miles out in the country to Bill Still’s place and I worked there until some time in February. Mrs. Bill Still was my sister-in-law’s cousin.
One day in February, Mr. Port Willis came over and wanted to hire a cook. I went with him but with the understanding that I would only stay a month as I had to get back home to Rapids. He had a crew of twenty-six most of the time. George Carlson was flunky around there and slept in the barn. Mr. Willis had a large house with two bedrooms. We had one and Mr. Willis had the other. We never bothered his bedroom because that was supposed to be private. After the third day I never saw Mr. Willis again for over a month. One morning, being curious, my son George opened Mr. Willis’ bedroom door and said “Ma, look. Look at all the dirty clothes in here”. I said, “George get away from that door and don’t ever open it again.” “Why,” said George, “that man ain’t here any more. Just look.” So to satisfy him, I looked. Well, there was a washing to get at. This was about the third week I’d been there and no sign of Mr. Willis, but I thought maybe he had business somewhere and hadn’t been able to get home yet. When Mr. Carlson came into breakfast, I asked him where our good-looking boss was. “Oh,” said Mr. Carlson, “he’s gone to the park. Left three days after you came. He’ll be back for planting.” This worried me. I wanted to go back to Minnesota and how could I with the boss gone? He was right; Mr. Willis didn’t come back until seeding started. He saw I was mad but he just laughed at me. I hadn’t been anywhere except to visit Bill Still’s one day. Neighbors were so scarce; I hadn’t seen a woman all that time.
Mr. Willis then offered me half of all the chickens I could raise and $25.00 a month to stay through spring work. That was more than I could make in Minnesota, so I stayed. You know, time went so fast I stayed through haying too. Domestic women of today think they have to work.
Well, I worked there. Up at dawn and to bed at 10 or 11 at night. Days that I baked bread I would set the alarm for different intervals in the night so I could get up and take care of the dough and have it ready to bake at breakfast time. Cook, wash dishes and bake, I had my hands full all day long.
After haying, I said I was going home now. I had to get back I thought.
Mr. Willis said, “Well, I sure need you. You can do more work than any woman I ever saw. If you’ll just stay through threshing I’ll give you $75.00 a month and half the chickens.” I had about 480 chickens by that time. So naturally I stayed. What was pretty good money then, you know.
On September 23rd, I went back to the Rapids but I didn’t stay. I worked for Mr. Willis 3 ? years altogether. I filed on a homestead and here I am yet.
Note: How I Came to Montana was found among early records for the Montana State Writer’s Project conducted in Montana during the 1930s, and was recorded by Clara Riley (sister-in-law of Livingston resident Larry Lahren’s grandfather, and offered to this publication by Lahren) as part of the accounts Riley assembled for the Wibaux area. It is presented in its original form as written by Mary Edighofer without editing.