Surviving the Depression at Wolf Creek in Montana
as told to her daughter, Grace Larson
During the Depression years at Wolf Creek we had to wear our shoes a lot longer. Fred and I have crooked toes. Fred said his came from wearing a poor pair of shoes bought at the mercantile in Plains. Those years were very difficult. No one had much money and what they did have was really stretched.
Mom made most of our clothes during the Depression using items she no longer wore. Dad had made good money at the Helena Valley Sheep Ranch. We had nice bedding and about everything we needed. But as we grew older we outgrew our clothes. I remember Mom taking her khaki riding outfits out of the trunk, making jeans for Fred and Bert. She sewed everything by hand and taught me how to sew and embroider. When I was older I embroidered pillowcases and sold them at the Lonepine store.
We got our shoes from catalogs, the mercantile in Hot Springs, or the mercantile in Plains. The one in Hot Springs covered an entire block. It was destroyed by fire in 1931. When times got better Mom would order clothing and household items from Sears, Wards or National Bellas Hess. The latter was located in Chicago. They had the prettiest dresses for a dollar. Fay and I couldn’t wait for their catalog to come.
Men would come and work all summer if Dad would let them stay through the winter. Phillip Straus was one of the men who stayed at the ranch. Phillip drove us to school sometimes. So many of the men were alcoholics; they would stay sober for months then go on a big drunk. Bill Murray took one vacation a year and spent it at the bar. He was a “reformed alcoholic.” Dad talked about the time Bill hollered “whoopee,” threw his hands up, and somersaulted off the barstool.
Irvin Hurst’s father, Albert, replaced the bathhouse he leased from the Flathead Indians with a stucco building and added a “mud bath” that his son managed. When the bathhouse reverted back to the tribe, Irvin went to work for Dad.
In those days there weren’t any jobs so getting through the winter was difficult. People stole wood. They stole everything. Miss Mosier, who cooked for us, had so much wood stolen from her little house in Camas that she moved it into the house, covered it with her mattress, and used that for her bed.
During those poor Depression times people would turn their horses loose, and some even turned their cattle out. They ran wild in the hills. The horses usually survived the winter but some cattle died in the gullies. The snowdrifts were so deep the cattle couldn’t get to the grass.
Dad always had enough hay for the sheep, cattle and horses. Wool actually brought a fair price during the ’30s and ’40s, but sheep prices were awfully low, around a dollar a head. The weather was cold; ’32 and ’33 were mild but ’34 was cold, and ’36 was terrible. Forty below was nothing and the snow was so deep it covered all the fences.
There wasn’t any money but we were really lucky because we had our milk cows, chickens and hogs. Mom never had a refrigerator at the ranch. She kept canned milk cool by setting it in cold water. Celery was kept in a bowl of cold water. We always butchered and cut up our own meat. Mom stored vegetables, apples and pears in the cellar. She had a “cooler box” by the side of the house that kept meat frozen during the winter. Mom canned a lot of our meat before we had the deep freeze in the cookhouse.
Dad would butcher a fat lamb or a wether. A wether is a castrated sheep a year or two old. Home-raised mutton was good but Dad always said, “Don’t let the wool touch the meat.” When Dad would skin a sheep he would keep rolling the hide back so it wouldn’t touch the meat.
When we butchered our pigs we used a block and tackle. First we’d hook the pig’s hind legs to a singletree then hook the singletree to the rope that went through the block and tackle. This rope was hooked to another singletree that was attached to the horse’s harness. By leading the horse forward this raised the pig up so Dad could butcher it. Dad would lower the hog into boiling water so us kids could scrape the hair off the hide. This made nice side pork with that wonderful rind to chew on.
Mom always had about 40 chickens, and she had ducks. Someone had given her a bunch of mallards, which are generally wild. Mom thought it funny that these ducks never laid eggs. The white ducks were laying all the time. About three weeks after Mom’s comment the mallard ducks came down the hill from the buck pasture followed by lots of ducklings. Mom had close to 100 baby ducks so we ate a lot of duck that year. She used paraffin to take the down off after she had picked all the feathers. The paraffin was melted in the big kettle used to dip the duck. By straining the paraffin through cheesecloth she was able to save it and use it again.
We used a lot of cheesecloth for straining milk, mosquito netting, making lard, etc. Mom would cook pork fat and rinds until the fat melted then she’d strain it through cheesecloth so the lard was pure. The rinds would turn into cracklings and the fat would melt. Cracklings were a treat for us kids. People used cheesecloth for netting over baby buggies so the baby would be safe from mosquitoes out in the yard. Cheesecloth was even used for bandages because it washed so clean and dried fast. When we would buy cheese at the butcher shop it would be wrapped in cheesecloth. That is how cheesecloth got its name.
Macaroni and cheese were a standby in the cookhouse especially with the sheepherders. Mom made it too. It was one of Bert and Fred’s favorite meals. Mom used real cheese and lots of butter. The macaroni was bigger than what we have now. It cooked up nice and fluffy. I don’t care that much for macaroni and cheese anymore; we had it too often when I was growing up.
The Depression continued until after World War II. During that time I earned some money by herding Indian Department cattle. I used that and what I made from bum lambs for school clothes. Mom was very frugal; she grew up during hard times so she knew how to make do with what she had. That’s what helped Dad get through the Depression; that and the fact the bank wasn’t about to foreclose when sheep were a dollar a head. F
–Reprinted with permission of Range Magazine
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