When I was a little boy, my grandmother used to tell me stories about her trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1909. Grandma went to the park with her aunt, seven cousins, and two brothers. Great Aunt Elvina was recently widowed and her youngest daughter was born after her husband died. Family lore says that the baby is the reason they took a milk cow with them. Grandma said she would hang a bucket of cream under the wagon axle in the morning where the rocking motion would turn it to butter by evening.
At 20, Grandma was the eldest of the young people and she was responsible cooking and taking care of the camps. Aunt Elvina had her hands full with the baby and keeping track of the other small children.
Grandma’s 15- and 17-year-old male cousins probably drove the teams, took care of the horses, and milked the cow. The party had a surrey for Elvina and the small children, a covered wagon for supplies and equipment, and four saddle horses.
Grandma used to brag about making herself a split riding skirt and riding astride through the park. At that time proper young ladies rode side-saddle.
She told about making bread in a hot spring. She put dough in a lard can, tied it to a rope, and dropped it into the boiling water. After an appropriate length of time, she pulled it and found a palatable loaf, although it lacked a pretty brown crust.
Grandma also recounted stories her father told about working in the park in 1882. Grandma’s grandfather, Rodney Page, was a surveyor by profession and he got a contract to survey the northern border of Yellowstone. In fact, he apparently moved to Montana to take the job. He left his wife behind in Michigan to manage moving the family.
On Rodney’s survey crew were two young men, Fred Mercer and Harry Redfield, who enjoyed playing practical jokes. Grandma said they stole each other’s red flannel underwear and pitched it into a geyser. The next time the geyser played, it was colored pink from the dye.
Despite their pranks, Grandpa Rodney apparently approved of the two young men. After their work in the park, they returned home with him. Harry Redfiled married his daughter Elvina, and Fred Mercer, her sister, Evelyn. I descend from the Mercer line.
In addition to stories about her family, Grandma told about experiences every early Yellowstone traveler knew about like catching a fish and turning to drop it in a hot spring to cook where and angler without removing it from the hook. Grandma commented that she preferred to clean her fish before cooking them. Actually, there are several places in the park where you could do this: along the Firehole and Gardiner Rivers and the shore of Yellowstone Lakc. The Fishing Pot is probably the most well known.
I also remember Grandma’s telling about the Handkerchief Pool, a now defunct geothermal feature in the Upper Geyser Basin. The Handkerchief Pool looked like a large pot of boiling water and gave off clouds of steam and a sulphur smell. When someone dropped a hankie in the pool, it would swirls around for awhile. Then the pool would suck it out of sight. About the time spectators had given the hankie up for lost, it would pop to the surface. Then the owner could fish the freshly laundered item out with a stick.
As a small boy, I was fascinated by Grandma’s Yellowstone stories. As an adult, I wanted to know more, so I began researching early travel to Yellowstone. I now have a growing collection of about 300 first-person accounts of trips to the park.
I’m sad to say that Grandma never wrote about her trip.
— Postcard from the Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.
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