Copyright © 2019 M. Mark Miller
All rights reserved.
In memory of a courageous woman
Theora Boyd Mercer Nolte
Eva Moves to the Ranch
I finished my packing. Claude and Dan brought the trailer in the afternoon and loaded my things. It was nearly eight when Claude came to start to Theora’s. We got here about half past nine. They hadn’t gone to bed yet and after my things were unloaded, Claude and Grace left for home. — Eva Mercer Diary, Feb. 22, 1935.
At first my great-grandmother’s diaries bewildered me. They’re an odd assortment of volumes. The earliest is a little notebook about three by five inches that is dated 1928 and contains entries for that year by someone named C. Burtch through February 18. C. Burtch apparently gave the tiny book to my great-grandmother, Eva Mercer, and Eva began entries in it on February 19, 1932. Each page of the book has space for a full week so the entries are very brief and written in a tiny hard-to-read script. When Grandma Mercer — that’s what family members always called her — finished the book on December 31, 1932, she turned it over and began entries for 1933 on the back of each page. Those years were the depths of the Great Depression, and she apparently was determined to use the book up.
The next volume is a handsome red leather-bound book with 1934 embossed on the cover. It has five-by-seven inch pages designed for one entry per day so Grandma Mercer could be more expansive. Her handwriting in them is less cramped, but, ever frugal, she used only the top half of each page for 1934 and saved the bottom half for 1935. The remaining two volumes of diaries are designed to hold five years each, so the handwriting in them becomes cramped again and the entries are brief. They cover 1936 to 1940 and 1941 to 1945.
Grandma Mercer wrote a few sentences in her diary every night before she went to bed. The diary entries usually just listed each day’s events without explanation or commentary, and Grandma Mercer almost never reported her emotions. Mostly she reported quotidian matters like weather, chores and social calls, but she also noted family landmarks like weddings, births and deaths.
Grandma’ Mercer’s diary entries make no effort to distinguish between the consequential and the trivial. For example, her description of my parents’ wedding on August 17, 1935, is followed by the news: “We had cabbage from the garden for dinner.”
The diaries include a welter of names, but Grandma Mercer never said if the people she mentioned are relatives, neighbors or friends. Apparently she wrote only for herself and with no notion that one of her great-grandsons might someday try to reconstruct her life.
Of course, I recognize many of the names. Theora is Grandma Mercer’s daughter, my Grandma Nolte, and C. C. Boyd is her first husband, my biological grandfather. Ruth is Theora’s eldest daughter, my mother, and Fern and Wayve, are her other daughters, my aunts. But many other names that Grandma Mercer mentioned meant little to me until I did some research.
Grandma Mercer moved to the ranch where I grew up on February 22, 1935. She had been a housekeeper for her distant cousin, Grace Nye, on a little farm in Pageville near Twin Bridges. Pageville was a tight-knit community founded by Grandma Mercer’s uncle, James Madison Page. Jim Page came to Montana in the 1860s and enticed his two brothers and two sisters to join him there so the place was filled with relatives.
Grandma Mercer — Evelyn Page or “Eva” as non-relatives usually called her — came to Montana with her family in 1882 on an immigrant train. Such trains were a common way for people to move west then. Settlers like Eva’s parents could rent a railroad boxcar bound for their destination and load it with whatever they wanted. The Mercer’s boxcar was crammed with Eva’s mother, three brothers and three sisters, her father’s widowed sister with two daughters, and for good measure an adventurous young schoolteacher named Nellie Weeks. It also contained all the family’s goods and two horses.
Among the treasures that Eva’s mother brought with her was an Ansonia mantle clock. Such clocks were common in the middle of the nineteenth century and each was enclosed in a wooden case that was uniquely carved. Such clocks were topped with a triangle that reached up several inches, but the one my ancestors brought to Montana doesn’t have that. Family lore has it that the top of the clock was sawed off because it was too tall to stand on a mantle in the cabin where the Pages lived in Michigan. I remember the clock ticking loudly on the mantle at my grandmother’s house when I was a little boy. Today it sits silently on my mantle.
Eva rode the crowded boxcar from Michigan to Dillon, Montana, which was the last stop on the Utah and Northern Railroad in 1882. Eva’s Uncle Jim met the tired travelers there and hauled them 40 miles more to his Excelsior Ranch at Pageville.
Uncle Jim Page was delighted to see Eva, who at 18 already had some teaching experience. Within days of her arrival, he had cleared out a cabin on his ranch and set up it as a school for her. With all of Eva’s aunts and uncles settled nearby, her students were mostly her siblings and cousins. Uncle Jim built the first Pageville schoolhouse the next year, but Eva’s teaching career didn’t last long. She fell in love with Fred Mercer, a young man who had worked on her father’s land surveying crew in Yellowstone Park, and they were married on May 13, 1885.
Fred and Eva started to farm southwest of Point of Rocks about 15 miles west of Twin Bridges. A reporter from the Dillon Tribune who visited the Mercer Farm in 1905 said he was “delighted to find large red raspberries in profusion, currants, gooseberries, cherries, crab-apples and standard apples all growing in large quantities apparently as if they were in California or some other semi-tropical locality.” Fred said he planned to sell berries from his farm the next year.
On February 14, 1906, tragedy struck the Mercers when their third son, 19-year-old Arthur, was injured while halter breaking colts on his Great Uncle Jim Page’s ranch. Family lore says he was kicked in the head, but that can’t be confirmed. On February 16 a newspaper reported Arthur was found “wandering about on the prairie in a deranged state of mind.” Arthur’s story took a strange turn a week later when his father and his uncle, Harry Redfield, went to court to have him committed to the state mental hospital in Warm Springs.
A newspaper reporter wrote: “Young Mercer, according to findings of doctors, is suffering from a very curious form of insanity due either to self-hypnosis or hypnotic influences from other sources.” Several newspapers around the region reprinted the story. Doctors said a month or six weeks of treatment at Warm Springs would cure Arthur, and he was released in September. But a year later newspapers reported that he had relapsed and was recommitted. He died in the mental hospital nearly 50 years later.
A few months later tragedy struck the Mercers again. In August Eva’s husband, Fred, collapsed while putting up hay on a day when newspapers said the temperature reached 110 degrees. He was rushed home and put to bed, but he died at 3 a.m. the next morning. Newspapers speculated that the cause of his death was typhoid fever.
Eva apparently was able to hold on to the ranch for a few years after Fred died. The 1910 Census shows her as head of household living there with her four adult children, but by the 1920 Census, she was listed in the household of her youngest son, Clifford. After that she apparently move around living with various relatives.
In 1932, Grandma Mercer was living with her distant cousin, Grace Nye, in Pageville in a house with a dirt roof. She was keeping house so Grace could do the outdoor work on her small farm. Grace traded work with a bachelor neighbor named Claude Butts and they decided to marry. Grandma Mercer was happy to see Grace find a husband. In fact, she helped make Grace’s wedding dress. But there was no place for Grandma Mercer in the new Butts household. On February 22, 1935, Grace and her fiancé borrowed a wagon to haul Grandma Mercer’s things 15 miles to the ranch my grandmother ran with her husband near Silver Star.
I have decided to focus on Grandma Mercer’s years at the ranch at Silver Star for several reasons. First, her diaries for those years are more expansive so it’s easier to figure out what she is writing about. Second, it’s the place where I grew up so I can picture the things she describes. Finally, those years cover a number of important events in the history of my family such as my grandparents’ divorce, my parents’ wedding and my parents’ taking over the ranch.
Because Grandma Mercer left much unexplained in her diaries, I had to become her collaborator to tell the stories. I supplemented her diaries with my memories of growing up, with family lore and conversations with my brothers and cousins, and with genealogical and legal research. Sometimes I’ve had to infer what happened, but I try to provide fair warning by labeling my conjectures.
Bewildering as Grandma Mercer’s diaries were at first, I think I’ve figured them out. I can put them away in the family archives for my descendants to puzzle over. Perhaps my version of her stories will help them make the four little volumes come to life.
C.C. and Theora Feud
Charlie got so terribly angry in the evening, it frightened me for Theora and Wayve. — Eva Mercer Diary, March 4, 1935.
By the time Grandma Mercer arrived the ranch at Silver Star her daughter Theora’s marriage to Charles Carey Boyd was already falling apart. They had been married for 23 years and had two grown daughters. My mother, Ruth, at age 21, had earned a teaching certificate after a year of normal school and was working at the one-room school in Silver Star. My Aunt Fern was 19 and in Great Falls training to be a nurse. Their 9-year-old sister, my Aunt Wayve, was still at home.
I never heard how my Grandmother, Theora Mercer, met her first husband. He was Charles Carey Boyd (he went by “C.C.”) and he came to Montana in 1906 to build monsters — dredge boats that gouged the earth down to bed rock, hauled dirt and gravel aboard, sluiced tons of “overburden” to extract ounces of gold, and excreted sterile sand and rock where fertile land once lay. C.C. was a master carpenter and the Marion Steam Shovel Company of Ohio had sent him west to build the largest dredge boat on earth.
The Conrey Placer Mining Company wasn’t sentimental. They named the boat that C.C. worked on “Electric Number Four” after the boat it replaced, which was just “Number Four” and ran on steam. Electric Number Four needed a lot of carpentry work. Its 150-by-58-foot hull was made of 550,000 feet of Oregon pine – high quality “Number 1 ship stuff.”
When I was a boy, my family sometimes picnicked near the dredge tailings and I hunted for the garnets that gave the Ruby Valley its name. Dredge tailings are benign compared to most mine waste. They don’t make acid pools or leach cyanide into the water. Now they’re well grown over with willows and brush, but they used to be just uneven piles of sand and rock.
C.C. Boyd and Theora Mercer were married on November 12, 1912, and settled on a little farm on the banks of the Big Hole River in Pageville. Deeds that C.C. kept in a booklet titled “Valuable Papers” show that he bought two parcels of land totaling about 15 acres in 1913 and that in 1919 Theora’s relatives gave her land totaling just over 35 acres for one dollar. The gift to Theora apparently was land that had been homesteaded by her grandfather, Rodney Page, and passed on to his heirs. The deed was signed over by her aunts and uncles and one cousin.
Montana tax assessments for 1923 show that Theora owned 35 acres and C.C., 25 acres. Although Theora owned more acres than C.C., the assessments were both $1,200, apparently because the farm buildings were on C.C.’s land.
C.C. and Theora must have lived happily on their little farm. C.C. kept beehives and extracted honey to sell. The Boyds also had half a dozen milk cows. My mother remembered learning to milk at age 10 and hating to crank the separator that extracted cream from milk and the churn for making butter. C.C. probably fed the skim milk to pigs that the Boyds slaughtered for food and Theora sold butter and eggs in Twin Bridges. The Boyds also raised hay, wheat and potatoes as cash crops. C.C. also cut and split firewood for sale.
In 1920 my mother started elementary school in Twin Bridges riding six miles on the school district’s first bus, a converted truck with benches running down the sides of the bed. When Mom described the bus to me she said “Oh, that bus. That was solid luxury! Really, people felt pretty good to have a school bus pick up their children and take them to schools.” But she also said riding in the open truck bed could be dreadfully cold in winter.
Mom had been scheduled to attend the one-room Pageville School where Grandma Mercer had been the first teacher, but it became the first school to consolidate with Twin Bridges that year. Later Mom would teach at the one-room Silver Star School, which was the last to join the Twin Bridges District.
Life on the little farm was good, but every spring when snow melted in nearby mountains, the Big Hole River flooded eating away its banks. By 1929 it became obvious that the river eventually was going to wash away the farm buildings, so the Boyds decided to move to a 167-acre ranch 16 miles away across the valley from the little town of Silver Star. Apparently they sold Theora’s legacy farm in Pageville to get the down payment for the larger ranch. Perhaps that’s why she eventually worked so hard to save it.
The Boyds moved to the ranch at Silver Star on April Fool’s Day, 1929. My mother moved in the Boyds’ Model-T and helped unload the borrowed truck that made several trips from the farm. Aunt Fern, who was 12, helped herd the milk cows from the old place and it was after dark when they arrived. Mom, who was 14, remembered she had to stay in the log house that night with 3-year-old Wayve, while her mother milked the cows in the log barn that was home to thirty or more cats.
In addition to the house and barn, the place had a tiny log cabin and an even smaller log building near the house where C.C. poured a concrete floor for a milk house. (At first the Boyd’s had to keep their cream separator in the house.) He also had a well dug and installed a pump outside the house. Before he did that the Boyds had to haul water from the springhouse, and 8-by-8 foot log structure that covered a cold spring at the edge of the slough two hundred yards away. C.C. also used the spring to keep five-gallon cans of cream cold until he hauled them up the road from the house to Silver Star Station.
The place also had a decrepit garage, an outdoor privy and a root cellar for storing potatoes, apples and garden crops. Apparently C.C. built a shop and a tiny bunkhouse, buildings that still stand and reveal his carpenter skills.
Back then the train stopped at Silver Star Station twice a day, first in the morning on its way up to valley to Alder and then in the afternoon on the return trip to Whitehall. The Silver Star postmaster came two miles from the town across the valley and met the train both times to pick up and drop off mail. Postal clerks rode the trains sorting mail. I have a postcard Grandma Mercer saved that was cancelled between Alder and Whitehall.
C.C. Boyd built a low-slung cart that had 30-inch wheels with pneumatic tires to carry 5-gallon cans of cream from the springhouse 300 yards to the train station. The train hauled the cream to Whitehall where it was picked up by a creamery. The sale of cream was a main source of cash income for the Boyds during the Great Depression.
The station’s most conspicuous feature was a 150-foot ore ramp made of creosoted timber. Dump trucks from the mines across the valley backed up the ramp and rolled on to the counterbalanced bridge at its top. The bridge extended over a waiting railroad ore car below and the truck dumped its cargo with a clatter that could be heard a mile away. My brothers and I used to push our bicycles to the top of the ramp and race down at breakneck speed.
Silver Star Station also had a series of corrals used to load livestock onto railroad cars. There was a single ramp for cattle and a double-ramp to load sheep in double-deck railroad cars. I remember the intricate set of corrals as a great place to play hide and seek when I was a boy.
I never knew what caused the rift between my grandparents, but Aunt Fern said it might have had something to do with property. The farm on the Big Hole River that the Boyds sold to get the down payment for the ranch at Silver Star Station included a gift from her family. Perhaps C.C. and Theora argued about his share in the ranch.
C.C. Boyd must have been a harsh man. My mother once told me the happiest day of her life was the day he moved out. Mom recalled a time she and her grade-school friends decided to pool their money and get marshmallows for a party. The girls chose Mom to hold the money and buy the candy, but C.C. found it and ate the whole bag — apparently just to be mean. Mom said she was terribly embarrassed when she had to tell her friends what had happened to their marshmallows. The incident was at the depths of the Great Depression when it was very hard for little girls to come up with pennies. Mom told the marshmallow story as an example of her father’s behavior so it’s no wonder that he feuded with my grandmother.
Grandma Mercer had been at the ranch for just a week when she noted the strife in her diary. On March 4, 1935, she wrote C.C. “got so terribly angry in the evening, it frightened me for Theora and Wayve.” Grandma Mercer didn’t offer an explanation or even speculate about the cause of the conflict, but tension in the log house must have been palpable.
C.C. rarely spoke after that and then only to his 9-year-old daughter, Wayve. He broke his silence a month later when he ordered Theora to do field work. She had to cancel a trip to Twin Bridges that she had planned with Grandma Mercer and worked more than four hours walking over newly plowed ground behind horses dragging a harrow, a heavy frame set with tines to breakup earthen clods. Grandma Mercer said the job was so hard that it made Theora lame.
On May 5, C.C. got in his truck and drove away without telling anyone where he was going or where he had been when he returned. After that he disappeared often and didn’t get back home until after the rest of his family had gone to bed.
On May 9, Grandma Mercer reported that Theora and C.C. had “a bad quarrel while milking and decided they could not go on living together.” Grandma Mercer offered no description or speculation on what the quarrel was about.
Someone neatly razor-bladed the page from Grandma Mercer’s diary that contained the entry for May 15, 1935, on one side and the entry for May 16 on the other. One or both of the entries must have contained something that someone wanted to hide. Probably C.C. and Theora had another argument or perhaps even a physical altercation. The diary provides no clues; the entries for several days before and after are about routine things like weather and neighbors’ visits.
Perhaps Grandma Mercer had second thoughts about what she had written and removed the page herself. Perhaps Theora removed the page. She had the diaries after her mother died so she could have found the entry and cut it out. After Theora’s divorce from C.C. she eradicated him from her life. She apparently went through her family photos and removed any that contained him. My mother had both the diaries and the photos after Theora died, but it seems unlikely that she removed the pages and pictures of her father. In fact, Mom kept a photo of her parents, perhaps a wedding photo, hidden away. My brother, Robert, found it in the secret compartment of my parents’ roll-top desk. In any case, there’s no way to know what the missing page from Eva’s diary contained or who removed it.
It was nearly three weeks after the decision to split before C.C. actually left the ranch. Grandma Mercer doesn’t say so, but probably he was sleeping in the bunkhouse, a tiny one-room building at the edge of the apple orchard.
He injured his knee on May 24. The next day, Eva said, he “went away in the car this morning. He dressed up and we think he went to Butte to see a doctor for his knee. Just have to guess.” On May 31, C.C. caught a ride to Whitehall where he took the train to Billings more than 200 miles away to see a specialist about his knee.
Has looked like rain most of the day, but only rained for less than five minutes. George helped with the hay most of the day. Theora raked some of the time and mowed some. Helped a little with the stacking when George went to tend the water. They got a stack finished just at suppertime and none of the hay got rained on. — Eva Mercer diary, July 20, 1935.
When C.C. abandoned the ranch on May 31, he left Theora with the formidable task of managing it with only the help of her aged mother and 9-year-old daughter. There were potato fields to hoe and cultivate as well as fields of hay and grain to irrigate. And soon it would be time to cut and stack hay.
Undaunted, Theora left the housekeeping to Grandma Mercer and began working in the fields. But by June 19 she decided she had to have help and recruited her brother, George Mercer, who lived 20 miles away with his family in Whitehall. The next morning Theora and George inspected the alfalfa hay and grain fields. Spring rains had kept the crops going but they were starting to suffer in the summer heat. That night, Eva wrote in her diary, “George worked with the water.” By that she apparently meant he started water flowing through the ranch’s network of irrigation ditches.
In April snow melt and spring rains keep the Jefferson River Valley green, but by May the snow caps in the high mountains disappear and hot dry weather sucks moisture out of the fields. Farmers have to irrigate if their crops are to survive. In 1935 most of the water to irrigate the ranch at Silver Star Station came from the All Nations Ditch, a canal six feet wide and three feet deep that ran four miles to carry water across the valley from the river.
Three ranches shared water from the All Nations and they maintained it through informal neighborly cooperation. The ranchers drew their water share into a web of smaller ditches that ran through their fields. They irrigated hay and grain fields by damming the smaller ditches with 6-foot squares of canvass attached to a pole. By laying the pole across the ditch and pressing the canvass down so the current would hold it in place, they could dam the water and flood a nearby patch of field. Once the patch soaked for a few hours, the dam was moved to soak another patch. This process of “changing the water” had to be repeated over and over. In potato patches water was guided into narrow channels that ran between rows. There was only water enough to irrigate a few rows at a time, so it too had to be changed regularly. Irrigators made their last set as the sun was sinking and were up at sunrise to change the water again.
By June 27 according to the diary, the water in the Jefferson River had fallen so low that George had to join the All Nations partners to build a dam in the Jefferson River to divert water into the ditch. She didn’t describe how such dams were built, but I recall helping my father do that. First we found a log that was attached to a cable to keep it from washing away during spring high water. Then we pulled the log upstream and wedged it between a gravel bar and the head of the ditch. Rushing water held the log in place and we shoved boards between it and the river bottom, and floated debris against the boards to seal the dam. Even when the river was low, work on the dam involved getting wet up to the armpits, and it could be dangerous because the backed-up water sucked hard under the log and between the boards. High water washed away the diversion dam every spring leaving only the log secured by its cable on the bank. The dam had to be rebuilt every summer.
Even with the dam, by August of 1935 the river water level had fallen so low that the All Nations ditch partners were drawing water on alternating days, but George and Theora still had to continue their round-the-clock job of changing the water until September.
Between sets of changing the water, Theora ran a horse-drawn cultivator to control the weeds that sprung up between rows of potatoes. Then she and Wayve hoed between plants to cut down weeds the cultivator couldn’t reach. It was hard physical labor in the hot sun but Theora and Wayve managed these tasks until the hay began to ripen early in July. Then Theora had to help with the hay harvest by mowing and raking.
On July 22 Grandma Mercer noted her diary that “Mr. Miller cultivated potatoes. Wayve rode Jane.” She was referring to my father’s father, Louis Miller, who lived a mile up the road. Grandpa Miller was 73 years old that summer. Apparently because he was missing all the fingers on his left hand, Grandpa couldn’t manage the levers that controlled the cultivator and drive a horse at the same time, so 9-year-old Wayve rode and guided the gentle mare, “Old Jane.”
The first cutting of alfalfa hay began on July 8 when Theora took over irrigating and George got the mowing machine ready. The horse-drawn mower carried a 5-foot cutter bar where a row of 3-inch steel triangles reciprocated across guards to scissor down hay. George had barely begun mowing the next day when the mower tongue broke so he had to make a new one. He didn’t get in a full day of mowing until July 11. Theora divided her time between irrigating potatoes and raking hay.
With the pressing tasks of irrigating and haying, Theora hired my father’s brother, Jimmy Miller, to help. Uncle Jim lived with his new bride in a snug two-room house on the farm his parents rented about a mile up the valley. He began work on July 13 by mowing and raking hay.
On July 16, Eva wrote, “Jimmy here and another nineteen-year-old married boy. He raked most of the day, no more than he should have done in half a day and it nearly all needs to be gone over to get scattered hay put in the bunches.Jimmy is splendid help.” The other young man lasted only two more days in the hay fields, then quit and returned to Butte leaving only Jimmy and Theora to finish putting up the hay with occasional help from George when he caught up with the irrigating.
Haying was a multi-step process. First the hay was mowed and left to cure in the hot sun for a day or two. Then it was raked into winding windrows using a dump rake, a high-wheeled device amounting to little more than an axle with yard-long curved tines to gather up the hay. When the tines filled, the operator who perched on a seat on the rake behind the horses pulled a lever dumping loads every time they filled up.
After the hay was raked, the crew used pitchforks to load it onto a net carried by a “lowboy,” a special wagon that ran close to the ground on undersized wheels to cut the distance the hay had to be pitched. After the crew filled the net, they ran the lowboy over to a derrick that hoisted it up, swiveled over the stack and dumped the load. Then the arduous task of loading the lowboy began again. Theora continued her strenuous schedule of irrigating crops and mowing, raking and stacking hay until July 30.
With the first cutting of hay done Theora and George returned to irrigating and cultivating potatoes. Then Theora began to plan my parents’ wedding.
Ruth and Charlie Marry
Charlie Miller came about six. He and Ruth had been to Great Falls to see Fern. Had a bad accident in their car but not hurt. Car quite a lot damaged. He told Theora that he and Ruth plan to be married in Aug.” — Eva Mercer Diary, July 7, 1935.
While my grandparents’ marriage withered and died, my parents’ courtship was coming into full bloom. That year Mom was teaching in the one-room Silver Star School two miles away from the ranch. The schoolhouse, which still stands, was a square brick building with a foyer for hanging coats and one large classroom with an elevated section for the teacher’s desk. At the back of the room there was a huge potbellied stove that heated the building in winter.
Mom taught six students, five girls and a boy, who were spread across third, fifth and seventh grades. In addition to providing lessons to three different classes every day, Mom was responsible for putting on a Christmas program for the community where students sang, did recitations and put on skits. In spring the students put on a pageant depicting the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Mom said the students really liked that because their school was near the Jefferson River where Lewis and Clark passed in 1805.
In addition to working with students, Mom produced a play with young adults from the community. In March 1935, a cast of seven people that included both Mom and Dad presented, “Tell the Judge” at the school. The three-act farce was a hit and the group reprised it a week later in Twin Bridges. A few days later, several members of the cast drove to Butte to see “Life Begins at Forty,” a new movie staring Will Rogers.
While she was teaching Mom boarded with the Earl and Grace Woods family in the Silver Star but she was a frequent visitor at the ranch, and Dad, who had a car, squired her back and forth. Grandma Mercer frequently noted in her diaries that Dad took Mom to a movie in Whitehall or to a basketball game in Twin Bridges. Mom and Dad sometimes took Wayve with them when they went to such things as a circus or rodeo in Butte. On May 17, the Madisonian reported that my parents went to the prom at Twin Bridges High School.
Grandma Mercer said Dad often took Mom away without mentioning where they went. Of course there were plenty of places in the sparsely populated valley where a young couple could find privacy.
At the end of the school year, Mom rushed to send her final reports to the county school superintendent. Then on June 8 she took the train to Billings where she enrolled for summer classes at the normal school there. Dad didn’t appear in Grandma Mercer’s diary again until July 3 when he came to the ranch to get butter and other things to take to Mom.
The entry in Grandma Mercer’s diary for July 7 had important news. It said, “Charlie Miller came about six. He and Ruth had been to Great Falls to see Fern. Had a bad accident with their car but not hurt. Car quite a lot damaged. He told Theora that he and Ruth plan to be married in Aug.”
Despite the “bad accident” the car still must have been running because my father made it back to Silver Star. Also, the visit to Aunt Fern is remarkable. To make it my father would have had to drive 220 miles to pick up Mom and then drive another 220 miles from there to Great Falls. He would have had to reverse the route to return Mom to Billings and come back to Silver Star—a total of nearly 900 miles. It must have been extremely important to my parents to share news of the impending wedding with Fern. It’s interesting that telling Fern took precedence over telling Mom’s mother and grandmother.
The announcement that the wedding was to be in August seems odd because Dad had purchased a wedding license two months earlier. Maybe he did that as a way of persuading Mom to marry him and he finally succeeded in doing that during the trip to Billings.
Perhaps Dad bought the marriage license on June 29 just to avoid the hassle and cost of getting it after Montana’s new Gin Marriage Law that was scheduled to take effect just two days later on July 1. The new law was designed to prevent couples from rushing into marriage perhaps after getting drunk at a bathtub gin party, which is where its name comes from.
The new law required a three-day waiting period during which a couple had to find a doctor who would give each of them a physical exam and sign a health certificate saying neither the bride nor groom had any of a long list of communicable diseases. More important, the doctor had to certify that the couple would not have defective children. Doctors said they couldn’t possibly promise that and most of them refused to provide the certificates. Without the certificates, county clerks couldn’t issue marriage licenses so fewer than a dozen were sold in Montana during July and August of 1935. The law was suspended by a referendum petition that September.
The law prompted hundreds of young couples to rush to the altar that June. Dad’s younger brother, Jim, and his wife, Sally, were among them. Jim and Sally married after knowing each other less than a month. Uncle Jim later claimed the short courtship didn’t matter. “I knew we had been together in a previous life,” he claimed, “so it was right for us to marry – again.”
My parents had dated for years before they decided to marry and my father never approved of Uncle Jim and Aunt Sally’s whirlwind romance although they had a long and successful marriage. They had six children in eight years, and my father didn’t approve of that either. “They didn’t have a family,” he said; “they had a slow litter.”
Mom said she and Dad had planned an August wedding and weren’t going to let the Gin Marriage Law rush them. That brings up the question: If Mom already knew she was going to get married, why did she return to Billings for another term at the normal school? Back then married women did not teach except in special cases such as when they had an invalid husband. Mom said she could easily have taught the first year of her marriage when she and Dad lived near the school in Silver Star. Mom said that year was the most boring of her life because all she had to do was keep house for two people in a one-room cabin. But she said, “Continuing to teach back then just never occurred to me.”
Plans for the wedding started immediately after Dad announced that he and Mom were getting married. Theora ordered Ruth’s silverware from the Montgomery Ward catalogue and it arrived on August 2.
Mom chose her sister, Fern, to be her bridesmaid, but Dad waffled on his best man. At first he asked his good friend Walter Woods, but later he changed his mind and asked his younger brother, Jim, to stand for him.
Fern got a summer break from nurses training, so Dad and Theora went to Butte to pick her up at the train station. Mom finished summer school and came by train to Whitehall where Grandma’s brother, George Mercer, and Wayve met her on August 9.
By August 12 Theora’s three daughters were all assembled at the ranch, and she took them to Twin Bridges to buy fabric for Mom’s wedding dress—dotted mull and white silk crepe for the slip. In her diary for that day, Grandma Mercer said, “Theora got the slip made this afternoon.” Two days later she said, “Theora finished Ruth’s dress and slip.”
The wedding took place in the living room of the log house at my grandmother’s ranch on Saturday, August 17, 1935. All the guests at the wedding were family members except for Mom and Dad’s close friends, Walter and Loren Woods. It was too dark in the house for photography, so after the ceremony everybody trooped outside where Walter took pictures in the waning afternoon sun. A group photo shows Mom and Dad surrounded by family members including parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. Mom’s father, C.C. Boyd, is conspicuous by his absence.
Eva’s diary entry for the wedding day read: “Very pleasant. Not too warm. We were all busy all day, but got everything ready for Ruth’s wedding in time. It was very nice and Ruth and Charlie looked just right. It made me think of the day Fred and I and were married.” In her usual way of summarizing the day with non-sequiturs, Grandma Mercer added, “We had cabbage from the garden for dinner.”
Mom told me she and Dad honeymooned in Hells Canyon at a beautiful spot high in the mountains across the valley from where the wedding took place. Dad had gone up the canyon the day before the wedding to pitch a tent beside a babbling mountain stream. The honeymoon was short. Dad was working at a mine near Silver Star and he probably was back at work two days after the wedding on Monday morning.
After the wedding Theora returned to her strenuous schedule of irrigating crops and mowing, raking and stacking hay. On the morning of August 20, George began harvesting wheat with the binder, a machine that cut the grain and left it scattered across the field in bundles. In the afternoon he and Theora gathered the bundles into shocks, teepee shaped piles, while Fern stacked barley.
Theora and C.C. Divorce
About 10 a.m. a phone call came for Fern as she was helping get a load of barley. The call was repeated at 12:15 and it proved to be Charley Boyd. He was in Whitehall and wanted Fern to go down and get him. She and Wayve went about 1:30 and they got back here before five. He went to the bunkhouse and began packing his things until supper and again until dark. Then he and the girls went to Twin Bridges. I do hope he will not be here very long. It’s so hard the way things are. — Eva Mercer Diary, Aug. 21, 1935.
On Friday, August 23, Theora took Grandma Mercer and Grandpa Miller to Virginia City to apply for their old age pensions. She also consulted an attorney who advised her to get legal separation and to come back with C.C. on Monday to work things out. C.C. and Theora went to Virginia City again on August 27, but the attorney wasn’t in his office. When they returned on August 28, C.C. asked for a divorce and the attorney advised it. Theora formally initiated the suit on grounds of extreme cruelty.
Apparently C.C. and Theora also changed the contract on the ranch to make Theora the sole buyer and agreed on a property settlement. Grandma Mercer said the day after the divorce C.C. came to the ranch with another man and his truck and “they took the wagon and a lot of other things.” He returned the next day to get more and Grandma Mercer complained on September 1 that he took the radio that she used to listen to sermons.
Felt so cold this morning we were afraid there was frost, but there was none. George cut wheat in forenoon and he and Theora shocked it. In afternoon they and Fern stacked barley. — Eva Mercer Diary, Aug. 20, 1935.
While Theora and C.C. arranged their divorce, George finished cutting the grain and left it to cure in the field. Theora decided it was time to harvest early potatoes and George began digging on September 4. Two days later, a neighbor, Orville Pogson, took 30 sacks of potatoes to sell in Butte for Theora.
On September 9, Theora and George began hauling grain to a central location and stacking it for the threshing machine. The next day Theora telephoned neighbors to recruit a threshing crew that was scheduled to arrive on September 11. A big steam tractor towed the threshing machine into place first thing in the morning. Then the tractor was turned around and long belts were attached to it to power the thresher.
Theora’s threshing job was small so the nine-man crew finished it before noon. They stayed for a hearty meal and then moved to the next job. Threshing was a communal effort where people traded labor so George had to spend several days on the threshing crew at neighbor’s farms.
Ranch work kept piling up and Theora and George had to shift back and forth between irrigating and harvesting crops. On the morning of September 11, Theora began mowing the second cutting of alfalfa hay. George took over mowing in the afternoon after he finished helping a neighbor with threshing. Two days later September 13 George dug potatoes in the morning, and in the afternoon Theora picked eight sacks that my father took to sell in Butte the next day.
On September 15, a 14-year-old boy named Charles came to stay at the ranch. Grandma Mercer’s diaries don’t say much about Charles, but he apparently was supposed to live with the family and help out after school and on weekends. He frequently went to school events in the evening and spent holiday weekends with his family.
By September 21, Theora, George and Charles finished stacking the hay before noon. With the last of the hay up, the grain threshed and Charles there to help, George apparently felt he had done enough and went home.
For the rest of September, Theora irrigated the hay fields and helped Grandma Mercer with canning peaches and pears she had bought, and corn and tomatoes from the garden. Theora and Charles harvested apples and stored them for winter in the root cellar. The last crop from the garden was squash that also went into the cellar.
On October 1, Uncle Jim began digging the late potatoes. He and a crew of two other men finished the job the next day and had the potatoes stored in the cellar where they could be sorted and sacked for sale later.
On October 10, Theora and Grandma Mercer rushed to finish their morning chores and left just after 9 a.m. to go to Virginia City to finalize the divorce. They stopped along the way to pick up Grandpa Miller and got to the county courthouse in time to have the judge grant the divorce before noon. C.C. Boyd wasn’t there to contest it. Grandpa Miller bought everybody lunch after the hearing.
“Seems terrible for her to be divorced,” Grandma Mercer wrote in her diary that day, “but it’s surely best.” With the divorce final and the crops in, life settled down on the ranch. Theora continued fall irrigating and began sorting and sacking potatoes for sale. Men came from Butte twice to pick up first thirty and then twenty hundred-pound sacks of potatoes. Theora also had time to catch up on house cleaning and cut Wayve’s hair. There was also time for family visits and to take Grandma Mercer to church.
Millers Move to the Ranch
Temperature zero this morning. Ruth started washing but felt so mostly sick Theora did most of it. Charley came in the forenoon, had quit his job. — Eva Mercer Diary, Jan. 6, 1936
Not so cold. Nice day. Charley and Ruth came about nine and Charley helped Theora getting the trees cut down and ready to saw for wood. They stayed all night. — Eva Mercer Diary, Jan. 8, 1936
In January of 1936, Dad quit his job at the mine and began working steadily at the ranch, but he and Mom continued to live in their little cabin in Silver Star. He took on such tasks as cutting down trees and tearing down an old garage to be sawed up for firewood and slaughtering a hog.
In the middle of January, he began harvesting ice and packing it in sawdust in the icehouse. He supplemented his income by harvesting logs in the nearby mountains, cutting them up and splitting them to sell for firewood.
On February 25, Theora went to Silver Star to make her $200 annual payment on the ranch to the man she was buying it from. On February 28, Grandma Mercer said “Charley was here talking to Theora about the place and the stock.” Apparently Dad was negotiating to buy the ranch and continued looking it over for the next few days.
It’s unclear how my parents got the money to buy the ranch, but my father once told me he borrowed money from a bachelor he knew in Silver Star. The man liked Dad and trusted him so the deal was sealed with a handshake and there was no written contract. After the man died, Dad never paid back the loan. The man had no heirs, Dad said, so the money would have just gone to the state.
I think the man was John Dullea whose biography fits Dad’s description. Dullea was a bachelor who owned a small mine in Silver Star. Dad worked at the mine, so the men would have known each other well. Dullea died in 1940.
On April 7, 1936, Grandma Mercer notes in her diary that my Uncle Jim and Aunt Sally had a boy. My cousin Jimmy was a gin marriage baby born barely nine months after Montana’s ill-advised Gin Marriage Law. Mom once told me that the law caused a rush to the altar in June of 1935 and a rush to the delivery room in February and March of 1936.
Uncle Jim and Aunt Sally, like thousands of Montana couples, rushed to get married ahead of the laws requirements for a three-day waiting period and a physical exam for both bride and groom. My mother once told me that when she went to visit Aunt Sally and Sally’s first baby at Saint James Hospital in Butte, new mothers were on cots in hallways because all the rooms were full. There were twice as many births in Butte in 1936 as there had been in 1935.
Theora began raising large flocks of chickens and turkeys and tending a large garden. Dad tended the fieldwork like planting potatoes and grain and irrigating. Theora helped with fieldwork only when it came time to stack hay, which required a large crew.
Meanwhile, Dad began converting the ranch from horses to gasoline-powered machines. He bought a new truck in 1936 and his first tractor in 1937. My eldest brother, William, said he didn’t know the make of that tractor, but recalled it had steel wheels. I had thought Dad’s first tractor was a Fordson, which was one of several companies making compact steel-wheeled tractors that were rapidly replacing the cumbersome giant steam engines that powered threshing machines. Then I remembered “ the Fordson” is what my brothers and I called a cast-iron toy tractor we played with when we were little. Probably I confused the toy with the real thing.
The story I remember about the toy Fordson was that it belonged to my second brother, Robert, who left it in the yard where it was run over and shattered into more than a dozen pieces. Robert was inconsolable and cried for hours for his destroyed toy. Finally my father gathered up as many pieces as he could find, took them to his shop, and welded them back together with his acetylene torch. The tractor’s front wheels were ruined so Dan made new ones out of cast pewter. The repair job resulted in a Frankenstein patchwork but my brothers and I loved the little tractor anyway. We pushed the Fordson around our play farms until the holes in those pewter wheels were worn to the size of dimes making the little tractor wobble and rattle when we pushed it around, but the noise made it only seem more realistic to us.
By 1940 my father had replaced his first tractor with a rubber-tired Farmall H that had a serial number indicating it was among the first hundred manufactured. William recalls that our Grandpa Miller had loved to follow in the furrows behind the steel-wheeled tractor while Dad plowed. But the Farmall H, Dad said, could plow as fast as a horse could trot — faster than the old man could walk.
Speed with fieldwork wasn’t the only benefit of gasoline-powered tractors. They were equipped to drive belts that powered such things as grain grinders that unlocked the nutrition for animal feed and thirty-inch circular blades that made fast work of sawing logs for firewood. Also Dad cleared the cottonwoods off a dozen acres across the slough and used the H to power a pump. Being able to lift water ten feet out of the slough let him irrigate previously unproductive land and turn it into an alfalfa field.
In the summer of 1936 Eva reported in her diary that Dad used a buckrake to gather hay for stacking instead of having a crew pitch it onto a lowboy hay wagon because he couldn’t find men for a stacking crew. The innovation cut the number of men required for the job in half. Eva doesn’t describe the buckrake, but probably it was gasoline powered. Horse-drawn buckrakes still existed then, but it seems unlikely that Dad would have used one. Gasoline-powered buckrakes had recently been invented in the hay-rich Big Hole Valley 90 miles to the west, and they were just the kind of innovation my father would have embraced.
My older brothers recall helping him build power buckrakes and I did that myself when I was in my teens. First we stripped an old truck down to the essentials: wheels, steel frame and drive train. Then we turned the rear axel upside down and re-attached it. With this arrangement, when the transmission was in what would normally be called reverse the buckrake ran toward the wheels that steered the machine. In what used to be the three forward gears, it ran toward the fixed drive wheels that powered it. We attached a seat facing the drive wheels and rigged the controls so it could be driven that direction. That was an intricate bit of engineering that required a lot of trial and error, but we got the buckrake built. The arrangement let the buckrake snake back and forth across windrows filling the machine’s fork with hay. When the fork was full, the driver raced to the haystack as fast as possible.
It was years before my father let me drive the buckrake, but when I got my chance it was just what I expected — the fastest, funnest farm implement ever. The hotrod of the hayfield.
The buckrake left jags of hay behind so we had to scatter rake to pick them up. My oldest brother, William, remembers scatter raking with a horse as a very pleasant job, but I never did that. I learned to drive by scatter raking on “the old H,” which was called that because by then Dad had bought a Super H and an M, both Farmalls. He put me in the tractor seat and showed me the controls – steering wheel, hand throttle, gearshift, and a rope to dump the rake when it gathered a full load. He started the tractor rolling and stood on the drawbar while I meandered around the field raking up one bit of hay after another. When the rake filled, he told me to pull the rope and I neatly dumped a load. The next time the rake filled I dumped it without prompting and listened for paternal praise. But then I turned and saw my father had stepped off the slow moving tractor and walked away to run the stacker.
By the time I started haying there were no workhorses on the place, but horse collars and harnesses were still hanging in the barn loft. At different times each of my parents told me about a harness maker who came to the ranch during the Great Depression. The man came walking up the railroad track and stopped to ask for work. My parents said they needed no work, but offered him a meal. He said he didn’t want a handout but he would repair harnesses for food. Although Dad no longer worked horses, he showed the man where the horse equipment was kept. The harness maker spent two days oiling leather and repairing buckles and straps. He slept in the barn and ate meals with the family. When he finished his work he moved on.
“He did a beautiful job,” Dad said, “it’s a shame we never used it,” The leather just dried out and became useless.
Using a buckrake would have made the derrick stacker obsolete because it would have been difficult to move the hay from buckrake fork to the net that hauled up the hay. Dad must have switched to an overshot stacker that had its own fork to accept hay from the buckrake and hurl it onto the stack. My oldest brothers remember Dad using an overshot stacker that had its own fork to take hay from the buckrake. Overshot stackers worked by lifting hay straight back over a scaffold and flipping it onto the stack. By adjusting the speed of the horses or tractor that pulled the overshot, an operator could manipulate placement of the hay and make it easier for the man on top to adjust the stack
When I worked the hayfields we used a Farmhand, a front-loader mounted on a tractor that hydraulically lifted a fork with a buckrake load of hay on stacks of hay 15-feet tall. With a buckrake-farmhand combination, two men could stack more hay than a five-man crew did in my grandparents’ day. Today my third brother, Charles, who still runs the ranch, has converted the task to a one-man job with round bales.
A nice day. Charley and Ruth moved their things over and are sleeping here tonight. Theora and Wayve are sleeping in the cabin. It’s been a hard day for all of us. Charles home with a cold. — Eva Mercer Diary, April 16, 1936
Charlie, Ruth, Theora and Fern went to Butte at 10:30 tonight, and the others came back telling us Ruth’s baby, an eight-pound boy was born at 5:15. — Eva Mercer Diary, August 16, 1936
By April 1936, Dad and Theora apparently had arranged the sale of the ranch to my parents. Theora cut an opening in the wall of the tiny cabin that stood next to the ranch house so she could live there with Grandma Mercer and Wayve. She installed a window, cleaned and whitewashed the interior and began moving things. On April 14, my parents took over the log house and the others moved into the cabin.
Grandma Mercer noted my eldest brother’s birth in her diary without fanfare. She had provided few clues in previous entries that my mother was expecting. She did note that my mother felt too sick to do laundry on January 6, 1936, which may have been due to morning sickness, but she didn’t say so. Grandma Mercer also said Dad took Mom to see a doctor in Butte on April 30, but didn’t speculate as to why. Grandma Mercer observed on July 1 that Mom “has been so lame she could scarcely walk” but again offered no explanation. The most overt clue in her diary didn’t occur until just over a month before William was born. On July 16 she noted, “Ruth has her baby sewing about finished ” without further comment. Just days before the baby arrived, Grandma Mercer noted that she and Theora helped Mom fix meals because she wasn’t feeling well, but she didn’t say why.
Grandma Mercer’s failure to mention Mom’s pregnancy didn’t mean she wasn’t thrilled with her great-grandson. In fact, she noted his every smile and colic. Baby William was taken to the general store in Silver Star every few days and weighed on the grocery scale there. On October 28, 1936, Eva noted “Theora and Ruth took Baby William to Silver Star and weighed him. He’s gained an ounce a day.”
Grandma Mercer’s diary is filled with comments like “Baby William is so dear and cute, is so well and growing fast,” and “Baby William … laughed out loud three times.”
By the spring of 1937, Grandma Mercer’s infatuation with Baby William became so intrusive that Theora began to worry that she was taking him away from my mother. At least that’s what my Aunt Wayve told me decades later, and Aunt Fern confirmed the assertion. Apparently things became so bad that Theora decided she had to get Grandma Mercer away from the baby.
Theora’s decision to leave the ranch could not have been easy. She had been doing all sorts of things that indicated she planned to stay there. After the departure of Charles, the boy who had come to help, Theora cleaned the bunkhouse so she and Wayve could sleep there. She also planted a large garden and started a flock of turkeys, things that required a lot of work and wouldn’t pay off until fall.
But at the end of May Theora announced that she had taken a temporary job as an assistant at the state orphans home in Twin Bridges and began commuting ten miles to work there. On July 26, she announced she was taking a permanent job in the nursery at the home. On August 2, Theora rented a house in Twin Bridges and began packing to move.
Eva Leaves the Ranch
Theora came home this morning and Charlie brought two truckloads of stuff to the house in Twin Bridges. Theora, Wayve and I came in the car. We ate dinner with Ruth in our new house. — Eva Mercer Diary, August 12, 1937
Soon life in Twin Bridges fell into a routine. Theora’s job at the nursery of the orphans home required her to work long hours and she had a room there. But she still managed to spend time with her family and tend a vegetable garden and make clothing for Wayve.
In Theora’s absence, Grandma Mercer became the primary homemaker doing cooking, housecleaning and laundry and supervising Wayve, who was just 12 years old when the trio first moved. But as years passed Grandma Mercer’s health declined and Wayve matured so their roles reversed. By the time Wayve was in her final years of high school she did most of the housework while her grandmother just mended clothing, wrote letters and entertained visitors. A steady stream of Grandma Mercer’s many siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews came to the house in Twin Bridges, which was close to their homes.
Wayve graduated from Twin Bridges High School in May of 1943 and decided to visit her father who had moved back to Ohio. Grandma Mercer doesn’t comment on Wayve’s plan to spend time with the man who had caused her family so much pain. In fact, she didn’t say anything about the trip until Wayve began packing to leave. Then she simply mentioned Wayve’s “plans to start to Ohio in a few days.”
Wayve had fallen in love with a handsome young ranch hand named Wesley, who had the same last name as hers, and divided her time between his family and her own. On July 24, 1943, Wayve came to Grandma Mercer’s room with a diamond ring that was “to show she and Wesley are engaged.”
Wayve often had dinner with Wes and his family and went to movies in the evening with them. In fact, she spent as much time as she could with the other Boyds because Wesley had been drafted, and World War II was still raging. Wayve left for Ohio the same day as Wesley left for the army, August 22, 1943.
Wayve spent a few weeks in Ohio with her father, and then returned to Montana to begin training to be a nurse in Bozeman. She must have been relieved on May 8, 1944, when the allies announced victory in the war in Europe where Wesley was a combat engineer. But soon she learned the army was sending him to the Pacific where Americans were still fighting Japan.
In March of 1944, a troop train that was carrying Wesley across the United States stopped in Colorado and he arranged leave. He rushed to Bozeman where he and Wayve were married in a room at the Baxter Hotel on March 10. The only witnesses were Wayve’s mother and Wesley’s parents so everyone at the wedding was named Boyd except the minister. Wesley’s furlough ended March 17, and he had to return to his unit, but the war ended before he could be shipped to the Pacific.
After Wayve left home, Theora was faced with the problem of how to spend long hours at her job and still care for her aging mother. A steady stream of relatives visited Grandma Mercer while Theora was working, and many of them apparently were coming mostly to tend the 79-year-old woman who frequently complained in her diary about back trouble, stomachaches, and neuralgia.
Theora must have been uncomfortable relying on others to be with her mother. On October 15, 1944, she announced that she was taking a job as a housekeeper for Ed Nolte, a widower who owned a ranch next to the one she had sold to my parents.
The housekeeping job required Theora to raise Ed’s two daughters, Myrtle, 9, and Ruthie, 6, but it also meant she was available to help her ailing mother. The arrangement apparently was satisfactory to everyone. Theora and Ed were married seven months later. And Grandma Mercer reported that Ed’s daughters were “very pleased to have Theora as their mother.”
Grandma Mercer’s health continued to decline and she was bedridden for most of her remaining years. She died June 15, 1946, at the Nolte ranch house.
— The End —
. Madisonian, July 5, 1963.
. Dillon Tribune, Sept. 2, 1904.
. Dillon Tribune, Feb. 16, 1906
. Dillon Tribune, Feb. 16, 1906
. Fergus County Argus, Feb. 20,1906.
. Dillon Tribune, Aug. 1, 1906.
. Dillon Tribune, Aug. 3, 1906.
. Grandma Mercer referred to him as “Charlie” in her diaries, but I decided to call him C.C. (a name he was known by to avoid confusion with my father and with a teenager named Charles who lived on the ranch for a while.)
. Spense, Clark C., The Conrey Placer Mining Company: A Pioneer Gold Dredging Enterprise in Montana. Montana Historical Society: Helena, 1985. page 64.
. Ruth Boyd Miller oral history, 1991.
. Eva was wrong about Jimmy Miller’s age. He turned 23 on the day he went to work for Theora.