The plain manila envelope came with Friday’s mail. It contained a slender magazine called The Trail, published by Lost Trail Publishing in Trego, Mont. On the first page was an ad for a funeral home in Libby and a casino at Roosville Crossing, but it was the second page that made me stop to catch my breath — a full page photograph of Warland, the tiny Montana town where I spent my first eight years of life.
It might be hard to believe now, when pictures from all around the world land in our email inboxes every few minutes, but I had never seen a picture of that little town, even when I lived there. From my growing-up years, there are only a few black-and-white snapshots of neighbors and family stuffed in an anonymous cardboard box in the garage. Cameras able to take landscape pictures were rare.
Warland, Mont., established in 1904 by the Great Northern Railroad, doesn’t exist anymore. It lived only 68 years and was obliterated when Libby Dam created Lake Koocanusa from the waters of the Kootenai River. My home’s somewhere under the water. It is unsettling to have outlived the years of my hometown.
“We don’t know about the identity of these ramshackle buildings in the foreground,” read the caption with the black-and-white picture, sent by publisher Gary Montgomery who knows my roots.
Well, let me tell you. Those ramshackle buildings were the homes of railroad section gang workers such as my father. They were little more than tar-paper shacks, raked by wind and cold and dust. Mother tried to make our home a little prettier and a little more resistant to the blast of winter winds with the addition of scraps of newspaper applied to the walls with flour-and-water paste.
There was no electricity or plumbing. Our water source was a pipe that came out of the ground across the road from our house. In the spring, the water had plump green worms in it. Protein is always welcome.
The picture shows the stack that belongs to the ruins of the sawmill where a fire spelled the end of lumbering in Warland. Children were told the old mill was haunted, which made it irresistible. There’s the general store and the stationmaster’s office, which had the town’s only phone.
There’s the ferry which was the only way to cross the great Kootenai River until a bridge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s. The CCC was made up of unmarried men, so my joyously single Aunt Vi, a professional wrestler, came to live with us and promptly became engaged to two-thirds of the bridge builders. I don’t know how the other third got away. She was soon planning a rather large wedding. It never actually took place and I was sort of sorry.
I remember weeping as I walked up and down between the rows of potato plants, doing the hated job of looking for potato bugs to drop to their doom in a can of kerosene, a perfectly acceptable chore for a 5-year-old. I remember the terrible sledding accident on the hill by the one-room schoolhouse after the train had gone for the day so help couldn’t be called. I went roller skating Mondays in that white building which was a dance hall Saturday night and a church Sunday morning, if the minister remembered to come.
It never occurred to us in those days when we stood with patient, fixed smiles waiting for the click of someone’s Kodak Brownie camera that one day we might have cameras that would take gorgeous pictures, which would instantly be seen around the world. But now, lost in computer hades, they’re just as inaccessible as those boxes in my garage.
It’s true that we are what we were — but we also are who we think we were. When you’re lucky enough to find something to validate your remembered past, you can pull it around you like an old but comfortable coat. If you bring those bits and pieces of memory out to share, you’ll certainly find that they still have a lot of warmth and wear left in them.
Featured in The News Tribune on August 4th, 2013