Think Lincoln valley, upper Blackfoot, late summer.
Sure, there’ve been changes since 1947. But not so much that you can’t appreciate what Louise Dean saw when she laid eyes on what would become her home for the next 60 years.
“From way down in the valley I looked up this way and saw how the hay land and the creek just sort of folded into the timbered foothills,” Dean told Wendy Ninteman and Greg Tollefson of the Five Valleys Land Trust in 2006. “There was plenty of good water, cold and clear as crystal. The hay was up by then and the place looked manicured by God.”
Dean was in her early 30s, a war widow with an infant son and a need to get out of Helena and find room for her horses.
“I had $1,000 in the bank and I put the whole bundle down on this ranch,” she told the land trust folks from the deck of her home a few miles north of Lincoln. “I’ve never regretted it. Ever.”
Dean was 92 when she peacefully passed away on Sept. 11.
She was living in a retirement home in Missoula at the time, 2 1/2 years removed from her ranch and the amazing view that glaucoma had slowly stolen from her. She was another year distant from Hawk, her old white German shepherd who had led Dean and her trained team of sled dogs on their daily feeding rounds.
“The last few years she was pretty much by herself up there,” said son Bruce Nixon of Alberton. “She got rid of the horses and cows finally so she didn’t have to do the feeding any more. But she hung out as long as she could take care of herself, and it wasn’t exactly her idea even to leave. Some friends of hers finally talked her into coming into town.”
Louise Dean’s journey to the Blackfoot started with a fall off roller skates in Wisconsin. The young girl, the only child of William and Mary Svensson, went backward down the stairs of a root cellar and almost died, or so doctors thought.
“That was why they ended up in Miles City, because my mom wanted to be around horses before she died,” Nixon said.
The Svenssons packed up lock, stock and barrel and headed for Montana, winding up in a little log cabin in big ranch country south of Miles City. Louise got her horse fix. Astride ponies she tore through the camps of Northern Cheyenne friends, and ranch hands took her under their wings.
“She learned horsemanship from the Indians and the cowboys,” Nixon said.
Meanwhile, the neck and back problems from her skating spill cleared up. Louise, whose school record was “spotty,” according to Nixon, developed an interest in physical therapy and went to Chicago to study it after high school. When she returned to Montana, it was to Helena, where the Svenssons resided by then.
It was in the Capital City that Louise met and married Samuel Dean, a store manager who went into the service when World War II broke out. An Army Air Corps bomber pilot, Dean was killed in a training exercise. His young bride was devastated – and seven months pregnant.
That’s when Louise bought the 160-acre ranch under Stonewall Mountain and, by and by, moved there with young Sam. She met Nixon’s father, Enos, when the latter was building road near the ranch. Louise was in the meadow, having trouble with the horse team.
“Dad jumped off to help her,” Nixon said.
They never married, he added, but with Bruce on the way, “Dad made a promise to stay with her. And he did.”
So it was as a family that Louise raised her cattle, gave her riding lessons and guided dudes into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
It was an annual spring ritual for the clan to drive its herd of 100-plus horses up Highway 200, over Rogers Pass and down a forest road to a ranch on the Dearborn. Louise was in the vanguard of the horse drives, both coming and going.
She would have nothing to do with motorized vehicles, even though Enos bought a tractor and, eventually, snowmobiles to work with.
“She said if it didn’t have four feet, to hell with it,” said Nixon.
His dad got sick enough in the 1970s that he spent time in a hospital. Louise fed the stock by using a lariat to pull one bale at a time from the haystack and dragging it to the field from her horse.
Then, said her son, she had an epiphany. She hitched an old leather harness to her Rottweiler and one of the kids’ hand sleds, and it worked just fine.
By the next winter she had built up a team of eight dogs, most of them rejects from mushers in the area.
“Dad built her a sled and, yep, from then on she fed with a dog sled team,” said Bruce. “It worked like a charm. It actually worked better than the horses because the dogs could scoot along out there on that ice in the meadow.”
Eight dogs could dash through the snow pulling 15 bales at a time.
“As far as I know Mom’s the only person that ever did that,” Nixon said.
One of the thrills of Louise’s life was her meeting with President John F. Kennedy. It took place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, where Louise was a guest of Charles Horsky, president of the Washington International Horse Show. A Helena native, Horsky was one of Kennedy’s chief advisors and heir to a family cabin in Lincoln built in about 1908.
The families were close friends, and Bruce said Louise ushered many a Washington dignitary on fishing and camera trips into the Bob.
Enos died in 1993, and Louise was left alone to ponder her ranch’s future. Its spring-fed wetlands and grassland meadows sit against groves of aspen, pine, spruce and fir.
“I started to think about how this place would look after I was gone,” she told Ninteman and Tollefson, months before she moved to Missoula.
She received a lucrative offer from an out-of-state developer but knew she didn’t want the land subdivided. A voracious reader until her eyesight failed, Dean boned up on conservation easements, and in 2000, with help from Five Valleys Land Trust, she reached an agreement on an easement. Now that she’s gone, the land is owned by someone else, but it will never be anything different – a home for wildlife and wildflowers and people, if they so choose. Not a lot of different than what it was in 1947.
“To put it real simple, this place has been so good to me, it has given me so much that I thought it ought to be just like it is right now …,” she told the Five Valleys folks in 2006.
“I have had a lifetime of mornings when I step out that front door and look out over the land and say to myself, ‘Son of a gun, I can’t believe I live here.’ ”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.