CEDAR CREEK – In a way, this remains George Gildersleeve’s Father's Day gift.
He was in his early 20s in 1924 when George convinced his father, Ike, and Ike’s brothers, Charlie and Lee, to move their mining attentions over the hill from the Trout Creek watershed to the headwaters of Cedar Creek.
Most of a century later, you can search the old gold gulches of Montana and not find anything like the compound the Gildersleeves and the Kansas City Mining Co. built in 1930 and 1931 in Snowshoe Gulch.
A U.S. Forest Service survey in 1995 called it “the most complete Depression-era mining camp remaining in western Montana.”
Today it’s just as intact, just as secluded, and even more secure in its post-mining days as a family-owned complex of rough-hewn cabins, shacks and shops.
George Gildersleeve was 88 in 1991 when he died in the Superior hospital, clinging fiercely to this haven 17 miles up the creek.
“When he was up here, he felt that he was the king on the mountain,” Sue McLees, George’s lone surviving offspring, said. “As far as he was concerned, he owned all this.”
“As far as you could see,” McLees said in unison with her niece, Anna Haskins. They smiled at the memory.
The mountains of Mineral County sang their summer song on the second Wednesday of June, and the canyon that stretched from the Gildersleeve camp down toward the distant Clark Fork Valley shimmered in the unseasonable heat.
Here and there a sprig of beargrass already bloomed. Snowshoe Creek was less than a trickle, though water splashed merrily from the spring 200 feet above camp. It’s the source of a gravity-fed water system rigged up decades ago to provide plumbing to some of the cabins and, later, the chicken coop.
Half of the latter is rigged out as a shower, heated by a propane grill, a car radiator and copper tubing.
Resourcefulness thy name is Gildersleeve, though none of the family in this neck of the woods goes by the surname any more.
Neither Charlie nor Lee Gildersleeve had children, and George was Ike’s only son. He married Fern Dodson in 1931, even as the camp was being built. They had two daughters, McLees and her older sister, Gloria (Weaver), Haskins’ mother, who passed away in Superior in 2010. Gloria had four daughters, Sue had two more and a son who died young in a car wreck.
With all those girls involved, the names on the title these days are Weaver, McLees, Johnson, Mattfeldt, Mayes and Schaefer.
“When I was in high school, I was determined that when I got married, he was going to have to change his name to Gildersleeve, because there weren't any more,” McLees said.
By whatever name, it’s the extended family connections that bring children, grand- and great-grandchildren, in-laws, cousins, and an occasional visitor to the camp in the good weather months.
What McLees called a paperwork snafu while routinely renewing their mining claim in 1994 led the Bureau of Land Management to declare the Gildersleeve claims abandoned. The Forest Service posted no-trespassing signs on the buildings, which seemed doomed.
“We realized there was quite a history there and the camp had a lot of historical significance from the early mining history in the Cedar Creek area and the longevity of the Gildersleeve family being up there,” said Nancy Rusho, forest geologist on the Lolo National Forest. “We really worked to try to figure out the best way to preserve the property.”
The solution was a land swap. The family purchased 20 acres in the Seeley Lake area, then exchanged them with the Forest Service for 20 acres on Snowshoe. Though subject to some regulations, George Gildersleeve’s descendants now own the camp that he so loved. Generally speaking, visitors are welcome sights.
“It’s very special to us, and we don’t mind sharing as long as people are reasonable and don’t want to come back and wipe all this away,” McLees said.
Still, it takes time to indoctrinate each new generation into the culture of a camp with no electricity, meager cellphone coverage, and plenty of true-life stories about bears and wolves and bugs.
“One of my granddaughters wanted to get rid of the bone pile,” McLees said, nodding toward the accumulation of pipes and machinery that lay out front. They’re piled at the edge of a 50-foot-high plateau of mine tailings on which the camp was built during the Hoover administration.
“I said no, that is part of it,” McLees said. “The old mining equipment and things like that, you have to have that.”
Milo McLeod was archaeologist for the Lolo National Forest when he prepared a nomination of the Gildersleeve mining camp for the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service accepted the nomination and listed the camp in 2002.
It qualified first because it was part of the Cedar-Quartz Historic Mining District that rose after Montana’s last major placer gold rush. In late 1869, Louis Barrette and Basile Lanthier found gold in Cayuse Creek, a tributary 10 miles below the Gildersleeve.
Perhaps within weeks, it’s thought that a handful of the thousands of miners who flooded into Cedar Creek made it up to Snowshoe. For much of the 20th century, before and after they built their camp in 1930, the Gildersleeves maintained the mining legacy.
The Gildersleeve camp “played an important role in the life of the upper Cedar Creek drainage during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s,” according to the National Register nomination. “Its location on the upper reaches of Cedar Creek, as well as its telephone link to the outside world after 1938, made it a popular stopping place for hunters and travelers.”
McLees was born in 1943 and remembers the social gatherings growing up.
“They used to have dances in here,” she said, standing in the front room of the largest building, the old cookhouse where Sue and her husband Willie stay.
“They’d take all the furniture out and just have benches around the edge, and my two great-uncles, Uncle Charlie and Uncle Lee, played the guitar and the fiddle,” McLees said. “Some gypsies that were mining down below had an accordion, a little concertina, and they would come up and sit there in the corner and play. They had enough room for two squares for square dancing.”
She remembers 50 people or more, many of them from Superior, taking turns do-si-doing.
“The kitchen would be plumb full of food,” McLees said. “Everybody would bring something, and sometimes you'd find one of the guys, or more, sacked out down in one of the cabins, passed out from the beer.”
George Gildersleeve made a potent homemade brew. He was about 5-foot-8 and "built like a brick," his daughter said.
"He was a happy-go-lucky person most of the time," Haskins said of her grandfather.
And George was a miner through and through. For vacations, he and Fern would drive further into the hills looking for lost mines.
A photo of Gildersleeve panning gold appeared in the book "Ghost Towns of Montana" by Donald Miller. The picture was the model for a new shoulder patch for the Mineral County Sheriff's Department shortly after Gildersleeve died. Sheriff Mickey O'Brien presented patches to Fern and other members of the family at a ceremony in Superior in March 1992.
Flanked on one end by the creek where placer ore was sluiced and on the other by a now-barricaded mine shaft into which operations moved when the creek dried up, this is a 1-by-12 camp - another basis for its national historical significance.
The structures are similar in design, made of the rough-sawn boards cut by a portable steam-powered sawmill in 1930. Snow depths are legendary up here, and support poles are used to keep the main bunkhouse from listing under heavy loads.
According to the National Register nomination, the construction style in the Gildersleeve camp is typical of “Depression-era mining camps that utilized simplified construction and relied on affordable, available, and often recycled construction material.”
In a corner of the cookhouse, an old-time phonograph is set in a dynamite box. Its horn is made from the aluminum skin of a Model A Ford, circa 1930.
“I don’t know if it didn’t run or what happened, but they left it up here over the winter,” McLees said. “Well, the snow crushed that car.”
Charlie Gildersleeve was a magician as a machinist and blacksmith. Under his wand, the Model A gave its body to become all the towel racks in camp, not to mention gold pans, and the gold scales that sit on top of the phonograph.
“They melted some of the aluminum and stuck a blade in it and made a butcher knife,” McLees said.
“When something broke down, they couldn’t run to town and fix it,” her husband Willie said. “They had to fix it here.”
Ike Gildersleeve died in the 1930s, his brother Lee in the 1940s, and Charlie in 1952. In 1958, Gloria married Louis Weaver, Charlie’s successor as the Gildersleeve’s “fix-it” man. A sign at the entrance to camp welcomes visitors, lists the owners, and says the camp was “maintained and operated by Louis and Gloria Weaver since 1975.”
Louis Weaver is a master teller of stories, but warns with a chuckle, "Most of ‘em are lies.”
Here’s one that came from his old friend, George. It’s centered around the hydraulic giant, a water cannon that used high-pressure streams of water to excavate gold-bearing hillsides. The rusting Gildersleeve giant occupies a prominent place in the front yard since it was “retired” by the Forest Service in 1973.
(George Gildersleeve’s reaction is reflected on a sign that’s still posted on the “giant.” “Cedar Creek has been mined over 100 years,” he wrote. “This type of mining has been outlawed by envirmental (sic) idiots. Nature washes mud down the stream same as this Does.”)
“It was a funny thing,” Weaver said. “Down there at Cayuse where they said they discovered that first gold, well, George and them got here up Snowshoe, and they got that hydraulic giant, and they started washing the hillside, and here a tunnel was in there.
“It was 16 feet wide and it was only about 4 or 5 feet high, and George asked some of the old-timers and no one knew about it.”
It’s hard to say how old the tunnel was. But based on the claim history, it could have dated to pre-1869. The story of the Cayuse Creek discovery isn’t complete without mentioning how utterly unsuccessful Barrette and Lanthier were in their efforts to keep their find a secret.
“So if someone was (digging here) and kept their mouths shut …” Weaver said.
Decades later, he dug out the heavy timbers that were taken from the mystery tunnel and washed them off.
“George said, boy, every one of them posts. … It was really a lot of gold there," he said.
”I was an accountant,” Anna Haskins said at lunch time in the cookhouse.
A Superior girl born into a mining family, Haskins worked for Barrick Gold Corp. and Newmont Mining Co. in Elko, Nevada.
“The stress was unreal,” she said. ”I got up here and it was just like it actually fell off my shoulders.”
Each spring when the snow goes, Haskins and her husband Tim head up to the Gildersleeve. For the past eight years she’s stayed, riding herd on whatever needs fixed, showing the occasional visitor around camp, and basking in its history.
Tim Haskins, a federal mine inspector, returns to the camp on his days off. Generations of Gildersleeves and their extended families make the drive to Snowshoe Gulch from Superior and other places to work, hang out, and drink in the delicious solitude.
“Now I stay as long as I can in the fall,” Anna said, “and I can’t wait to get back up here in the spring.”
You probably wouldn’t ask George Gildersleeve this, and the question may sound “idiotic” even to his daughter and granddaughter, but what’s the appeal of the Gildersleeve?
“It’s like a different world up here, like you step back in time,” said McLees. “I think what people really enjoy (is) it’s so calming. I don’t know if there are words for it, how you feel when you’re up here.”
“It’s the memories,” Haskins said. “Oh, yes.”