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Hamilton woman overcame tragedies with love of cooking, gardening and art
Hamilton woman overcame tragedies with love of cooking, gardening and art

Agnes Hagadone Jackson Handford grew up on land her parents were homesteading in the Missouri River Breaks near Winifred, a place where life was just plain hard.

When she was about 12, she cut her arm and then got blood poisoning. As a result of that, she suffered from "crippling, crippling arthritis" throughout her life, her son John said.

Her first, brief marriage ended in tragedy when her husband was killed in a logging accident leaving her with a baby less than two months old.

But still, said John, searching for her words: "She would actually say that it was hell but yet there was always tomorrow Š the next day would be different."

Agnes died Tuesday, April 22, at the age of 89 in Hamilton. She would have turned 90 in June.

She left behind, as John, said, "a wonderful heritage book" that she had made to hold the memories of events in her life. Into the book she glued pictures of relatives, of events, of news stories about her family along with pictures she had drawn, wrapping all of them around her memories of the times.

Those memories included the unusual sight of a steamboat churning upstream in the Missouri River, of tragedies that struck neighbors, and of tragedies that struck her family when her father left them in their homestead with little but hunger.

The memories include stories about her education, her successes and her hopes to go to college to improve her talent at drawing and painting - and her inability to afford the school even though she had a scholarship.

She married Martin Jackson in 1935 and they lived in the Choteau area. When he died, some 13 months later in 1936, from a logging accident, she was lost without her husband, according to her book.

"Our life was so happy," she wrote. "Those brief months can never be erased from memory. Our baby girl was born May 9, 1936 - and I am sure no young couple could ever be happier. Š July 24, 1936, our happiness came to an end. A bad accident in the timber."

The funeral was at Winifred. "Martin sleeps in the cemetery there - a part of me is buried with him. Š There was so much fun in our relationship - we had no money - and really did not feel the lack of it."

"I was shattered - how does one go about to try to pick up the pieces and rebuild a life," she wrote.

She struggled to get by for a while and then found a help-wanted advertisement in the Great Falls Tribune. She got the job as a housekeeper for a man and his three young sons. Five weeks later, in 1937, Agnes and the man, John Handford, were married.

The family moved to Lewistown in 1952 and then to Hamilton in 1974. John died in 1990.

They were married more than 50 years and raised not only John's sons (Fred, Philip and Howard) and Agnes' daughter (Genell), but three more of their sons (John Jr., Jerry and Leonard).

Through it all, she fine-tuned her passions of cooking, gardening and crafts. She sewed rugs, afghans and quilts, painted using watercolors, oils and chalk.

"It's amazing what she could make those little crippled hands do," said Jerry, another son.

She was an excellent cook, too, said Rita, John Jr.'s wife. "Even if it was a deer roast, anything she cooked, she put on a good dinner," she said.

Agnes won ribbon after ribbon at the Ravalli County Fair. A 2-by-3-foot poster board sports ribbons two and three deep, many of them Best of Shows and Special Exhibits for her cucumbers, corn relish, whole tomatoes and other entries. Most of her ribbons came from her rhubarb pies, said Rita. After judging, they were sold at the fair and she would get $7 or $8 for her pies.

"She was so proud of that," Rita said.

Several of her paintings of buffalo, elk and busts of cowboys with hats slung low hang on the walls of John Jr. and Rita's home. (Her artistic talent must have passed on to her grandson, Duane, who also painted while in high school. Some of his paintings also are hanging on John and Rita's walls.)

"She hadn't drawn or painted anything in the last 15 years because of her hands. When she was younger she did a lot of oil paintings and chalks. She liked to do portraits and western scenes," Jerry added.

She loved flowers, too. "Mamma was continuously buying Rita flowers," John said as he looked at the colorful tulips blooming in his yard.

"Mamma could grow and grow things," he said.

He remembers the three gardens his mother tended in the Lewistown Heights and the big ears of corn they'd harvest and then give away.

"We'd always give, give, give," he said of his mother.

Just hours before dying, Agnes asked Rita how big the strawberries were that they were planting.

John remembers digging up a Queen Anne's iris that was originally from England and had been planted at the Stanford homestead.

"I dug up a bunch so I'd have a start," he said indicating its resting place along his fence line. "My daughter has some, too."

He remembers the clothing she sewed for the family. "We always had food on the table and were well dressed," John said. "She hand-made shirts for me (using) seed sacks. Mamma told daddy (when he went to the store) to get one sack and another to match it."

But Agnes' husband refused to let her drive - or touch a vehicle, John recalled.

"She said one day I'll be driving you around and she did," he said. On her 80th birthday, their sister bought her a brand new car, a blue Chrysler LeBaron.

"She'd get in that little car and take little drives," Jerry said. "She loved to go to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge." She and Jerry would go for drives and watch for bighorn sheep and flowering lupine and arrowroot.

Agnes was embarrassed by pictures that showed her hands knotted with the arthritis. She had operations on both knees, both hands, her feet and even had a hip replaced, John said.

"She went through all those years Š" John said. "She knew how to endure pain.

"I remember her saying other people hurt more than she does."

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