ALTA — If you want to sing the Song of Montana, this is the place to be.
The backbeat is a river, in this case the Bitterroot’s West Fork. Croon a verse for our state tree, the stately Ponderosa pine. Like several groves in the Bitterroot, the one here has a dozen or so “yellow pines” that bear the scars where women of the Salish and other tribes carefully peeled off square pieces of the trees for the cambium.
The late tribal elder Louis Adams explained: “They’d dry it, put it over a dry meat rack, just like they dried deer meat or elk or whatever. And when it got real dry, they’d pound it and make powder of it, because it was sweet.”
Adams said cambium was a healthy, tasty and important treat to supplement the diet, sometimes when there was nothing else to eat.
Save another verse for Rev. Samuel Parker and a Nez Perce chief he called Charle in his journal. They were in a party that came through here on Sept. 18, 1835, a Friday, and crossed the West Fork the next day. They followed an Indian trail up West Creek to the base of the distinctive Castle Rock. There, on Sunday, Sept. 20, they paused for the Sabbath. Parker, a Presbyterian minister, was too sick to conduct Sunday worship, so it was Charle who led what's thought to be the first Christian services in what became Montana.
But the recurring chorus of our Song belongs alongside the rippling waters of Hughes Creek, a few hundred yards off the main paved West Fork highway.
There’s nothing beneath the bare earthen floor of the Alta Ranger Station, but it’s the very root of the national forest system.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon the door was unlocked but the cabin was deserted, as it has been here above Painted Rock Reservoir for many of its 120 years.
Then things got busy.
A middle-aged couple in an ‘80s-vintage GMC truck turned up Hughes Creek and rolled past. Forty-five minutes later a lone fisherman in a Subaru with a 4-license plate lurched down the main road.
Such commotion might have astounded Than Wilkerson and Hank Tuttle when they built this cabin in 1899. They were newly arrived rangers on the Bitter Root Forest Reserve, one of 13 such reserves that President Grover Cleveland had established a couple of years earlier and placed under the General Land Office in the Department of Interior.
Building a cabin seemed like the thing to do. There were precious few directives from Washington, which we’re guessing the hardy rangers didn’t grumble about, and very little money, about which they probably did.
They borrowed a horse from prospector Pete Bennett, the only neighbor, and snaked in logs to build a ranger station 15 feet long and 13 wide. The money for windows, door hardware and nails came from their own pockets, which were lined by monthly salaries of 50 bucks apiece. Wilkerson and Tuttle had to make a 100-mile round trip to Grantsdale to buy the stuff.
The sod roof shack was finished and ready for an official flag-raising on the Fourth of July. Thus, six years before there was a U.S. Forest Service, Wilkerson and Tuttle had built the first Forest Service cabin in the U.S.
They sprung for a 45-star American flag to fly above it, another first on a federal forest.
Charged primarily with preventing timber theft, which was a huge issue in the days of lumber and copper barons, the two men passed the summer building what was probably the first federal forest trail. It was 20 miles long, from Medicine Springs on the East Fork of the Bitterroot to the head of Hughes Creek, which drains to the west.
“The only tools these men had were their personal axes, and they lived under a wagon sheet in the woods,” historian John Willard wrote in “Adventure Trails in Montana.” “Wilkerson gained the title of ‘King of Rangers’ and, since he kept a journal or diary of what took place, he appears to have been the leader.”
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Than and Hank. Hank and Than.
Let us pause for a paragraph and pay tribute to Wilkerson, or maybe his parents Jane and Andrew — whoever was responsible for turning Nathanial to “Than” rather than “Nate.” With all due respect to Gifford Pinchot, Elers Koch and Ferdinand “Gus” Silcox, it ranks as the coolest first name in Forest Service history.
Tuttle was 52, Wilkerson 32, when they built their historic log shack in the midst of the 4.1-million acre reserve that straddled Idaho and Montana.
It's quite natural to listen for their voices when you step inside the empty cabin. You’d think there'd be measured conversation punctuated by extended silences, characteristic of old-time rangers. Good luck with that.
Wilkerson died in Hamilton in 1952 and was buried in the Lone Pine Cemetery in Darby. He’d lived the final 66 of his 85 years in the Bitterroot.
B.K. “Bessie” Monroe (1888-1987) knew him from the Forest Service’s formative years. Monroe was a newspaperwoman and keeper of history in the Bitterroot Valley, her lifetime home, and she led an effort championed by Sen. Mike Mansfield that landed the Alta Ranger Station on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
A few years later she accorded Wilkerson further posthumous tribute, working with the supervisor of the Bitterroot Forest. Look down the road at the east face of the towering mountain across the West Fork. The peak of Than Wilkerson Ridge, named in 1978, looms fully a half-mile above the valley floor.
"He had dedicated his life to his work, and I felt he deserved a mountain named after him," Monroe said at the time.
No mountain here bears Tuttle's name, probably because while Wilkerson stayed on with the new Forest Service, Tuttle retired to Portland, Oregon. Still he led an intriguing life, as detailed in the 2010 book “An Uncommon Journey,” which shares stories of old Dawson County.
Hank served as a teenager in the Civil War at western outposts with the Second Minnesota Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. He married Anna Dinneen and worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad out of Bismarck, North Dakota, in the 1870s before landing with his growing family in Glendive in 1881. There he was twice elected to terms as Dawson County sheriff before moving to the Bitterroot in 1889. He was a Missoula County deputy sheriff in Grantsdale before taking the forestry job with the GLO, soon after Anna gave birth to their eighth child.
Are the echoes in that cabin louder?
Now add to the conversation the voice of Monroe inside this tiny space, and those of the Hamilton Lions Club who bought the cabin site in 1941 from Pete Bennett’s daughter. They turned it over to the Forest Service with an agreement to help keep it standing.
The din grows louder with dozens of more voices from the Bitterroot forest and Ravalli County, including descendants of Hank and Than, who proudly and doggedly nursed the ranger station into the 21st century and beyond.
How about the shouts of the firefighters who wrapped and saved this historic cabin and others during the devastating Bitterroot fires of 2000? And the smokejumpers who requested they be allowed the honor of unwrapping it and raising the flag when the danger was past?
Through the cacophony you can still hear the chatterings of the river and creek, the wind in the yellow pines, and the sluicing of miners who joined Bennett on Hughes Creek and built a town here the year after the rangers arrived. Now come the footsteps of the native people who camped here and peeled cambium centuries before there was a cabin or a national forest or even a nation.
It’s quite a song.