FRENCHTOWN – If you really want to have your heart ripped out this Memorial Day, pay a visit to the St. John the Baptist Catholic Cemetery in lower Mill Creek.
Just inside the iron gate with a new Montana Historical Society plaque proclaiming “Frenchtown’s oldest and most historic site” is a white marble marker standing several feet high.
“Julia Bedard, died Sep 4, 1877. Aged 3 ys 6 Ms,” it says on one side.
“Annie Bedard, died Sep 12, 1877. Aged 1 yr 3 Ms,” reads another.
“Joseph Bedard, died Sep 23, 1877. Aged 5 yrs,” a third is inscribed.
“Children of J. and S. Bedard,” mourns the fourth.
Maybe there’ll be a slight breeze rippling through the cemetery, which sits on a rise overlooking the Frenchtown Valley. For sure the traffic of Interstate 90 will form a backbeat to your musings of the long-ago tragedy. Beyond the interstate you’ll catch a glimpse of St. John Church’s white steeple.
Smallpox is a good bet, but whatever devastated the Bedard family of Frenchtown in 1877 didn’t complete the job. Mother and Father Bedard aren’t buried here. Near the white marker is a smaller headstone marking Henry Bedard’s remains. He died in 1944. Like Joseph, Henry was born in 1872.
In graveyards up and down the valleys of western Montana, above and below ground, lie the stories that made and make us.
At Lake View Cemetery in Polson, you can’t help but notice the veterans’ section – a star more than 30 feet in circumference looms over an acre and a half of military graves. The whole thing is ringed by 80 flags.
“It’s really quite the sight when you come up over the hill and into the cemetery,” sexton Dana Deranleau said.
Folks from across Montana chipped in to pay for the monument to Father Anthony Ravalli at the St. Mary’s Mission Cemetery in Stevensville. A marble obelisk rising 15 feet in the air is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. It was erected a few years after the beloved priest died in 1884.
It’s the focal point of a graveyard that includes the “Indian Burial Plot” on the west side, and where a modern granite stone labeled “Salish Kootenai” honors tribal members who call the Bitterroot Valley their homeland.
You have to search a little, miles away, to find the humble grave of the last chief of those Bitterroot Salish. Chief Charlo, who accompanied his people on a humiliating march from Stevensville to the Flathead Reservation in October 1891, died in 1910.
He was buried back in the brushy section of the Jocko Catholic Cemetery, a few miles southeast of Arlee on Agency Road.
The Superior Cemetery in Mineral County features the grave of Arthur Philip Johnston – “more or less the father of our town,” said local historian Kay Strombo.
Johnston’s “loving” wife Mary referred to him as “Mr. Johnston” and was known for her tart tongue, of which the aristocratic Johnston often bore the brunt. The story goes that when A.P. died in 1930, Mary asked that he be buried face-down “so she could go up and kick him in the backside ever so often,” Strombo said.
In Hamilton, “our steps are famous,” joked Terry Cole, director of the city’s Riverview Cemetery.
The extensive graveyard lies in a majestic setting across the bridge from town, framed by the Bitterroot River on its east edge and a breathtaking slice of the Bitterroot Mountain range to the west. People come out here to walk and think in the peace and quiet, said Cole. They train for the high school track team, they eat their lunches – and they run the steps to the pump house.
“The saying is it’s nine steps down and 102 to come back up,” Cole said with a chuckle.
Here facing south on the east side of the cemetery is the flat, black egg-shaped stone marking Hoyt Axton’s final resting place. The singer, actor and writer of such pop hits as “Joy to the World,” “Never Been to Spain” and “Lay Lady Lay” moved to the Bitterroot shortly after shooting a movie here in the late 1980s. He died in 1999.
“Hoyt Wayne Axton” is inscribed on his stone, below a photo of the burly baritone in his signature vest and cowboy hat, slightly atilt.
If you’re up Anaconda way at Mount Olivet Cemetery, you might seek out the final resting place of the Lizzie Borden family maid. Bridget Sullivan, who died in Butte in 1948, was washing windows the morning of the grisly hatchet murders in Fall River, Mass., in 1892.
Down the river at Hillcrest Cemetery above Deer Lodge, the “original” Betty Crocker lies sleeping.
Janette Kelley was born in 1894 and grew up at 830 Milwaukee Ave. in Deer Lodge. She went to work for the predecessor of General Mills in 1921. In the 1940s, Kelley planned the first Betty Crocker test kitchens and, starting in 1946, oversaw a team of 50 women developing Betty Crocker cookbooks and recipes and answering advice columns.
Kelley, who signed autographs as “Betty Crocker,” died in 1948. Her small two-toned plaque in Hillcrest is perhaps 25 yards to the east of the tool shed, in the middle of the cemetery. Nearby is an empty-looking section devoted to the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was a fraternal organization composed of Union Army veterans of the Civil War. A large rock lists the names of white casualties of the 1877 Battle of the Big Hole, in which Chief Joseph’s camp of fleeing Nez Perce rebuffed an early morning attack.
The ambulance that cattle baron Conrad Kohrs sent to the battlefield to care for the wounded was used to bring the dead back to the cemetery at Deer Lodge, the nearest town. The wagon is on display at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site.
Carol Mjelde helps run a home improvement business in Deer Lodge and she raised her family there. In a cemetery that includes the graves of such historic Montana figures as James and Granville Stuart and Judge Hiram Knowles, Mjelde’s eye is often drawn to a smaller, intricately carved monument.
It’s in the form of a Victorian-era easy chair. A tiny hat is in the seat, tiny shoes at the foot of the chair. A little coat hangs from the back.
It’s the grave of Katie Blessinger, daughter of Philip and Mary Blessinger, whose stone is nearby. Katie died May 21, 1888. She was 3 years, 6 months and 16 days old.
“I saw that and I said, ‘Oh, man,’ ” Mjelde said. “The detail that’s on that thing. … I’ll bet you the guy who did it was probably crying the whole time he made that stone.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman @missoulian.com.