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When a Montana woman's letters are unearthed, her family reconnects with their roots

Out of the clutter of aged letters rescued from the attic of an old South Dakota home, the life of a charming Montana woman has blossomed anew.

Bill Stockton, a retired sheep rancher, author, crusty social critic and French-trained artist, knows the charming woman. She was his mother, Julia, now deceased.

She was resurrected in his memory when he received an unusual phone call at his Grass Range home. The call was from Rene Graff, of Aberdeen, S.D. She said, "You don't know me, but I know Julia."

Stockton, who recently turned 79, wasn't a bit dumfounded. "As soon as she mentioned Aberdeen I knew what she was talking about," he says. "Mother always talked about (Aberdeen)."

"I had an awful experience this morning behind my house. We have a little box dug down in the ground where we keep our butter and milk. Well, the board we have over the box is about 8 inches longer than the box.

"Well, after I had taken the board off and put the milk in and was just trying to find a place for the butter, I saw one of the largest rattlesnakes I have ever seen coiled up right by the box. Last week I killed three but four is all we have seen since we came out and I have killed every one."

- June 27, 1911

Graff found letters Stockton's mother had written more than 80 years ago to a friend, Anna Kittleson, who lived in Aberdeen. The letters had been forgotten in the attic of Graff's home, part of which was built in the 1890s. It was there that an insulation contractor found piles of papers and magazines.

The home's original owner was a traveling immigration agent who worked for the railroad. Anna, Julia's friend, worked as a stenographer for the agent. Somehow, Anna's personal letters got mixed in with the business correspondence, books and magazines that ended up in Graff's attic.

When the Graffs went to insulate the attic, Rene's husband suggested that they "burn the crap." She disagreed. Instead, she filled sack after sack - a pickup-size load of old receipts for coal, the ice man and a surrey rental, National Geographic magazines from 1912 and old medicine books - and carried them to the basement. Someday, Graff promised herself, she would sort through the papers.

Twenty years later, she began.

What she found, as she meticulously culled the material, was a treasure of historical items. Most touching to her were the personal letters from George, Melvina, Carl and a woman named Julia Erickson - Stockton's mother. They became "the dead friends" in her basement.

"Some are young, some are old," Graff says. "They're like my family. They've taught me different things. Melvina taught me poetry. Julia taught me guts."

It's easy to see why.

"Mrs. Beers (a neighbor) is one of the grandest women I have ever met. Good hearted is no name for it. If she can't give us anything else she will have us take some drinking water home so as not to have to make an extra trip down to the spring. I like Montana so well. Perhaps it's because I have had such nice times and am feeling so much better. "

- Sept. 27, 1911.

In 1911, Julia Erickson, at the age of 29, set out with four other single women to homestead near Winnett, on Montana's eastern plains. Although single, she was determined to prove up on her claim of land. All she had to do, under the Homestead Act, was live on and work the parcel for five years. Then she could buy the prairie land for a nominal fee.

To fill in the lonely times on the desolate plains, Julia wrote to her childhood friend, Anna. Julia talked about encounters with rattlesnakes, told of a simple gift of jarred water and drew a floor plan of her small shack on the prairie. Sometimes, parts of the letter were written in Norwegian. She often signed off, "with oceans of love."

"Julia was so cute," Graff says. "Her letters were funny. She had a good sense of humor. It took a lot of guts for a single woman to do what she did."

Two years after her arrival, Julia married William "Tex" Stockton, a civil engineer surveying the Chicago-Milwaukee line into nearby Grass Range.

Two years after that, their first daughter, aptly named Patience, was born.

After toiling on the homestead for two years, Julia knew about patience. And now, Patience knows more about Julia.

"Dear Anna how I wish you were here this morning, everything looks just beautiful. Have been down in the garden, Bill, Mother and I. Have radishes and onions to eat and will have lettuce and spinach in a few days. I have 39 young chickens. Some are large enough to eat but neither of us has the heart to kill them. Oh this farm business is mighty interesting I tell you."

- April 18, 1914.

After hearing from Graff, Bill Stockton telephoned his sister, Patience Hillius, with the unusual news: A woman from South Dakota had found old letters from their mother. Intrigued, Hillius wrote Graff and requested copies of the correspondence.

"It amazes me that these letters lay in an attic and basement for so many years," Hillius says. " It is still hard for me to believe that anyone would go to all the effort and trouble that Rene Graff did to make copies of all those letters, find us and send them to us."

After reading copies of some of the letters, Hillius wishes that she would have asked her mother more questions about her homesteading life.

"I learned the answers to a number of questions I wished I had asked her and was surprised to learn of her enthusiastic love for Montana," Hillius, 85, says from her Hamilton retirement home.

The letters reminded Hillius and Stockton of stories their mother once told and gave some insight into a father they barely knew.

"In 1911 when my mother came from Minneapolis to take up a homestead in Montana she had very little more than a woman's courage and high hopes and dreams," Hillius says of the optimism that filled her mother's notes.

Unfortunately, those hopeful days were soon tarnished by the death of Tex Stockton in 1920, leaving Julia with four young children and a homestead to work as the Great Depression bore down. For three years the family struggled to stay afloat, but after the house burned down the family moved into the small town of Winnett and the property eventually reverted back to the government.

"The hopes and dreams lasted only a few short years, but her courage lasted a lifetime," Hillius says.

"It was pretty tough times," Stockton says matter-of-factly. Julia ended up working odd jobs to feed and clothe her family. "My mother was a washer woman in the dirty '30s," he says.

"Thanks so much for the trouble you had in getting that crochet cotton. Have been having the worst time getting paper money or trying to. Will give it up as a bad job and send it in silver."

- Dec. 3, 1914.

The 40 letters that Graff found from Julia to Anna stopped in 1917. But across the span of over 80 years, Julia's letters have spoken once again.

"As I reread the letters, those in her handwriting, I laughed with her during her happy homestead years and cried when I remembered the hard, difficult years that followed," Hillius says.

In a way, reading the old letters was like reaching out across time.

"It was just interesting to find out her attitude about homesteading," Hillius says.

Stockton agrees. "The insistence my mother had to homestead was incredible."

"Got $58.90 clear after express was paid on the 24 turkeys we sent to Butte. Sold a gobbler the other day got $4.20."

- March 24, 1916.

Graff says the process of culling the old correspondence was time-consuming. First, she had to decipher which letters belonged to which writer, trying to match handwriting. Then she had to try to organize them chronologically, since many had no dates. Graff retyped letters in fragile condition. Some of the letters were 10 pages long and eloquently written.

"It was like a personal visit," Graff says of how the letter writers made the reader feel. "Now, with e-mail, we don't even write in complete sentences."

It wasn't always like that.

On a lonely stretch of central Montana prairie, a young woman of Norwegian descent once worked diligently to scratch out a living as a homesteader. It was 1911. The work was hard, town was miles away and the accommodations were Spartan. Yet the woman was full of dreams.

Now, thanks to her letters and the work of one woman, her children have dusted off those dreams.

Brett French is a reporter for the Billings Gazette.

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