Going Home

Morton A. Johnson

April, 1978

After dredging the long story of "A Family Chronicle" from a none-to-good memory I developed a nostalgic desire to see the claim once again. Those days in 1911 and 1912 seemed very dim and I felt a craving to verify the pictures that I still carried - pictures which time had cloaked with a sixty-five year old glamorous patina that increased this urge to return.

Official records pertaining to homesteading in North Dakota were on file at the Bureau of Land Management in Billings, Montana. Also available, for a small fee, were a copy of the land map of the area in which the claim was located as well as a copy of the deed or patent, signed by a representative of President Wilson on the "NINTH day of MAY in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred FOURTEEN and of the Independence of the United States the one hundred and THIRTY-EIGHTH".

The legal description of the Claim was given as follows: "The south half of the northeast quarter and the north half of the southeast quarter of Section twenty-eight in Township one hundred forty-seven north of Range one hundred three west of the Fifth Principal Meridian, North Dakota, containing on hundred sixty acres".

These dry bits of information with their quaint expressions are quoted so you may understand a small snafu which later added to the fun and excitement of locating a bit of the planet Earth in the enormous spaces of North Dakota. In fact, without this small problem, the search would have been less interesting.

Alan was able to free himself from responsibilities and served as our scout and trouble shooter [sic]. On the morning of September 8, 1976, we started from Panorama City, picked up Alan at his Seattle digs and headed over Snoqualmie Pass. We made Missoula easily for a late dinner and found shelter in a comfortable motel. We spent the next night in Miles City. On Wednesday we reached Glendive well before lunch so we reserved a motel for that night and continued traveling to the east. Glendive is near the North Dakota border and we soon reached Beach, the first small community in North Dakota where we left the highway and headed north for our initial sortie to locate the Claim. We knew that it was near the Montana boundary. We planned to obtain lunch at Trotters, a few miles north of Beach.

Trotters turned out to consist of one small white Church and an old house which had gradually gone through the phases of being a home, then a general store, then a post office for that rural area. We should have studied our map more carefully because the two buildings were clearly shown as spots on the land map provided by the Bureau of Land Management.

For lunch we were limited to three bottles of tepid pop and, by the time we ate them, three runny Hershey chocolate bars. The lone occupant of Trotters explained that all need for the store having ceased he had abandoned handling "perishables". He did not know where Bennie Pierre Creek was or anything about an old log cabin. On his advice we proceeded in a north, north-west direction until we found a one-room school situated in a shallow valley between the rolling hills and buttes. This was the Squaw Gap School - so named because it sat facing an obvious opening in the hills across the valley.

The landmark we were using in our questions to identify our goal was Bennie Pierre Creek. Alan went into the school where he found a male teacher with six pupils. The teacher could not recognize our skimpy geographical descriptions but one of the girls sad her father "ran" cattle over on the other side of Squaw Gap and she knew it was permissible for us to take a "Jeep trail" that led through the Gap. The Jeep trail started out as two faint parallel tracks. As we traveled along we had to open and close two gates and then the trail became a single cowpath. Shortly we were driving on the bare prairie. To our left, across a shallow dry creek bed, appeared to be two more or less parallel tracks. Alan bravely crossed the slight depression, to the considerable consternation of his Mother, and we rocked and rolled onward for another mile or two. The ground was baked hard following a long dry summer and there was no difficulty with traction. After several additional gates had been opened and closed by the gatekeeper (myself), and after passing many grazing cattle over ground that few if any low-slung cars had traversed before us, we saw signs of habitation.

These proved to be a deserted house and a yard full of wornout [sic] farm machinery. The house did not resemble a log cabin so we decided to push on, this time over an actual road, i.e. two slightly worn tacks paralleling each other for a distance including two gates. This led to the yard of an inhabited farm house [sic]. The farmer graciously came out and visited with us. He knew of no log cabin or Bennie Pierre Creek. He directed us to the road back to Glendive which led us past the Squaw Gap School. We had simply made a loop without finding our objective.

While we were talking to the farmer Alan discovered that the car transmission was frozen in forward gear. We had no reverse capabilities. He was confident that he knew what was wrong and how to fix it if he had a few simple items such as wire and pliers. Apparently we had plowed through too many miles of roads on which a-more-than-generous quantity of crushed gravel had been piled up in ridges by the traffic, mostly pickup trucks with high clearance. We had been on this sort of road surface almost the entire distance after leaving the highway at Beach.

Alan skillfully got us back to Glendive and our motel rooms. He took the car to an authorized Chevrolet dealer and it was repaired in a few minutes. This day had consisted of traveling 260 miles in temperatures up to 95 degrees.

On Thursday, September 11, we breakfasted at a truck stop where we also had lunched packed [sic] for our second effort to find the Claim. We retraced our route to the North Dakota boundary, turned north at Beach and shortly after passing through Trotters we saw a small name plate [sic] in a driveway entrance. We recognized the name as that of the girl in the Squaw Gap School whose father "ran" cattle on the other side of Squaw Gap where we had explored uselessly on Wednesday. We were fortunate that he was home and again we were cordially treated. He knew nothing about Bennie Pierre creek or an old log cabin but he suggested that we branch off to the east soon after leaving his driveway and that we find a Mr. Leland, who had lived a long time in that region and had cattle grazing over several sections of land thereabouts.

This proved to be the solution to our quest. Alan went in and talked with Mr. Leland and soon came back to the car to get our Bureau of Land Management map. Mr. Leland discovered that the wrong area had been marked by the person in the Bureau who had tried to be helpful. Instead of marking the tract in Range 103 West, the tract had been marked in Range 104 West. In other words, since a range is 6 miles, or sections wide, we were mistakenly looking for our objective six miles too far west.

Upon discovering this Mr. Leland remarked, "Oh, you're looking for the old Johnson place"! He knew the man who was farming it now and gave us simple directions to get there.

It was only a few minutes' drive and on a slightly improved road. To cross the Bennie Pierre Creek we followed the road down a steep grade, forded the trickle of water at the bottom and soon saw the familiar Butte, the spring and recognized the course of the Creek. In the area where the log cabin had stood was a group of buildings including a house and a shed or two. No cabin was visible. We got out of the car to explore on foot and Alan soon spotted the venerable old cabin! It had been shielded by the buildings of the present owner, Raymond Peake. He had lived there since 1939.

The cabin naturally showed the deterioration of seventy years. Mr. Peake said he thought it had been built about 1905. The dirt floor had been covered with a concrete slab. Several additional openings had been made through the walls and the cabin now serves as storage space for equipment and abandoned machinery. It was difficult to enter so we peered through the doorways. As I explained in "A Family Chronicle" I remembered there being only one door into the cabin. I know there must have been several windows although I remember only one, a LARGE window in the living room against which the horns of cattle had rubbed while they sought shelter from the blizzard. I now estimate, sixty-five years later, that the window was about eighteen inches square! - but it was low enough for the horns of cattle to reach it easily. In those days the cattle were descendants of long-horned Texas stock.

The roof was changed, both by man and the weather. Originally it had been a typical pitched roof with a log ridge pole [sic] running the length of the cabin at a uniform pitch. Planks, perhaps only four inches wide, were laid side by side from the ridge pole down the side walls. Dirt had been spread over the planks and a retaining board was nailed to the lower ends of the planks to prevent the occasional rain from eroding the soil. During the years before we arrived in 1911 grass had grown thickly enough to justify its being labeled a sod roof. It served as an effective protection against both excess heat and cold.

The present condition of the cabin was grim testimony to severe weather. All the sod and/or dirt on the roof had disappeared. The planks on the south side were twisted and warped, perhaps because of exposure to the sun. The roof over what I recall as the kitchen area had been changed by being raised several feet at the ridge. It had been shingled and these were still in service although badly weathered.

I was prepared to find that the creek may have eroded the bank along which the cabin stood at a distance of perhaps thirty feet. But there had been little if any erosion. After the dry summer of 1976 the tiny rivulet that was still visible was running on the far side of the creek's gully.

The stone masonry foundation that had stood nearby had disappeared. Mr. Peake said that this happened gradually as people removed it stone by stone for purposes unknown. Stones of the sizes included in those walls were not readily available in that country.

After strolling around the cabin's exterior we carried out one of my fondest hopes - to see if there were more arrowheads in the garden soil from which had come the "ten pound salt sack bag of Indian arrowheads" which I had found there as a boy when we worked the soil for Mother's garden. The garden was in the right place. In fact I believe that some of the identical fence posts were still standing but most of the barbed wire was down and overgrown by weeds and grass. I had taken along a small spade and tried to turn the soil but it was almost the consistency of pavement. The soil was baked from the long dry spell and needed a pick to break it up. So, we found no arrowheads! I may want to try it again with adequate equipment or at a better time of the year. Perhaps I ought to investigate the possibility of there being any interest on the part of anthropologists to excavate the area as an old Indian camp site with buried artifacts. I must also remember that Mr. Peake might appreciate knowing about these grand plans!

The Butte was not so impressive as I remembered but it was still in the proper direction from the cabin. One of the greatest changes was visible in the spring. I had recalled that there was a small vein of coal or lignite between the base of the Butte and the spring. Mr. Peake explained that erosion occurred when the coal had been gradually dug out for fuel. He said he still used the spring as his source of water.

After a pleasant visit with Mr. Peake we returned to the home of Mr. Leland and reported on our accomplishment. He graciously urged us to assure any member of the family wanting to hunt up the claim that he would gladly help them if they would give him the chance.

One more mystery was solved before the day was over. Mr. Leland gave us advice on the most direct route back to Glendive. It consisted of driving almost due west across the Montana line. Soon we were approaching a large river, running roughly north. There was a large bridge over the river, the Yellowstone, and the road from the bridge formed a junction with our road which now turned south toward Glendive. Suddenly I saw the river with the town of Sidney, Montana, and realized that that was the precise scene of the incident described in "A Family Chronicle". We had driven, by horse and wagon, from the claim in June, 1912, to the railroad, on which we departed for our next adventure, Saskatchewan!

The last time I had seen it was the day we approached the same spot and as we came over the rise before going down the grade to the river we saw the glistening surface of the water with reflected lights of the town. On the other bank, silhouetted, was the ferry just leaving our side on its last trip of the day. Now I know what déjà vu means. You may recall that The Chronicle relates this incident and of Dad finding someone to row us across the river in a boat. I had never known the name of the place from which we entrained after leaving the claim. Sidney is probably the place to which Dad drove for his supplies.

We returned to Glendive and at dinner that evening Alan connived with a waitress who, at the end of the meal, brought me a slice of German chocolate cake with a burning match as a candle. It was my birthday!

Our return home included a pleasant side trip through Glacier National Park. This was our third try at it since 1950 - the first and second times having been thwarted by snow, fog and late Park openings. Continuing westward we angled across the Canadian border and found a beautiful road which passed near Creston, through Trail and on through the most spectacular mountain scenery to Lake Christine, where we spent the night. We reached home by way of the North Cascade Highway.


Exhibit 1

This is a copy of the map including the area in which the Claim is located. The map covers a relatively small area, about twenty miles - east and west, and less than thirty miles - north and south. As large scale maps designate, by means of longitude and latitude, specific locations or places on the surface of the earth so do surveyors' maps designate specific points or property by means of such terms as Ranges and Townships. The Ranges on this map can be seen at the top above the small grid lines. A Range is six miles, or sections, long, east and west. Townships are also six miles, or sections, long, north an south. These six-mile by six-mile areas are known as Townships. They contain thirty-six sections numbered in a unique manner. The section in the north-east corner of each Township is section one and the next section to the west is number two. This continues to section six. Section seven is south of section six and sections eight through twelve are counted in an easterly direction. Section thirteen lies south of section twelve and the numbers again run in a westerly direction through section eighteen. This system continues throughout the thirty-six sections in each Township.

A section contains 640 acres, typically. Therefore the claim, which was a quarter of a section contains 160 acres. The sections are divided, when smaller tracts of land than 640 acres are designated, as quarter sections. There may be even smaller designations. If this is confusing to you it is probably due to the writer's incoherence but it may also help explain why we spent our first efforts fruitlessly. We were looking in the wrong Range because the Bureau of Land Management clerk, in trying to help us, had marked our land in section 28, Range 104 W. rather than section 28 in R. 103 W. We were searching six miles too far west.

If your eyes are sharp enough you can make out the tiny course of the Bennie Pierre Creek which flows in a northwesterly direction and empties into the Yellowstone River, just a few miles over the border of Montana.

The Claim is marked on this map as "Johnson Place" which is how Mr. Leland, whose home is shown a few miles north and west of the claim, referred to it. We drove back to Glendive on the second day via Sidney, Montana, which permitted me to recognize the scene described in the Chronicle of the last ferry of the day out in midstream, leaving us behind and requiring Dad to find a rowboat to take us and our baggage over to what I now recognize as the town of Sidney, Montana. 

Picture #1

This is the log cabin as it appeared in September, 1976, sixty-four years after we so willingly left it to return to Kindred temporarily. The area with the lower walls was the living room and represents the original height of the entire cabin, as I recall. It seems that somewhere along the line of time the roof of the kitchen was raised and a new shingle covering was added.

The whole roof was built with a layer of boards suspended from the ridgepole to the log walls and covered with earth. A heavy crop of grass grew to form the sod which bound the earth into a fairly substantial mat. Time eventually caused the sod roof to deteriorate and the lack of protection caused the log walls to weather in the sunlight, heavy rains and snow storms.

The stone foundation, no longer existing, lay beyond and to the right of the far corner of the kitchen. The area labeled Flood Plain and Scrub Brush in the first sketch in the Chronicle was still farther beyond the cabin. The Bennie Pierre Creek lay to the left of the cabin. The deep bank cut by the Creek was perhaps thirty feet from the rear walls of the Cabin.

Picture #2

This view shows the original front wall and the front window that seemed so large to me as the Chronicle was written. This is the same window that we feared the long-horned cattle would break as they milled around in the lee of the cabin during the blizzard for shelter. The poor condition of the roof can be attributed to the ravages of time and to the fact that this side of the cabin and roof were more exposed to the direct rays of the sun. I believe this was the south side of the building.

The vegetable garden lay beyond the left corner shown here, perhaps near the metal building in the background.

Picture #3 - Mort Johnson

This is a closer shot of the corner of the original unaltered building that was shown in picture #1. I believe the door shown here has been cut through the wall since we left, perhaps to make the stored machinery more accessible. The picture was taken during the early afternoon.

Picture #4

This picture was taken from the northeast corner of the cabin, if my orientation is correct. The creek and the bank are behind the camera. The butte beyond the roof of the cabin is the one that stands out in my memory. It seemed taller and more impressive then than it does now. The strata of coal lay at the foot of the butte about in line with the left far corner of the cabin shown against the metal building behind the log walls.

One of my most graphic memories is the time I watched a wolf or coyote walk leisurely from the left base of the butte to the right edge of the picture.

The barn and corral were beyond the right corner of the cabin about where the machinery stands.

The doorway cut through the near wall has been opened since we left and marks the approximate place through which the rattlesnake crept into our kitchen.

Picture #5

This is the Bennie Pierre Creek as it looked in September, 1976, from the top of the gully behind the cabin. It was low after a long dry summer and a little water was trickling on the far side of the creek bed. Much of the vegetation-covered area in the picture was inundated when the stream was high after a storm or during the spring run-off. The bank nearest the cabin was perhaps twenty-five feet high and quite vertical.

Picture #6

The buildings visible in this picture are those built since the cabin was vacated by our departure in 1912. Some of them are metal and reflect the light brightly and the cabin is indistinguishable. The erosion at the base of the butte is clearly visible. This probably was due to the removal of coal and possibly the flow of the spring which was located nearby.

The flax field was located at the extreme right, across the creek. The road winds off to the left of the picture where it crosses the creek. The area in the foreground has been broken since we lived there when it was a rolling prairie covered with prairie dog towns now leveled by cultivation.