|Interviewee: Esther McDonald (EM)
Interviewers: Annie Heuscher, Karen Petersen, and Kerry Graybeal
Photographer: Michael Stafford, Philipsburg Mail
From the Ground Up, Montana Women & Agriculture
Saturday, February 18, 2013
Granite Conservation Office
KAREN: Today is February 18th, 2013. This is Karen Petersen with the Granite Conservation District in Philipsburg. Today we will be visiting, interviewing Esther McDonald, a local ranch woman and …
ANNIE: I grew up in Bozeman but my family is not involved in agriculture so, it’s nice to learn a little more.
Photographer: So how.. so Karen had asked you to do this, or?
ANNIE: No, I just, I contacted DNRC, um… Linda Brander who’s running the project and she said, because I live in Missoula right now, and she said, “Where would you be willing to travel to?” And I’ve got a lot of family in the Flathead and a lot of family in Bozeman so I said anywhere in the west-southwest. So she said, we’ve got somebody here.
Photographer: Now, what are some of the things you’re going to be asking Esther about today?
ANNIE: Well, we can share with you these question outlines that they gave us if you want. I can maybe email them to you.
Photographer: That would be fine. Okay.
ANNIE: Just, kind of, about the old days and recent days and older days. We might be here a long time.
Photographer: And what motivates you to speak for the project, to create this Women in Agriculture historical project?
ANNIE: Well, I know that in my family, my grandfathers both always have all the stories and every time I ask my grandmothers their stories, they’re like, “Oh, I don’t have any stories.” So I think it’s good to make a point of getting the grandmothers’ stories too and getting them on tape.
Photographer: Well if you guys want to begin, I’m just going to take a few pictures as you start out and then I’ll be out of your hair and you can get down to business.
ANNIE: How do I look?
ESTHER: We’re not beauty queens! (Laughs)
ANNIE: So is this recording now?
KAREN: Yes it is.
ANNIE: Ok cool. Double check that.
ESTHER: I don’t care.
ANNIE: Well, so do you want to jump in and ask questions too? Feel free to.
KERRY: Okay, I haven’t looked this stuff over.
ANNIE: As you wish. So, like I said, I didn’t grow up on a farm, so feel free to dumb it down and over-explain as needed. But yeah, let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born and how did you get to Montana?
ESTHER: Well I was born in Seattle and my family traveled a lot when my dad was alive.
ANNIE: Because of his work?
ESTHER: Yes, and when he died at an early age, my mother had relatives in Missoula and my dad had always would have liked to have a ranch and we were horse people so we bought a ranch in the Bitterroot – Darby. And formerly I went to school at Washington State and I majored in Animal Husbandry and a minor in Journalism.
ANNIE: That’s a good combo. And when you moved to Darby you got a ranch right away?
ESTHER: Yeah, mother bought a ranch and we raised purebred Hereford cattle and then I met my husband at a bull sale and he was from Phillipsburg so I moved to Phillipsburg and I probably have lived here about 60 years. We’ve been married 60 years and we have 8 kids and they all went through college and they have nice jobs and I guess that’s it. But I live on one of the oldest ranches in Montana. It’s never been out of the family – my husband’s family. It was settled in 1866 and his great aunt brought milk cows for the miners and it was a dairy farm and then it was, we’d have lots of horses because they had horses for the mines and hay and we added to it through the years and we just have cattle and hay, that’s all.
ANNIE: So where they from – your husband’s family – when they came here to this ranch?
ESTHER: Germany – well, St. Louis. They went to Virginia City and then to Helena and then they came from – they had a homestead at Hall and then they moved up from Phillipsburg.
ANNIE: And did they homestead the place in Phillipsburg?
ANNIE: So do you know what the place was like when they first got on it?
ESTHER: Very much like it is today. I know the old pictures and it’s very – it’s not changed.
ANNIE: So they didn’t have to do a lot of logging.
ESTHER: Well, we log all the time, but they logged too, but it grew up, you know, it’s a renewable resource. And they had, they filed on lots of water for the Flint Creek and so it’s a very good ranch.
ANNIE: How would they have found out about this place down here?
ESTHER: Well, I suppose the silver discovery in Phillipsburg, see. So they moved up from Virginia City and came here and there was a kind of a boom on the silver because this was the first ten stamp mill in Montana and that was up at the end of the street.
ANNIE: What does that mean?
ESTHER: Well it’s a milling process. They have to crush the ore.
ANNIE: So, going back a little bit. Your mom moved you all to a ranch in Darby. By herself?
ESTHER: Well, yeah. We had a hired man.
ANNIE: Was that pretty unusual?
ESTHER: No, because we were the family, you know. And then I was 4H leader for in Darby and I still keep track of the couple of kids that are still living around here, in the Bitterroot.
ANNIE: Did she grow up in Montana, your mom?
ESTHER: No, she was an Iowa farm girl and she went to the University of Wisconsin and she met my dad in New York City. She was an advertising executive. She was pretty, a career woman, really.
ANNIE: So was it a big change for her to come back and start the ranch?
ESTHER: No, she liked that.
ANNIE: What was that ranch like?
ESTHER: Well, it was a small ranch in the Bitterroot. And we had hay, grain, and the cattle. Some horses, we raised horses. And pigs too. And chickens. Because we always raised chickens on the home ranch here. Just a couple years ago we got rid of chickens and milk cows (laughs).
ANNIE: Why’d you do that?
ESTHER: Well it wasn’t economically feasible. That’s what.
ANNIE: How many did you keep?
ESTHER: What, the chickens? Oh we’d have a 100 every year and then we’d butcher 50 for fryers. And then we’d have fresh eggs. And the milk cows. That was terrible (laughs). We were reminiscing today about – and we had hired men all the time at the ranch – and that separator. Oh god, you know those cream – and my mother-in-law used to sell cream and eggs in Phillipsburg, you know. So we’d have to deliver them every couple, every week, you know.
ANNIE: To the store?
ESTHER: No, to individuals. They liked, people liked cream.
ANNIE: And with the chickens, you sold them directly to people too?
ESTHER: No, just the eggs.
ANNIE: The fryers were for the family?
ESTHER: Yes. I wish’d I’d had fryers now because they were very nice. They were tastier. Those chickens you buy in the store are just – that’s why they put all those sauces on them I think.
ANNIE: Where did you say you met your husband?
ESTHER: At a bull sale in Missoula.
ANNIE: And when was the first time you saw this ranch in Phillipsburg?
ESTHER: When he took me there.
ANNIE: After you were married?
ESTHER: No (laughs). He took me to his folks because they were living on the ranch at the time.
ANNIE: So what was different about coming over here?
ESTHER: Well it was a big ranch and we had a couple hired men to feed. Of course, I didn’t feed them, because my mother-in-law fed them, you know, but anyway. And it was a change of climate, you know. Because we had a lot of snow in Phillipsburg. And through the years we’ve had a lot of experience, when we took over the ranch, when my father-in-law died, we had, we used to have ten men for the haying and we hayed with horses mainly, but we had a bailer and tractors but we scatter raked with horses and then we mowed with horses. Down in the bottoms, you know. And so we put a lot of wild hay up then. But we had about ten men so we had – and they were very interesting (laughs). My father-in-law used to go over to the bars in Butte and stake them out, you know. But a lot of them came back every year just for haying. Because my mother-in-law was a very good cook (laughs). And then when she moved to town, we took over the ranch and… we’ve been there ever since.
KAREN: What year was that, Esther?
ESTHER: ’57 I think, when Mack died. But she lived out there two years and then she built this house in town.
CARRIE: So did you cook?
ESTHER: Yes, I cooked all the time. Because she was the clerk and recorder in Granite County so I had to cook us all – every summer, I’d have a girl – because I had kids, little kids, and so she’d come for the haying and she’d – because we didn’t have a dishwasher or anything. We just had to wash dishes and we had to get three meals and that was kind of… a dilemma.
ANNIE: So what was your typical day like?
ESTHER: Well we got up at six. Got the breakfast for the hired men. And then we’d peel potatoes for dinner and we had the main meal at noon and then they’d come in and so we had a roast and all that, you know, just a very – and we’d bake pies or dessert. And then sometimes – about two o’clock maybe in the summer, in the haying, all of us girls that lived on the ranches, we’d take our kids to Echo Lake and swim and we got about two hours or something but it was fun, you know, and just because they were all types of ages of kids and then we’d go back and get the meal on for the men and that was it. And when it rained we’d still have to feed them, but you know, it was, those days, we had the - Phillipsburg was a big town. We had a couple of doctors and dentists and we had three grocery stores, you know, and they were very good. They’d get case goods and everything. Of course, we butchered our own meat and we’d have big freezers, you know. Walk-ins. But - and we had dried goods stores and a very good dry good stores at Drummond so we didn’t have to go anyplace. We could just – one would bring the groceries out to the ranch – we’d order all of the case goods, you know. And then we’d, Jack Cole would bring it out so we didn’t have to… And of course my mother-in-law got a big garden, but I couldn’t garden in Phillipsburg because when you garden in the Bitterroot, the soil would make… but she had a wonderful garden but I just couldn’t! Because we had, you know, in the Bitterroot, we had a longer growing season and the, I don’t know, it wasn’t… when I had a garden, everything would freeze (laughs). We only have 60 frost free days so…
ANNIE: She didn’t have any good tricks and tips to pass down to you?
ESTHER: Well she had a very – I guess I was more interested in animals because I was basically a cow person and a horse person. I wasn’t a domestic…
ANNIE: When your mother-in-law was cooking, would you take more of a part in the…?
ESTHER: Yes, I’d wash dishes and all that and when she left I’d have a girl come in the summer.
ANNIE: And would you be out helping with the… haying and things?
ESTHER: No, well I used to rake hay, but I’m not a machinery person. And we used to, in the winter, we used to feed with the sleds, great big sleds because of… so I’d go out with my husband and get the bales off the hay. And I calved for probably… many years, because I was the night man.
ANNIE: And did you always calve the same time?
ANNIE: When would you calve?
ESTHER: February and March.
ANNIE: And where would you ship your cattle? Where would you sell them?
ESTHER: We sold them to order buyers to, in the state and they shipped to uh, we used to ship them on the – we used to ship yearling steers and then we went to calves and we shipped them on the railroad in Phillipsburg. But then we went to trucks because there’s no railroad to go through Phillipsburg. And they went different places – to Iowa, Nebraska, California, just depending on the order buyers.
ANNIE: Was it… when you first changed over to trucks, what was that like? Was that a big…?
ESTHER: Well I don’t know. We didn’t have any, well we shipped from Drummond a couple times when we shipped to Iowa and then, the scales was taken out here so then we shipped to uh, the neighbors had scales so we’d weigh them there. But I don’t, they came and that was, it was very clear where they – because we have big corrals, so, it was very – because when we shipped to the railroad in town, we’d have to go to – well we, uh, our ranch is out by the airport, west of the airport, but we’d have to go into town and the depot was down here, you see. And lots of the ranchers in Rock Creek used to drive their cattle in – that Geardon’s family – and that was a big deal. Because we didn’t, you know, they didn’t have stock trucks then and no trailers.
ANNIE: So was it easier loading cattle out at the ranch than it was loading them into a train at a train station? That sounds a little chaotic.
ESTHER: Oh yes, yes (laughs).
KAREN: Can you recall any specific wrecks, in the way of saying, you know getaways, or breakouts at the depot?
ESTHER: Oh, I don’t think so.
KAREN: Oh I’ve heard some of those from our point of view and boy, you just want to stay away from that.
ESTHER: Well I can remember once my father-in-law, uh, this guy, Tommy Lanes’ dad, and he was buying cattle from that Ballmeier, you know, that used to live in Kessler’s place. Well my father-in-law had a lawsuit over sheep because Ballmeier and Spring Creek, his herder cut the fence and all that stuff, so this Ballmeier had not got to the sale yard and so this Johnny Lane, he told Mack, “Oh well you weigh those cattle.” That was, kind of, and he just didn’t want to do it, you know. And then I remember one time that a very good friend and rancher up in the valley, I don’t know what he was doing, but he – we went to Drummond to ship and he didn’t go down – because he had a good bunch of cattle, you know, I don’t know. And he said, “Oh you just pick up the check. I’ll get it.” He just wasn’t interested. I’m not gonna say any names, but you know. That was our only pay day, you know! And it was a pretty substantial check and we, you know, why would you…? But he didn’t. He says, “Oh, just, you can pick up the check.” I don’t know.
ANNIE: Was there a lot of conflict between ranchers?
ESTHER: I don’t think there was really.
ANNIE: People re-routing water, cutting fences.
ESTHER: Oh well there was. I don’t know. I think our – in the valley, we always got along and we got along with the Rock Creek people very good. But there was animosity I think some places but, you know, that’s always the –
KAREN: Was that hinged on the sheep and cattle aspects?
ESTHER: Well I don’t know, you know we had sheep too, because the kids wanted sheep for 4H and oh boy, we ended up, I don’t know, 100 ewes. But we weren’t equipped to sheep but it was fun. And they learned because we stomped the wool… And they had very good luck for the showing the sheep.
KAREN: So your kids did the whole thing with the sheep.
ESTHER: Oh yeah. We got three sheep from Arlo and then they thought, “Well we’d better get some more.” 25 more! But they were all Suffolks and they were University of Idaho breeding sheep and they were very good. But when they went off to college it was too much. But these big sheep you see, there was sheep in East Fork, Annie got them, and she had a lot of sheep, and I don’t know who… Alfred Johnson they used to run, Chris’s father-in-law, they ran sheep on Spring Creek, because Mack bought those sections from them. And then the Mitchell place, and Pearson’s, they ran sheep. But boy, Mack didn’t want sheep. He just, oh, he just… so, he would turn over in his grave if he saw those 100 head of Suffolks.
CARRIE: What kind of horses were you raising out there?
ESTHER: Well we had quarter horses and we had Belgians and a friend, a very good friend from Stevensville had a stud and I don’t know, a couple of mares and he didn’t want them so we, we were, and I used to rake hay with a stud and he was a very nice stud and then I had, I think we had three mares that we raised a couple of… And then we – that was short lived – a couple, five years. And then we got a quarter horse stud from a man down in Missoula. He was Oral Zumwalt’s roping horse. And Royal Bar and we raised a lot of, we had quite a few mares, and we raised a couple colts. Or maybe more, I don’t know. But uh, he was a very good stud and he was, we had wonderful horses. The kids sold a couple of them, you know. Not big, high dollar, just ranch horses.
ANNIE: So when you were mowing with the stud, what was that setup – what did that setup look like?
ESTHER: Well, I was raking. And you had the rake, a little rake, a little seat on the rake, and then drove the horse. And we had a harness, you know, all the harness… but he was a wonderful rake horse.
ANNIE: How long did you do that?
ESTHER: Oh, I don’t know. A couple years. And I’d, I had driven horses from the Bitterroot too because we raked on the horses too.
ANNIE: What about celebrations? What kinds of yearly, what were the big causes for celebration on the ranch?
ESTHER: Memorial Day, my husband’s family had a get-together and they probably were, I mean, there were 50 people. They’d bring, I think grandma fed all the, prepared all the food and all the kids came and we still do it. And then my husband’s sister and I used to share when Agnes got too old to do it and moved to town, but I do it now because my husband’s sister’s not very well so she doesn’t, she’s not social, I guess. And they, too much for her, you know. But we have fun and I think we have about 20 – and everybody brings food and of course, when I was growing up, we didn’t, I mean, my family didn’t give a damn about Memorial Day. We went fishing! (laughs) That was the first day of fishing, you know, but we never visited graves or anything. I mean, I was, that was a shock to me when I moved to Phillipsburg about these funerals and all this going on, I mean, I just, because we just, we’d never, you know, we just, I know we didn’t – well my grandmother lived to one hundred and something and I was in college and I don’t think we ever went to the funeral. Until I went to Phillipsburg, I’d only been to one funeral. And that was my dad’s. And I don’t, I just, and this going on, you know, it just (laughs). But I don’t want you to say that, because when my father-in-law died, they had – they laid him out on the ranch, you know, they had this great big brick house and they, and they had guards and candles, and three days – all these people came and all this, you know, and I had, little John was just a little baby and, I mean, I had to go – and I had two hired men and I had to feed them for Agnes because they were social – all these people would come all the time, I tell ya. So I talked to my mother, well she says that’s the way they did it in Iowa. That was the old country. But… you know, I’m not a funeral person. Maybe, I don’t know, I guess that, well I think Carrie probably remembers that stuff.
CARRIE: Oh yeah.
ESTHER: But I mean it just, it just, I don’t know, it just wasn’t, I guess I wasn’t attuned to it.
ANNIE: But you still kept up the Memorial Day picnic, huh?
ESTHER: Yes, I still keep Memorial Day and all these relatives in Billings and stretched out around the country, they come back. And then when somebody dies up here, I usually host a little luncheon or something for them because nobody – there’s too many strange people in Phillipsburg, the old timers are all gone, you know. So, I don’t know. And then I do branding, and so I have, but we have our ranch leased to a fellow that, well he’s a rancher that came back from, and uh, so I cook for him for the branding because he’s a single guy and I, and also the cattle drives, because we have a lot of, we drive cattle up on the summer pasture so we have a lot of friends that are cowboys or drugstore cowboys but they like to do it and I have a couple of friends over in the Bitterroot and my daughter lives over there and they’re kind of arena people but they like to have horses and so, uh, because we have a lot of cattle to get over for the, so we have a picnic, you know, and socialize.
ANNIE: Where’s the summer pasture?
ESTHER: Well it’s right back of the ranch. We run all the way to Rock Creek.
ANNIE: Has that always been where the summer pasture is?
ESTHER: Mm-hmm. We own all our summer pasture, we don’t rent.
ANNIE: What’s the – have you been on any real long drives?
ESTHER: Well it takes us about six hours to get, because it goes uphill and down to Rock Creek and the calves are kind of, we have to go through timber, you know, so…
CARRIE: Can you talk about like, the change in going from the Herefords to what it is today? Because like, we had Herefords and we don’t today.
ESTHER: Well we had, yeah, and we’ve got, they’ve got Angus now, but just straight Angus now. Tim has the Angus. But we had Herefords and then we had crossbred – we bred Galloway bulls to Herefords and we got beautiful, nice calves. And then we bred black bulls to Herefords. And my husband and I used to be the Hereford, in the purebred business when we first married. But when we took up the ranch, we couldn’t, you know, it was terrible, the commercial herd, it was just too much. So we just went to commercial cattle. And we used to, well I say, we used to raise yearling steers, but we’ve got the weights up and so we just, we probably ship about 600-lb calves, you know. So that’s better than going for another year.
ANNIE: So then are you shipping in October?
ANNIE: Are they different temperament wise?
ESTHER: No, they’re just fine. But the guy that is the leasee runs cattle, uh, he feeds, he doesn’t ship. He – in July, he gets the yearlings because he winters yearlings at his ranch on Well Creek. So, but he has all the heifers, you know, so, but he hasn’t – he’s always shipped yearlings. And a lot of people down there, you’re the only one that ships calves, don’t you?
CARRIE: Yep. It was too hard keeping track of yearlings.
ESTHER: Oh, it’s terrible.
CARRIE: Keeping that hay, keeping them that extra year to keep things going.
KAREN: Esther, I have a question on talking about haying and such. How has the management of the ranch, the haying, the pasture land and that, how has that changed? Of course, it was homesteaded, started breaking sod, planting, now you’ve got pivots –
ESTHER: We don’t have pivots.
KAREN: Oh, but any kind of irrigation changed…?
ESTHER: We just have flood irrigation. We had sprinklers but they weren’t very satisfactory and we don’t, we don’t pivot or anything because we’ve got a lot of water. We’ve got very good water so we irrigate. We don’t – we used to plow a lot but we don’t plow anymore. We probably harrow and, you know, spread the manure. We don’t – we used to fertilize a lot of ground and probably rake hay, but I don’t think the nutrition was very good because I think they tied up that Selenium and Vitamin A and when we don’t fertilize, we get a lot of – maybe not volume, but much, much better hay. They were burned up and of course, the fertilizer price got so it was prohibitive, really, in only one crop, because we can’t grow a series of alfalfa. We have a little alfalfa but it’s 200 acres but it’s only a one crop deal where we had another ranch in Washington and we used to have four cuttings, you know, but that was in the basin. But you can’t, that was, this is so, the growing season isn’t… so the wild hay is very good and we harrow and drag the meadows and that’s what. And the quality hay, and we don’t lose many calves. I don’t know, you know, Dr. Metcalf always said that fertilizer, I mean, I think, well you can get volume, but they just, and the clovers, all the clovers went out and we’d just get, you know, this Timothy and brome and just, uh, quantity but not quality hay and so we don’t fertilize anymore. And maybe it’s a good thing but we certainly don’t lose very many calves.