Montana Viewpoint: Memories of Jessie O’Callaghan


Jim Elliott

Jessie O’Callaghan looked rougher than a cob when I first met her in 1976. It was at her house on Swamp Creek, near Trout Creek, Mont.

She was about 70 years old, short and very heavy with unkempt grey hair, and dressed in what could have once passed as a flower print dress. She was sitting in her kitchen shelling peas. Her eyes were small and blue, encased in folds of skin, and their expression seemed to alternate between skepticism and joy. Her voice was almost a screech, but somehow pleasant.

She kept goats, and it was because of that that several young newcomers went out of their way to make her acquaintance so they could learn the ways of goats, which she gladly shared with them. They were back-to-the-land folks in their early 20s who had moved to Montana to seek a simpler, calmer life and Jessie was drafted as their teacher.

So they came to her to learn about goats and they stayed for her wisdom.

Jessie was born in White Pine, Mont., around 1910. She went to the White Pine school through third grade and that was the end of her formal education. But her informal education was considerable; she loved reading Jack London, and Robert Service was her favorite poet, especially the “Cremation of Sam Magee.”

Once I heard her recite a poem called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which was written in 1750.There was a lot more to Jessie than met the eye.

Her life had been rough, but there was no complaining about it. She had spent a lot of time in eastern Oregon cooking at hay camps and ranches. Along the way she married and had two sons who didn’t have a lot to do with her. Her second husband was Bat O’Callaghan, from Ireland, and it was Bat she had the fondest memories of.

She had compassion, and once said about a person widely regarded as a fool, “She’s more to be pitied than despised.”

As coarse as Jessie looked, you would think she could cuss a blue streak, but I never once heard her swear. For that matter, I never heard her complain, either. She did drink, though, and she could hold her liquor better than I could, for sure. And when she drank she sang and reminisced and that made my hangover worth it. In her late 70s, she had a hard time getting around, but she almost always had a young woman friend to help her, and later, to care for her.

As it got more difficult for her to fend for herself, her sons reluctantly moved her closer—but not too close—to them in central Oregon, near John Day. But it was still her friends from Montana who lived with her and cared for her.

I visited her there a couple of times a year and always brought a bottle. We would sit at her kitchen table drinking into the evening and let it grow dark without lighting the lamp.

Jessie died, pretty much alone, and years later another friend of hers and I went to visit her grave in Prineville, Ore. We stopped by the sexton’s office to get help locating her grave.

“You would never have found it,” he said, “There’s no stone.”

So we went into town and bought a bouquet of flowers and a mickey of whiskey, and while we were at it, ordered a stone. Then we went back to her grave and sat in the sunshine, sharing the whiskey and memories. When we left we put the flowers and a good drink of whiskey on her grave.

These days, if you go there, you can find her grave by looking for a stone with a carving of a goat.

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.

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