When I moved to Trout Creek in 1975 to set up in ranching, I shipped my farm equipment by rail: swather, baler, combine, three tractors—including the 1941 model H Farmall I had learned to drive on—plows, disks, the whole works.
It had taken 20 days to load it all so it would get the car inspection’s OK, which meant that nothing should fall off on the way.
I was looking forward to having it at the ranch, but not to unloading it. For one thing, I didn’t know where to unload it, so I asked around and the manager of a local lumber mill agreed to let me use their loading dock. This was at a time when most lumber was shipped in boxcars.
My railcars arrived on a weekday and as I was trying to figure out where to begin, a couple of millworkers were watching and also wondering how I would unload it.
“It’ll take you all week,” a big guy named Copenhagen said. His brother Dude said, “Wait until Saturday, we’ll help.”
Help came in the form of a forklift and log loader they “borrowed” from the mill, and we had it unloaded in less than eight hours. That was good. What was better was a phone call I got a few days later from the station agent, Big Don.
“They overcharged you on the freight,” he said. “I’ve got a check for $834. Where do you want me to send it?”
So I was sitting pretty thanks to a few people I had never met before, and the help didn’t stop there. A couple of months later I got another call from Big Don.
“They’re replacing the timbers on the Trout Creek bridge with steel beams,” he said. “If you want them, go see Walt, the bridge and building foreman. He drinks Crown Royale.”
So the next day I showed up at the bridge with a bottle of Crown Royale and looked for Walt. He was a soft-spoken man of few words, and when I asked if the bottle of hooch was a fair trade for the timbers, which only technically belonged to the railroad, he looked at me, took the bottle by the neck, said “Sure,” and began walking away.
Suddenly it dawned on me that I had to move timbers that were a foot wide, two feet tall, and 24 feet long, so before he got too far away I asked him, “How do you move these things, anyway?”
Walt stopped, turned a little to look at me and said, “Ya gotta be tough.” And he continued walking away.
There was another onlooker who lived next to the bridge who volunteered to help me move them. Danny was a retired packer for the Forest Service, and later that day when I drove up with my International R-200 flatbed, he was waiting with a length of rope—nothing more.
He dallied the rope around one end of a timber, tied it with a mystery knot, and with him on one side of the beam holding his end of the rope, and me on the other side holding my end, we lifted that beam up and dragged it onto the truck. Then we did the same with the other five timbers.
So that’s how I learned two important things about the people in my new hometown: ya gotta be tough, and ya gotta be helpful.
Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.