Jess Nelson was a machinist in Thompson Falls for many years. He was good at it, but what he was really good at was standing up for honesty and justice. He was my friend, and I think of him often even though he died many years ago.
He had been in a nursing home for a couple of years, and by coincidence I happened to be sitting in his living room when I heard that he had died earlier that day. It was my birthday.
Jess was born in Armell’s Coulee, near Colstrip in Rosebud County. His father was a blacksmith who fashioned rifle barrels from the rear axles of Model T Fords. At the start of World War II, Jess enlisted in the Army and became an airplane engine mechanic, stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash.
After the war he worked for the Milwaukee Road in Deer Lodge, and later moved to Thompson Falls where he worked for the Montana Power Co. at the Thompson Falls Dam until he started his own shop,
I got to know Jess when I was doing custom haying and needed someone to repair my equipment, which fell apart on a pretty regular basis because most of the hayfields I cut were rougher than a cob. If you depended on your equipment to make a living, Jess was a good man to know. No matter what he was working on when you showed up with a busted whatever, your job went to the front of the line so you could get back to making a living as soon as possible … if he liked you.
If he didn’t like you, he wouldn’t work for you. It was that simple.
He made what he claimed to be the first snow-cat, at least in this part of the country, and had numerous other attractions sitting in or near his shop, including a 1920 (I think) International two-ton truck that had never had a flat because it had solid rubber tires. There was an ancient McCulloch chain saw that only a strong man could pick up, let alone run, and some smaller tools that he had invented to work on the generators at the powerhouse.
He was a working man who believed in the goodness of working people, and he did not have a lot of time for those who took advantage of others. He worried that the kids growing up would not have it as good as he had. He had strong opinions, but what transcended all else was his affinity for and defense, of the victims of bullies. He could not stand injustice.
When he enlisted at 18 he had to travel to the induction center in western Washington. He boarded the train in Forsyth, and found that there was a young black enlistee who was being ridiculed and harassed by his fellow inductees because of his skin color. Jess would have none of this. He told me, “I said to them, ‘See here, you stop that! He is only a victim of circumstance.’” Then Jess sat with the black enlistee to the end of the trip.
I don’t know how Jess came by his sense of justice, but I like to think it is a Montana virtue, along with honesty and hard work. In this time of renewed animosity toward immigrants, refugees and people of color, I would like to think that those Montana virtues that Jess embodied would be foremost in our minds, and that the courage and honesty of Jess Nelson could be the example and legacy that we leave to future generations of Montanans.
Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.