Nestled in a small stand of Box Elder Maple trees on Bird Creek, lies the log cabin that once was called in print “the grandest home in this country.”
Don’t expect a grand, pillared white house, Tara style. Nor even a sprawling building with a low-pitched roof over a broad open porch so often popularized as the Texas ranch house. Little ostentation embellishes the two-room cabin on Bird Creek, except the luxury of two doors, two windows, and a ceiling allowing ample headroom to comfortably stand straight.
Sometime in the 1860’s and somewhere in the space created by the stitch-worked politics of the day, a bull-train freighter named Jemison Perkins quietly and carefully established his reliability as a man who delivered without fail over the loosely placed stitchwork of supply routes that pieced together the mining camps.
A successful businessman, Perkins protected his assets, his oxen. He needed a choice spot to winter his animals, somewhere along the nearly 400-mile route between a bustling Fort Benton and the area’s richest gold lodes. Open water, brushy shelter, and a milder winter would be the ideal spot’s advantages.
How Perkins discovered this spot hidden between Bird Creek and the Missouri is unknown. Perhaps he heard stories from a Fort Benton trapper, or maybe a sergeant assigned to the Fort when the U.S. Army bought it as an eastern pillar of the Mullan Road told the ox-drove and entrepreneur.
Perhaps an unknown source relayed the story that somewhere across the meandering and treacherous Missouri River, away from the major east-west and north-south routes, a small creek joined the river as the Mighty Mo bent eastward encircling a quiet haven for animals.
Or maybe it was simply Perkins’ curiosity that led him to detour from the beaten path to see the land that lay south across the river and near the deep blue Adel Mountains.
Bird Creek’s watershed, identified by the First Peoples, encompassed as part of an eastward-stretching sea of prairie with island mountain ranges, had for eons provided food and shelter to both humans and wildlife. Area weather patterns brought milder winters, while springs open year-round and thick stands of brush have provided water and shelter to animals and humans. Tribes have hunted, fought, and lived in this space that all claimed, but no one owned.
So, years before homesteaders flowed into a territory only to find it impossible to support a family as promised on 160 “free” acres, Perkins responded to the demands of living and survival. He established himself on Bird Creek where his spans of oxen could rest and recover from their long “pulls” over rough terrain. The animals would have open winters to graze the deep grasses in the lowlands and ample shelter from the storms blowing in from the northwest.
Utility stitched his cabin into its setting, fulfilling the need for a place Perkins could call home. The area’s cottonwoods offered timbers for construction, showing a sensible use of a tough, local resource. He listened to the weather patterns, avoiding north-facing windows but installing on the south-facing front, two paned-glass windows to soak up the winter-weakened sun’s rays.
Folklorist Henry Glassie encourages us to study what we humans have made, to do more than idly place our material culture like a knick-knack on an unreachable shelf and when it becomes dusty with neglect, relegate it to the trash heap. He emphasizes the value of looking at everyday objects to better understand our past. “Few people write. Everyone makes things. An exceptional minority has created a written record. The landscape is the product of the divine average.”
Even though I had lived in the history of my landscape and used in daily life objects from the past, the first time I stepped inside the Perkins cabin, I was young enough to feel dwarfed by the enormity of the history I faced. It smelled old. Not nose-turning old, but intriguing old.
The white-washed interior walls and beams accentuated suspended reminders of another time. A tall, cherry chest dominated most of the wall that divided the cabin into two rooms, and the opposite wall showed evidence of where a large fireplace had once commanded the space.
My dad, leading our expedition, stepped through the door, and nodded towards the chest saying, “That’s your great-grandmother’s pie chest. Came by ox-train.”
One cabinet door was ajar, and I could see square and round bottles, some corked, some not, all clouded with dust. Anticipating my question, my dad said, “Old bottles. A few things that I brought from the home place.” Even though young, I knew the story of my dad’s greatest sorrow, when his family lost land and home, scattering family in Montana’s dark years from 1919 on. The story carried the hurts and betrayals of those once trusted using the desperation of the times for their own opportunity.
Looking around, he pointed to the corner, “There’s the old rug loom. Everyone wove, and your grandma always had her hands busy. Worked herself to death.”
Bowing his head, he sighed, then leaning over, he tugged at a leather handle on a curved-topped trunk, its leather strapping held in place by tarnished metal studs. “Here! Here’s what we’re looking for.”
Pulling the trunk out, he brushed off its curved top. The smell and the spell of the past swept over me.
Dipping into the dust of the years, he pulled out a quilt. In his hands lay the crazy quilt a long-ago grandmother had touched and sent forward. Pieces of every shape lay at odd angles following no pattern. Muted colors, chosen for frequent use and now dimmed by time, formed a background for the remaining embroidery stitches.
(From a six-part excerpt from “Stitching a Crazy Quilt,” in Crossing Bird Creek, a collection of essays by E.L. Kittredge. To read more about our places and how they impact our ways of learning, knowing, being, and thriving, visit www.elkittredge.com.)