My grandmother’s homestead

By Teresa Bruffey

The big blue sky stretched in front of my windshield as I squinted through a graveyard of bugs on the glass. The sage and grass-covered hills looked vaguely familiar.

A hodgepodge of clues had led me to this spot 24 miles from pavement and 1,086 miles from my Seattle home, alone but for the company of my little brown dog, Maile. Unsure of exactly where I was, I held the old, curling photo against the windshield and scanned the green and brown landscape, hoping to turn the black and white into a real place where people lived and little girls grew up.

My grandma, Corma, and her younger sister Lorna were raised in eastern Montana, on a homestead along Pumpkin Creek from 1916 until about 1925. Through the colorful, textured stories she told me, I’ve often felt I might have lived there too.

Grandma told of riding horseback to a one-room schoolhouse at age 7, holding the reins while her 5-year-old sister held on behind. She spoke of little girls whose friends included a pet eagle, a dog, a goldfish and the horse; of waiting behind the house late at night for their father to return from his postal route; and of watching their mother beat a fox to death with a broom for sneaking into the henhouse.

The homestead was harsh and magical, with few limits, Grandma said. There, little girls grew up tough, smart and graceful among hardworking people who had little extra but always offered a helping hand.

When Grandma passed away in the fall of 2011, my world became too silent. The need to find Pumpkin Creek – the one place that always remained crisp in her 97-year-old memory – became unrelenting.

She had talked of Miles City, so I knew to look on the eastern side of the 147,000-square-mile state. On the Bureau of Land Management’s online archives, I found the grant issued to my great grandparents: Section 8 Township-2-South Range-48-East of the Montana Prime Meridian. Then, at Grandma’s memorial, my great aunt Lorna said in a moment of clarity, “Broadus. Our place was 60 miles one way or another from Broadus.”

Going through my grandmother’s belongings after she passed away, my mother and I found faded photographs of the sisters as children at Pumpkin Creek, and others of them as young women in polyester pantsuits on a journey from Seattle to see the homestead for the last time in the 1970s. Finding the homestead felt like a way to hold onto her a little longer.

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My earlier visits to Montana had been scattered and brief. Even so, it struck me as the kind of place where the right things just happen – those being kindness toward others, connection to the land, and finding your way. So, photos in hand, I pointed my truck east from Seattle and believed.

Near twilight, knowing I was getting close but still unsure how to pinpoint my destination, I stopped at a service station in Ashland, off Highway 212. There, I found a map on the wall that showed Montana broken into neat squares. Township 2 was at the top, Range-48-East halfway down its side, Section 8, smack dab in the middle.

While the service station didn’t have maps to take, I met an off-duty ranger a couple doors down who offered me one. Studying the patchwork of forest service land and ranchland, I found Grandma’s section some 40 miles northeast of Ashland, accessible via double-track, dirt roads.

“Those roads are rough,” the ranger said. “If it rains, don’t drive them – you’ll get stuck. Ask a rancher tomorrow. He’ll know what goes.”

Driving out of town, I pitched my tent at the Holiday Campground. As the sun dropped low, I rehearsed what I might say to no-time-for-small-talk ranchers the next day. These were people who woke up early, brewed coffee and set off at dawn for a long day’s work. Why would they help a strange, city girl?

Around 10 a.m. the next morning I pulled into the first ranch. A woman was bent over feeding chickens from a bucket. Geraniums lined the front of the house.

I don’t know if I even introduced myself before the words, “Do you know where this is?” tumbled from my mouth, and I found myself holding out the photo.

“I’m Dolores,” she said. “Would you like some coffee?”

Inside, she pulled out annals of local heritage, maps and phone books. She didn’t know exactly how to get to Section 8, but she was sure the family down the way would. A few unanswered phone calls later, she sent me off with directions to the Lammis’ house.

“Check back if you have any trouble,” she said.

At the end of a long, dusty drive, I parked by a well-kept ranch house. A pile of irresistible puppies tumbled toward me, followed by a young man with tan lines visible under his clean white t-shirt and spurs on his work boots.

Introducing himself, Justin told me that Dolores had called, and he was expecting me.

His father, John, was busy reuniting a cow with her misguided calf, he said, then invited me inside. Together, we pored over a mapping program they used to keep track of their acreage and cattle.

“Dick Gaskill. He’s who you need to talk to,” he said. “He grew up here, he knows everybody, and knows this land.”

John returned and asked about my search, my family, and said wasn’t that amazing I’d come back to find my grandma’s place. Father and son deliberated on how to help. More calls were made, and since Dick didn’t answer, they sent me off with a handshake, a wish of luck and directions.

Dick’s property was quiet – no cows or traffic on the dirt road and no other houses nearby. It was hard not to feel city paranoia someplace so still. A dog barked, and before I could knock, a woman opened the door. She, too, knew I was coming.

“Dick should be home in the next 30 minutes for supper,” she said. “He’s out mending fences.”

She invited me in and we talked about the local news and who’d been doing what. She offered me tea and asked about my family as if they might’ve been distant kin. She wasn’t from the area but had moved to the ranch after marrying Dick, far from her family and the nearest neighbor. I thought of my great grandmother raising two girls while her husband left for his postal route.

A tall, broad man with blue jeans and a big hat walked through the door, his personality taking up nearly as much space as his imposing physical size.

“Well, I’ll be!” Dick said with a smile, slapping his knee when I told him my story.

I showed him the photos. “Do you know this place?” I asked.

“I can take ya there right now,” he said.

Supper still in the oven, we took off from the house, dust plumes rising behind our trucks. Before I could process what was happening, we turned off the road onto a rough track heading straight for an old, dilapidated log structure that mirrored my photos, only with the roofs fallen in.

I’d found Pumpkin Creek.

Wildflowers bloomed yellow and violet on the surrounding fields. A gentle northeastern wind blew over the ridge, drawing an invisible line from one end of the homestead to the other.

I climbed out of my truck and walked through the grass. In the afternoon light, the golden hills above the old buildings glowed like velvet under candlelight. I wanted to absorb every part of the place – the way it smelled and sounded and felt.

Had I only ever seen those black and white photos, I wouldn’t have known the soft hues of that rough land: the stubby green pines, the blue-grey cottonwoods along the dry creek bed and the ever-present hum of the crickets. The photo left out the crackle of dried tree branches and the kindness shared between neighbors.

Grandma is still gone. I didn’t find her there, as I secretly hoped. But with help from a few friendly strangers, I found an unexpected part of her among the sage and grass at Pumpkin Creek, a place more vibrant and beautiful than I could have imagined.