On Oct. 17, 2011, Ivan Windsheimer of Kalispell sat down for an interview. For more than 40 minutes, the 91-year-old regaled listeners with stories of life in North Fork decades earlier. Stories of big fires and big snows, run-ins with bears and mountain lions. Stories of a time when “you could still buy an acre, or two or three, and enjoy the summer.”
Less than five months later, Windsheimer died.
But thanks to the North Fork History Project, Windsheimer’s words and stories live on. Three years ago, Debo Powers and others on the North Fork Landowners Association History Committee decided it was time to start recording an oral history of the remote area near Polebridge and the North Fork of the Flathead River.
“Our purpose is to try and preserve the history of the North Fork because a lot of older residents are passing away and we need to record their stories,” she said.
Powers first came to the North Fork in 1979, while backpacking in Glacier National Park. She fell in love with Polebridge and has returned every summer. In 1996, she purchased a plot of land and built a cabin. Now, she splits her time between Florida and Montana.
When she first arrived in the area, she would often meet up with local residents Burt and Thelma Edwards, who would tell her stories of early exploration in Glacier National Park. One involved Burt, who was working on the east side of the park in 1931. He had met Thelma, who was living in Kalispell, a few years earlier and wanted to see her one more time before she left for school in the fall. Burt walked 26 miles through the woods at night so he could catch the train in West Glacier the next morning. It was an impressive feat, but doable because Burt spent his summers as a smoke chaser in the park. A smoke chaser was someone who tracked down wildfire starts and was essentially a one-man fire crew.
“I sat there and listened to those stories and it was just so interesting to me,” Powers said.
Burt’s story of crossing the divide by moonlight is one of a handful Powers wrote down before he died. That story, along with recorded interviews, are available online at the North Fork History Project’s website. In the summer of 2011, Powers and others on the history committee held a fundraiser. With some of the money raised, they purchased a high quality audio recorder. Last fall, they conducted 11 interviews with some of the area’s oldest residents. This year they plan to talk to more and Powers said they have a list of 30 potential interviewees.
“There are people whose families have been up here for a long time and they have a lot of stories to tell,” Powers said. “We need to get those stories down now.”
For more information about the North Fork History Project and to listen to some of the interviews, visit www.nflandowners.com/NorthForkHistoryProject.html.
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