Vagneur: Disturbing dichotomy in Woody Creek |

Vagneur: Disturbing dichotomy in Woody Creek

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It was a blustery Thanksgiving weekend near Livingston, Montana, even with a brilliant cobalt sky overhead. Three of us rode with purpose, ostensibly trying out a highly recommended horse; but as we rode over rolling hill after rolling hill, I was awestruck by the number of abandoned homestead houses that still stood, silent sentries to the days when a man could yet make it with grit in his gut and a good woman by his side.

Without the forsaken buildings still standing proud, it would have been difficult to imagine what kind of lives these people lived 50 or 100 years ago, but the weather-beaten houses held precious clues to those days past, evidence as to levels of relative success, how many children they might have had and whether they had running water. Somewhat like reading a book, we knew much more about life in that area after we returned to the main barn. The buildings and corrals told, in unforgettable scenes, the history in a way that books and bare land never could.

As people travel up Woody Creek Road, enjoying a leisurely bike ride or admiring the scenery from a motorized vehicle, do they wonder about the history before them in a way similar to my Montana discoveries?

If you’ve traveled that Woody Creek path much, you undoubtedly noticed the two log houses that were summarily demolished this past summer, one a small two-story with totems and wind chimes out front, the other a much larger one-story with a full basement, protected from the afternoon sun by two large cottonwoods. Like stately cedars standing sentry on either side of a ranch entry gate, the two log structures stood almost side-by-side, looking over the ranchland below, separated only by a small, jack-oak covered rise along Woody Creek Road.

It’s hard to imagine now — and impossible for those searching out the history of Woody Creek to know — how robust and lively those two log houses were at one time. The smaller was used by the Elkhorn Ranch to house hired hands, and over the years, it was witness to several single men falling in love with women from town, marrying them and bringing them out to Woody Creek to share in the ranching life. Young, fresh-faced brides rode the winter feed sleds with their husbands and my dad, rejoicing in the cold air and the beauty of the quiet life they had chosen. Deep into those frosty midwinter nights, families were started, and the women’s cheeks, once flushed crimson from the cold, took on a rosy inner glow from the life growing within. So many years ago, that was. But they couldn’t stay. There wasn’t enough money in the job for some, the solitude threatened others and for the last couple, the new owners had other plans.

In 1949, yours truly was three when we moved into the larger of the two houses. My father, a thoughtful young man of 29, wanted to get out of the homestead cabin we lived in, without water and dimly lit by kerosene lamps, and had a new house built for his family. The excitement, the joy that must have pervaded their lives when finally they moved into a house with inside running water, even though they had to rely on a generator for electricity. Two more children followed soon after, an indication that things were going well, and I learned to cuss, listening to my dad start the temperamental generator each evening.

At some point, my dad planted the cottonwood trees out front and gave me the sacred job of watering them each day, an assignment I never missed for fear of a spanking. As I got older, my dad and I would walk outside on winter nights after dinner and look up at the brightest stars in the world. He’d put one arm around my shoulders and point with the other as he explained the mysteries of the constellations to me. Maybe we were never closer than we were on those nights.

My mother kept a well-maintained yard, with rose bushes, sweet peas, petunias, tulips and other varieties unknown to a rambunctious kid, who was forced to mow the lawn with a hand mower. Her vegetable garden was the pride of Woody Creek, and it kept more than one hungry family smiling at meal time. That remained our home until we moved into the main ranch house in 1958.

Now the two houses are gone, smashed and crumbled into extinction, because to someone, they seemed out of place. It’s not my position to tell another how to manage his property, but I can disagree with the destruction of historic ranch buildings.

And on a mesa high above, overlooking the Woody Creek Canyon, a man is building a $20 million house he will never live in, not for more than a couple of months a year. The contradiction is chilling.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at