06 Jan Ranch History Podcast: Episode 5
The stories continue as I interview my Grandpa, Jim Wood. In this episode, we start in on the stories of Grandpa and Grandma’s life just after they were married, and then we get a little sidetracked with Grandpa’s experiences during the Sundance Fire of 1967. To start off let’s review a little bit of our North Idaho history. The Sundance Fire began on August 23, 1967 by a lightning strike on Sundance Mountain. On September 1st, the Sundance Fire “blew up” into a firestorm that, in a 9 hour period, traveled 16 miles, increased in size by 50,000 acres and killed two firefighters.
Chickens, CATS and the Sundance Fire
Danielle: 00:05 Hello again. We’re here with Grandpa, Jim Wood, again. We’re going to be talking today a little bit more about the ranch and the stories that he has to tell about that. So Grandpa, at about the time that you and Grandma got married, which would’ve been …
Grandpa: 00:25 1948.
Danielle: 00:26 Okay. You built your house, which is the little white house on the way to the ranch that’s still there and a two-story chicken house.
Grandpa: 00:37 Yes.
Danielle: 00:38 Tell me about the concept of a two-story chicken house.
Grandpa: 00:43 Well, dad had built a chicken house there below the old original house. It would hold about 300 hens and selling eggs was part of the grocery money. Since he was in the chicken business, why, I thought that sounded like a good idea. So after I had built that little house that we started living in when we got married, well, I built this two-story chicken house and it was about the same size as dad’s chicken house except it was two stories high. The concept sounded good, but it wasn’t that labor-efficient.
Grandpa: 01:30 Then, one winter after I had used it a year or two, a deep snow caved the roof in, but I rebuilt it, put the roof back up. Used it then for a few more years as a chicken house, but then it got to the point to where the price of feed got high, eggs got cheap and it was taking all of the egg money to buy chicken feed. So we went out of the chicken business.
Danielle: 02:03 Well, you must have done something right the next time that you rebuilt that thing because it’s still standing over there.
Grandpa: 02:11 Well, it’s got a metal roof on it now.
Danielle: 02:12 Oh. I’ve never been in it. About how big of a chicken house are we talking?
Grandpa: 02:20 Thirty by forty, probably more like the size of it.
Danielle: 02:26 That’s a lot of chickens.
Grandpa: 02:27 Well, we was running 600 hens, 600 laying hens. And then in the spring when we’d buy replacement pullets, we would buy straight run. When the roosters of that flock got big enough to butcher them, why then, we would spend lots of hours butchering roosters and selling them in town to grocery stores.
Danielle: 03:00 So when you bought replacement chicks, straight run, how many are we talking at one time?
Grandpa: 03:08 Probably 400.
Danielle: 03:11 Where were those coming from? Where were they shipped in from?
Grandpa: 03:13 There was a hatchery in Kootenai. There was a hatchery in Cochran’s Hatchery in Kootenai and we patronized them. He would hatch eggs. I don’t know where the eggs came from. Maybe we sold him some. I don’t remember. But that’s where we would buy our chicks from, was from him there in Kootenai.
Danielle: 03:37 That first house that you built, like you said, that’s still there. It’s been added onto since you built it.
Grandpa: 03:45 Well, it was a porch, a back porch that was added onto, yes.
Danielle: 03:49 Okay. About how big was that house when you built it and was it a single-story or two-story?
Grandpa: 03:57 Well, it had an upstairs. It was a single-story house with rooms upstairs where the roof peaked up and come to a peak. There was a couple of bedrooms up there.
Danielle: 04:10 Kind of like attic rooms?
Grandpa: 04:11 Yeah, right. Attic rooms is a good description, yep. And the dimension of it was probably 24 foot wide and maybe 30 feet long. Maybe not quite that long.
Danielle: 04:34 I imagine that’s all lumber that you milled yourself?
Grandpa: 04:37 Yes. Yes. However, there was a planing mill down here in this Odin country and we did have them do some lumber planing. So it wasn’t necessarily all rough lumber. It had been run through a planer, some of it.
Danielle: 04:58 Was that planed lumber what you would use as flooring. I remember Grandma talking about the wood floor in there that she was so proud of.
Grandpa: 05:09 Well, it would been planed and I think that the outside, the siding on the house was planed.
Danielle: 05:18 Okay. At what point did the ranch and the cattle operation transfer ownership from your dad to you?
Grandpa: 05:29 I think it was probably about 1965. That’s an estimate, but I’m not sure. But about in that area.
Danielle: 05:45 Now did they continue living on the ranch or did they move elsewhere? What was kind of the catalyst for that transition?
Grandpa: 05:56 The deep snow, which we had every winter back then, would really get dad down. He just couldn’t stand being trapped in all that snow. So him and my mom went to going to Arizona for the winter. Then they would come up back up home in the summertime and go back down to Arizona in the wintertime. That’s what transpired and that’s how the place transferred over to us.
Danielle: 06:35 Was the cattle operation your sole source of income or did you have other ways that you were making money?
Grandpa: 06:42 Well, back in that era, like I said, I was doing a lot of custom work with the Cat and that was some income. Well, another thing, we was cutting firewood and selling it in Sandpoint. I was splitting cedar posts and delivering them to the railroad here at Colburn.
Danielle: 07:08 What were those cedar posts for?
Grandpa: 07:10 Fences, fence posts. Cedar fence posts.
Danielle: 07:14 Was the railroad building fences or were they just transporting it?
Grandpa: 07:17 Well, they were delivered to the railroad for transportation. They were shipped, then, out of the country.
Danielle: 07:25 How do you split a cedar post?
Grandpa: 07:28 With a maul and a wedge and a lot of slack.
Danielle: 07:31 So it is by hand?
Grandpa: 07:34 All hand-split, yes. Yep.
Danielle: 07:38 You’d already talked about the chickens. So you guys were selling eggs for another source of income.
Grandpa: 07:46 Yeah. But that didn’t last all that long, like I explained. It just wasn’t any income from chickens, what it boiled down to.
Danielle: 07:59 Another thing that you had talked about was that you did some logging with Dave and you were using a jammer?
Grandpa: 08:08 Yes. Yes, we did. Dave was a younger brother. Him and I bought a jammer. A jammer is a machine that you skid logs with and load trucks with. It’s got a big, long pole boom that sticks out over a load of logs and cables run through the pulleys up there and that’s what you loaded logs with and also, you skidded them that way.
Danielle: 08:43 So were you logging and selling the logs off of the ranch property or were you hiring out to other people to log their property?
Grandpa: 08:53 We were getting government timber sales. We were buying the stumpage from the government and doing everything else, building roads and skidding logs and hauling them. But the stumpage belonged to the government.
Danielle: 09:14 So it was forest service land?
Grandpa: 09:16 Yes.
Danielle: 09:17 Got it.
Grandpa: 09:18 Forest service or state, one or the other.
Danielle: 09:23 So there’s a chain saw that sits under the deck of the lodge right now. Can you tell me about that saw and how you operate it?
Grandpa: 09:33 Well, that’s a two-man Disston chain saw. The blade on it is about four feet long. There’s a handle out on the end of it and then the motor end of it. That’s what we used to cut firewood with. Grandma and I have cut a lot of loads of Buckskin Tamarack firewood with that saw. She would be on the upward end and I’d run the motor end.
Danielle: 10:08 Did that thing weigh about-
Grandpa: 10:10 It weighs well over 100 pounds.
Danielle: 10:13 Wow. So I know that there was a lot of bootlegging that went on in this country in the ’20s.
Grandpa: 10:24 Yep. Yep.
Danielle: 10:24 What are some stories that you’ve heard about that and who was doing the bootlegging?
Grandpa: 10:29 Well, the most interesting story, there was a lot of small stills around the country. The best story that I’ve heard was our neighbor, Sylvester, that lived at the south end of our meadow, during the ’20s, he was into it pretty big time. The revenuers, the government revenuers, was really working the country closing these little stills down and the owners of them usually spent some time in jail for it. But this occasion that I’m speaking of, a couple of revenuers … Now this is the story that I’ve always been told and I’m assuming it was true.
Grandpa: 11:20 A couple of revenuers come out to Sylvester’s and told him, they said, “We know that you’ve got a still. You might just as well take us to it and save everybody a lot of time.” Old Sylvester was built like a running greyhound and he was a smoke chaser for Humbird Lumber Company when they were working. A smoke chaser is a fellow that is out inspecting where they’re working and spotting small fires before they got big fires. Anyway, Sylvester said, “Well, okay. I’ll take you to it. Follow me.”
Grandpa: 12:13 He took off from the meadow there, went up by the old Gold Creek lookout, fire lookout, dropped down in the Rapid Lightning Creek, up out at Rapid Lightning over on the Selkirk Ridge, (correction) the Cabinet Ridge and these two guys, he just simply walked off and left them because they couldn’t keep up with him and he wasn’t slowing down any. They followed him way up on the side of the Cabinet Mountain, Lunch Peak country and that’s what he last seen them. He returned home, burned his still.
Danielle: 13:02 He burned his still?
Grandpa: 13:03 Burned his still. And as a kid, of course this was all before our time in Idaho, but as a kid, hunting milk cows and so forth, I found a pile of wooden barrel iron loops that held these wooden barrels together down in a hollow that had a spring in it and I’m sure that it was Sylvester’s still site. It was burnt. That’s just what he did. He went home and burned that still. I don’t know what happened to the guys, the revenuers, but I guess they found their way out.
Danielle: 13:54 So in 1967, the Sundance Fire, in a nine-hour period, it traveled 16 miles and increased in size by 50,000 acres. You, because you had heavy equipment, were called in to help fight that fire. What was your job and where were you working?
Grandpa: 14:17 Well, I went to work. It was the State Forestry that called me at the time our county fair was going on. They looked me up down at the county fair and I had a TD14 International Cat. It was a pretty good size Cat. They looked me up at the fair, wanted me to go on that fire and I agreed. They had a low boy that they brought up on Gold Creek and loaded up my Cat. We went up Pack River with them, at Hellroaring, up at the mouth of Hellroaring Creek and unloaded up there. It was kind of a five-acre clearing up there that was kind of a meadow like, and from there, they sent me up Hellroaring Creek, which was on the Selkirk side of Pack River. The fire had started in Priest Lake, in Priest Lake country.
Grandpa: 15:32 They sent me up that road to the top of the ridge and I didn’t even get to the top of the ridge and here come a Forest Service employee, in a pickup come racing up behind me, caught up with me and said, “Get out of here. The fire came over the ridge.” So I wheeled around and started back down the road. There was about three other Cats on up ahead of me. I got about halfway back down out of that drainage and pulled off the side of the road. I had turned the Cat off and was waiting for something to develop, waiting for them Cats that was ahead of me to come and the Forest Service guy that went up to warn me, to get out of there.
Grandpa: 16:26 As I sat there, I could look north, up on that ridge and it was the ungodliest roar you ever heard and you could see the fire up in the air, I would say several hundred yards above ground level, where that fire was burning. I couldn’t imagine how it could be burning up there, but I never thought anything about it at that moment. Eventually, the other Cats that was ahead of me, came down and we all went back down to the mouth of Hellroaring Creek to this little flat I spoke of. Then the next morning, the fire had made its big run, had burned over to Roman Nose Lookout and down into the valley there. I can’t think of what that valley would have been called.
Grandpa: 17:37 But it was down towards Bonners Ferry. They sent me up there. The bridge across Pack River had been burned out and my first job was to make a crossing across the Pack River that you could drive a pickup across. While I was building that crossing, I seen several trout; fish, 12, 14 inches long, come floating down that river upside down, dead. I think that river had heated up when that fire crossed the river to the point to where it killed them fish. And at that bridge, that Pack River Bridge that burned out, there was a little grove of cedar, probably a dozen, four or five foot cedar trees, and there was a nice little picnic area.
Grandpa: 18:34 Those trees, when I got up there to make a crossing, those trees were totally gone and across the river and to the west, an area there, 10 acres, I guess probably, that had been heavily logged prior to that fire, there wasn’t any trees or trash on it. And that was just a jumble of logs. That fire had sucked those logs up out of that Pack River range and eventually dumped them in that area, just like a log deck.
Danielle: 19:24 So timber, from up the mountain, had been blown down into that?
Grandpa: 19:30 Yep. Yeah, stumps and all.
Danielle: 19:34 Wow.
Grandpa: 19:35 And also, an area to the west of this burned-out bridge, there was another Cat that they had sent up there the day before. Cat was out of some logging outfit over in Montana and that Cat got caught up there in that fire that raced across that country and it killed both the Cat skinner and the Forest Service fellow that was with the Cat. Then from there, I went on up Pack River, cleaning out roads and up around the foot of Beehive Mountain and to up on towards Bonners Ferry north from Beehive Mountain.
Danielle: 20:33 Oh, Harrison?
Grandpa: 20:35 No.
Danielle: 20:36 No. Well, anyways, north of Beehive.
Grandpa: 20:39 Yeah. North and east. I worked up there then for the Forest Service in that area cleaning roads and water barring roads for at least a month or six weeks.
Grandma: 20:55 I might add that we got word at the fairgrounds that there was two guys killed in the fire under a Cat. That’s all we knew.
Danielle: 21:07 And you didn’t know who it was?
Grandma: 21:08 No.
Danielle: 21:09 That would be terrifying. I read just a bit ago that the guy that was killed that was the Cat operator had some sort of a knee injury and they think that that is part of why he wasn’t able to get out of the path of the fire.
Grandma: 21:32 Oh.
Grandpa: 21:34 I don’t know anything about this injury business, but that ain’t what killed him. That fire was coming at such a tremendous rate of speed, that, I don’t know, it was generating its own wind and that’s why you could see this fire up in the air there. It was just like a cyclone, a tornado that was sucking everything off the ground up and it was a burn from the ground to a quarter of a mile up in the air.
Danielle: 22:14 What do you think caused that fire to be so intense? Was it just the perfect combination of-
Grandpa: 22:23 Yes. Yes. It was dry weather and the Forest Service or the state one, had been fooling around with that fire over in the Priest Lake area for a month, watching it and babying it along, trying to put it out and just half-ass doing it. It finally got away from them and conditions were right. I suppose the wind had something to do with it. But when it took off, it just roared up out of Priest River and Priest Lake country and up over that ridge, it caught that Cat up there and them two guys and they never had a chance.
Danielle: 23:11 What stopped it? If it was such a hurricane of fire, what ultimately stopped it?
Grandpa: 23:18 The lay of the land, more than anything. When it went over the mountain there, east of Pack River, up in the Roman Nose area, it started down the other side and it got into an area that had been logged previously. It didn’t have the material to burn and it put itself out, basically is what did it. It just burned itself out. All this happened overnight.
Danielle: 23:59 Right.
Grandpa: 24:00 It was middle afternoon when I started up from where I started out with the Cat, up the Pack River. Then the next morning, that fire was out and they sent me up Pack River to make a river crossing.
Danielle: 24:19 I seem to remember a story about a kid that was in one of those lookouts-
Grandpa: 24:24 Roman Nose.
Danielle: 24:24 … in the path of that.
Grandpa: 24:27 That kid was in Roman Nose Lookout when that fire took off. They radioed him to get out of there. I can’t remember the name of that ridge that he was to come down. But anyway, he started down that ridge out of there and hit fire. That fire had crossed the river and all that Pack River country and when he was trying to get out of Roman Nose Lookout, he met that fire. They told him to get out of there, get back up to Roman Nose Lookout and get down over the cliff towards Roman Nose Lake. And he did, he survived.
Danielle: 25:14 He kind of hid out in that rock slide above the lake, right?
Grandpa: 25:22 That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. Yep. Apache Ridge.
Danielle: 25:22 Apache Ridge, there we go.
Grandpa: 25:27 That’s the name I was trying to think of. That’s that main ridge that runs south from Roman Nose Lookout clear down to Naples.
Danielle: 25:38 Does that go through that Beehive Mountain or is that Beehive Mountain part of that ridge?
Grandpa: 25:48 Actually, the Beehive Mountain is in the Selkirk Ridge. The fire never got to the base of Beehive Mountain. Right to it, but it didn’t get up on the mountain.
Danielle: 26:03 Oh, okay. Prior to that fire, was there still quite a bit of old growth timber?
Grandpa: 26:13 Some, some, yeah. I had some of my Cat work, custom work. I had built some road up Hellroaring for a timber company and so yeah, there was some timber. There had been some logging done in that area, but as far as cleanup goes, there was never any cleanup. The fire is what done the cleanup. But like I said, when I brought that Cat halfway down out of Hellroaring and shut it off and that mountain to the north then, started right there, there was fire, the damnedest roaring you ever heard. And you could see fire, smoke sure, but you could see fire through that smoke up in there. Of course, you couldn’t, at that particular point in time, you couldn’t tell how high it was off the ground, but you could certainly tell it was up there in the air.
Danielle: 27:18 It’s pretty hair-raising. You know, in looking back on that fire and looking at trying to not make the mistakes of the past, do you think that, with the way that timber is being managed now, for the most part in this country, whether it’s on the Selkirk Mountain range or the Cabinet Mountain range, do you think we’re kind of generating that perfect storm again?
Grandpa: 27:54 I don’t think so. I think they’re cleaning up that logged area better than they have. There haven’t been the debris on the ground that would carry a fire in today’s logging that there was back in those early days.
Danielle: 28:07 So it was logged ground that just hadn’t been cleaned up that was a lot of what was burned?
Grandpa: 28:13 To a degree, but then there was a lot of standing timber, too, on that ridge, that Selkirk Ridge between Priest Lake and Pack River. There was a lot of timber in there. But it had been creamed, let me put it that way. It had been creamed.
Danielle: 28:36 What do you mean by that?
Grandpa: 28:37 White Pine had been taken out and probably a lot of cedar, other logs, but there had been logging operations in it. After that fire, it was fair time when it started, I worked up there for, I don’t know, I said a month or six weeks at least.
Danielle: 29:04 Were you mostly building roads?
Grandpa: 29:07 No. I never built-
Danielle: 29:07 Or cleaning out-
Grandpa: 29:08 I never built any roads. I was cleaning out old roads and water barring. In fact, it was starting to get so cold that the ground was freezing to where I couldn’t dig water bars anymore when they finally pulled me off.
Danielle: 29:29 So they were having you clean that out. Was it because the roads that were there had been, like you said, the trees were across them and things like that and they needed to get in to clean up after the fire? Or was it just to clean up because they were going to need to get in there sometime in the future?
Grandpa: 29:49 The best explanation I can say, it was just the spending of Forest Service money, wasting their money is what I think … And up there on Apache Ridge, while I was working them roads, there was a snag right close to the road. There was a snag, it was 24 to 30 inches in diameter, and it had burned a knothole clear through the tree. It was a hole about that big (dinner plate size) through this two-foot tree and speared through this hole, like a spear, was a small four-inch full length tree, stump and all. It was 30 feet up in the air. That wind and that fire, when it went over Apache Ridge, was to the extent to where it pulled this four-inch tree out of the ground and was carrying it and it speared that tree right through that knothole and there it sat, stump and all.
Danielle: 31:08 That’s crazy.
Grandpa: 31:12 Of course, I say stump. It was just all roots. It wasn’t no big stump because the tree was only three, four inches.
Danielle: 31:21 Right.
Grandpa: 31:24 But it ripped it out of the ground.
Danielle: 31:29 Well, I think we’ll wrap up there and pick up again later with some more stories about the ranch and kind of transitioning to the lower ranch also.
Grandpa: 31:41 Okay.