©Bert Gildart: Big Hole Country in southwestern Montana claims the state’s harshest weather conditions. Here, the mountains are high, snow fall deep and subzero temperatures may persist for months. Anyone not suited to hardship doesn’t last long.
On July 3rd Jay Nelson logged in 88 years, which may not be surprising as he is the descendant of one of the Big Hole’s first settlers. In the early 1880s, Jay’s great grandfather homesteaded a prime section of ranch land, which once saw passage of the Nez Perce Indians. Great grandfather Soren stayed and so did most of his descendants, to include Jay, who has been a positive force throughout his life — no matter where he might have gone.
LODGES OF BEAVER
Jay has been a board member of a rural electric country, a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, a logger, cowboy, carpenter and snow plane pilot. As well, he has helped maintain and build a peculiar type of farming implement known as the “Beaverslide.” Under some conditions beaverslides facilitate the gathering of hay, but most conspicuously, they result in huge rounded piles that look like the lodges of many beaver.
Beaverslides are such a unique implement that the Grant Kohrs National Historic Ranch just south of Missoula provides an annual demonstration on their use. Equally as significant they’re still used each summer by several big spreads in the Big Hole.
L to R: Jay Nelson uses a model he built to explain function of beaverslides; Nelson built approximately 35 such slides in Big Hole Valley; Nelson believes times were a bit more laid back when the Big Hole was famous as the “Valley of 10,000 Haystacks.”
According to Jay’s book, A Scrapbook from the Big Hole, the beaverslide was invented in the Big Hole by Dade Stevens and Herb Armitage in about 1909. The slides were effective in such vast country because ranches were so big. “In those days,” said Jay, “more hay could be loaded by fewer men.”
CHINESE FIRE DRILL
Jay who built about 35 of the huge devices, says that when men assemble to begin the job of haying the ranch lands looks like the beginning of a Chinese Fire Drill. “But it’s deceiving,” said Jay, “because everyone really knows what they’re doing.”
Jay says that all hay to be processed is the product of a natural crop of wild hay, which is what the Big Hole does best. “We help a bit,” says Jay, “by creating literally hundreds of miles of irrigation ditches.”
Operations begin with the raking by horseback of cut hay into windrows. Over a period of several weeks the hay dries and ranchers sweep the fields with a horse drawn rake and load it onto the bottom of the beaverslide basket.
Cables extend from the basket to which horses are hooked and as they pull, a “beaver basket” is lifted, raising the hay about 25 feet. Hay falls off the basket to create a hay stack that increases in size each time the basket makes a new deposit. Eventually, the stack assumes the domed appearance of a huge beaver lodge.
VALLEY OF TEN-THOUSAND HAYSTACKS
Though many ranchers in Big Hole country still use the beaverslides, such implements are being replaced by the mechanized “Round Bailer.” Jay laments their passage, wishing for the days when the air tasted just a little bit more crisp, and when the Big Hole Valley was famous for its reputation as the Valley of 10,000 haystacks.
But the practice is still alive and in about three weeks ranchers in the Bill Hole will once again be putting beaverslides to use.
NOTE: In 1945 Jay fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was severely wounded. He says that initially there were 187 of us in our company and “When I left them, only 12 of the original bunch remained.”
Some of these memories are shared in his two books, Big Hole Memories and A Scrapbook from the Big Hole. They provide wonderful reading and both should be on the shelves of any interested in the state’s history. Though it took determined families to withstand the rugged nature of Southwest Montana, Nelson’s speaks of his memories with a sense of nostalgia, as though we may have lost something through society’s many changes. Some aspects of this blog will most likely be used for a book I’m writing on Montana. All pictures and text are copyrighted.